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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ignoring sloppiness: a sign of tolerance or mismanagement?

I don’t like seeing it when it happens, and of course, I don’t like when it affects my everyday life.
But I like writing about it.
It gives me interesting material.
However the number of the examples of mismanagement has been gradually growing.
Stuffing them in one post would make that post  way to long. So I, devised a series.
This is my first post on events of a mismanagement in or around “our world”.

Foreword (feel free to skip)
This post is the reaction to the accumulation of many experiences, but only few of those are used as an illustration to the main theme.
He most of the post is just a description of the facts of life. Different people may have different emotional reaction to exactly same facts (“It’s raining – I hate it!”, “It’s raining – I love rain!”). As a writer, I cannot be responsible for the emotions one may feel when reading my posts (because I always remain polite, or at least very close to it). But if someone feels upset, maybe it is not entirely my fault?

Ignoring sloppiness: a sign of tolerance or mismanagement?

Imagine, it is the summer of 2016.
I just started teaching my summer classes. 
During my years of teaching I have developed a certain routine. Since I arrive very early, my first trip is to the office kitchen, where I charge the coffee machine to make my first mug, which would keep me for a couple of hours. This time, however, my routine had been broken. Since recent time, the office people keep the machine working only between 9 am and 5 pm. When the office is closed, the kitchen is still available, but the coffee machine is off. Turned out, one night a janitor saw a smoke coming out from under the kitchen door.  Evidently, some grad student, or a postdoc, left the machine on, with an almost empty jar sitting on the heater. Naturally, the facilities classified this incident as a fire hazard, and as the result – the first time in a decade – I was not able to use the office coffee machine in the morning.
That made me to bring my own personal small coffee maker. 
It also made me think. I realized that for the last several years our office kitchen has been encountering more and more issues. Lately, almost once a month we had circulated an email asking everyone to keep the kitchen clean.
This is the beginning of one of such long letter:
“Dear all, Unfortunately, I need to be reaching out to our community about kitchen etiquette.”
An excerpt from another one: 
“Hi All, I wanted to address an issue that we have been having with the break room coffee machine. If the coffee machine is in the process of brewing, DO NOT remove the pot to pour a glass. No matter how quick you swap out the pots, some coffee is spilled onto the burner and damages the machine. A couple weeks ago the machine had to be replaced because the burners were no longer functioning, which was caused by coffee being spilled and left to burn on the hot plate”. 
Several years ago, I would read similar emails maybe once a year. Nowadays, I see fairly regularly spilled coffee, stains from food, dripping socket, leftovers from cutting paper (see the above picture), empty boxes from fast food, etc. Or look at the pile of graded lab reports just left on a floor, despite the fact that 5 feet away there is a recycling bin.

Some of my teaching fellows cannot manage to remember when they should do their office hours. But more importantly, they do not think it is a big deal.

One might think that I am whining about “the youth”. That would be a wrong impression. “The youth” (grad students, even postdocs) do exactly what they are supposed to do – being absent minded. They are too old to have a babysitter who would be reminding them what to do and when. But they are too young to have a personal assistant who would be reminding them what to do and when. They are at that age when they need to learn from other professionals, first of all from the people managing their professional actions, what does it mean to be a professional.

Every institution, every social organization should have people designated specifically to teaching “the youth” what does it mean to be a professional, i.e. to teach the basics of the professional ethics (etiquette). BTW: those people are usually called "a manager".

If newly hired employees misbehave, the main reason for that is - the management allows it, the management does not spend enough time for… and does not see the necessity in… teaching to the “youth” the structure of the professional behavior. The result is – a slow, graduate, almost invisible rise in the overall sloppiness.
If you start thinking about it, you will remember things which were not acceptable in the past, but have become normal these days. It happens everywhere, in stores, at hospitals. You cannot believe what is happening behind closed doors in nursing homes (and don't make me start talking about potholes!). And one more thing; for the last five years I have not attended a single big meeting that would start on time (for one more story about mismanagement, scroll down to Appendix II).

