Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Preventative Management

(News-Herald, February 2004) The best and most effective managers are those that see themselves as facilitators for their employees. They see their job as providing the front line workers with the equipment and resources to get the work done.

But there’s another type of manager who sees his job differently. This is the manager who thinks his job is to prevent the employees from doing things.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. For instance, you might think that the purpose of health care insurance is to help people pay for health care. Instead, the medical insurance industry is set up primarily to avoid paying for health care. And everyone has encountered one of those rare but scary librarians who wishes people would stop taking her books out of her library.

But let’s consider a hypothetical example. Say, a small company that provides drawings of industrial widgets. The purpose of the business is to make widget drawings. So a facilitating manager hires people who are good illustrators and makes sure that they have the paper and pencils that they need to create the widget drawings. His goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to produce the drawings that keep the business functioning.

A preventative manager, on the other hand, will focus on how to keep the illustrators from doing things. Keep them from using up pencils and paper. Keep them from doing anything that might cost money.

The facilitating manager does not writer blank checks. If the illustrators want to order special $3000 pencils, the facilitating manager sits down with them so that everyone can figure out how to make the realities of equipment needs match up with the realities of financial limits.

A preventative manager never has those conversations. Preventative managers usually have little understanding of how widget drawings are made, so they’re afraid that if they listen to the employees, they’ll be tricked into buying something they don’t really need.

A facilitating manager has few rules. There’s a clear job to do (make widget drawings); anything that helps do that job is good and anything that gets in the way of the job is bad.

A preventative manager has a long list of Do Not’s. Don’t use pencils with soft lead (they have to be replaced more often). Don’t fix more than two mistakes a day (otherwise they’ll wear out the erasers).

A facilitating manager has confidence in his workers. He hires people that he can trust to do the job. If he can’t trust a worker, that employee is either trained or fired.

A preventative manager is paranoid. She can never trust employees, because they are always trying to use supplies and spend money. Employees are sneaky and out to get me, she thinks, clutching her sack of gold coins.

It’s not that facilitating managers are nicer or more fun to work for. In fact, they often aren’t. If you are someone who doesn’t draw very good widgets or doesn’t much like drawing widgets, working for someone who judges you on your production of widget drawings can be a real pain. A preventative manager’s paranoid focus on everything but the real purpose of the business can make her easy to manipulate.

The real problem with preventative managers is that they do a lousy job. The steel and auto industries both suffered from preventative management in the last century; they resisted spending anything on new technology while their competition in other countries spent the money and breezed past them.

Preventative managers create a workplace that doesn’t much work. The preventative manager is focused on what doesn’t happen, instead of what does, so success is measured by a very crooked yardstick. If nothing Scary or Expensive has happened, then everything must be okay. This is not an atmosphere that breeds growth or innovation.

Bad widget drawers are rewarded because they’re not doing Anything Bad. Good widget drawers learn that if they try to hard and care too much, they’ll just be beaten down. Middle of the road widget drawers, who had the potential to become good, see which way the wind is blowing and get worse.

Customers can be initially attracted to a pitch like “We will provide the cheapest widget drawings in the industry.” But in relatively short time, they notice that they’re getting junk. “We won’t use resources to get the job done” is not a pitch that inspires confidence in the marketplace (remember those great cars of the seventies?).

Preventative managers have forgotten the organization’s purpose. Instead of “Make good widget drawings,’ their motto is “Don’t spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t scare the boss.” But the gold medal rarely goes to those who do the least.

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