11 April, 2012


On the structural integrity of Swiss cheese

When a new manager takes charge of a department he reorganizes it. That doesn't necessarily mean there was anything wrong with the existing organizational structure. It is imperative to reorganize in any case; it is a matter of the manager making his mark, showing who's boss.

Similarly, when someone moves into a new home they change it to their liking. A bit of painting and decorating, for sure, but also a good deal of hammering, sawing and above all, drilling. No matter how mature and seemingly complete a house is, a new occupant will always find a reason to drill more holes in its walls.

If I sound a little peevish, that may be because both of the properties on either side of me are going through this process at the moment, and as I write I can hear very loud drilling in stereo.

Which all begs a question.

Departmental reorganizations tend to be cyclical. No structure is perfect; all involve compromise, a balancing of strengths and weaknesses. For example, you are running a large company with national coverage. To reduce bureaucracy and encourage initiative, you reorganize on a regional basis, devolving considerable autonomy to regional and local structures. Great, but now brand inconsistency begins to creep in, and efficiencies of scale, for example in procurement, are lost. So you reorganize into a national functional structure, centralizing specialisms such as operations, marketing and engineering into single, efficient, standardized national structures.

Local initiative is stifled, most management effort is now directed into moving paperwork up and down the chain until a link across to the relevant national functional silo can be found. Intersilo buckpassing becomes an artform.

Management is the art of balancing such extremes to produce a workable if unstable outcome. But drilling holes in brickwork is not cyclical, it is cumulative. Nobody fills in the old holes. If a house changes hands frequently, it will eventually become more hole than brick.

So why don't more houses fall down?

(Hold up! There's a big pile of brick and plaster crumbs accumulating in the street outside, and a council worker in a hard hat and with a very serious expression is looking at the house and making notes on his clipboard. Sod this! I'm away off to see Mr Wetherspoon. "Butelka Lecha proszę, Justyna." (I could ask Google Translate to give me the Polish for "... and a sniff of your apron, if you please", but I don't think I'd trust it with anything quite that colloquial. Probably get me locked up.)

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