Towards Organizing a Three-House Paper Route

LSSI’ve been driven to distraction for several years now at work by people who have drunk and want everybody else to drink the Lean Six Sigma (LSS) kool aid. My initial reaction, without knowing what the ins and out of LSS were, was that it sounded like an industrial process that people were trying to force on us working in a service industry in which there are so many outside human variables that it couldn’t possibly be appropriate in our non-widget-making industry. However, I paid little attention to this push in favour of LSS and went about my job. So yes, from the start and with no real empirical evidence, I was dismissive of LSS.

Then, more recently, in an environment in which traditional financial institutions are facing competition from Fin Tech start-ups, another methodology has become all the rage: Agile. Unlike my initial reaction to LSS, my impression upon reading a few blurbs from Agile advocates and converts on our intranet brought me to think that this methodology made more sense in our context. However, reading something through the filter of the company intranet is also akin to mindlessly drinking the company kool aid, so I resolved to do some research on my own one day to understand it a bit better and to compare it with LSS. Are the two complementary or two different beasts?

But doing this research was never a great priority of mine. I had real work to get done and I didn’t relish the idea of spending much of my off-work time on such a research endeavour. Maybe I would have been more motivated if I were younger or a careerist, but I’m no longer young (though I’m not ancient) and I’ve never been a careerist. Being a careerist is not inherently bad even though the term certainly has some negative connotations, but the focus of all my hard work in life, whether as a freelancer or today as an employee paid to do a specific job, has always been about providing exceptional service to others. I get more out of the gratitude of others than from climbing the echelons of power.

In recent months, however, I started to pick up on a trend. That trend is seeing how some people at work who are very good at articulating all the right “high level” ideas that those above them in the hierarchy want to hear but who are in fact quite bad at handling details, complexity, outside-the-company perceptions, and real-life highly variable work flows are all proclaiming on their email signature that they are yellow belts (or whatever colour belts) in LSS. Mere coincidence or a damning indictment of LSS?

To be totally blunt as is usually my way (at least in this blog or when I vent with someone in person), these people are often so feckless that I doubt their ability to organize a wet dream. Worse, when I hear some tell clients that they’re “just following standard procedures,” I doubt they have any idea how badly clients receive such lines.

Six Sigma started out in 1986 as “a set of techniques and tools for process improvement” at Motorola. LSS is a breakaway from Six Sigma that attempts to blend in notions of Lean, which is often referred to the Toyota Production System. In short, in both cases, the origins of these methods are strongly rooted in manufacturing. Proponents of LSS are eager to explain at great lengths how those principles are applicable in the service industry, but often their arguments lack the academic rigour that would be required to be convincing.

The roots of Agile, on the other hand, is in software development. There I can see the appeal of this method for large financial institutions that are slowly but surely having their ass handed to them by Fin Tech start-ups. To remain relevant and not lose their large share of the market, large FIs need to be able to provide better online services, faster — a tall order within an environment where processes have become rigid, complex, and highly siloed. But already I’ve witnessed some remarkable achievements with this methodology in which changing process midway if it will better meet consumers’ demands is par for the course.

That’s not to say that I’m a total nay-sayer with regard to LSS and a total devotee with regard to Agile. Outside nature, any system depends on identifying all the variables and trying, if possible, to minimize their number. Abstraction allows to give a variable X different values yet still end up with a similar outcome each time. If you bother to notice the difficulties well-heeled scientists are having with developing artificial intelligence, then it becomes clear that humans and nature are astonishingly complex and extremely difficult to define and replicate.

In my view, if LSS has any merit, it’s that it has the potential of providing a framework for those who have problems with visualizing complexity or having a consistent methodology where details matter even though each detail, on its own, may seem trivial or not worthy of attention. However, the emphasis on the process itself (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) leaves me cold for being far too formulaic to my liking. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen at work, those who have embraced the Agile methodology have shown signs of being much better and adaptable.

But my overall conclusion on the merits of LSS is indeed damning. From what I’ve seen, those who have bought into it have, by the time they’ve achieved yellow belt status, gone from being able to organize a wet dream but not yet mastered the complexities of organizing a three-house paper route. As such, their inability to grasp the impact of the vagaries of human behaviour and, in turn, their impact on organizing anything leads me to having a rather dim view of their alleged achievements. But if in 2017 you still use “automate” as a buzzword, then you’re likely going to love the LSS kool aid and won’t be able to get enough of it.

