Thursday, December 19, 2013

From Dilbert to Gainsharing to a Bonsai Tree

Last Wednesday while driving around Yonkers delivering food to the elderly I heard part of a Leonard Lopate public radio interview with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip which lampoons corporate America. Adams chided managements that religiously bring in consultants to improve productivity and workplace environment. They are hired in an almost flavor-of-the-month ritual.

Which got me to thinking how my former employer practiced a similar wistful approach. My memory was honed by the recent passing of the vice president recruited to handle our strategic planning and other management enhancement practices. The charming reality of it all was that Harry was hired to be our in-house expert after our president attended one of his strategic planning seminars in Pittsburgh, I believe. That had to be the ultimate consultant’s dream: Impress someone in your audience so much they offer you a full-time gig.

Not that Harry didn't do a bang-up job getting us to focus more on strengths and weaknesses as we prepared to tackle the future. It's just that sometimes we wound up doing some pretty absurd and contradictory things.

We were always looking for ways to grow the company while also reducing expenses. To that end, we were given a book whose actual title eludes me but sounded something like “A Zap to the Side of the Head.” It advocated gainsharing, the concept of rewarding staff members for ideas and actions that contributed to a thicker bottom line. 

I embraced the idea. Actually, I had already been practicing it by giving editors more money for writing special reports and supplements, many of which they had created and helped pitch to sponsors. These were $60,000-$100,000 projects during a time when our average account spent about $30,000 a year. I thought  it right to reward the editors with extra funds considering that without their input we usually would not have sold the projects which they then had to write on top of their regular assignments. Yet, I was continually questioned about the wisdom of paying the editors more money. I'd reply, to mostly deaf ears, that “Zap” advocated gainsharing.

I was tapped to be part of a Big Idea committee. We were charged with rewarding suggestions to generate more revenue, with a top prize of $25,000. For expense-saving ideas, the award would be 10% of first-year savings. Ideas poured in. The most enticing was to start a new magazine. We handed out the $25,000 but never launched the book. Somehow, in formalizing the Big Idea rules, senior management forgot to include the requirement that the idea be put into practice.

A little while later corporate thinking channeled along the lines of a “string of pearls.” Consultant Janice sold us the notion that monetary rewards were not what employees wanted. Instead, they preferred small rewards, no more than $25 in value, that showed we cared about them as individuals. To that end, everyone had to fill out lists of what they liked, such as a diet soda or cafe latte or a dozen roses. Each time a worker would receive a reward it would be like adding a pearl to a necklace they were wearing around their neck, Janice explained.

A few weeks later all managers met to hear Janice extol the program. She described how a production department staffer devised a new system to print business cards that would save the company $10,000 in the first year. Checking the worker’s list of rewards, her manager discovered she liked plants, so a $25 desk plant was presented to her. Janice was beside herself, she was so happy.

Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, I’m more likely to blurt out the emperor is walking around nude. So, naturally I couldn't take it any longer. I rose and said words to the effect, “Let me understand this. A year ago, when we had the Big Idea committee, she would have received 10% of the savings, or $1,000. Now, she gets a $25 plant. What would she get if she saved us $50,000? A bonsai tree?”

For a moment there was silence. Then laughter erupted throughout the room. From everyone save Janice and Harry. They were not happy, not with everyone’s reaction to my comment and especially not with me. In that second moment I wondered what my fate would be, but to my good fortune and surprise, the senior vice president of the company, Jim, a person with whom I did not share any values, came to my defense. 

Janice lasted another year or two as a consultant to our company. I stayed another 19 years until my retirement.