Friday, April 29, 2011

A Decent Job.

I had a decent job once.

It lasted less than three years and gave me a greater sense of worth than I found in mine-working, fixing roofs, stacking punch cards, soldiering, insurance underwriting, bricklaying, paving, carpentry, general reporting, financial journalism, broadcasting, management consulting, teaching and writing. Not all of these were professional, but they certainly were functions that I was exposed to and became adept at enough to earn a living from them.

I had a decent job once. Its critical performance areas covered nursing, bronchial physiotherapy, housekeeping, cooking and cleaning.

In 2002 Kathy was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP). It was a frightening affliction to befall a partner of nearly 40 years, leaving us with the prospect of gradually deteriorating muscle control, growing incapacity and moving from crutches – to wheelchair – to bed. There was some hope. We could retard the atrophy with rigorous exercise and this set off a regime of incessant badgering and benevolent acrimony.

Two years earlier, I had undergone a double by-pass, slowing down my professional work and billings for the consultancy I had founded a decade before in rescuing another ailing business. The additional distraction of the plight of a much loved companion erased from the minds of others the memory of risk, long hours, fear and insecurity in establishing a viable consultancy with what we believed to be an important new paradigm in business. One described by Raymond Ackerman as “the way of the future, the whisper of tomorrow.” One we swore we would sell even on bicycles if we had to.

I had a decent job once.

It was forced upon me by fate and financial vulnerability caused by a confessed misrepresentation of the state of a company in which I had the largest share, a fire sale of that share and a timing of those actions to coincide with a period of intense personal stress and distraction. That is the way of the world so I reflect upon it without malice, acrimony or even the slightest sense of spite.

I mention it purely because it was an important thread in my life’s tapestry that explains why I could not afford to abandon Kathy to the aloofness of institutional care; even when her condition deteriorated to being hospitalised six times in as many months in 2004; when she had been declared dead in an ambulance on two occasions; and when she was aspirating up to five times a day, each time instilling an intense fear of suffocation.

It explains too my desire to become a do-it-yourself bronchial physiotherapist, to learn the art of inserting a suction pipe down the trachea while avoiding the oesophagus. My lack of proficiency was risky, but adequate enough to ensure that her lungs did not collapse during sleep. It was also good enough for the frail care institution where she was held for a short while, to call me for help in the early hours of the morning.

I shopped for all kinds of gadgets that would make her life comfortable. To the point where one day, sensing my concerns about finances she lamented: “I’m sorry that this is costing so much money.” My response was a spontaneous and deeply sincere commitment that everything we had would be used to ensuring her treatment and comfort. In that moment, all concerns about provision left me. For the first time in my life I was left with the lasting and profound taste of the power of an unconditional act of generosity, of minimum expectations, of acting in the moment and of giving from the heart. All these things were alien to my being a mere few years before.

It made me question the real understanding of “living for today”. Ask anyone what they would do if they knew that today was to be their last and many will respond with a litany of frivolous and self gratifying events. That’s how self absorbed most of us have become. We only realise the futility of these things when it dawns upon us that our last day will also be the last our loved ones will have with us. The question then should not be how we would act if it were our last day, but rather how we would act if it were the last day of someone who is close to us.

I had a decent job once.

One of its functions was to clean up after someone who no longer had bladder- or bowel-control. On one occasion she bravely tried to reach the toilet but failed before spilling it all over the bathroom floor. She watched as I cleaned and at the end pointed and said: “You missed a spot.” We laughed until we cried.

That gave me my deepest insight into the definition of decent work. For in that moment I remember drawing a distinct comparison between that activity and being in front of a camera interpreting and explaining one or other economic event to millions of people. “Have I been reduced to this?” I wondered. No! I had been elevated to that! It was a deep conviction informed by a simple comparison between the sense of achievement between the two states.

The most satisfying was the one stripped of all accolades, recognition and financial rewards. It was the one with the most menial of tasks. It was the one that was intensely and unconditionally focused on the need of another. It was the one where I could see the result and the profound gratitude of another. It was the one where I could witness the difference it made. It was the one where ego and self were totally irrelevant. It was the one where giving was fully unconditional.

