Filter-Feeding Managers Clog the WorkflowBy Channel Insider Staff | Posted 2005-03-22 Email Print
Opinion: Their habit of sucking in everything at once, spitting back the first bad bit and ignoring the rest creates serious lag time that damages productivity.During the '90s, the phrase "real-time business" was the shibboleth of a particular brand of corporate executive: brash, often arrogant, fiercely ambitious and pretending to be iconoclastic as a way to set himself apart, while actually conforming to the trendiest academic fads.
A decade later, the very executives who conceived and implemented the "real-time business" concept are themselves becoming the insurmountable barrier to its success.
The core virtue of the real-time idea was to loosen up hidebound business processes by eliminating a lot of them that had built up over the years.
Some of those routines were unquestionably archaic and wasteful, but others were set in place over decades to try to overcome the weaknesses or eccentricities of individual managers, suppliers or customers.
Sounds good. So, where's the barrier?
These executives limit their own effectiveness because too many of them act like filter feeders instead of acting like something more selective. Filter feeders such as mud shrimp eat by sucking in massive quantities of whatever happens to be in front of their pie holes. They filter out whatever they're sure is no good, and blindly try to digest whatever's left.
Filter-feeding is not a strategy based on premeditation or informed decision-making. It's reactive and sloppy, and it makes a big mess of anything that's bad enough to make them spit it out.
Filter Feeders in the Executive Suite
I know you'll recognize filter-feeding execs when you see them in captivity. Here's a great example of a manager at a restructured, lean 'n' mean Northeast manufacturer that produces custom components for customers in a bunch of different industries (you know its name, but you won't hear it here). This executive is super-competent and functions best when left alone; when he needs help, he asks for it.
He's a responsible, senior line manager. He resolves the problems in his span of control and keeps the men and women up the chain informed of what happened. But in a typical contemporary organization, this actually creates friction. Here's how he explained it:
"I've noticed an interesting phenomenon in current management practices that reminds me of my Navy days. Back then, the surest way to get immediate, undesired, upper-management attention was to have any newsgood or badpass through message traffic.
"All of the radio-teletyped messages of the day would eventually end up on a clipboard in the C.O.'s [commanding officer's] stateroom. If you were lucky, the mass of messages would arrive well enough before the daily formal reporting, so you'd have time to soothe him without getting reamed out in front of your peers for something that had been dealt with already," he said.
"There's the same thing in today's companies that have an e-mail list culture: If the boss lets his e-mail accumulate for long periods of time before reviewing it in bulk, anything that you've been dealing with and you'd already put to bed will resurface in the form of a direct call or e-mail flame from said boss if he ended up at some point cc'd or is on the distribution list that any message about the situation was sent toregardless of whether the next 16 messages in the thread indicated that the problem had already been resolved or not."
It's filter-feeding behavior. He sucks everything in at once, spits back the first bad bit he finds and ignores the rest. If he was working more like an air-traffic controller, he'd survey the whole environment, pick out the activities he needed to handle as they required his attention, and leave the rest to others in the tower.
The lag time created by upper managers who aren't selective in a "real-time" environment disrupts the flow of work, and not only when the executive is out of sync with the quick pace of events.
The structure of new organizations, especially in business and in the military, has created powerful disincentives to sensible approaches to message traffic. Lean and mean organizations generally strip out the role of executive assistant, the person formerly responsible for absorbing the message traffic and then summarizing what the boss needs to know.