I’ve never been good at taking care of stuff, particularly other people’s but my own, as well.

Who cares about a calculator, anyway? (Image: Wikimedia)

When I was in high school, my father lent me what was then a fairly advanced (and expensive) scientific calculator.  I crammed it into a deep recess of my backpack because, as my wife would comment years later about similar incidents, I could not be bothered to place it somewhere safe.

When I needed it, I’d pull it out, quickly slam it on the desk, and begin punching the keys. No time to coddle this thing.

When I didn’t have a moment to reach into the crowded, nether-regions of my knapsack for a ruler, I’d use the calculator. Sure, I ticked up the sides of the housing but what did I care? It was all about the job.

And, since I couldn’t be bothered to buy a decent knapsack to begin with or resist stuffing it to overcapacity, two things eventually happened:

(1) The calculator disappeared.  It had apparently slipped through a widening hole in the nylon, and was MIA for 2 days until my math teacher found it.

(2) Upon recovering it, I noticed a full-on lightning-style crack a la Harry Potter had seared through its tiny greenish LED screen.

But, of course, as I learned that we have to pay for things we break and suffer all sorts of indignities even in full payment, I’ve become more selective in what I abuse.  My wife has it right: I can’t be bothered to take care of certain things because I am too busy focusing on others.

I wish I could say I take care of the whole wonderful world of the stuff I touch but I neither can nor wish to.  In business terms, I achieve greater operational efficiencies by taking advantage of what I call the Law of Selective Abuse. We consume, even trash and destroy, some resources liberally so that we can generate some exponentially greater level of value for ourselves (or organization).

Insurance companies have to wrestle with this concept all the time. Think moral hazard. How often do you floor a rental car? How often do you floor your own? When you sheath a DVD you’re about to return to Netflix or pre-chapter-11 Blockbuster, do you carefully slide it into its case or smush your oily fingers all over its neat concentric lines like a perp getting fingerprinted?

Moral hazard, indeed! (Image via Wikimedia)

Now, what if the resources we were trashing in the name of operational efficiency and productivity were our own people, our own employees? Yikes.

The analogy works well. Heading into this latest recession, companies carried a lot of infrastructure (i.e., a full knapsack). Lots of people, lots of expensive but outdated software implementations, lots of real estate and equipment, and lots of projects and even businesses that in many large corporations, couldn’t really be accounted for.

Then, witness the collapse of financial services companies: This not only limited borrowing power but also eroded revenues from what was one of the largest customer segments for many large businesses. Bye bye better knapsack.

If we look at just one thing in an organization/knapsack, just one employee (i.e., calculator), what do we find? A few things:

(1)    The organization tosses that employee about much like my knapsack did that calculator. The employee is not likely to land in any part of the organization for very long. Why? It won’t stop to take the time to figure out what to do with her.

(2)    While she is working on the project of the day/month, the organization will burn through her. She will be over- and mis-utilized because the org can’t find the resources it needs to get the job done; instead, it will use what it has handy. As the org continues to lay people off, it will find that it has fewer and fewer people with the talent to get that job done. In that case, the org continues to task that calculator with lots of stuff she can do, lots of stuff she can’t really do, and lots of stuff there’s no way she can do. It will all wear her down, even beat her down. But the org will continue to do it. Why? All in the name of getting the job done, quarter by quarter. (And, yes, a candle CAN burn at both ends for quite a long time as this video clip demonstrates).

(3)    Eventually, the employee will slip through the cracks and get lost. Best-case scenario, she is tasked poorly. Worst-case, she gets canned before she has a chance to (continue to) demonstrate value.

What happens to the employee in this picture? We’ve already talked a bit about that in previous posts about employee engagement. When we’re lost, we lack purpose. When we lack purpose, when we have no meaningful objective within an organization, when those objectives keep shifting, we become sick.

But what happens DURING the selective abuse? What happens when someone keeps ‘punching our keys?’ What happens when the company keeps wanting more and more from us—more and more of our time, more and more of our life? What happens when companies try to ramp up productivity by spreading more work around fewer employees who may or may not have the skills necessary to handle all that work? And just how do those employees suddenly find the physical bandwidth to handle that work? How do they defy space and time?

Stay tuned… Coming soon to a blog near you…

But in the meantime, questions of the day: Is this you? Are you the calculator? Have you been burned out? Have you seen any of this happen to friends?

Thanks for reading!

-Mike Raven

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