Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Fault, Blame, & Responsibility: What's the Difference?


     One thing that President Harry Truman is best remembered for is a plaque he had made for his desk indicating "The Buck Stops Here". He had seen such a sign on a tour and asked if they could make one for him, The slogan emphasizes the opposite of "pass the buck". The first says that final responsibility resides with them. The second is avoidance of all responsibility. We have probably all known people who avoided responsibility. If we are fortunate, we have also known people who accepted final responsibility. Alas, those who avoid appear to be greater in number than those who accept.

     But, what is responsibility? Being responsible means you accept the consequences of results of actions. You apologize and act to prevent future occurrence of the event. If possible, you correct and amend effects such that any bad outcomes are lessened. There may be repercussions -- you might be fired, or not re-elected, or publicly (or privately) rebuked. Taking responsibility means not avoiding repercussions.

     There were surely many things that President Truman had no direct knowledge of, made no direct decisions about, and had no known way of affecting outcomes. Why would he be responsible for such events? Responsibility includes indirect responsibility. Indirect responsibility implies delegation and this is the primary reason for Truman's plaque. As President, he had people delegated and those people had other people delegated and so on -- but delegation does not eliminate responsibility. All of their actions (or lack thereof), and that of those reporting back to your delegates, and so on are the same as a "virtual" you.

     But how about fault and blame? Fault is the cause of the problem. It may involve an action or the lack of a needed action. It may involve an "act of nature" (earthquake, hurricane, flood, ...) It may have been something deliberate, accidental, or spontaneous (without direct initiation). The initial known point of fault may have one, or many, other problems which have cascaded into the visible fault. The fault observed may not be the place that needs to be changed to prevent (or lessen the likelihood) of future faults.

     Blame is an action that is an expression of emotion. It may be based on anger, fear, frustration, shame or something else. Fault is the action but blame is the emotional reaction. Blame is not the same as discovering problems or discovering the person, or group, responsible for problems. Blame is often directed at those we perceive as causing a problem -- those with direct responsibility. But those we blame are not always those who truly caused the problem. The emotionally charged action makes clear analysis difficult. Blame is a destructive action. Changing things such that a fault does not occur again is a constructive action.

     Note that this blog is focused on problems -- negative results. Responsibility also exists for positive results and is sometimes recognized -- but, perhaps, not often enough. The positive side of faults are accomplishments. Appreciation is the positive side of blame.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Simple does not mean Easy


     "Pay attention", "Love your neighbor as you do yourself", "Don't stress out over the little things", "forget what hurt you but never forget what it taught you". "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Such wonderful adages. There are business segments that have a primary product of manufacturing posters, plaques, and other items to spread these adages (and proverbs) far and wide. We can read them and say "of course, that is obvious". But, if one examines society and talk among ourselves, we find that even though the adages may be very easy to state -- and, perhaps, understand -- they are not put into action very often.

     "Love your neighbor as you do yourself." One of the difficulties in putting adages into action is that we are so awfully good at taking them apart and reducing them to small edge conditions. "Love your neighbor". Who is our neighbor? Are our neighbors the people who live next door with whom we have never spoken -- or are they people within our common religious community who are neighbors of spirit even if they live in a different city? Are they people that look like us, pray like us, have the same amount of spendable income as we do?

     Or are they everyone? In that case, it can lead to a more active separation of people -- leading some people to say that only this set of people are really people and the others are not really people. One of the first actions taken by any group wanting to initiate hostilities towards, or take advantage of, another group is to start emphasizing differences and start to separate them from the "correct" pool of people.

     "Don't stress out over the little things." What is a little thing? It surely varies between people -- one person's "little" thing may be another person's "big" thing. Or, if looked at from the view point of someone examining our lives from the vantage of Alpha Centauri, maybe everything we do is a little thing? But such an evaluation must surely be from a subjective, personal, viewpoint. And is it stress that will keep us actively working with the "thing" -- or is it stress that will cause us to neglect other "things" and negatively affect our health?

     "Pay attention". Oh boy! Sure, we want to pay attention but it is physically, and neurologically, impossible to pay attention to everything. When someone says "pay attention" they usually are saying "pay attention to me" or "pay attention to the thing I have assigned you to do". But those don't make good adages.

     "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". OK. Sounds reasonable. But, it is similar to someone giving you directions such as "turn left a street before you see a white church on the right". Unless you are aware of the situation for which you can enact the prevention, there really isn't much to be done. Sometimes you may be aware but, in that case, what you are really doing is preparation -- not prevention.

     Perhaps you have a favorite adage that sounds great, you'd love to follow it, but it just doesn't seem to happen? Or you have one that is not only simple to say and remember but also easy to follow?

