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.

“We Don’t Have the Priests We Used To”

Père Paul BreauMy father was sitting in the rocking chair and I at the kitchen table one day when I was visiting from Halifax, when he said to me out of the blue, looking blankly in front of him, “We don’t have the priests we used to.”

I have no idea what prompted him to say that. We weren’t talking about the many sex scandals that had plagued the Catholic Church in the decade or so to that point, or at least I don’t think we were. Maybe more allegations had recently come out on the news when he made that unexpected statement to me. However, I was struck by how he, who rarely expressed his feelings, was clearly feeling not just saddened but betrayed, for he was such a devout Catholic. Every weekday evening before his walk, he would go to mass at 6:30 or 7:00, for back then there were enough priests to go around in the Diocese of Moncton to allow such a thing. His attendance was by rote, but this routine clearly gave him so much comfort.

“It was a kindness that rendered him unable to understand why there is so much evil in this world.”

I distinctly remember writing that line in my eulogy to my father in direct reference to his declaration about not having the priests we used to.

My parents being so religious, I had no choice but to attend church every weekend. And truth be told, I was such a good little boy that it took me years to rebel against and reject the Church, although I think I got away with stopping going to church a year or two of age younger than my siblings. I was even an alter boy from about Grade 4 or 5 to Grade 9.

From 1971 to 1981, Père Paul Breau (pictured above) was the vicar in the parish where I grew up. He was very popular because he had such a no nonsense way about him. He wasn’t pompous like Père Maurice Léger, the asshat drama queen who caused me such grief a few minutes before my father’s funeral. In fact, Père Breau had an amusing ritual around Labour Day, which was like the beginning of the new year coinciding with back-to-school, where his sermon was about how he wanted things to run in the parish. For example, he had the reputation of holding the fastest weekend mass in Moncton: 42 minutes if attendance was average so that communion could be distributed as quickly as usual. So one of his demands one year went along the lines of, “I conduct the quickest mass in town, so could you please be respectful enough to let me get to the back of the church at the end of mass before you start spilling out of the church?”

Going back to Père Maurice for a second: I think one of the reasons that his quasi-refusal to let me do my father’s eulogy got so deeply under my skin is because I smelt the closet pedophile off him way before that incident. I realize I’m being slanderous as I can’t prove my intuition. However, when I learned that he had died somewhere in South America in 2009 and was shipped back to Canada in a casket, my immediate thought went to reports of how some dioceses would cover up but punish their pedophile priests by sending them to some godforsaken hole in Peru or Ecuador or wherever. My gut reaction upon learning the circumstances of his demise was the same as I had had when my mother told me about how one of my cousins had “cracked” following a minor fender bender: I immediately thought that he’d cracked not because of the accident, but because he was a closet queer. A few years later, my suspicion was confirmed when I bumped into my cousin at Moncton’s “fruit stand” when instead he was supposed to be at home recovering from appendicitis.

As a teenager thinking back to all the priests I’d encountered when I was a kid, I grew suspicious of all of them except one. There’s even one in particular, a missionary priest who spent a few months in our parish, that to this day I still wonder if he did or, more likely, wanted to do something shady with me. But until yesterday, I always, always thought that Père Breau was one of the good ones.

However, yesterday, one of my childhood friends with whom I still keep in touch through Facebook sent me a link to this news story on CBC. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

The allegations place the complainant’s repeated incidents at the parish where Père Breau was posted after our parish. Strangely, some 24 hours after hearing the news, I still can’t believe it, but that’s not to say I don’t believe the complainant. I think everybody who has known Père Breau are just as shocked as I am. He was one of the few good ones. And right now I feel immense guilt for wishing that the allegations against Père Breau weren’t true. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the other accused.

Thank god my parents aren’t here to witness this news. I might be in shock, but they would be shattered. Then again, given what I just wrote above, I’m probably not just in shock; I’m feeling betrayed, exactly as my father had felt.

As much as I’m agnostic as far as an afterlife goes, I just hope there’s something like “victims’ impact statements” over there for people like my parents who have been so betrayed by these awful men.

I initally posted this entry under “Gender & Sexuality” but quickly changed it because sexual assault is about violence, not sexuality.

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.

Odd Feeling :: A Wish for the Impossible

Feeling OddI really wish I could, but… I just can’t shake off that odd feeling. And the annoying part is that it’s getting very old and tiresome.

Yeah, the fifth (non-)anniversary thing, I mean. If you feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record, I apologize. However, imagine how much more irritating it is for me.