Kathy died in the late winter of 2004. Two weeks before her passing, when she could no longer speak because of the collapse of her tongue muscles, we learned that she did not have HSP but MND or motor neuron disease. All of our efforts at trying to slow down the decline, her brave submission to our exaltations of exercising were not only fruitless from the outset but were becoming increasingly impossible for her to do. MND has no known cause and no known cure. We were left with months of intense remorse about how differently we would have acted had we known that.

I had a decent job once.

And its definition is very different from that of Cosatu or the ILO which says: “Decent work is the availability of employment in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.” Like some lofty constitution in trying to say everything, it says nothing about the real texture of how that translates into a working environment.

My definition is simpler: “Decent work is that which gives a sense of meaning in being able to make a contribution to another.” There were elements of that in the decent job that I once had. Clearly not all can be applied to the workplace, but many can. Many are self defined. They are certainly not easy to capture. Those who can find them are the most fortunate among us.

Today, I can rest and reflect on how our darkest hours can also shed the most light.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Toilet Roll Economics

Now I get it – the economic significance of the modest bog roll.

The penny dropped (I’m sure there’s a pun in there somewhere) when I read the puzzling case of Frank-Michael John. This still-wet-behind-the-ears far-left German politician has had his pretentious name entered in the records of his local polizei for stealing toilet rolls.

Janitors at the gents of the Stralsund town hall in Northern Germany became suspicious when no amount of upset tummies could account for the use of 200 rolls in a very short time. So they set up a sting operation to trap the poo-paper pilferer. He was caught not so much with his pants down, but leaving the loo with one roll in his hand and another in his back-pack.

Well, if the man has to resort to a back-pack instead of a briefcase as becomes a successful politician, then he probably has every excuse to lift the loo paper. He could certainly benefit from a sabbatical to South Africa where his peers here could show him how to become a minute multi-millionaire without really trying.

Toilet paper is precious stuff – as I recently discovered. I was totally engrossed in some or other TV documentary when I was irritatingly interrupted by a loud and lengthy lament on the very same subject from my companion who is responsible for the strictly budgeted grocery purchases.

“Look at this,” she wailed while thrusting a nine-pack under my nose. “This used to be R26! Now it is R55!” My attention was still captured by the awesome power of tectonic plates that the TV narrator was trying to explain, so my response was muted at best. I certainly wasn’t horrified enough to show even the slightest empathy with the plight of the purchaser, so amenable conversation was abruptly obstructed. (There must be a pun there too.)

I really don’t know why the producers of toilet rolls don’t learn from the chocolate-bar guys – just make it smaller and print the length or weight in a size 3 font while keeping the same wrapping.

Many years ago before all the SABS marks guaranteed everything and nothing a friend of mine owned a small paper processing plant in the Eastern Cape. His main line was cheap toilet rolls that threatened the user with permanent damage if he or she had anything even bordering on diarrhoea. Clive (that’s not his real name) was also a heavy drinker, and soon his habits began to flush away his profits.

After one or two price increases to subsidise his lifestyle, he decided he would have to cut factory costs. First he tried reducing the length of the roll but there was a limit to avoiding the obvious. Then he devised a much more cunning plan (alkies know how to do this!). He calculated that by shaving a few mm off the width he could save far more paper than by reducing the length. After a few months he had to do it again…and then again. It was only a matter of time before either his liver packed up or his customers refused to accept his calculator rolls. It was both.

Overbergers must be full of it or more regular than most. The price of toilet rolls is often the topic of heated discussion about what they perceive to be the inflation myth that Stats is trying to sell. Scepticism is heightened many-fold when you throw in coffee, sugar, veggies, and especially mutton or beef into the jabber.

