Monday, January 06, 2014


Every time I hear the scorn over Obamacare’s computer problems, I flash back to my years with the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings in the Nineties.  Oracle was the same computer system provider, though we were forbidden to say so for fear of hackers getting clues.  The people who needed clues were us, who couldn’t make the system work because our equipment was inadequate, our training was nonexistent, and the functions didn’t match the work load anyway.  Most recently the same situation drove us all crazy at a local care center, where the confused results had to be checked by nurses who were already in short supply, but not as short as their tempers.  And, of course, the stakes were higher when dealing with lives.

In Portland our manager was a little hen of a woman who had not grown with her job and whose marriage was tanking.  She managed to hire a good friend who dealt with every problem by adding another layer, a system of brown paper envelopes with addresses on them, colored pencils for marking the envelopes with arcane symbols for sorting, since the computer data was little more than what a typewriter could do.  It made me think of the old Alphone and Gaston cajun joke about a rendezvous:  "If you get there first, make a blue mark and if I get there first, I'll rub it out."  

We didn’t have the information for referrals or the law, much less regulations, though the questions came in every five minutes.  Employee turnover, in spite of the Nineties version of unemployment (I was out of work for eight months, then took temp work until I was hired by the city), was high even with excellent health insurance and a strong union.  

The manager over the hen was another female, but one highly educated in all the idealistic procedures that were supposed to get everyone on board, enthusiastic, and helpful.  None of the techniques worked on the assortment of stubborn and world-wise inspectors who went into the field daily to risk life and limb so as to keep order for politicians and city planners, many of whom were females who just graduated from fine colleges back east.  No amount of sending out for pizza made a difference.

I escaped to the Permit Center, where the computer crisis peaked, at a time when geologists were telling the city leaders that the chances of a major earthquake were high and that most of the bridges in a city bisected by a major river would collapse.  All clerical specialists were instructed as to which forms to fill out -- assuming we could get downtown.  Also, though Timothy McVeigh had just masterminded the Oklahoma City explosion, no one seemed concerned about the rental trucks that parked just outside the Permit Center -- about twenty feet from my desk.  The manager went to an emergency response planning meeting and returned ashen.  “Just run for your life,” he said.  He asked what I thought about taping up Dilbert cartoons in his office.  I thought it might consolidate resistance to the constant stream of crisis management minutia and advised against it.  I also advised him to avoid pointy hair-dos.

Not long ago I was talking to someone competent who had just lost a pretty good job because the owner of the business did his own managing but really didn't know what he was doing, so used what has been called “Make It So Syndrome" after Patrick Stewart’s character on Star Trek deciding what he wanted the ship to do and telling Scotty, “Make it so.”  The sci-fi series convention is that the job is impossible but Scotty does it anyway.  This is the fictional result, but too many terrestrials expect it in the earthbound office.

Right away I admit that I’ve never had a management job, which is what determines one’s life income more than higher education, though some people believe that a college education will make one capable of managing.  The seminary I attended assumed that management could be figured out on the job or else done by the congregation, but in fact I discovered that ministers, because they are on site in the church, end up doing much of the management -- without consistency or the proper temperament.  (Ministers are big on avoidance.)

What does management mean besides a higher income?  Higher responsibility, for sure; an ego that permits learning from mistakes;  a grasp of systems relationships; an ability to delegate and tactfully follow up on completion; a willingness to share goals with people without simply forcing obedience through authority; a broad understanding of the materials needed, where to get them, and timing when ordering them; and regular inspections of the state of the shelter.  In simultaneous order. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple

One of the big lessons in a major church came when the new property management person, a laywoman who protested she knew nothing about church buildings, took over from a man who managed buildings for a living and “knew everything.”  Camera in hand, this woman simply marched through the place, recording what she saw.  The inevitable water leaks.  Shocking crumbles and rots.  Even loosening lead canes in the valuable stained glass windows.  After a slide show for the congregation, checks came in.  Drains were cleared, repairs made.  Whenever that woman spoke, people listened.  Including the minister.

In the early Sixties, when I was starting out, the school superintendent for whom I worked was a legacy Mormon (therefore a respecter of brick and mortar) but also a humanist (I don’t see a contradiction) who was able to persuade people rather than confronting and criticizing.  There is almost no place where this is harder to do than on a reservation where people have been managed by deprivation.  In the early years the people were forced to work by withholding their commodities (food and blankets) if they didn’t.   The result was survival by devious means, covert defiance, and secret rebellion-based alliances that produced at least two generations of unmanageable people.  Computers have nothing to do with it.

In the churches I served in the Eighties and at the City of Portland in the Nineties, the key to smooth operations was supposed to be a mission statement. There was an assumption that if a person had such a definition in mind, the actual management functions would naturally fall into place, because they were such obvious common sense.  (Here’s a good checklist:  

They didn’t.  Not any more than all the work on communication skills over the past decades has eliminated misunderstanding or the many sessions on “getting to peace” ever eliminated war.  Now the tendency is to say it’s all biological and to turn back to the idea of survival of the fittest, conveniently forgetting that most of the big predatory animals are about snuffed out, except for the ones we deliberately protect from their unfitness.  We’ve had the pyramid of survival upside down.  It’s the bacteria who survive and sometimes prevail.
What can we learn from bacteria?  I used to have a poster that said, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.  Saint Frances.”  Forget the CEO empires, the cathedrals, the moon shoots.  Feed the babies.  There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s a place to start and a thing we haven’t accomplished so far.  Do you have to wait for the Pope to tell you what to do?  Pay attention.  He just said, "Let's not produce little monsters."  He didn't mean children.  He meant managers.

Paul allows me to add this comment:  The management description you came up with is something I might be tempted to put on a resume, because it's somewhat difficult to describe exactly what a manager does. Maybe just because there are so many different kinds of management. I might add a couple things. Responding immediately and reassuringly about a need, with enough authority to at least put the requester at ease that they've left the problem in the right hands. Almost never admit defeat right out of the box. My automatic response is, I can do that! Then I set out finding a way to make it so. Sourcing and timing are ever important. Tact, threats, empathy and reward, all doled out at the right time and proper doses.

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