I am absolutely convinced that the rise in the sloppiness at all social and governmental levels was one of the factors which helped Donald Trump to win.

People do not like sloppiness.

Or, rather, people do not like when somebody else's sloppiness negatively affects their everyday functioning. But people do not want to confront those managers who tolerate the sloppiness (people in general try to avoid any “confrontation”, even if it is a discussion about how to make things to work better). Instead, they turn to a “strong leader”, who is (a) an outsider (i.e. does not belong to the current managers hated by people), and (b) promises to solve all the problems at once.
A week ago I would not let myself to publish this piece. I know that many readers might find it (for whatever reasons, some of which mentioned in "Intellectual stagnation,social conformism, and the crisis of logical communication") “offensive”, or “patronizing”. But in his latest “The New Rules” segment Bill Maher expressed a very similar sentiment ( He described Donald Trump as a SuperHero called upon by people to solve all the existing problems. 

So, all I did in this piece is - I just added some personal perspective on the matter.
One might ask, why do I care so much?


Before I moved to the U.S. I held some managerial positions ( Dr. Voroshilov: from A to Z). 
In fact, my professional career looks like a zigzag; rise and fall, another rise and another fall, and another rise (plotting all my rises together one after another, the total line would have ended very high :) ). After getting my M.S. diploma I was moving up the ladder up to the assistant professor, but then the Perestroika destroyed the Russian economy and everyone was brought to a square one. Then eventually the new economy stabilized. I moved up again. For example, I ran an IT department at a state teachers’ school; I also used to work as a managing consultant for schools and school districts. I rose to the interim director of a small but important institution (a research arm of a city department of education). But then I moved to the US and started from working as a janitor at a supermarket. If I would not move, I could have landed at a position at the state department of education, and nowadays could have been working in Moscow (people with the knowledge of the matter told me that I was one of those who were on the list, and the list was short - if I knew all that, I still would have moved, but I would be building my career very much differently; people who were supposed to be smart, honest, visionary turned out to be not as smart, honest, visionary as I thought; and of course, I was not visionary enough to see it then).
What I see now is that overtime more and more managers adopted "a reactive management style", and less and less managers use "a proactive management style"; instead of thinking ahead, anticipating what might happen and organizing - a.k.a. managing - people accordingly, they just wait until something happens and react; "don't fix it if it ain't broke" type of "management".

So, I know a thing or two about management. But when I moved to the U.S. I knew I would not be managing anymore. I have found a good and comfortable job, and just ignored all the sloppiness and all the signs of mismanagement around me. 

I had one simple reason for ignoring those things – they did NOT have any effect on my life.

Until November 8, 2016.

For me, November 8th, 2016 was the result of (a) a "half" of a country was not thinking and voted for Trump (more on the role of "thinking" is here; (b) another "half" of a country was not smart enough to prevent Trump from winning (starting from pushing for the worst Democratic candidate: Why Didn't Hillary Clinton Win The Race?).

On November 8, 2016 I realized that - despite my expectations- the American establishment has had no idea what has been happening inside the American society, which is - without a doubt - a clear sign of mismanagement (a.k.a. a poor management).
Trump’s presidency had shown me that I should not have been ignoring the sloppiness around me. No one should have been ignoring the sloppiness around them. Maybe, just maybe, we would have had a different president. With the Trump at the helm all my hopes for a simple and quiet retirement are at risk. I am not old yet, but I want to know that when I will, I will be able to afford my medical bills – at the minimum. 
So, my current strategy is borrowed from The Department of The Homeland Security: “see something – say something”.

This is me saying what I see.
And I see a lot of sloppiness.
P.S. Every time when I think about the current state of management, my thoughts circle to the story of Netflix and Blockbuster. There have been many papers about how Blockbuster missed an opportunity to buy Netflix. I like this one because of the phrase “Management and vision are two separate things”. Very true. Not new. But very true.

