October 7, 2004

Porretto Punctures "Process"

One of the downsides of contemporary capitalism (yes, there are a few) is the need to invent new "theories" of innovation and work along with genuine innovation. These usually take the form of books, seminars, and other grant-in-aid programs for the army of "consultants" that hover over the corporate landscape like trial lawyers and has-been celebrities hover over unexploited diseases.

The list of these sins is both, as a friend of mine likes to say, "numerous and multiple." One of my favorites was, if you have been conscious and semi-working since the early 1980s, a chunk of blather called "The One Minute Manager." A best-seller in its day and something that gave the author a big hit from the money machine, it has long since shuffled off its mortal coil. [In a way it worked for me as well since, as soon as I saw it on the best-seller list, I went right out and bought a manuscript for Houghton Mifflin called "The 59-Second Employee,"** which enjoyed a similar although smaller success.]

Drucker, Peters, and their ilk are legion in the business world, and very much like the undead in their ability to always come up with a new bite on an old neck.

The current plague on the salaried classes, especially in the realms of software creation, is "process." With all its gay ribbons and sequined tassles stripped away, "process" means squeezing more work out of fewer people for less money. Or code as the case may be.

Somewhere, possibly when I worked as Employee #3 for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I had a conversation in which it was revealed to me that there is an outer limit on how many lines of good code a programmer can write in a day. This was pointed out by a man who had good reason to know it and, as it was made clear to me, there is no known way of pushing a programmer beyond that limit. It is a flexible limit, but only for a time. Over the long haul, the human limit
takes over and it all averages out. I forget for the moment exactly what that limit is but perhaps one of my readers can remind me.

The promise of "process" is that it can, if ruthlessly applied, break through that limit and create, at the expense of some severely burnt out people, a momentary pulse of extra profit. Perhaps. But only momentary.

One of the most intuitive skills a manager can have involves the care, feeding and management of "creatives;" those employees who have the ability and the skill to innovate and problem-solve without much input from above. You know, the kind of person who does their job because they really have no choice. They have to do the work and they have to push the envelope because it is part of the base ground of their nature. Knowing how and when to point and direct this kind of rare personality, and how to attract more to your operation, is an art and not a process. Apply too much "process" to the imagination of you business (and make no mistake, the "creatives" are the core of that function), and you will surely break them and your business in the process.

Francis Poretto, a man who works as an engineer and moonlights as a curmudgeon, has a lot of experience with both sides of the issue and his remarks, Get Yourself a Process, contribute significant detail and attitude surrounding this deadly corporate virus:

"Process" has become the albatross around the neck of every engineer in America. Managements have seized on the idea as if it were the True Cross. You didn't make your delivery deadline? Must be something wrong with your process. Your work has a few bugs in it? Why didn't your process thresh them out? One of your suppliers let you down and forced you over-budget? Why didn't your process account for that possibility?

The core concept is that, by defining a work regimen -- the 'process' -- and compelling all employees to abide by it under pain of pain, management can guarantee schedules and budgets, reduce defects and rejects, and generally promise the customer a grade-A-plus product regardless of all other factors.

To which your Curmudgeon deposeth and sayeth:


One word and the right one. As to why we have these recurring plagues of management theory afflicting corporate America, I have but one answer:


If there was a fair and balanced process operating in corporations today, the first step of that process would be to FIRE THE ENTIRE HUMAN RESOURCE DEPARTMENT in every company.

Humm, where have I heard that theory before?

Why, it must have been in this book, the granddaddy of all books of organizational theory.

** Originally entered as "The One Minute Employee," as a testament to how long ago this was and how feeble my memory has become. Corrected thanks to Chris of Dangerous Logic.

Posted by Vanderleun at October 7, 2004 4:05 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Again. a thoughtful post. My pay grade is well
below yours BUT, when I was in school, I came up
with a way to teach history in an encapsulated
form ala James Burke. In 1970. I was an undergrad
and asked by the History Dept to lecture to the
500 level,which were ALL teachers ( no surprise,
it WAS a business and teaching college) and one
of my favorite 'capsules' was 'The Effiency Movement.'
Key to that was a man named Frederick
Winslow Taylor. In his writings you will find
a parallel stance and an 8 decade lag. Also see
the Barths.

Posted by: Steel Turman at October 7, 2004 6:03 PM

Back in the days when men were men and software was written on punch cards, we estimated 6-10 lines of DELIVERED code per man-day. The key is DELIVERED, since you may need to code, recode, test, archive, and integrate along the way, with another 50-200 lines of code to make that happen.

The miracle 4 decades later is that I still deliver 6-10 lines per day, but with tools that work at a much higher level of abstraction. Six lines of today's Mathematica do the work of 200-300 lines of 20th Century FORTRAN, and it only takes another 6 lines to do the housekeeping.

Attention to "Process" works great for mass production; I've yet to see a checklist that tells me how to be creative or even innovative. Like some foolish woggie voting for an Islamic State, I fear making that final innovation: control everyone's PROCESSES, including my own.

Posted by: slimedog at October 7, 2004 8:41 PM

I always thought it was "The Fifty-Nine Second Employee," billed as a way to stay one second ahead of your boss...

Posted by: Chris of Dangerous Logic at October 11, 2004 11:41 AM

By God, you're right. I'd forgotten even though I was the editor.

Corrected. With thanks.

Posted by: Van der Leun at October 11, 2004 11:58 AM