My Epiphany (Or One of Them)

Me and Stony from Ste. Flavie, 10 Jul 2015I had a bit of an epiphany during my vacation last summer. No, not the summer that’s ending now; the previous one. And it has given me a sense of freedom ever since.

Remember how, in October 2013, I reached my milestone of getting out of debt? In hindsight, I’m so glad that Mom got to see that moment. It didn’t matter that I was 48 years old; she still worried about me and was my best cheerleader. I can still see the expression on her face through Skype when I told her. “I knew you could do it!” she said. “I’m so happy for you.” And she legitimately was.

I didn’t know then that she would be gone a year later, and I didn’t know that I would inherit so much that my debt would have been wiped out and that I would still have some money left over. I had my doubts that it would happen when she’d go, but I preferred to deny that she would ever go and refused to think of her as my retirement plan.

La Martre, 7 Jul 2015

La Martre, 7 Jul 2015

La Martre, 7 Jul 2015

Grande Vallée, 8 Jul 2015

Grande Vallée, 8 Jul 2015

Petite Vallée, 9 Jul 2015

Parc Forillon, 9 Jul 2015

Then, just before Christmas after she died, the taxman figured out that I hadn’t filed in years. Many years. Many, many years. But because I had asked my employer to hold back a sizable amount per paycheque for five years, I knew I didn’t owe any back taxes and properly was owed some. Except that while I knew that, somewhere in some piles in my apartment, I had all the necessary paperwork to file, I had no idea how to get the forms going so far back and thus I became frozen into inertia. When the taxman offered to send me all that paperwork in one envelope and made me promise to immediately get a professional to file for all those back years, I jumped on the occasion to finally get that monkey off my back.

I won’t say it here, but you would shit a brick if you knew how much I got back, counting that current year (for which I actually filed early, all on my own using tax software). Deciding to invest most of that unexpected income into an RRSP, which I never had before, certainly inflated the final amount.

A few months passed and my three-week Summer 2015 vacation came. On the last week I visited my older brother in the Gaspé. Since he retired a few years ago, he spends two months in the summer in a trailer on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where every day he gets to see the sun rise on one side of “his cliff” and set on the other side.

I had never been to the Gulf side of the Gaspé and I was 17 years old the last time I’d been on its Bay side. Although my brother and his wife had often sent us pictures of what they called their “little paradise,” none of their pictures had prepared me to what that place would be like when seen in person.

While the city boy in me couldn’t stand spending two whole months over there, I sensed on the 10-hour drive back to Montréal that the little hamster in my head had hopped on his wheel and had started to run furiously. Until then, because I was 40 by the time I started working at a steady, well-paying job, I had assumed that the earliest I would be able to afford to retire was at age 65 (or 67 under the change to the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, which has since been rescinded), and even there it would probably be tight. But the little hamster reminded me how I can live quite contentedly with little as long as all the unavoidable bills get paid and I don’t ever get back into debt. And then he reminded me of how much I already had invested and roughly how much I would be getting from my pensions.

That was the moment of my epiphany.

Speaking to my supervisor on my first day back at work, I declared, “I’ve had a fantastic vacation because I had an epiphany: in 10 years and no longer, I will retire even if it means having to eat a bit of cat food now and then.”

My supervisor was obvioulsly surprised: “But you’d be awfully young, wouldn’t you?” To which I reminded her, “Girl, I’ll be turning 50 next month! So 60 doesn’t strike me as being that young to retire.” That’s when she said that she had me pegged at 43 or 44, hence her surprise.

A few months later, during the two consecutive very long weekends I enjoyed during Christmas and New Year’s, I decided to redo from scratch my budget-slash-spreadsheet-from-hell for the next 10 years in order to uncover one single number: what would I have, give or take a few thousand dollars, even if I switched to the most conservative approach to saving for my retirement but kept the same financial discipline?

It had taken me only nine months to realize that I don’t have the nerve for mutual funds. I know that they say that you have to take the long view and not look at your RRSP’s value every day, so what did I do? I looked at it every day! By late 2015/early 2016, following a mild recession in the middle of 2015, it looked as though the Canadian economy was heading toward the precipice. So I found the best guaranteed investments I could put my hands on and figured out that I prefer having a firm number distributed over several types of savings schemes than a bigger (or smaller) “you could have” number.