It was a very busy day at work yesterday but, every once in a while, I kept remembering how that wasn’t what I was doing five years ago. Just before noon, I called Cleopatrick to ask if he would join me for dinner in the evening — a celebratory “fuck you and the horse you rode on, NowEx” event. He replied he would get back to me on that after asking his BF and, when he did around 6:30, he declined, stating that he was too pooped from his week at work. Not relishing the thought of going out to eat alone (again!), I just drove over to the nearest Amir restaurant to pick up my regular chicken-vegetable coucous, took a sleeping pill around 8:30, and crashed about 2 hours later for nearly 11 hours.

I simply wanted the flow of memories to stop, and knocking myself out to sleep early was the solution I came up with.

Today I’m trying to explain to myself why this is happening to me. I know it’s not regret for divorcing. I also know it’s not envy of others who’ve chosen to get hitched and for whom it worked out well. And most of all, I know it’s not because I would want to speak to NowEx, now or ever again.

I’ve come up with two explanations so far. When I’m in a moment of joking and self-deprecation, I claim post-traumatic stress. But when I’m in a serious and brutally-honest-with-myself moment, I recall the willful suppression of all the “you shouldn’t be doing this” thoughts I had at the time.

It’s the latter, along with the memories of the sting of being systematically yet unfairly put down (before, during and after), that mentally dragged me down two years ago. Today that’s not dragging me down; it’s more like having a mild but annoying toothache for which the dentist can’t find the cause.

This morning when I got up, I took off my ring for the first time and placed it on the night table. I think this act may be more symbolic than anything else. What remains to be seen is if I’ll keep it off or will this be like how I shaved off my goatee in November, only to grow it back in January.

Keeping it on my finger was about how I never would have otherwise spent as much on bling for myself and how it could serve as a reminder if ever I caught myself about to dive into another unwarranted rescue mission. However, because I’ve come not to notice it anymore AND the fact this “odd feeling” has been so intense in the last few weeks, I don’t think I need a physical reminder 24/7 in order not to go overboard. That’s one karmic lesson I’m unlikely to forget.

Recalling this fifth anniversary reminded me that it’ll also be five years next April that I’ve been in Montréal and seven years next month that I’ve been working at the bank. Neither worked out as I expected, yet both turned out being better than I could have anticipated.

It’s a good thing that the idea of moving to Montréal pre-dated that of getting married, as the two are thankfully unrelated. However, although I didn’t let it show to others, I was a nervous wreck when I moved here, not because the place seemed so big and overwhelming but because I had this moody, high-maintenance husband back in Mexico. Today, despite its inevitable downsides, Montréal is such a comfortable and safe place for me. While I don’t take part in as much as I thought I would while living here, I take pride in calling myself un Montréalais.

As for the job, it started off as a one-year contract. It got renewed for six months and, before that time was up, I was made a permanent employee. I still remember how the first six weeks of learning the job was intense and how my first client call was so unspectacular, not to say a total flop. But I quickly evolved to distinguish myself at my job, and that job, in turn, has provided me the kind of financial security I never dared to dream of as a freelancer. What’s more, I thought at first I’d be able to keep the freelancing on the side, but I was never able to — the day job was simply too demanding.

So, is writing this blog entry helping me put a finger on that “odd feeling”?

Maybe…

When I summon up my memories and feelings about Montréal five years ago and those about the job seven years ago, I realize that Montréal and the job exceeded expectations even though they didn’t turn out to be anything like what I imagined they would be like. I knew they would be good, but not this good. But five years ago last night, I knew deep down while denying it that I was getting into something I shouldn’t. So perhaps the odd feeling is a wish for the impossible.

What wish?

To have the me of today go up to the me of five years ago to slap some sense into the latter in order to avoid the former having this odd feeling today.

In short, it’s an utterly impossible wish: to erase the memories by avoiding their creation in the first place.

The Grind of Work? Hey, It’s Just a Job!

GrindingIt’s delicate, if not downright impossible, to write about work. I found this to be true when I was a freelancer, but it’s even more true when having a formal employer. Yet there’s always been a part of me that believes it’s possible to strike a balance. The hallmarks of that balance, in my mind, are to stick to generalities and certainly to avoid defaming anyone (bearing in mind that it’s only defamation if the content is untrue).

Regardless of the current malaise I may be feeling at the moment, my overall impression of my employer remains overwhelmingly positive. I still believe that, from an employee’s perspective, I work for one of the best employers in the nation. I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I hadn’t landed this job back in ’06.

By any definition, however, mine is a large corporate employer, and that has its downsides. When I was a one-man show, I had only myself to praise for the successes and only myself to blame for the failures, although most of the failures were the direct result of the difficulty — if not impossibility — of having one person trying to do everything. But there’s no comparison to the gratification stemming from knowing that I and I alone earned every cent even if there were far too few cents coming in, not to mention no security and no way of planning for a rainy day or a retirement. In a corporate environment, despite an employer’s efforts to recognize individuals’ accomplishments and to encourage career growth — and my employer is second to none on that front — an individual can easily be dispensed: “It’s not personal; it’s just a business decision.”

