American View: Should You Dread the Implementation of “Work Silos”?

I’m comfortable saying that silos have their uses. If you need to store a lot of livestock fodder – a.k.a., “silage” – a silo is as good a solution as any and is better than most. You can’t grow up in Kansas and not become at least peripherally acquainted with the giant storage cylinders since they stand out in the otherwise flat and monochromatic landscape. Yep. I might not be a farmer and I might not live “in the country” anymore, but I can appreciate me a good silo …

Except at the office, that is. Silos at work are a reliable warning sign that your boss is planning to get rid of you. They’re bad news all around. Once they appear, it’s best to flee. Swiftly.

I suppose I should explain that, so let me share an event that was shared with me over the weekend. My mate Fidel works at a large industrial concern [1] where he oversees the movement of goods from a factory to its customers. He was hired to work with a small team. This arrangement made sense: if Fidel or one of his colleagues needed time off, the other team members could cover the workload with no break in continuity or gap in necessary skill.

A year after he on-boarded, Fidel’s manager Andrea decided to implement a “cross-training” programme. She’d noticed some critical gaps in the department’s ability to maintain operations when certain crucial-but-understaffed roles were degraded. In plain English, if Sam was the only fellow who knew how to ship soap by sub to Serbia, then when Sam got sick, no one else would know how to cover his function.

Andrea tried to hire more people for each of the single-point-of-failure teams and was denied the increased headcount. Undeterred, she did the next most logical thing: she decided to cross-train all her people in each other’s jobs. Not to make anyone redundant, she made clear, but to ensure that the department could maintain steady state production. This all took place during the pandemic, so no one took issue with her. It made sense. Everyone bought in.

From what I heard, Andrea’s workers all agreed with her intent and knew her plan was rubbish. They liked her, though, and agreed to give it every chance to succeed.

Andrea’s plan didn’t work well, but that was a failure of execution, not of intent. She implemented a game of musical chairs where each worker moved from job to job to learn all the new functions from scratch (like a new hire). Looking at this from a soldier’s perspective, this is probably the worst possible way to attempt cross-training. Still, Andrea’s heart seemed to be in the right place. She just didn’t know how to run on-the-job training. Most managers don’t.

Flash forwards a few months: Fidel and Andrea’s business was suffering. Demand for its many products was high, pandemic be damned. Unfortunately, the factory’s ability to fulfil orders had deteriorated thanks to many related factors, both internal to and external from the factory. Poor logistics software, massive employee churn, counterproductive work processes, industry-wide shortages of lorries and drivers, bad weather, and constantly changing performance objectives conspired to slow the site’s output to a trickle. Looking at it from the outside, you’d think the factory had torqued off Mercury. [2]

Enter the department’s director (and Andrea’s supervisor), Bob. Where Andrea was popular, conscientious, and methodical, Bob was high strung, quick to overreact, and unpredictable. You might recognize this as classic traits of an “office cowboy” … a disruptive and demoralizing “leader” who feels they’re exempt from the rules that govern “lesser” people.

As the department’s productivity dropped, so too did corporate’s patience with the underperforming factory. Very Important People at the headquarters demanded answers for why the site wasn’t pushing “enough” paid-for product. Rather than own up to some or all the site’s real problems (see above), Bob insisted that everything was fine. He reported that they didn’t have any problems. In fact, he could guarantee that they’d not only catch back up to corporate’s unrealistic production targets but would improve on them! Bob the hero! Give him a raise!

Office cowboys can’t conceive of themselves as anything other than the most important, most talented, most accomplished hero that ever lived. They’re living a fantasy where everyone else is a one-dimensional supporting actor in their epic tale.

The announcement torpedoed employee morale. Instead of getting relief from their unrealistic production targets, they were being told to transcend their already impossible goals. The crew had already been working six-day weeks and had done a few thirteen- and fourteen-day stretches “to help catch up.” Meanwhile, none of the site’s systemic (and real!) problems were being addressed, let alone fixed. Fidel and his teammates knew that they were being set up for failure.

That’s when the dirge of doom sounded: Bob announced that he was eliminating Andrea’s cross-training experiment in favour of new work silos. Starting immediately, each worker in the department would be assigned sole and exclusively responsibility for a few unique processes. There would no longer be any teams; each person would be their own critical, indispensable, and irreplaceable component in the “big machine.”

Fidel told me all this over a tall pour of Irish. He looked and sounded exhausted. It was Fidel’s first time experiencing the dreaded “silo-ing,” but he grasped its ramifications quickly. I’ve lived through this experience many times, but I kept quiet while Fidel worked it out. By isolating every worker in their own unique roles with no option for mutual support, productivity would continue to decline. That was fine by Bob; he wasn’t trying to fix their dismal output situation. Instead, Bob was making it easier for himself to assemble the “evidence” that he knew would convince HR to allow him to fire and replace his “least productive” members (a.k.a., the people he didn’t like).

The insidious nature of this technique is that Bob, the silo-ing supervisor, can put his thumb on the scale (so to speak) by giving any worker he doesn’t care for (like Fidel) tasks that can’t be completed no matter how much good faith effort is expended. Bob was arranging the outcome he wanted, but with far less oversight than putting a “bad” employee on a Performance Improvement Plan. At some arbitrary point, Bob will be able to simply announce that Fidel (or whomever) “failed to achieve their goals” and send that assessment to HR as reasonable justification for termination.

Fidel gets it. There’s no other reason to divvy up the department this way. Why deliberately make the site’s work more difficult than it already is? Why, to clean house! The easy way! Fidel is, shall we say, feeling rather grim about everyone’s future at the plant and he’s actively looking for a new gig. If the end is inevitable, then he might as well go out on his own terms.

It’s much easier to get a new job when you already have one; that’s why it’s better to steal a march on your bad boss and line up your own exit before your Bob can screw up your life.

As mentioned, I’ve seen this scam implemented many times. It has never improved productivity. It always cripples morale, erodes esprit de corps, and obliterates trust. It’s the organisational structure equivalent of making new swimmers tread water whilst holding anvils. It can’t help and isn’t intended to.

Will Bob get away with it? Probably. In many American companies, line managers and directors are given free rein to structure and run their organisations as they see fit. In most of the corporations that I’ve been in, HR doesn’t even have a standard structure of taxonomy; the only thing they want to know is the org chart: who supervises whom for the sake of tracking yearly performance reviews. By the time HR or upper management realises what happened, most of Bob’s department will have been driven off and it’ll be too late to correct … assuming they care.

I can already hear some of you asking “but what about Bob’s boss? Wouldn’t they care?” to that, I can only say “maybe.” In organisations that lack strong accountability and the will to take corrective actions (which seems to be most of them), sometimes the only way to get rid of a bad senior leader – like cowboy Bob – is to give them “enough rope to hang themselves” in Texas speak. That is, Bob’s boss might recognise what’s happening and is letting play out so that they in turn can build a case to finally push out Bob … after Bob’s antics cost the company most or all of an important department.

None of that matters to Fidel. He’s seen the silos appear on the horizon and understands the threat they represent. He’s doing the only logical thing he can to protect himself: he’s taking a different path as swiftly as possible. If you ever find yourself in a similar position, I urge you to follow Fidel’s example.

[1] All of the people in this true story and their employer shall remain anonymous, as per American View custom.

[2] In his domains of commerce and trading.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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