What convinced me after all those calculations that I would be able to afford to retire at 60 is the commonly accepted advice that one should be prepared to live on 70 percent of their income at the time of their retirement. And you know what? Because I’m single and disciplined (although I don’t deny myself much of anything) and make pretty good money for one person, I currently sock away 30 percent of all my income that includes sizable tax returns because I’m putting much of it in a registered retirement plan. When I reach retirement in 10 …err …9 years, my days of saving massively will be over. But already I’m living on 70 percent of my income, so I estimate that my savings and my pensions will have me set for 20 to 25 years, by which time I’m pretty certain I’ll be dead.

Yes, I still have to work for a living a while longer, but I sense my parents are smiling down on my siblings and me, knowing that we’ll all be fine until we go join them. I don’t know where Mom, especially, took her financial wisdom but I thank her every day for having taught it to me. And I’m in total awe at how those two magnificent people of relatively modest means have managed so well at taking care of four kids from cradle to grave, and are still taking care of us now thanks to the memories and the love we still feel coming from them.

Feeling Like Your Skull Is Crushing In On Itself

Palm FaceThat’s been me all week.

I’m in a situation at work where how we do things has to change. No one is arguing against that premise. But then, not only is the proposed remedy strike me as bad and unworkable; so is the way it’s being proposed.

Someone with some power to make decisions comes up with a plan. By now, that someone is completely sold to the idea. However, knowing that it’s a big shift in paradigm, that someone decides to “consult” the workers who would be directly affected by it.

Sounds good so far, but there’s a problem. What problem? Read above: “that someone is completely sold to the idea”, and the scare quotes around the verb to consult.

Everyone who’s been “consulted” has expressed doubts about the plan working. However, each argument presented is dismissed by “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea” as merely “negative,” or “showing resistance to change,” or “not demonstrating that the idea would not work.” This does beg the question, “Why consult?” But worse, “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea” thinks this IS consultation, where the alternative would have been — which I’ve been told in so many words — unilateral, overnight imposition of the new paradigm.

Un dialogue de sourds is what we call it in French. A dialogue among the deaf. Talk for talk’s sake. But the decision has already been made. Just like most legislation passed by the federal Conservatives since they gained majority status in 2011. And almost as clueless and detached from the reality of those on the front line.

I, like everyone else, will work toward implementing the stupid idea and, no, I, for one, will not do anything to sabotage the idea. It’s a bad enough idea to sabotage itself on its own lack of merit.

One problem is that those who will bear much of the brunt of the bad idea crashing down in flames will be those who’ll implement it, not “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea.” Another problem is that I truly don’t wish harm to “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea.”

And the insult that’s added to the injury: I compiled stats that demonstrate clearly what brought on the situation requiring the change to how we do things, but they’re being ignored.

Why?

Because they prove that a previous decision was also bad. If we had lost only one person instead of two last November, we’d be very busy but we’d be managing.

And now the irony. The pro-union guy that I am knows that the previous bad decision would not have occurred in an unionized environment.

You know… that bad decision that brought us into that bad situation we’re in? Yeah. That one.

Sensing

Mind ReaderWith all the horrible things happening in the world lately, it seems terribly shallow not to comment on those events. But who am I to comment on the Boston bombings or the collapse of a garnment factory in Bangladesh? I’ve read some thoughtful analyses and some dreadful statements about those events, and my comments would just add to the cacophony. So, better to stick to topics I know something about…

Three weeks ago tomorrow, a story started hitting the news in Canada and remained at the forefront of the news cycle for a whole week: how my employer was outsourcing 45-50 Toronto-based IT jobs to a company in India. However, the whistleblower’s spark that ignited the media shit storm was his revelation that he and his colleagues were expected to train the very people who would be taking their jobs which would remain in Toronto (i.e., not to go India) for at least a few years. It seemed, on the surface, that my employer was using, perhaps quite legally, the federal government’s temporary foreign workers program to reduce costs which, as we know, is a sacrosanct imperative intended to (always) increase shareholders’ dividends.

