Monday, September 16, 2013

Problems with Doris

Doris’s cube was spectacular. It was completely full of stuff except for a short, twisted path to her chair. There was work stuff, and art supplies (she made beautiful little cards), and then completely random household crap that was just inexplicably there. She had been reprimanded once by the fire marshall for stacking things in her cube so high they had become a hazard.

The project Doris spent all her time on boiled down to printing and mailing surveys, answering phone calls about them, and then entering the data from the completed surveys into our computer system. The work was perfectly suited to clerical, except Doris didn’t work in clerical. She was supposed to be doing completely different stuff. 

My task was to wrest the project from Doris’s hands, and then sort it out so that anyone in clerical could do it. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Doris had spent decades building the project into a Rube Goldberg masterpiece and lobbying management to hire a team whose sole purpose would be to work on it. The project was as disorganized and dysfunctional as her cube. 

One day, while I was prying another piece of the project from Doris’s fingers, I asked her about a large stack of data entry labeled “problems.” She hemmed and hawed and then quietly tried to explain to me that these were put aside by Taylor. 

Taylor was a mid-level clerk who routinely took on extra projects in addition to her own work because she absolutely could not stand to be idle. She regularly blew through huge stacks of data entry for Doris’s project. I had worked with Taylor once or twice before. The only thing that confused me about Taylor was that she was not working a few miles away in Palo Alto and daydreaming about how big a yacht to buy once her options vested.

Doris explained that she spent several hours every day addressing the stack of “problems” because Taylor didn’t know (and couldn’t be expected to know) some details relating to the project. Instead of just filling Taylor in on these great mysteries, Doris had instructed her to circle what she didn’t know and write the word “problem” at the top of the page. Doris would enter the data from these surveys herself.

“I also spot-check the rest of the data entry that Taylor does,” Doris added, “and she does a very good job.” 

In the few short years I’d been working in that office, I had met quite a few people. Taylor was easily one of the sharpest people there. I flipped through the stack of “problems.” None of it was remotely beyond Taylor, or anyone else in clerical. I figured a ten-minute conversation with Taylor would likely be all it took to make all these problems go away.

So once I had all the pieces of the project in my possession, I went about un-mousetrapping things. I spoke with Taylor about the “problem” surveys and filled her in on the great mysteries that Doris apparently believed were too complex for Taylor to grasp (or maybe this was just another way for Doris to keep control of her project - who knows). 

I didn’t even need all ten minutes for my conversation with Taylor. With the problems now deciphered, it barely took her longer to enter the data from one of the surveys than it did to stop and write the word “problem” on it.

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