Posted on April 8, 2011


I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve stumbled onto something important. Projects have layers. Perhaps like onions. Perhaps stimulating the same painful reaction when peeled.

The year before last the street in front of my house was torn up – again – to lay a large water line and replace old water meters. The operators employed by the contractor nicked the under-street sewer lines of several homeowners along the way, and simply laid pieces of pipe or sheet metal over the broken lines rather than mend them properly. The patches held just long enough for the contractor to make it out of the 1-year warranty, leaving the City stuck with the implementation and cost of repairs.

Then homeowners began having sewer problems. I personally, in three months, had sewer flood my basement 4 times. After making the assumptions that the problems were on my side, I had several different plumbers come clear the lines. Finally one brought a camera. The first time he ran the line, he could see an offset. The second time, he could see a wall of dirt.

So we called the City. And I say “we” because this is not a simple matter. I don’t own my home, so everything I do goes through a landlord, who is a nice person, but another person. Now we were speaking with City staff of every stripe, including, of course, attorneys. They were quick to take responsibility, quick to ask that a release be signed, and quick to assure us that it would be fixed. And then they had to figure out how.

Close the entire arterial street that leads to a busy grade school and grocery store? Open up a nicely, finally, finished street and risk hitting all those things again? Hmm. The best alternative would be to go across our front yard, driveway, and tie into the main on the street beside us. It would entail the complete removal of both of my front yards, a portion of driveway, two trees, and a fence, but was better than inconveniencing anyone else. My landlord agreed. I’m not a martyr – I could see the fiscal wisdom as well. And I hated those trees.

The work began two months ago. My yard is still a mess. Why?

Because those who are making the decisions are too distant from those who are living with the consequences of those decisions. These are all good people, but good people can go home and forget about something that isn’t staring them in the face. The two people who are living with this are the mayor and me, because we are the only ones who endure any consequence – me, daily, and him, in budget meetings.

There are a lot of people between the mayor and me. This project is a note on their desks or an item on their to-do. It has little impact on their lives. This is the way most of our society is set up.

In a management-oriented society, we prize layers of authority – bosses of bosses of bosses, each with supervisory responsibility commensurate with their experience, because everyone needs to be promoted. Frequently, the layers are merely tasked with ensuring that the layer underneath them gets the work done so that they can report to the layer above. Like the confusion of message inherent in the telephone game, where people whisper a message to each other one-by-one until the message is entirely different, layers mire projects in excuses and blame, shifting the mission of the organization and stalling implementation.

Look at your own work. How far distant are you from either the real work (where the organization interacts with the client it serves) or the real decisions (where the raw materials needed to accomplish your mission are directed)? The more layers your organization has, the more watered-down is your mission, and the more likely that you aren’t serving your client well. There are just too many people who go home at night, not forced to face the consequences of the ongoing problem.

This is not rocket science. The business world knows this; it’s just caught in its own traditions and culture. But this extends beyond business. In our interactions with each other, how many layers are there between the work that needs done and the decision-makers?

Parents are the perfect example of an efficient system. The person who will deliver service is the same person who will decide how to make everything available to make that possible. There are no layers of people between the decision-maker and the client, nobody who has “authority” but doesn’t live with the problem.

The Coast Guard is another efficient model. If a rescue team is cut off from upper level decision-makers, they are empowered to make any and all decisions necessary to solve the problem, and they have received training in the mission to ensure that they can be so trusted, at the drop of a hat.

Someone in the construction industry had to look at safety for steelworkers and see a problem. Someone had to say, “there has to be a better way.” Thank goodness, someone did.

How many of us see ourselves as the authority with a solution? I can walk by the problem of trash in the gutter, thinking it’s someone else’s responsibility, or I can pick it up and solve the problem. Simple problem – simple solution. Complex problems have evolved complex solutions with layered processes. It hasn’t helped us solve the problems any better. The reason is that any problem needs a minimally-layered process to solve it.

How can we balance the federal budget? By balancing ours, and helping our community balance its, by participating in efforts to reduce our dependence on federal programs, and by a thousand other small, local decisions. By reducing the layers between the decision-makers and the problem. It isn’t going to go away tomorrow. But it isn’t ever going to go away until we start working on it. The journey of a thousand miles…

How can we fix education? By becoming involved with children. Study after study has noted that the single greatest influence on student success is parental involvement. The most important school staffer in my youngest son’s first grade year (which was a complete loss that took several years to recover) was the little grandmother who came to the class so they could sit one-on-one and read to her. Had there been 10 little grandmothers, what a difference it would have made. Spending twice as much would not have made the difference for my son, nor would a new facility or a bigger, better program. And having a mother who read with him more wouldn’t have hurt much either.

We are more powerful than we think, because we live with the problems and the solutions are more obvious to us. We are simply quiet because there are too many layers between us and the decision-makers. Had I been more proactive in communicating between all the people who were involved in fixing my yard, in putting forward suggestions for fiscally-responsible ways to accomplish the work quickly and in listening to the concerns of each person who had a stake in the project, my yard would be fixed and everyone else would have one less thing on their to-do list.

It has taught me a great lesson. Nobody in this whole project wanted me to say anything. They wanted me to be quiet and let them do their job in their own time and way, but that is what created the problem of an operator hastily covering up his mistake. If we had not been watching, they would have let our water lines freeze, left the soil in the lines that plugged our inside filters, and completely ruined the sprinkler system. They did not care because they would not have to live with the consequences, and they were not empowered to fix or prevent problems.

If we are all quiet, figuring someone else will fix or prevent the problem, nobody does, or it grows to ugly proportions before it insists that we fix it. There is always something we can do – empowering is not something someone does for us, but something we do for ourselves. We can’t fix the big ugly problems by ourselves, but we can fix what is within our reach, and work together so that our individual efforts add up to something bigger.

Many of us are trying – teachers valiantly teaching within the constraints of a broken system and making a difference, administrators genuinely losing sleep over budgets or staffing or processes. We see the problems. We are making a difference with them. Perhaps there is something more we can do as we step back, talk to each other, and formulate better local solutions for the monstrous, complex problems we face.

Some people won’t like it. They will tell us to be quiet. They will say that it is not our place. Speak anyway. Make things better anyway. Get better at negotiation. Get better at strategy. Get better at being an influencer. Pick a “cause” that speaks to your heart and learn its ins and outs. Many more people are seeing the problems too and need you to speak up, to begin the formation of a better strategy. Be a leader and make a difference. Be a follower and help someone else who has a vision. But be more than a frustrated watcher or a powerless middle manager. We don’t have to start with the answers, but we need to start.

What problem-solving process do you see failing, and what layers can be removed to help it be more efficient?

Okay. I’ve had my pep talk for today. Off to work.

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