However, the true management includes vision.
If you are in a management but have no vision, you are not really a manager but just a bureaucrat functioning according to a program which has been written for you.
P.P.S. Two appropriate quotes from another post on the matter (more about management in science).
1. "For thirty years 99 % of all politicians, all appointed and elected government officials governed the Country using only one rule - 

what is good (bad) for the Wall Street is good (bad) for the Country. "
2. "How do you call a manager who cannot manage?
A chameleon,
because he/she uses all the energy to pretend to lead the organization, when in fact all he/she does is seeking the approval from the superiors (to be allowed to keep the position).
When growing up and when climbing a career ladder, the current generation of managers (in the large numbers) has not had to overcome strong personal or professional challenges; the path up the ladder was nice and smooth. The number one quality for becoming a manager was an ability to avoid any potential tensions (hence, any potential “tension-generators”), and the number two was the ability to represent a shiny image of the organization  “A Convenient Lie” or “What Research University Faculty Tell Themselves About Their Teaching”)."
Appendix I
a week later had read this:
"It’s downright debilitating to a high achiever. I’m working my heart out and every time I look up Donna-Do-Nothing is contemplating how long is too long to take for lunch. I start wondering why leadership tolerates this."
Very resonating.

Appendix II

Another interesting example of mismanagement comes from one of my summers.
One of the building with one of my offices got a brand-new air-conditioning system. The cost of the project was about twenty million dollars. The summer of that year was especially hot. When one day the temperature in my office reached almost 80 F, I called the maintenance and asked to cool the air down. They said they would. And soon the air got a little bit cooler. Not much, but OK. The next day the temperature went up again, I called again, the did something and for some time the air was not as hot as before, but then got hot again. This “dance” lasted for four days, then a guy came to me to see if it was really as hot as I said. It was. Long story short, one day he told me that he could not do anything about it. All I could get is a fan – but I already had two. Turned out, my office was the last in the long chain of offices and laboratories. If the day was hot and all rooms before mine were cooling air, the system had no power enough to cool the air in my office. I had to just live with it. Fortunately, that was not the only place where I could do my work. But this whole story got me thinking. Could you imagine that when the top managers were negotiating with the company doing the project, they would say: “OK, we give you $20,000,000.00 and you install the new air-conditioning system”; and they guy from the company would say: “Yes, OK, there is only one little thing. You know, when a summer will be very hot, one office in your building will not be cooled down, is it OK?” And the top managers would say: “Of course it’s OK, one office, not a big deal, take the money!”
I am sure this conversation is purely imaginary, and in reality, it was assumed that all offices in the building would be able to provide nice working conditions for all seasons and all seasonal temperatures. And I assume that the contract had a clause about warranty and conditions for repairs. But there was no mechanism put in place to initiate a case. It was a duty of the management to install such system which would collect information about various issues and complains; specifically, what to do if the same type of an issue reoccurs on a regular basis. And the management had to instruct the lower level on how to collect and process information and how to react on the occurrences of repetitive issues. But he management did not do that. So, all I had left with is an extra fan.
Did I mention that from time to time the air coming in my office picked up smells form other rooms, so sometimes I could sniff someone cooking, or smoking, or doing chemical experiments.
Again, fortunately, that was not the only place where I could do my work.

Appendix III
Over the last ten years or so, the condition of our roads has significantly deteriorated. Holes, cracks, patches which are no much better than potholes. It looks like no one manages the road condition any more. No one is responsible for that.

Appendix IV
More examples from a large research university.
Too often people park in such manner that they almost block the driveway. There is no way a bog track could pass this car. Including the one which drives every several hours to check on illegally parked cars. This driver is either a jerk or an idiot. And no one cares.

Same story here.

The result of having not been taught about any work ethic:

When I was a student, I was taught to leave the room in the same condition it was when we (students) entered the room (i.e clean).
That is what I teach my students and my TFs, and tell my TFs to teach this to their students.
To me, this is an obvious part of the ethical conduct of any true professional - I believe that, ultimately, the goal of a university is to teach what does it mean to be a professional. 
After the graduation students will forget 99% of physics they have studied. But they will remember what a true professional behavior is.
Or at least, they should.

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