     Personally, I work with a line from an old Christmas movie ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"). "Just put one foot in front of the other and soon you'll be walking out the door." Sure hope I am pointing towards the door as it will be a lot harder walking through the wall.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

An extension of thought and body: music, programming, and art in general


     Once upon a time, after I had been working on developing a project for Bell Labs for about a year and a half, I woke up with a line of code staring me in the eye (not literally -- this was before laptops -- it was all in my mind) and showing me how to fix a bug I had been told about the day before. I went to work, fixed the bug, tested it, and submitted it to the code base. Then I started looking around for a new project to work on. It might have been useful to the company but getting that merged with the software (tens of thousands of lines of code which I had written) was not a healthy sign.

     As a child, I took various music lessons. The first -- and still my favorite -- instrument was the violin. I started off really horrible (but almost everyone does). But I got better and by the end of elementary school, I was part of a string quartet. No danger of a record label but no one stood up and ran out screaming. I was getting decent but then, as part of a perpetual budget cut, the school district said goodbye to the string instructor and my family couldn't afford private lessons. Later, because brass was still possible, I tried cornet but just didn't get excited. I then tried organ which I liked but schoolwork was taking more and more time and choices had to be made.

     So, how do these experiences relate? I worked so hard, and long, on the software that I could remember, and visualize, it. I could do a virtual execution of the code, in my mind, to track down possible data paths where there might be bugs. In music, I reached the point where I no longer thought about how to play a note. The connection between written music and playing was starting to disappear as fluency was being established.

     Music, programming, art, language. Once the tools are mastered you can get an idea and then put it down in the appropriate form. For programming, that might be Java, or 'C', or machine language, or whatever. In music, it might come out as sounds from a piano, or guitar, or a sax. But the cool part is that moment when you stop making the transition from thought to action as a conscious act. The piano becomes an extension of your body. You tell it to play notes and chords with timing and rests and it does it. The more you practice, the less the conscious mind is involved. It can be equally true with software or charcoal or driving a race car.

     Of course, not all has to go through the process of conscious to automatic. The brain stem is largely ready for us at birth -- so we (most of us) can breathe and see and hear and have our bodies respond properly to food and such. There are disciplines that appear to allow conscious control over the activities controlled by the brainstem but we are fortunate that most arrive pre-programmed. Although I do not know whether it is true, perhaps fluency in conscious activity may start to intrude into brain stem use.

     Perhaps after another one or two hundred thousand more words of writing, my writing will enter into that state of fluency.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Remember the goal: moving towards a destination


     I am a Myers-Briggs INFJ -- for those of you who have any interest in such personality categorization methods. I have lots of other results from other inventory methods. They are of interest to me because I am always trying to understand, and improve, myself as well as gain greater insight into others so that I can better communicate with them and be of assistance to them.

     But, for this blog, it is that "J" (Judicious) categorization that is of interest. My wife is of the P direction (it's a sliding scale -- no absolutes) or "Process-oriented". I am goal-oriented. She is see-what's-on-the path oriented. Within our marriage we have each worked hard to become more comfortable with the other's inclinations. At the least, it is important to be aware so that explosions can be avoided.

      I have come to grok the reality that the journey really is important. Not only that but I now recognize that changing the goal does not indicate a failure. These are a couple of the many blessings that have come from my marriage. Such blessings arise out of the continuous work that a marriage requires.

     Just because it is important to smell the flowers along the path, stop to move the worms off the sidewalk, and watch out for uneven bricks it does NOT mean that you should not have a destination. Although I can envision the idea of trying to stay in the same place for the rest of one's life, it really is not possible. Our bodies age. Things need to be done to stay alive. Others exist as a part of life and the interaction with them will cause perturbations just as two celestial bodies do a dance through the heavens.

     Given that staying still is not possible, the direction we choose will affect what things we can observe, enjoy, learn from, and participate in along the way. If we choose to change directions because of how we, ourselves, have changed on our journey then count our blessings and move along.

     Changing goals is OK. Changing goals may be important because of changes within yourself or your environment. Changing goals may mean changing directions and that change of direction will affect what you encounter in your journey.


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Plan for Success requires a different mindset than planning for problems


     Failure often seems to help itself be planned for -- because it is an ongoing, inevitable process of life. People get sick. Equipment breaks. Contracts are not obtained. Someone drives a car through the front store window. And so forth.

     But, even though we (all) want to achieve success, we rarely explicitly plan for it.