Part of me then wants to do the noble and perhaps courageous thing and defend the data crunchers in Pretoria. I can recall the days when I broadcast a 3 minute Sunday news insert called “Econovision” which in response to viewers’ letters would try to break things down to early teen comprehension. With inflation hovering at 20%, more often than not the subject was pricing and inflation. I would go to great lengths to defend the data gathered from thousands of points, the internationally approved expertise required to process them, the different rates for different income groups and regions, and of course, emphasise the fact that the rate is only an average and cannot be applied definitively to each individual or household. I would keep on reminding the disbelievers that a drop in inflation did not mean a drop in prices, merely a slowing down of price increases.

Nothing has really changed, except perhaps the intensity of scepticism and my waning zeal to defend the official figures. Quite frankly, the 4.1% CPI increase they have just announced is way off my own experience. And I thought I was average! The “average” experience I seem to share with my fellow senior citizens is the squeeze on income from declining interest rates, and a much more costly number 2.

Apart from academics and banking economists, it seems that the only people taking the official inflation stats seriously are the monetary authorities. “Let them eat credit” appears to be the approach while sending out confusing messages about South Africa’s low personal saving levels. For most, the official stats present little more than an irritation at being reminded of the latest bog-roll price. It certainly has no effect on the unions and wage demands – especially in the public sector.

Here’s a thought: if Stralsund and Swellendam share a common fixation with toilet rolls, we could replace the Economist’s “Big Mac” price parity measure with the price of one roll of double ply. The mind bog-gels.

I’ll be watching this space closely. When next I get comfortable and reach out for the baby soft two ply only to find patches of two-by-fours cut from the Cape Times or the local knock-and-drop, I’ll know it’s time to seriously review the grocery budget.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Service Chain.

I was once locked in banter with the manager of a tyre fitment centre which was part of a big client group. He was convinced that his employees had reached the best possible customer attentiveness while I was skeptical of the claim. So we decided to put it to the test.

I was unknown at his particular shop and brought in a flat tyre to be changed. The employee doing the job was called first by myself, whom he thought was the customer, and then by his immediate supervisor. The employee barely gave me a glance before going to his supervisor. As trite as the experiment may have been, it confirmed at least to the manager that most employees see themselves as serving their bosses first, and serving the customer only as a means to that end. This has more to do with structure and perceptions than employee willingness.

I’m not a great follower of conspiracy theories, but if there were one more successful than most it’s the plot to demean the role of the employee. Everybody and everything is part of it: employees themselves, the trade unions, the shareholders, the accounting conventions, and the economic philosophy and system of our time. The conspiracy is about categorising labour as a commodity and a cost, thus ensuring that employees by and large focus on what they can get and not what they can give. An employee is almost automatically defined in terms of and confined by “what’s-in-it-for-me”.

The employee/resource/cost/drag phenomenon is related to the way we view the hierarchical people structure of an organisation. I used a role-play exercise in our own workshops to illustrate the point. We asked selected participants to stand in a line to represent the “main actors” of a simplified modern organisation.

clip_image002The representation in the first figure is based on the understanding that the ultimate purpose of a company is to serve the shareholders. We all recognise it as a “self-serving” structure, where each role player is bent on maximum reward in return for homage to the one above. The relationship between the shareholders (JSE) and the executive or “boss” is forged on that principle: the boss is in fact the servant of the owners, i.e. the shareholders. As the chief servant he/she will hold subordinates accountable for various aspects of an overall performance that will enhance maximum shareholder value.

No doubt this boss has a profit-driven incentive package and has been given a bundle of shares in the company, and will therefore be inclined to focus on the short term and on the easiest way of affecting a rise in the share price.

Customer service (and these days other “sustainability stuff”) will be some of the performance areas, but not necessarily the dominant and overriding one. It’s an unfortunate fact that the easiest way to improve the bottom line is by “cost-cutting” (in which the payroll is probably the biggest factor) and account-fiddling or paper-shuffling. The longer and more risky route is to increase market share, sales and customer loyalty.

