Monday, November 17, 2014

You've made your Procrustean Bed...

Our waitress at Zea's Reastaurant this weekend loves organization.  She runs the bar and is absolutely amazing at making sure that everything is just so - right at hand and ready for when the lunch crush arrives.  She does not want to have to think about where the fruit is, or whether she has the juice and simple syrup ready.  She organized the glassware.  She organized the napkins.  She organized the juices, and applied the stickers on each bottle.  She futzed and piddled and straightened and organized.

What she did not do was wait on her customers.

She followed a process, but neglected to attain the goal.

In my work, one of the requirements is that we prepare a Project Management Plan, so that we have an idea where the project is going, and to have a road map for how to get to the decision.  The PMP is an important tool that helps us understand the level of effort, the people who have responsibilities, what those responsibilities are, and how we will incorporate input from our engineers, biologists, real estate specialists, and our local sponsor. 

Every project has to have a PMP, or it is an incomplete project.  So we have a template that we fill out to complete the PMP.  Much of the information is redundant, and much of the information needed is not included. But we have to follow the template, because it is the only approved template we have.

The report that the PMP gives us a roadmap for is only allowed to be 100 pages.

The template for the PMP runs 120 pages.

At some point, we ceased to view our process as a tool to get to the goal, and we started to view the following of the process as the goal. This failing is something that everyone recognizes within and without our organization, but corporately, we are so entrenched in how we do things that we forget what we are doing.  It is a continual source of frustration for me.

Ancient Greek mythology told us the story of a son of Poseidon named Procrustes (undoubtedly a precursor to one of the Simpson's characters). He had possession of a stronghold at a critical pass between Athens and Eleusis.  When he invited travelers in for the night, he would put them into the iron bed, and then cut them - or stretch them - to fit the bed.  (Turns out that he had two beds of different lengths, so NOBODY ever fit the bed).

Image stolen shamelessly from

Sadistic, sure; bloodthirsty, of course.  But none of his guests could ever complain that the bed didn't fit.  He had a process in place to make sure that those complaints never happened.

I see places all across my life where this kind of thing happens.  We give gifts to needy families at Christmas so that kids don't grow up without experiencing the magic of gifts under the tree, without looking to fit our giving to the family.  We have soup kitchens where we give free food to the homeless and the needy.  In part, we do this because it is the right thing to do - to take care of the least fortunate members of society.  But at least in part we do it because it is easier to pay for food than to address the underlying need.

It is just possible that we are applying a bandaid where a tournaquet  is needed.  Or maybe we are making the problem fit the solution we have - the solution we know works.

And maybe we don't know at all.  Maybe it is time to re-evaluate it all and revisit the bed we are offering these travelers.  Are we cutting the wage-earners off at the knees when we give the Christmas gifts?  Are we stretching a temporary solution of feeding people to fit an endemic homeless situation?

Procrustes ended up being hoist on his on petard - he was stretched on his own bed by Theseus. But we risk the same thing when we value process over problemsolving.  When we focus on organization over service.

And when we strive to 'do charity' rather than fill a need. 


aunt Patty said...

Wow. Why do we do that,,?

Anonymous said...

Scary stuff! Maybe we should all just be self sufficient and not form long lines for handouts. Our gracious gov't likes giving out sursees, but what's the real outcome? Who is really HELPED by getting on the handout train?