     When a business is starting out, it is a good thing to be "mean and lean". This means that people are putting lots of effort into it with as few people as possible. Many do multiple jobs. When I, and my business partner, started our business, I was Vice President of Engineering, head of client support and training, head of sales support, coordinating head of project development and product management, and I was also in charge of cleaning the restroom when it was necessary. We all worked 60 to 70 hours a week -- because we all had a dream of being able to build something that we could profit from and which would provide a useful societal service.

     At Bell Labs, we had a department head who was a very strong technical person and also had a lot of extra energy. He had been quickly promoted from Member of Technical Staff to manager. While at managerial level, his team did great -- because he did all of the work assigned to his team. He had no managerial, or delegating, skills and he chose to not develop them. He did what he did best -- produce products. Not quite as quickly, he was promoted from manager to department head. And there he stuck. He no longer could do all the work (it was amazing he could do the work of seven people -- 40 people was just too much). He slowly developed some managerial skills -- enough to keep his department from falling apart (and he had some good managers reporting to him) but he had reached the top for him.

     Mean and lean -- until you can't do that anymore. People can work 60 hour work weeks for a while -- but not forever. Putting more wicks on the candle just means the wax will be used up more quickly. Juggling tasks can be done when there's only a bit to be done on each -- past that and things will be dropped.

     The "best" time to plan for growth, and success, is when you aren't in the process of running as fast as you can. If you have to do several different roles, clearly identify them, decide on processes that can be used when you are dealing with much larger amounts. Be prepared to split and expand. Tools that are overkill at the beginning can be indispensable as you grow. When we started our company, we were strong on marketing and sales and technical development. We were weak on management and finances. Management skills we succeeded in developing as we went along -- though I am certain that having good, strong, managers would have greatly helped us to build the company. Finances -- that is what eventually doomed us. We made believe that we knew what we needed to do and when we needed to do it. We didn't.

     The first part of growth, and success, in business is structure and function. The second part is product. We had a great portfolio of products. Well respected in the field. An architecture that expanded and met our needs for more than fifteen years. A general base that we could continue to expand in kind -- until we couldn't. At some point, the market gets saturated or technological directions change. "The shark must keep moving or it dies."

     What did we need to do to succeed in this area? Networking would have been number one. It is vital to know what is actually being deployed, what is being marketed, in the field. You can read about maybes in technical and business magazines but the conferences and market displays is what companies are actually investing in and betting on. Second would be partnerships. They aren't vital -- but they disperse the risk in going after the "next great thing". With partners, perhaps you can have four irons in the fire rather than one or two. It is similar to venture capital. Lose on a couple, break even on a few, and hit a home run on one. It is partially a matter of numbers.

     Finally, luck is still part of the business. Luck, as defined as things happening about which we have no known control. Bet on three possible new product lines. All three can fail. Design a new widget that everyone has been demanding. A major company -- with which you don't have the least chance to compete -- brings out a parallel product three months after your launch. Things happen.

     But you can minimize the risk.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A Free Lunch is a Prepaid Lunch


     Looking back over my various blogs, I have approached this issue several times over the past 15 years. But it still comes up and there are different directions from which to look at it.

     "There is no such thing as a free lunch." True. Even in a situation where you are outside of the societal economy (hiking in the woods in a non-park area where you have permissions to hunt/forage -- not sure many such places still exist), the lunch is paid for with time and energy to find, capture, prepare, and then eat the lunch.

     But the phrase is more often used within a societal economy. You get a "free dinner" for listening to a lecture on how to prepare for retirement (part of a company's advertisement budget). You get a "free lunch" at a local food bank (paid for within the community's/individual's desire to help those who are less fortunate). Your company gives you "free snacks" or "free meals" to have while you are within the company building working on your assignments (paid for as part of overall "loaded" salaries).

     The point is that you can get a free lunch -- defined as not having to pay cash/credit at that time in order to enjoy the lunch. But, in the background, that lunch is included in the budget for some other individual/corporation/product.

     This applies also to other services -- not just food. Public libraries are free to use. They are paid for by community taxes which have been allocated to something that the community has agreed is important. Although there are still some "subscription" fire fighting services in the world (including the US), most are public fire fighting services and have the same rules apply. The same goes for public police departments.

     Within the community (the community can be local, county/parish/township, state, or federal), there is an agreement that the services benefit the community. Either it is desirable that everyone "should" make use of them (such as public libraries) or that they need to be available to everyone (police help, firefighters, etc.)

     It is certainly possible to have all services as pay-for-use. All roads beyond your driveway can be "toll" roads where you have to specifically pay for them to use them (and, presumably, people without cars will not pay -- except as it exists as part of a delivery charge or ambulance charge, or service charge). If you want a book and services exchange point, become a member and you have access to library services. Want armed security? Pay for a guard service (more affluent people often want/need to have additional security above and beyond that provided by the community).