With strong overt or covert directives coming from his superiors, the supervisor’s domain is filled with the same incentives, measurements and accountabilities. He is also likely to be drawn into one or other profit-driven bonus programme. Depending on the type of business, there’s a shift in language at the level of general employees or workers. Here, functional accountabilities have more to do with standard customer-linked measurements such as quality, complaints, etc. So they are all herded off to smile courses. These may lead to some Oscar winning performances, but they are of little use in breaking the mould. The measurements are still seen as a way of satisfying the supervisor and the employee still sees his or her role as “serving” the one above.

clip_image004When participants see the first role play, they virtually immediately clamour for the line to change direction to the second illustration. The whole operational line is then seen to be facing in the direction of the customer. The two main issues that this raises are the role of the shareholders and who serves whom at operational level. The latter is addressed by Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. Regarding the role of the shareholders there can be two views. The one that seems to fit the current behaviour of shareholders is that they will and should simply insist on maximizing profits. For the line to turn it would mean that the operational CEO has to turn his/her back on this requirement towards the customer facing line. That is a very brave thing to do. The time will come when the short-term shareholder interest and customer interests will be conflict. Very few CEO’s have this kind of courage. Comforting though, society is nudging if not forcing them to do so.

A question automatically raised in this presentation is “who should turn first?” Most believe it is the one at the top who has to become more market and service driven than profit and self interest driven. My response is: “does it matter?” Albert Einstein put it so aptly when he said: “The highest destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule”.

Service to others is the most empowering thing a human being can do. Why wait for someone else before unleashing this power within ourselves? This is not to understate the enormous challenge for the individual. Since I did these workshops some years ago, things have clearly gone from bad to rotten. Self serving behaviour has become the norm rather than the exception even amongst role models.

But even in those days I was often confronted with: “Why should I bother? Nobody else behaves in the way you’re suggesting I do.” My response is: “Aren’t you lucky. You’ve been given a secret formula that will set you above the rest. Go and try it!”

But companies can go a long way by simply following what their mission or purpose statements say. A sculptor once said: “When you sculpt a horse simply take away everything that does not look like a horse.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Open Letter to Cosatu’s Chief.

Dear Mr Vavi

clip_image002Like the incessant chirps of countless crickets, the suggestions and advice on unemployment must be deafening. They have probably become indistinguishable, and those louder than others are likely tainted by vested interest, ideological bias, conflicting theories and the need for you to be guided by your own support base. Your job is indeed unenviable.

You have access to far more information and data about labour than many of us could have. You have most likely been bombarded with more theories and views from different levels of authority and expertise than most of us have been exposed to. You have heard it all. So it is not my intention to regurgitate the current arguments and test your patience and goodwill on matters of statistics, data, classical and neo-classical theories, ideological posturing, legal constraints and labour rights. None of that is helpful anymore. They merely enhance the conflict and drive us further apart.

I come from a working class background, indeed a mining background and have worked underground myself. My parents were the products of the age of deprivation. Having survived a world war and the great depression, they taught me the value of prudence, modesty and realistic expectations. Since then, I have covered labour affairs in many news reporting functions, from shop steward meetings to ILO conventions, and later as an employee communications facilitator, gained many further insights in interacting with employees at all levels, including managers and shop stewards.

I come from a place that has a deep respect for labour. That place recognises the nobility of work. That place acclaims labour as the main contributor to wealth creation – statistically, logically and ideologically. This is not alien thinking to business itself, as reflected in Cashbuild’s recent sacrifice of shareholder value to pay staff from a share trust. It recognises that we do not create wealth by owning things – only by doing things. That principle has been recognised even in scripture. It implies the unthinkable to many still locked in cold war rhetoric – that the paramountcy of capital over labour is a false one. Indeed in the creation of wealth, it is not capital that should attract labour, but labour that should attract capital.

This postulate flies in the face of the current status and logic; one that assumes inherent conflict and appears to have been accepted readily by both capital and labour. We can only assume that both parties find it expedient to be locked in this conflict. This stance has undoubtedly had an effect on employment retention and job creation, destroying for many the prospect of being meaningfully employed. But it will be cumbersome and counterproductive to analyse the detail which will merely reignite old paradigms.

