When Systems Walk Out the Door
My wife Susan and I had lunch last week with a couple from our church—I’ll call them Gary and Michelle. While waiting for our Panera Bread sandwiches, Michelle shared with us that she had just been laid off from her job. For the past 14 years, she had been working at the top level in telecommunications, recently with a company that does business with the medical industry. It was logical to assume this type of company would be well-organized, with very sophisticated standards of operation.
Michelle told us she had been summoned to the human resources office and informed of her layoff “effective immediately”—with short notice and little explanation, other than that the company had lost a major piece of business and needed to “drastically” reduce staff. She was one of many that day who received notice and, as you might imagine, was at first devastated by the news. Michelle had never been without a job in her career, and had NEVER been laid off from any of them.
She shared that, as she was sitting in human resources trying to make sense of it all, she asked the department manager, who had delivered the bad news, “How is the company going to service the remaining customers that have relied on me and my department?”
Michelle told the manager that most of what she handled for the company was exclusive to her. Over the years, she had obtained special information no one else knew how to process or had access to—i.e., internal access codes and other knowledge the company would need in order to continue serving its remaining customers. She was amazed that no one in the company thought to ask her for that exclusive information, or to have her train anyone else, before letting her just walk.
Michelle was not bitter or angry, just surprised that management had virtually no knowledge of the information she processed, or even understood exactly what she did in her position. After the meeting, Michelle had gone back to her office to clear out her desk and finish out the day. About an hour after the meeting, the HR manager stopped by to inform her that management wanted to meet with her before she left, if she was willing. She agreed and went back upstairs.
The general manager started the meeting by saying how much they appreciated her, and how fair she was being, given the fact that she had just been canned. They told her, “You’re the only one given a pink slip who showed any concern for our customers or regard for the company.”
The managers asked her if she would be willing to stay on for a couple of weeks in order to train others remaining with the company on her exclusive knowledge. Being a fair person, and feeling no animosity, again she agreed.
My gut reaction to Michelle’s story? Being a so-called “system’s guru,” I commented to her, “You mean to tell us there was NO written operations manual—no procedures or policies? Were you never asked to write down what you did in your work—any kind of checklists?”
She said no, she had no knowledge of any written operations manual for the company, and had never been asked to document the processes for her work. What she had learned about her job over the years was all in her head. So, whenever she walked out the door, that part of the system to operate the company also walked out the door.
Why would a company do that to itself? Why wasn’t there a plan in place to cover that eventuality? Having no backup plan is a bad plan—a bad system!
I reflected, but refrained from suggesting, that the company should have, at the very least, set up password-protected documents to secure the access codes she mentioned having to protect the business. If Michelle had been a vindictive sort, she really could have caused some pain.
Sorry to say, I wasn't surprised or shocked that this company, although operating at high levels in the medical field, was flying in some areas by the seat of its pants.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed and heard about this kind of system maintenance, or lack thereof, more often than not. I have spent those years encouraging, prodding, coaxing and sometimes persuading companies to build operations manuals in order to avoid people walking out the door with the knowledge of how to run the business.
Sorry to say, with many businesses most of the knowledge a company has obtained over the years—much of how the company operates—remains in the heads of current and former employees.
Did I mention? Great system work!
(At least until the system—in this case, the employee—walks out the door!)