Managerial Train Wrecks

Managerial Train Wrecks

Time Table and Train Order – this is the technique railroads used to keep trains from crashing into in the dark ages before remote signaling, electronics, computers, and radios. How does this apply to the morass that is American Business Management?

Think about it for a minute. It’s 1910 and you work on a railroad that covers 3000 miles over which hundreds of trains are running. Climbing into the cab (perhaps in the middle of the night in a driving snow storm in some podunk town), how do you know what trains are late, what bridges are out, and what special trains might be running? No radio. No easy communication. How do you know?

In TT&TO (as it was called) trains knew their position on the pecking order. They would use the Time Table to advance against inferior trains (or go into the siding vs. superior ones). But when a train became too delayed, when there was a more efficient way of getting things moved, dispatchers could issue Train Orders (manually passed up to passing trains on hoops) to specifiy new meet points. It’s an elegant way for sprawling corporations to manage blue-collar employees operating massive machinery across vast distances, 24/7/365.

So what the hell happened? How come I find myself sitting in long-winded 

meetings where information and status drones like an ill wind through a graveyard? Where once men stood high in the cab of their iron horses, glancing from pocket watch to timetable to gleaming rails, now we’ve become toadies ringing wooden tables, echoing status, status, forever status.

The primary problem is that management no longer trusts its employees. In those heady days of yore, a railroad president couldn’t listen to “daily status reports” and “morning huddles” and “afternoon planning sessions”. The information and communication just wasn’t there. He stayed in his penthouse office and made his Olympian decisions. The division chiefs, the stationmasters, the foremen each worked within their positional authority to keep the railroad running. And out on the line, the engineer, the fireman and conductor would hold a quick footplate meeting, eyeing pocket watches and timetables, and determine if they could make Watsonville before Train 99 came through.

Now we have ludicrous meetings where senior VPs discuss (and micromange) tiny projects and individual defect cases. They don’t trust their managing directors who don’t trust their managers, all the way down to the coders who are spending more time reporting progress than making it.

For God’s sake, get out of the way and let us work. Stop mentoring, monitoring, and measuring. Keep the lights on and the tasks coming and we’ll move mountains.

Get off our train!