I share a view with a growing number of people who see the era we live in as one of renewal, for questioning centuries of behaviour, and for out of the box, perhaps even outrageous thinking.

The reversal of the roles of attraction to one where labour woos capital in a market orientated environment is perhaps where the answer truly lies. It will require a complete revision of labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre and at the very least should form part of a serious discussion within organised labour’s ranks. It would be presumptuous for anyone outside of intense labour involvement to suggest how this could be done. An immediate practical answer may be the formation of labour cooperatives and application in some companies on a trial basis, but it should go much further.

The only statement I would make is that on closer inspection, the concept is not as alien as it may appear. In reality it is already rooted in the principle that it is not ownership but action or doing things that creates tangible wealth. I concede that this axiom has been severely contaminated by a rather narrow understanding of “ownership”, and the “doers” being stereotyped and divided into conflicting “classes” within business – from a controlling “executive class” representing shareholders to a subservient “working class” and with a hybrid class in the middle. This is no longer useful. The executive class in particular should and is being thoroughly scrutinised. I have previously intimated that they should be reclassified into creators, builders and professional managers to give a more accurate reflection of their true value.

We need to examine labour as a unified function before personifying it into preconceived ideological stereotypes. The key consideration is that all “doers”, from creators or entrepreneurs to the blue collar worker, have to form a partnership united in one goal – making a contribution to society as a whole. In the end tangible wealth is created by adding value to people’s lives, doing something meaningful for others. All the rest our modern world has concocted is nothing but froth and invariably implies not the creation of new wealth but the shifting of wealth from one interest to another and exacerbating the intolerable wealth gap. The common goal for all should be maximum wealth creation through meaningful products or service, and optimum sharing of wealth for long term sustainability. Gain or wealth distribution always has to be secondary to wealth creation itself. Distribution is not arbitrary, but can be malleable and negotiable. I understand that this may appear to threaten the current union power base, but ultimately, nothing is more noble, generous and empowering of others than ensuring one’s own dispensability. On the other hand, power lies with contributors and changing organised labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre could strengthen its role in society as a whole.

I have clearly only scratched on the surface of a subject that has occupied far greater minds for centuries. There is one, perhaps all encompassing principle that should permeate our thinking – the dignity of work. The evolvement of our species into seeing all things primarily from the perspective of self gain, has robbed mankind of its greatest strength: the ability and need to care for each other. The dignity of employment lies only partly in its provision of material comforts. Its real value lies in the opportunity it creates of doing something meaningful for others. Changing our definition of work from being an opportunity of contributing to a means of getting has demeaned the entire concept of work.

As an anonymous beatitude says: “Our greatest need is to be needed”.

Monday, April 4, 2011

R.I.P. Caveat Emptor?

So there’s a new law, more regulation, more to get hot under the collar about and another reflection of the declining trust between business and the public.

Will the Consumer protection Act really protect us from the shenanigans of the shysters? Not on your Nelly! Already there are nearly twenty laws that govern transactions between buyers and sellers. This new law may just criminalise a few more and add some yet to be determined costs to the less sophisticated mom and pop stores, but the real villains will simply find new ways of dodging the bullet. Perhaps it should have been named “The Fair Deal Act” rather than implying real protection.

Rob Davies and his DTI team may deserve some kudos for good intentions. It is always nice to say “this brings us in line with the best in the world”. But what’s the point of introducing a law that you cannot enforce from the outset unless there is some hidden irony in introducing it on April the 1st. There’s no full infra-structure in place to give effect to the act. A number of provisions are open to interpretation and will have to be tested in court. There’s been a rather muted public awareness programme, and to add insult to injury, the vast number of institutions where it is most needed, the smaller municipalities, are exempt from the act “for the time being”. It’s not clear how they will be penalised, but the mind boggles at the implications of lodging a complaint against a municipality and having them pay R1m or 10% of ratepayers’ revenue for not providing a service to the same ratepayers. But then, I must confess I had some difficulty in reading 100 pages of “legalese” and this may be a very superficial interpretation of the act.