Record scratching

  • Just 24 hours earlier, I blogged about lemons being squeezed. I even wrote, as though to reassure myself, that “I do believe my job security is pretty damn good.” However, while it’s true that my performance record gives me confidence that I’m not about to lose my job overnight, I’d be lying if I said that I’m confident about my current position. I toil within a “cost centre” and big employers like mine aren’t the best at grasping return on investment (ROI) in intangible terms like “goodwill” because it’s nearly impossible to come up with a mathematical formula to express the following: “We spent X on service without charging the clients for it but the clients were so pleased that it generated Y in additional sales over an unspecified amount of time and Z in lower on-going support costs.” That’s just too wishy-washy for an organization whose attention deficit leads it to only understand hard numbers (i.e., cash) over one quarter or one year to the next, especially since there has to be a leap of faith that those desired consequences WILL really occur.
     
  • When the news hit, I immediately thought of my father. He was more of a foot soldier at work than I have ever been, and he worked nearly 40 years for the same large company but endured numerous slights because he was francophone and, yes, more of a foot solider. However, when he decided to take his retirement, management decided to technically abolish his position and create a new position that melded his with some other position. Fine… except he had to spend his last work weeks learning that other position in order to train the person who would be replacing him. Apparently that’s one of the only times my father ever spoke out: “You’re bent on grossing people out right to the end, aren’t ya!”
     
  • I need to give credit where it’s due: my employer, unlike others of its type, has kept client-facing call centres in Canada. But shortly after I started, our in-house tech support was outsourced to India and we’ve collectively come to call it the “useless desk” rather than the help desk. I learned a useful trick which I’ve share with many of my colleagues: if you need to call our in-house tech support and you understand just enough French to follow a few prompts, start by selecting French as your language and you’ll end up with someone in our call centre in Montréal where they all speak English as well. In other words, lucky for us that the British tried to colonize India and there is currently no emerging economy in a country that was colonized by the French or the Belgians! And it certainly beats having to deal with a dud of an agent who can only read scripts and is forbidden to think for him/herself, let alone truly listen to the caller’s request.
     

What really got to me about this whole debacle is the disconnect. Whether it’s this or other situations to which I’m privied (but obviously can’t disclose publicly), I can’t count the number of decisions that are taken “higher up” that confirm a kind of tone-deafness. I mean… generally speaking, the public hates banks; therefore, you would think that those with decisional power would bear this fact in mind. I’m not advocating giving away the farm; no business, big or small, can do everything for free. Even I, in my own household, am always trying to find ways of cutting unnecessary costs. Aside from being a responsible, respectful, and law-abiding citizen, I have a personal responsibility to live and hopefully prosper within my means, not to feed an economic machine beyond my means.

I also got a kick out of the public outrage — in a good way and in a bad way. For instance, many declared they would be closing their accounts at the bank. My thoughts on that were mixed: I appreciated the sentiment of taking a stand, but doubted it would translate into concrete action. For one thing, closing a chequing or savings account is easy enough, but not loans, insurance policies or mortgages. What’s more, all banks are guilty to some degree of the practice that produced such outrage, leaving only credit unions as the only alternative.

Coincidentally, I’ve been a client at the bank that eventually became my employer for nearly 30 years. It has made a great deal of money on me over those years given the amount of debt I’ve carried until recently, but I take full responsibility for that debt. It’s not like I would suddenly get a bill for an arbitrary $20K that I had never spent but had no choice but to pay. Plus, whenever something bad happened (like when illegal charges were placed on my credit card in February 2003, or last year when my building’s super deposited two rent cheques on the same day), the bank always fixed things in my favour.

Let’s say I weren’t employed by the bank. For one, I still owe it money. For another, would I really have the strength of character to go through the whole hassle? As laughable as it is, this bank currently offers the best rate on savings than any other bank in Canada. Do I sacrifice this on principle? Do I buy or not buy that lovely and inexpensive shirt manufactured in Bangladesh? I’d like to answer “Yes” without hesitation. Am I morally bankrupt for hesitating, or is it that our whole market economy is stacked in such a way that it’s too hard to take a stand? I mean, it’s easy enough not to buy the cheap shirt from Bangladesh or the fried chicken from the homophobic business, but giving up electronic payments and stuffing cash in my mattress doesn’t strike me as feasible for the sake of taking a stand.