My own business never grew large enough to have staff. I had the occasional “contractor” toward the end before I mothballed the operation and those arrangements worked out well …at least for me. But what if they hadn’t worked out? Would I not have been obligated to do something about it? Of course I would have.

However, within a large corporate employer, the context seems more opaque. In one instance I can recall from about a year ago, it’s true that no one was really sure what exactly one person’s job was. But that didn’t lessen the shock of learning that, overnight, that person “was no longer with the organization.” Then it happened again more recently, except this time within my own team.

Allow me now to be totally selfish: it happened immediately after I had finished working on my financial rejigging, so my first thought was, “What if it had been me?” I immediately had visions of my best-laid plans falling apart in an instant. And then, less selfishly, I thought of my former team member, who may have had similar plans, suddenly reporting to work one morning and having the carpet pulled from under his/her feet. Conversely, another of my team members was moved to another job which, if not in fact, seems like a promotion. Still, it was discombobulating for me to go from a team of six to a team of four.

Objectively I know that I needn’t worry much about my job, at least for now, for I’ve managed through my work ethic, my “extracurricular” skills, and sheer luck of my location and being fluently bilingual to make myself more needed than my former colleague. But I also know that I have made some choices (and have been standing firm on those choices) that make me wonder if they’ll ever be held against me one day even though they would never be cited as such. For instance, now that I’ve finally moved to Montréal, I categorically refuse to relocate to Toronto and I’m resistent to the idea of ever giving up on working from home. I’ve been working from home since 1996, and knowing myself as fundamentally introverted, I know that my usefulness to my employer would plummet should I be forced to work in a cubicle jungle. But I can’t help feeling the pressure of not making myself as “malleable” as an employer that takes “not-personal-just-business” decisions would like me to be.

There’s also a kind of schizophrenia within a large organization. On the one hand, individual accomplishments are encouraged, praised and even rewarded — I’ve certainly been rewarded handsomely — but on the other hand, individuals expressing too much candour is frowned upon. We have to tow the company line with the blind belief that those who are higher up always take the right if sometimes hard decisions. After I wondered out loud how we would manage the same workload with a team reduced by one-third, I was later privately told (for my best interest, no doubt) “to be careful not to say ‘negative things’ in open discussions.” That stung a little, for I wasn’t (at least in my mind) being “negative”; I was expressing concern about my/our ability to fulfill our mandate. What I didn’t say out loud, which WOULD have been negative, is that I was pissed about how the data I helped design and accumulate got interpreted. That thought — that bean counters have no soul — I kept to myself.

In times like these, it’s difficult for a former freelancer and part-time university instructor like myself to fit into that kind of corporate culture. I come from a background in which criticism is not inherently negative; it’s an exercise to reach a better understanding and to effect change for the better. It’s also a background in which intellectual freedom is cherished, and is understood to be about the expression of ideas or facts that may at times be inconvenient to the prevailing orthodoxy but isn’t confused with an individual’s whims or style of doing things. So you can only imagine how I, with my degree in communications, don’t take well to being imposed quasi-Fordian methods, including not changing a single word in an outgoing e-mail even though it would personalize the message, because the text has been vetted and there’s an inherent belief that equal input always leads to equal results (or output). Insult is only added to injury when this state of affairs is the direct result of one bad apple previously sending out downright rude and equally impersonal e-mails because of his/her own Fordian approach to the work we do.

I toil within a corporate culture in which subtlety falls on deaf ears, superficial reading reigns supreme, and the adage of “more with less” is held as an inviolable objective regardless of the real impact on individuals — the impact that is invisible to the eyes of bean counters.

Despite what this rant might lead you to believe, though, I am nowhere near the funk I was in two years ago when I allowed myself to feel betrayed by my work. Note the emphasis on “allowed myself”: work didn’t betray me; I allowed myself to feel betrayed because, unable to face up to my horrendous mistake that was NowEx, I threw myself even more than usual into my work until the well was poisoned while under the supervision of someone who disliked me as much if not more than I disliked him/her.

No, today I just feel a bit shaken after being reminded that no one, including myself, can take anything for granted. I suppose that’s not a bad lesson to learn and relearn. But since my last visits with Lucy last fall and perhaps moreso now, after a shock like the most recent one, I pick myself up, dust myself off, turn off my computer for the night, and say to myself, “It’s just a job.”

I’m a Montrealer, god dammit, not a Torontian! Therefore, I work to live, not live to work. And I continue in my resolve to own what I own and not what I don’t. As such, I own the need to make a living, but I don’t own the need to make my employer even more filthy rich than it already is.