But the intention of this article is not to take issue with the act itself, rather to assess it against a much broader background.

For one thing, we have many admirable laws (as well as questionable ones). We have a great Constitution. But we are a country rife with lawlessness. I would rather not have the need to employ a Security company to install a multi thousand Rand system in my home, than have a law that allows me to take it to task for putting in a faulty thingamajig. The plethora of laws and regulations is only meaningful if it really deters lawbreakers. What’s the point of having a law against murder and robbery if, in this country, there is only a 20% chance of the perpetrator being caught, let alone being convicted and sentenced? Those are pretty good odds to encourage any wannabe gangster. There is a climate of crime and who knows, if we get to grips with serious crimes we may automatically reduce petty crime and even have fewer faulty kettles in circulation.

Caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” was something of a battle cry for the champions of laissez-faire capitalism. The Friedman logic was that given freedom of choice at all levels, the good will chase out the bad and competition will ensure that poor service will succumb to good service. It is the stuff of high school economics: good economies ensure maximum choice with maximum suppliers, free moving prices and knowledge and awareness on the part of consumers.


Tell that to the victims of Bernie Madoff’s $50bn fraud. They were all highly educated and informed. Indeed many of them were financial advisors and it took a lecturer in mathematics to crunch the numbers and expose him. It will be abhorrently callous to fling “caveat emptor” or “better luck next time!” in the face of those victims materially annihilated.

How do you apply “caveat emptor” to the millions of people who can barely read or write? Or to the millions who have lost their jobs, the countries that have been plunged into deep recession, and indeed a global crisis, all because of the reckless behaviour of a bunch of elite “banksters” searching for maximum personal gain in the shortest time possible?

You don’t. You make new laws. You introduce new regulations and you simply assume that no-one can be trusted. You assume as a matter of fact that all human beings are selfish. Everyone is out to make a quick buck. In fact you create a system of transaction which entrenches it. You create a system whose prosperity depends on it. In the process you create that reality. If selfishness is not only condoned but revered you must expect growing social stresses that have to be managed and controlled. There is a direct correlation between the absence of sound human values and the number of laws needed to regulate behaviour.

Society can then respond in one way only – to intervene more forcefully and regularly through its representative governments, either directly or indirectly, either through a nudge or a shove. And so we see a burgeoning government sector and a shrinking and highly regulated private sector. Much to the chagrin of the minimum government advocates, the days of small governments and minimum involvement in domestic economies may be gone forever.

Until of course, we confront a crucial question: who do we trust more – governments or business? The supreme irony is that in most countries, people trust their governments less than they do business.

The simple litmus test of trust is whether we believe the other has our interest at heart. In turn we apply that test by checking whether the other’s behaviour is serving or self serving…an extremely difficult test to pass if you are seen driving past a squatter camp in the latest yupmobile. Sincerity is the glue that holds it all together and ensures the strength of that trust. Both business and government have no excuse to act otherwise. Governments are elected to serve, and contrary to questionable and outdated profit motive theories, companies also exist to serve. This leaves a number of us, perhaps the majority with something of conundrum: we dislike big government but abhor cheaters even more.

There will no doubt be some cynics who see the Consumer Protection Act as another avenue for graft, corruption, and self enrichment. Only time will tell. While it certainly enhances access to redress, I simply question its overall efficacy and its cost/benefit logic. It will do little to discourage the adept villain and could create a false sense of security where vigilance is still needed.

There has been sufficient “nudging” world wide from a variety of sources to put business on a different path from the “greed is good” and profit maximisation era. A substantial majority of informed people even in developed Western economies believe that shareholder value is not sacrosanct and can be compromised where necessary in the interests of society. Most private sector transactions even in this country are based on solid and trusting relationships with an underlying sincere intention to serve.

To set this in reinforced concrete we do not need a new law, but an understanding and appreciation of the simple axiom that ultimately our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others.