I have a great friend and mentor in Michigan who taught me a lot about systems and change. One of the things he talks about is the change that goes on in an organization during its journey from an entrepreneurial adventure to one that is more established. If you think about it, a brand new company is filled with spirit and vigor because they are excited about what they are doing and everything is a new adventure. As they grow, that adventure will have peaks and valleys but since everything still has that shiny new feel, its kind of expected that there will be unexpected events from time to time.
Then at some point, things start to change. If the company has been successful, more and more people are brought in. Conflicts can arise because the new folks probably don’t have the same driving factors as the original builders. Maybe they see the work as just a job. With new people and more chances for misunderstanding, the growing company then has to bring new structures. In the beginning, the mission and vision were probably just understood. There were probably not a lot of issues with “culture” because the folks who started it understood that they had to adapt to whatever conditions required to be successful.
New people bring new requirements for structure in the organization too. The one thing that I think normally expresses that most is when the company hires its first Human Resources person. Then the organization begins its steady journey into the “Sea of Mundane”.
If you have been in the business world for anything more than a few months you have probably sailed on that flat, lifeless, soul choking body of water. The word comes from the Middle English mondeyne, from Anglo-French mundain, from Late Latin mundanus, from Latin mundus world. (In other words, its been around for a very long time.) One of the quotes used to describe this sense of ordinariness is “They lead a very mundane life.”
I suppose, for some people mundane is okay. Its predictable, it has plenty of structure, it gives employment to a lot of very nice people to maintain itself and it is the Ninth Waste in Lean… Wait, what did he just say?
Yep. Mundane is the Ninth Waste and in my humble opinion the worst one of all since it results in so many of the others.
Short review for those who don’t follow lean all that closely. Waste – as defined by most lean practitioners, is anything the customer is not willing to pay for. They don’t care how you make your product or perform your service. You can actually take as long as you want, use as many extra people you want, move stuff around your warehouse with absolutely no practical purpose and on and on and the customer doesn’t care. All the customer really cares about is how quickly you can satisfy their needs at the highest quality with the lowest cost. Its up to you to figure out how to pay for all that other stuff if you want to stay in business.
Of course, there will be many who will jump up and down at this point and point out that in large corporations and particularly ones that cross international borders, you could not survive long without the “support staff”. Someone needs to write all those policies and maintain the endless series of rules which govern everything from what size tea cups are appropriate for the break room and how many sets of shoes each person should get each year. Speaking of break rooms, we need regulations on what can be posted on the walls like the upcoming blood drive, the existence of something called a “Diversity Club” and the vital need of keeping the room clean and tidy. Plus it’s a great place to hang those ever important mission statements and graphs of the latest statistics which have no actual purpose in a mundane organization since no real problems will be posted, only happy thoughts.
Support staff are involved in heady discussions such as competency development, leadership pathways, length of breaks for the remaining staff and of course making sure everyone speaks incredibly nicely to each other. The opposite of that is when people don’t, then the support staff rushes in with training, counseling, worrying, and my favorite waste of all… reporting all of this activity up the chain in the most favorable possible way so as to look like they are really adding value to the organization. Mundane can’t exist alone at the organizational level, it grows quickly to have structure throughout the entire organization. By the way, mundane loves company… its not just human resources, its any “leader” hoping to climb the corporate ladder. They come in all shapes and sizes and titles and have one thing in common… the more mundane the better.
Please don’t get me wrong. You do need some mechanism for keeping the paychecks and benefits right. You do need a referee from time to time as the company grows so that all of your employees feel that their rights are being respected and they have a clean, safe, and relatively happy place to work. The problem with mundane is that it won’t stay in one place and be useful for the things it was designed to keep mundane. It encourages people to hide behind it in order not to be accused of violating its very existence.
The mundane police are everywhere. Step out of line and they will be the first to show up with their white pads of paper and accusatory looks. They can be deceptive to the common person too since in most cases they wear a plastered on smile or a nice look of genuine concern. But don’t be fooled. The mundane police have one purpose in life. Their main role is to make sure everything stays nice and mundane.
If they have been successful, they have many partners in the organization. The CEO likes mundane (as long as it seems to be delivering a steady stream of money or at least the appearance of it). Most companies that are in a mature state like to be seen as good citizens and employers so the mundane police help to keep that all sorted out. No bad news needs ever hit the CEO’s desk as long as the mundane police can keep things smoothly humming along. People who violate the mundane standards are dealt with swiftly and soon depart out of frustration.
“Wait, what??? Why would anyone leave such an orderly place?”
Since the culture is one of cover rather than fix, waste is added to every process. People spend more time worrying about completing the non value added activities than in actually fixing the problems in the shop.
The single most non-value added activity I have personally witnessed in my life within a corporation was a mandated training program to spread the fact that people should be committed to their work. No actual substance about what that meant but a very tidy set of bullet points on a PowerPoint that a group of senior managers probably spent five days off site with a highly paid consultant developing. Then more money was spent on the support staff who cleaned it up, put it into the right fonts, issued a long series of instructions on how to roll it out and meetings after meetings to ensure that everyone knew how to properly present it.
In the meantime, the customers were a little frustrated because they were not getting their parts. And when they did get them, there seemed to be more than the usual quality issues. And they were more expensive that anticipated. As the issues kept mounting, the answer to the mundane police was very simple: For gosh sakes don’t tell anybody about this. Instead, lets spend more time in more meetings developing spread sheets to demonstrate that it was actually someone else’s fault. But you better be quick about it because its almost time for another leadership seminar.
Since all mature companies probably need a certain level of mundane to function, how do you fight the spread of mundane? Simple. You need mustangs.
Wikipedia describes a mustang as a free-roaming horse of the North American West that first descended from horses brought there by the Spanish. In 1971, the United States Congress recognized Mustangs as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West, which continue to contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
You probably have seen a few mustangs along the way. They are the ones who will actually raise their hand at a meeting with a senior manager and in front of the whole organization question the wisdom of spending time, money or effort on some useless process or activity. The mundane police will stand there tight jawed with anger building up inside as they see their participation in the secret company bonus program slowly slipping away.
Mundane police hate mustangs
They will do anything in their power to silence them and put the in their place. They can be pretty successful too since they control the rules of the game.
But let me repeat myself; you need mustangs. The mustang will be the person who points out the waste in your processes. The mustang will be the one who questions things like “we’ve always done it that way”. The mustang will be the one who can spotlight the people who place more value on mundane that in meeting the customer’s needs. The true mustang realizes that if you keep burying waste, sooner or later that pile of waste will stink to high heaven. In my experience with people like this, their main motivation is that they want to remain free and in order to do that they need a job that will maintain their lifestyle. Their culture is a natural culture that does not need charts on the wall to document what it is they believe. They will show you with their hard work and their determination to drive to a better place.
If you want to kill your business, kill or drive off all the mustangs. Wrap yourself in so many regulations and so much structure that they won’t have any choice but to leave. I can assure you of one thing; if you drive them off, they will probably go and find a place that is willing to listen and compete. Mustangs are your truth thermometers. As bothersome as they can seem to some, they are vital in the fight against the mundane.
The US Navy has a group that are unofficially called Mustangs. These are the men and women with enlisted experience who become officers. Chief Warrant Officers and Limited Duty Officers fill a valuable role. In most cases (unfortunately not all) they represent an independent spirit. Their positions are very selective but because of their experience, they are held in high esteem. When a Mustang tells you something is about to break, it is not only welcomed, it is expected.
In this highly competitive world, if you are going to survive, you not only need to welcome mustangs, you need a way to develop them within your company.
By the way, it’s a little past 0800… back to work before the Mundane Police catch you!