Odious and Peculiar

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Forging the Sampo

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Friday, October 12, 2007
When it doesn't work. One of the duties I have at work is the organizing of benefits. I make gift baskets; talk on the phone with desperate folks from local schools and charities; and I organize fund raisers. The latest of these took the form of a barbeque. We were to cook burgers and sell them outside the store to raise money for a worthy cause, I don't remember what.

I usually get to work about two hours before the rest of my crew, so I had an enjoyable morning to myself setting things up. I like the quiet space of prep. No one is asking me what to do, which is pleasant; no one is telling me what to do, which is ecstasy. I wheeled out our large portable grill, prepared patties, got condiments, and generally set things up so that everything was as easy as possible when Myra and Olive (pseudonyms!) arrived.

Now, I generally prefer a "hands-off" style of management. I like to see organization emerge organically from experience, and give as little guidance as possible. I like to think of this as an exercise in a fruitful, Jeffersonian anarchy. The CEO once called it a "total lack of any actual management."

So when Myra and Olive arrived, I showed them the setup. I gave them a rundown on what we were doing, where everything was, and I gave Olive (competent) the grilling to do, and Myra (less so) the job of taking orders and money. They settled in, our volunteers from the charity arrived and I greeted them, and then I vanished to the office to glare at spreadsheets for a time.

After half an hour of computer screen and fluorescent lights, I needed to get outside. What I found there was Myra, chatting about the global warming crisis while Olive...well, Olive was invisible behind an enormous cloud of smoke. Customers were lined up behind Myra's interlocutor, tapping their feet and looking at their watches. Parts of the grill were on fire that ought not to be. Acrid, greasy smoke drifted at eye level throughout the area. The volunteers looked panicked.

I came up behind Olive and tapped her shoulder. She turned around, tears in her eyes from frustration and smoke. "My grill," I said. Then, "Myra!"

Myra is not used to being spoken to this way. Our department is laid-back, relaxed, and generally indolent. It suits her well.

"Myra!" I say. "Take the order. When you take the order, you tell me what it is. You wait until I repeat it back to you, then you take the next order. Got it?"

Myra hasn't got it. She asks the global warming enthusiast what he wants. He wants a burger. She looks at me. "You heard that," she says. I stare. I'm trying for baleful and reptilian. "Hamburger?" she says.

"Hamburger up!" I shout, making one volunteer jump. "One hamburger all day!" Then, sotto, "Olive, would you get me some salt?"

Myra slowly learns how to take an order, and the line begins to shorten. She announces the order, I shout it back and throw meat at the fire. The salt puts out the grease fire, although I know I'm going to smell of it for the rest of the day. My eyes and nose are running, and I don't have time to wipe them--I'd need to stop to wash my hands, after. Olive goes inside to recover from smoke inhalation. I'm angry at Myra for being useless and at Olive for being weak and at the volunteers for being feckless and the customers for being there. And then I get it.

This is all my fault. I have given no guidance to anyone about how to work this sort of event, assuming that they would simply work it out themselves. I'm angry at me. Where I could have had a smooth, efficient, happy event, now I've got a nasty, back-breaking drudge that will fall apart without me. This is not the soulful machine that food service can be. This is food service Hell, and as the only person with an experience in the business, I had a duty to show them how to avoid this. Which duty I promptly disdained. Olive was crying and Myra is angry and the charity has lost money because of my sloth.

Well, it turns out to be Purgatory, since the torment ends. As the lunch rush slows, Olive returns to the grill. Myra has a new appreciation for the methodology of the thing (Myra takes well to rules once they have been established). We make money. I feel confident enough to go back inside.

I still check on them every ten minutes, though.


Which doesn't mean that the anarchy wouldn't work in this case. It might, only it'd take more time to succeed. For Olive to get accustomed with the device, and for Myrna to listen to notice frustrated customers...maybe a month. Or a year.

You speeded up the process - that's the benefit of shared information. After all, managers are invented by market forces, too!
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