I like things. I like to buy things. I spend a lot of time thinking about things, and a small but present part of my personal happiness system is based around things.
The problem with thinking about things so much is one is sure to think of things that are disappointing about things. Enough speaking in generalities. I have a keyboard at work, a replica as it were, of a design many years past. It’s obvious when the thing was built, there was no particular attention to detail or quality, as the flashing on the keys has not been properly trimmed off before they were assembled into the keyboard. Further, the offsets for the indicator lights are somewhat different sized than the rectangular LEDs beneath them, so there’s an irritating ghosting effect on the indicators. The original design on which this keyboard was based had no issues, because it was a thing that was made with a criterion of quality and durability. It was a well-made thing.
My car is, by any sense of the word, a value. But, that it was not crafted by a Bavarian engineer is obvious even when not trying to control its attitude via the steering wheel. It’s full of various scratching, rubbing, creaking, whistling, and squeaking noises. Most of the problems are things 10% more effort or a dollar here or there could have fixed. But, at the end of the day, in the push for value, the quality of this thing has degraded.
Now, the obvious argument is that this is just classical economics. Getting a thing of higher quality must cost more, right? At the end of the day, I have to agree, but I think the real root cause of the problem is that most people don’t really care. The consumer’s desire for something (in my case a fast car) often outweighs their care if it’s put together particularly well, or designed adequately. I can’t imagine that the robot or low-wage factory worker that is assembling my safety belt retractor really cares if it sounds like a banshee every time I pull it down.
I’ve struggled with writing this post for a while because I couldn’t figure out what I was getting at. I think, however, the pieces are starting to come together in my mind. While at the investment bank, my first boss stressed that, above all else, the most important thing to learn was the value of ownership.
The crux of it was this: Your job is to be responsible for something, which means to take quiet pride in something working right, and to be responsible for a situation when something is wrong.
The reasoning was something like this: The managing director on the desk that is missing his risk data does not give a fuck if some server went down and it’s person A’s fault, or if you personally overwrote the data while trying to do something totally unrelated. He wants somebody who can tell him a) there’s a problem b) the scope of the problem is understood c) when the problem will be solved. So here’s how it breaks down. Point a might seen like a given, but having somebody admit that something was totally fucked up feels a lot better than mushy uncertainties, maybes, and I don’t knows.
So somebody reading this right now is saying “but one of the most important lessons you learn in business is that sometimes I don’t know is the only right answer.” This is correct, but when the shit hits the fan, the answers to point b and c can be “I don’t know.” Trying to figure out whether or not there is a problem, or shifting that burden to somebody else is a good way to ensure career stagnation.
Anyhow, let’s table that digression. Points b and c didn’t really matter, but there still had to be answers. At the end of the day, when something is messed up, there’s no way to get an accurate answer to the scope of the problem or how long it will take to resolve. It’s like a fucked-up version of a dead cat in the box problem — by the time the problem is fully identified and specified, it could be solved, or by the time the problem is fully solved it could be identified and explained, but you can’t really do one without the other. But, just like when I call the power company and they tell me it’s going to be two days before I have power, having somebody at least making some shit up tells you that they’re trying.
Now, this only buys somebody a temporary bit of trust, which gets much grander once people know that you understand ownership. Where ownership really kicks in is when the people to which you’ve provided a, b, and c know that, whatever the answers you’re giving them, you’re going to ride this issue home until it’s resolved, or until you can put it safely into the hands of somebody who will give it the same care. That is ownership, and that’s the value that my boss cultivated. It works; I couldn’t tell you how many wrong answers I gave while at the bank, but people knew that if I said I was going to get to the bottom of it, I would. People I worked with also knew that if I came to them with some findings or concerns that I’d already had enough ownership of the issue to do the basic legwork, rather than just trying to dump something unspecified or misguided in their lap.
Now, if I want to put the blame (aha, ownership!) on anybody for my being miserable at the bank, it would go to me because I took this concept of ownership too far. One has to strike a balance. My reaction immediately after quitting the bank was to avoid as much of the feeling of the bank as I could — ownership, long hours, single minded dedication, and all that crap. I think, finally, I’m starting to pull out of the wounded dog recovery mode I found myself in at the end of my last experience, but I’m still doing a pretty poor job of finding that right balance. I imagine the most important lesson on the review from my first manager as I was being transferred was that now that I understood ownership, the learning was to truly begin as I would need to understand how to balance ownership and everything else one has to do in a job.
Lesson number two: Don’t ever underestimate the value of a good manager or good coworkers — working for or with somebody you don’t respect or who can’t teach you something is not worth the gain of working on something you think is more interesting.
But, enough about my personal experiences and the preceding, which in retrospect looks like some feel-good happy-post from some emo livejournal.
Currently listening to: Surprise! Nobody actually cares.
I sort of half-promised there was a point to all of this rambling. Where I think low-quality stuff comes from (and now I’m just saying stuff, as opposed to things, which for the duration of this entry I’m indicating stuff is something made, and a thing is a subset of stuff that has a physical presence) is when people don’t take ownership of their work.
I see this sort of thing all the time, in work and outside, and while I don’t make things, I do make stuff, and I’ve been at several jobs where people make stuff, and I see the same behaviors at most of them. People that resist taking ownership of something do the absolute minimum to get by, especially when it comes to matters that may not directly be their fault. When confronted with something that doesn’t make sense, or something that isn’t quite right, they clear themselves of blame, and at best make the situation worse by forming an assumption and sending the bloodhounds chasing after it. This cavalier attitude of blame shifting, isolation, and a lack of care outside one’s local universe is a cancer pervasive in many organizations, and it’s hard to detect — it’s seen in some of a company’s top (on paper) performers.
More often than not, if this person who is resisting ownership would instead put in just a little extra legwork, or would try to manage the issue (even if it’s not their domain), a number of really interesting things will happen:
- They will get to know more people, and develop connections that will be helpful in the future.
- They will learn to solve a problem outside their domain knowledge.
- They are less likely to make a hasty mis-diagnosis of a problem, which while requiring more of their time, wastes less of somebody else’s.
- They will practice their critical thinking and analysis skills, since they’re doing something they don’t normally do. It’s like stretching, but for the brain. That sounds silly, but whatever. It’s late.
- They will create social capital by impressing upon others that they are the sort of person who will go the extra mile, and isn’t just living in their own little isolated world. It’s something to do with being one of these mythical “team players.” That’s not all about going to meetings and drinking at the bar together; a lot of it is about respect and ownership.
This, friends, is the danger of writing a post on the fly without thinking it all out ahead of time: I ramble together a few paragraphs to suggest that, at the end, the quality of stuff sucks because people who make stuff don’t often take ownership of it. It all seems a little obvious. Forgive me for closing this out with an automotive analogy.
I love the idea of the Mercedes AMG program. It would be a stretch to call anything they make a “driving machine” so much as the best possible evolution of a muscle car, and I’d take the comparable BMW any day of the week, but you’ve got to love what they do with their engines (yeah, I know the BMW V10 or the new trick turbo is the best engine ever, bear with me). One guy hand-builds, assembles, and signs off on an engine … and then he signs the engine. He puts his freaking first and last name on it. If a bunch of Gunther Strauss engines come back blown up, squeaking, or under performing, you don’t have to search through the work records of a thousand people with their own little isolated pieces of work to figure out that Gunther was slacking off. So maybe it’s a marketing ploy, but the dude that’s signing an engine that he builds knows his days are numbered if he’s just a hack — you can’t fake that kind of ownership.