Also, do you think a bank CEO gives a flying fuck if Joe Q. Public closes his measily account? Put it this way: a CEO might only care about those individuals who fall in the one percent and uses the bank’s wealth management services, or those companies that generate huge revenues. Granted, if thousands of Joe Q. Publics close their measily account, the CEO might notice, but what would happen next? The Joe Q. Publics who also work at that bank might lose their job — possibly more Joe Q. Publics than the number of people affected by the decision that caused the initial outrage.

Speaking of whom: The bank did state by the end of the bad-press week that those 45-50 people would be offered jobs elsewhere in the bank. I have no reason to doubt the validity of that statement. However, I do wonder about the whistleblower. I have no way to verify, but I’m more inclined to think he was paid off to leave and shut up forever …but I could be wrong.

Banks are, after all, non-unionized environments. They offer employees work conditions designed to keep unions out. As for those of us who work in a bank: our jobs are not about screwing people over. We’re mere specks standing low within a huge hierarchical bureaucracy.

I sleep at night because I know that I, personally, do no harm in the performance of my job. And that goes for more than 99 percent of us.

Squeezing the Lemons

Squeezing the LemonSeveral lemons are being squeezed these days — some by myself and some by others. Optimists might say that this is a great opportunity to make lemonade, but I, while risking lapsing into Clintonesque rhetoric, am thinking these days that it all depends on what one’s definition of “lemonade” IS.

Those Squeezed by Others, Take 1
Ever since one of my colleagues at work was let go suddenly and another was shifted to a new position last November, almost every day at work has been utterly draining. I just don’t understand what “they” (whoever “they” are) were thinking back then, trying to squeeze as much if not a bit more work from four people that used to be done by seven just a year earlier. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind earning my wage for 7.5 hours per day; in fact, I prefer it over being idle. But there comes a point where there’s just no more juice to be squeezed out of the lemon.

I’m not talking about my own energy level. Rather, I’m referring to how there’s no time left for anything in case of those inevitable emergencies or those numerous secondary but required tasks. Add to this the fact that I’m the only person in the entire organization who can do what I do in French, and I can’t help but find it odd that this could be occurring in a place that otherwise has pretty strong contingency plans. So yeah, I worked last week despite having a massive cold because I felt that pulling myself out of circulation would have caused too much chaos.

Meanwhile, the organization reported record profits in the last quarter…

Those Squeezed by Myself
Ever since I got my budget to work flawlessly last November — coincidentally a week or two before the big changes at work — I’ve figured out ways to be even more aggressive in my debt-elimination plan. Truth be told, I could never do it if I weren’t single. It’s fine to impose austerity on one’s self when it has no effect on anyone else. But only an inconsiderate asshole would impose such draconian restraint on a significant other or dependents.

It’s as though I have a gut-feeling that I must do this because I might not be able to if I procrastinate. I’m not sure why I feel this way, because I do believe my job security is pretty damn good. But it’s also as though I’m getting a rush out of the exercise. It excites me to be able to say to myself, “I will have put 70% of one year’s net wages over only 25 months to reach Debt Zero.” Obviously it helps that the net wage is a comfortable one, but I personally have not known anyone who has been able to make such a claim — acknowledging, mind you, that it’s so un-Canadian to make that kind of claim publicly.

Mykonos suddenly seems closer than ever (if only I could find a travel companion), without getting back into debt…

Those Squeezed by Others, Take 2
The recent banking crisis in Cyprus has somehow brought those two points above to converge in my mind. On the one hand, it’s becoming clear that, if everything else remains equal, I have proven to myself that I have the discipline to reach on my own in about a decade the maximum savings covered by the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (CDIC), suggesting that I may one day need to rely on more than one bank. On the other hand, who’s to say that Canadian banks, and indeed the CDIC, could withstand an unprecedented economic tsunami should several other major economies fully and finally collapse?

I find it weird to be thinking this way. It’s not in my usual nature. But when the news came out that some Cypriots may lose up to 60 percent of their money in the bank bailout, I couldn’t help imagine how awful that must feel. Many of them, like myself, are not in the league of offshore tax havens; we’re just honest working people socking away so that we have some security until our final curtain call.

Maybe I should have taken up a sugar daddy while I still had the chance…

The Last Drop
I hate money. I hate how it drives everything, how it’s so necessary. I hate how it can cause so many ulcers.

I hate how something that consumes us so much in life will be so utterly meaningless when we’re gone.