     Sounds great, you say? Let people pay only for what they want to use. Sound fair? The problem is that individual choice does not always promote the best for the community. No public education -- only the better paid get education for their children and the group of uneducated gets larger and larger with each generation and the community soon does not have enough people who can keep the economy going. And that education has to continue to the point of having a sufficiently educated person to support the community.

     No public police or fire capabilities? Now we're talking "insurance" -- people often bet that bad won't happen but, statistically, bad usually does happen eventually. The family collapses and the poor group expands once again. When something is needed for a community to prosper, it is better for the community to make certain that it is available.

     Sometimes a "free" service may be provided as part of a specific product or environment. Other times, they may be investments for the future. In any case, it is not free as it is part of the overall costs in the background -- but they may be free for the individual who will either pay as part of overall fees/taxes or who use them to prepare for the future -- to be a productive member who can support the community which will then support the services.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Unions: the leverage of the group versus the individual


     "I'm a good employer. I already give among the best benefits in the business. Retention is high and voluntary attendance at the company functions is good. Why would my employees want to be part of a union?"

     In a private company, there are owners, employees (including managers), and customers. In a publicly traded company, board members and stockholders are added to the mix (plus market analysts). In an ideal world, everyone is well taken care of and all are happy. In a booming economy and a booming company, it may get close to that point (though the word "more" seems to be an unrelenting fixture within the market economy -- especially in the US).

     But the economy is NOT always booming. And companies, either through mistakes or changes in the market, can lose the gleaming shine that makes everyone pleased with them. In these periods of decline, even when no mistakes have been made, choices must be made as it is no longer possible to even attempt to please everyone. 

     What are the priorities of a company? I am in agreement that well-cared-for employees will voluntarily want to do the best they can for the company and the customers. Thus, a high priority exists to take care of the employees. But, for publicly-traded companies, the happiness of the stockholders translates into higher stock prices and, thus, greater value to all who have invested in the company. Depending on company benefits and ownership, this may be directly of financial benefit to many, or most, of the employees. This argues that perception of stock/company value should be of the highest priority.

     Line managers are rarely considered to be among the most important parts of a company. However, for publicly-traded companies in the US, the advisory boards seem to want to push C-level salaries, bonuses, benefits, and parachutes as high as conceivable based on the idea that if their C-level execs are paid so much they (and the company of which they are part) will be perceived as also being "winners" within the game of acquiring the "best" executive level people. This competitive formula is difficult for C-level people to resist yet it does factor into how the income of the company is distributed.

     Moving back to the original question then, why would people want to be part of a union?

     Treatment of employees depends on company policies. With changes in high-level corporate management, company policies can change. They may change due to changes in corporate profitability or they may change due to changes in company advisory culture. Without a union, employees are left in the same way that most people perceive Blanche DuBois in the play/movie "A Streetcar named desire". As her character is quoted, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers".

     Within a smaller company, most people should know each other and, certainly, all of the employees should know their managers and the managers know their employees. But, what about within a company with thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of people? The higher-level managers will not know all of the employees. The general employee is indeed in the same situation as Blanche DuBois.

     And that is a very insecure place to be. 

     Supply/demand can give the general employee leverage. If people of desired skills and experience are difficult to attract and retain, they inherently warrant more support. But if it is perceived that the employee may easily be replaced with someone else, they have very little perceived inherent value and have almost no leverage individually.

     That word "individually" is the key to unions. While a single employee has limited leverage, the majority (or universal) set of employees of a company has great leverage.

     Does being part of a union have disadvantages? As is true of many things, the advantages have a shadow side. Being part of a group, rather than an individual, means that there is less flexibility for the company to give unscheduled perks -- such as extra "free" days, or swag packages, or anything that may not be applicable under the terms of the agreements with the workers' union.

     For smaller companies (and some well-structured larger companies), unions can lessen the feeling of being part of a company "family". Also, a union that continues to grow may encounter the same problems as happened in the 1970s and 80s where leadership is now in a hierarchical position of power over the "rank and file" and the power of the group is used more for personal power and control than for the benefit of the employees.

     Companies have many sub-groups to consider, and take care of. Changing conditions carry with them a change in the ability to take care of each sub-group. Unions can help give individuals leverage -- especially within large companies -- but that same grouping carries certain limitations.

Fault, Blame, & Responsibility: What's the Difference?

       One thing that President Harry Truman is best remembered for is a plaque he had made for his desk indicating "The Buck Stops Her...