The main reason I love Dilbert comics is they reflect reality, and reality is often hilarious, especially in retrospect. The “Dilbert reality” of which I speak is played over and over again in offices and workplaces all across the world. Three characters in the Dilbert comics stand out to me: the main character, Dilbert, the pointy-haired boss, and Wally. All three of those imaginary folks represent some of the people I’ve worked with over the years – and even myself in some cases. In case you are not familiar with him, Dilbert is a ‘loner’ computer engineer who tries to make sense of his work environment but can never quite do so. The pointy-haired boss is a clueless, pencil-pusher, and Wally is a lazy, coffee drinking, gold-bricker.
My mind is often drawn back to the 1980s as I read my latest Dilbert cartoon each day. That’s the decade when I worked for an aero-tech, small military contractor. Every day for the five years I worked for that company, something happened that could’ve been used in a Dilbert episode. Nearly forty years have passed since I walked out of that place for the last time, but I remember the moments – the experiences that taught me ‘what not to do’ as a leader or worker-bee. And yes, I adopted the phrase, worker bee, from my experiences there. I was in middle management; the boss saw me as one of his ‘worker bees. I’d like to reminisce about that place in today’s blog for the cringe factor and for the laughs.
The boss and owner of the company was a short, fat man with red hair. He strutted around the plant like you might envision a king surveying his domain. The Boss never let an opportunity pass to say something condescending to one of his worker bees. To get a vision of his leadership style, you would only need to step into his office. His desk sat on a pedestal, raised approximately eight inches off the main floor. It was a cherry wood desk that glistened as the sun shone through the curtained windows. Behind the desk was a high-back leather reclining office chair with wheels. The rest of the chairs in the office had the legs shortened. The boss was physically and psychologically at an elevated advantage over all others who dared enter his domain.
Speaking of domains, just next door to the boss was the office of the Operations Manager – an ex-full bird colonel from the U.S. Air Force. According to company skuttle-butt, this guy’s last military assignment was a desk job in the Pentagon doing who-knows-what. My belief is, this OM empowered the boss to be the Boss. Together, they were like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
At this point, you might be asking, “What is this blogger writing about something that happened at work nearly 40 years ago?” The answer is, because there are some elements of humor wrapped-up in the details. And if you don’t smile, well then, details might give you something new to ponder on. Sometimes, descriptions and examples of what others do leave a profound impression – perhaps that indelible mind imprint could work into a realization of things to avoid or simply not do.
One day, I walked into the board room for a staff meeting. There were no chairs. “Where are the chairs?” a couple of my associates wondered out loud. A few ladies in the group who were pregnant had deep-furrowed brows showing their concern. Suddenly, the operations manager walked up. It was his meeting, and he had ordered all the chairs be removed. “This is a stand-up meeting,” he declared. “I don’t want people relaxing and yacking and causing this meeting to go overtime.”
All this operations manager’s meetings had a ‘max’ time length. Each subheading on his meeting agenda contained a time limit. Numerous instances, I witnessed him stopping people in mid-sentence and declaring we were all moving on without further discussion. Nothing was ever tabled or put out for small-group discussion. It was just ended – no further discussion. Most of his meetings ended abruptly at the exact time he had established from the start.
As far as time management goes, I learned a thing or two from ‘the colonel’ on meeting agendas. I still refuse to lead a meeting without an agenda containing at least some time constraints. I hate having my time wasted in meetings where productive discussion has ended and prattle has taken over! On the flipside, we should not forget that we are PEOPLE, and people are social creatures. A bit of social discussion about things other than work stuff is healthy.
Because the company was a small, government contractor, a buyer from the U.S. government would show up each week to buy-off that week’s production. The company created a workspace and provided a desk for the buyer; he was offered a smallish desk located in a dark corner of the production floor. He was given a broken, green vinyl office chair that tilted sideways. The set-up was explained to me this way by my manager “We don’t want the buyer getting comfortable and staying long. He needs to get his stuff done and get out of here!”
Producing products to fill U.S. government contracts was an engaging job. As a middle manager in the organization, I had to learn and understand the thousands of government military standards for production and shipping. Each contract had an AQL, or acceptable quality limit, associated with the production output. In layman’s terms, the AQL was the number, usually represented in percentages, of produced items that could be rejected before the entire contract was rejected. For example, if the contract called for 1000 units and the AQL was six percent, then during inspection, up to 60 items could be rejected and the contract still bought-off by the government. Go over 60, and the contract would be rejected.
I always viewed the AQL as ridiculous, even though I fully understood the reasoning behind it, especially during production of a long contract involving thousands of individual items. Human error is always a thing. But as a manager who worked under the “zero defects” principle, I found the AQL to be a distraction.
One time I heard about an Asian company that subcontracted to produce some items. They asked about the AQL and were told what it meant. This was a company that took their zero-defects production ideals seriously. When the items were received back in shipping, the top box contained an exact percentage of items that had been hammered, smashed, and broken. There was a note included with the defective parts, “Not sure why you wanted three percent of the contracted parts to be defective, but here they are. The rest have been produced according to contractual requirements.” That’s how I felt about AQLs, too. I guess it convolutes the phrase, “Made in America” into something completely unacceptable. But contracts need leeway, right?
The unusual and outlandish things we see and experience in the workplace adds to our ‘gee whiz’ files. Most of these Dilbert-esque things are added to our repertoire of funny memories to ponder on, smile, and talk about later. I suppose there are some things we’d all like to forget. But overall, work experiences I think should become part of our personal memoirs – not to publish, but to add to our expansive banks of wisdom gained from experience. And one thing we know for sure, where people are involved, invariably we will have some funny moments – perhaps that could be portrayed in a three-frame comic strip.