Friday, January 4, 2013

Educating Mr. Rubin

"I'm Sorry Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Do That..."

Change is a slow has to be managed and planned, but it is going to happens sooner or later. Change is inevitable. Some folks didn't get this memo.

Way back in my career path, I had a job. It was with a Government Agency. The work was regulatory law enforcement. Citizens would complain about a specific individual or institution that the State licensed and we would investigate to see of there were any statutes that had been violated. If there were, we would forward the case on to the State Attorney Generals office for possible prosecution. (I say possible, because the Attorney Generals office rarely prosecutes anyone in this State, unless you are willing to plead guilty.)

This job entailed a lot of paperwork. I mean tons of paperwork. A single investigation file could take up a whole filing cabinet and we had thousands of ongoing investigations. Since the State does not pay very well, we usually didn't get the cream of the crop when it came to job applicants. Most of our investigators were either retired police officers or folks looking to change their career from bartender to something better.

When I entered this land of regulatory hell, I quickly realized that a majority of my time was spent answering the phones and trying to find the file that the caller was asking about. It usually took about 5 minutes to search through all the files in my office and then read it to figure out what the status of the case was.

When I started the job there were computer terminals sitting on everyone's desk. I inquired about them and no one seemed to know what they were for. They had just appeared one evening and there was no training on how to use them. Seems there was a tax imposed on licensees that paid for this automation, but there wasn't any real thought about how it was going to be used or how we could be trained to use it.

Thinking that there had to be a better way to do the job, I started investigating the automation setup on my own in hopes of finding a better way to catalog and track all my investigation files. I quickly learned that the automation setup was a mid-size IBM AS/400 office server running IBM Office-Vision. This was a fairly standard office operating system before Microsoft took over the world and converted everyone to Windows. Office-Vision is basically a document creation and cataloging system that also has limited calendaring, database and e-mail functionality. It didn't take me long to work up a framework for inputting all of my files in the system and instead of shuffling around thousands of files and pieces of paper, I was doing most of my work on the terminal. This gave me instant access to all the information in my files. It was pretty sweet. With about 3 months worth of work, I had cut the time it took to do my job in half. I was pretty proud of myself.

After fine-tuning the whole setup, I thought it best to go to the boss, the Division Director, and show him what I had done. If I could do this, it would take about 6 months to train everyone else how to do it.

I scheduled a meeting with Mr. Rubin, the Director, to show off what I had done. In his corner office, I explained the problems I had run up against, what I had come up with as a solution and showed him on his terminal all the things I could do.

There on his desktop monitor, I was able to show him the total number of investigations I had open. The average time each investigation had been ongoing. All of the calendared dates that I had subpoenaed documents set to arrive. All of the case notes on my files were at his fingertips. All the addresses for the interested parties, complainants, licensees and companies involved in each case were indexed. There were summary reports on all my files showing any number of statistics and totals. This was all ground breaking. This information wasn't available on anyone else's investigations.

"Think of it, Mr. Rubin. If we implemented this, you could know exactly what every investigator in the Division was doing right from your desk! The Agency Director will think you are a genius once you start providing these types of numbers and statistics. We won't have anymore lost files or irate consumers."

Mr. Rubin paused for a moment and sort of squinted at the terminal screen. What he said next will remain with me for the rest of my life. "Why?" he responded.

"Why do this?, he said. "The current system works fine. This would be too much work."

I must have sat there for a few seconds in stunned silence. The awful feeling that I was sitting in front of a mental pygmy that was in charge of a State Division painfully sunk in. I realized that everything that I had told him had shot way over his head and landed somewhere four blocks away. I thought that it wasn't a matter of convincing him, it was just a matter of showing him the obvious. I was very, very wrong.

He didn't like the idea of change, especially if it meant that he was going to have to learn something new. He was on the downhill slide toward retirement and he didn't want to start re-learning his job at that point. He also made the decision that no one else wanted to learn how to be more efficient either. The status-quo was just fine for the time being.

If the rest of the office wants to work in the stone age, let them. I am going to continue to find a better way to do this job. (I was still idealistic back then). Unfortunately, I had let the cat out of the bag.

Since others knew that I had automated my files and could work them more efficiently, the "Law of Jungle" took over. Or maybe that should be the "Law of the Office". It states: "If you can do twice as much work, they will give you twice as much work." I quickly found out that my average case load was almost 400 investigations, which stayed open an average of 45 days. The other investigators in the office had an average of 150 open cases that stayed open for 6 months to a year. It didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. The land of Oz can be a frightening place when you work there from 8am to 5pm every day. Efficiency and production are not the watch words of civil service. Perpetuating the norm is the way you do business.

After five years of carrying about 1/4 of the office work load, I chose to seek greener pastures and left. But those jobs didn't pan out to well either. Just because folks make a lot of money and own a big company, doesn't mean that they are intelligent or smart. They are just dumb-lucky. But that is another story.

While I was away from the State Agency, Mr. Rubin decided to seek greener pastures as well. The person that they hired to replace him started going through the files and asking questions about the employee that had all the typed file notes and indexes in his files. Then he asked the worst question...why aren't all the files being done this way?

Three weeks later, I was having lunch with him and he asked me to come back to the Agency and help automate the rest of the staff in electronic file management. I hated my current job, so I went back. It was a rocky road, but it showed results in the end.

Change comes, but not as fast as we would like it to sometimes. Violent change is always feared and resisted. The concept of 'packaging' change and knowing when the right time to implement it is key. Something I didn't know when I talked to Mr. Rubin. What seems so clear and obvious to some, is as dense as a fog bank to others. Patience and change are linked. For some of us, that is a hard lesson to learn.


  1. Hmmm...that sounds like a place I used to work (but mine was not quite as bad). Don't you just love how these incompetent people get to be in management?!?!? Anyway, it sounds like a typical gov't agency. I have good things about the book, "Snakes in Suits". John is reading it now and I hope to read it when he's done.

  2. This isn't about change, but rather stupid people in charge:

    My husband needed new business cards printed up, and found he could put something on the back if he wanted. I presented the brilliant idea of printing MY business card on the back. When he ran it past his boss, his boss said it would be fine, as long as it was my business card on the back and not my husband's. Humph.

  3. Hi Bruce,

    That's a true happy end story. Maybe some of those people in distress have a thought for you.

    Wish you an eventful new year.