They’re Everywhere

Paul Murphy compares Sun and Ford and says that we “can’t seem to monetise [our] research” due to issues with middle management:

Want to lose your credibility at either company? make yourself responsible for a breakthrough product or strategy that fails — in big organizations there’s always someone who can retroactively prove he warned you of the certainty of failure if what you do goes wrong; and it doesn’t matter if that’s a sales compensation policy change, or a part that becomes a million car recall; there’s always someone.

I love this observation generally, but it’s true of all organizations. Every company has its predators and antibodies. Every university. Every government agency. Every institution of every size absolutely everywhere at every level. I believe these guys are in the distinct minority, but they carefully use fear to build the perception that they are in control and you are wrong. They are usually weaker than we think, but many of us end up following and giving them power. I’ve kept my own list of these guys over the years, and I can trace them all the way back to grade school. They are just the same people recycled in different skin. I’ve met them here at Sun, sure, but Sun is also a culture particularly tolerant of risk-taking, and it’s not a culture of blindly following bullies. That’s one thing I appreciate about this place.


4 thoughts on “They’re Everywhere

  1. Christopher … I agree with you when you say:

    “It’s not management that drives innovation, excellence, and efficiency: It’s the people actually doing the work. Management ranges from letting the workers actually do the work well and effectively all the way to making the job of the workers a complete and absolute nightmare.”

    And I think this is happening more and more at Sun, too, though it certainly wasn’t true a few years ago and I experienced that rather directly. And painfully. 🙂 It’s a big company, though, so you’ll always be able to point to places were it happens and where it fails to happen.

    In general, I don’t think we’re getting enough credit for this notion of pushing power back down to the innovators (the people actually doing the work). It’s just too fashionable to bash Sun these days for ideas like this to get out and thrive.

    Also, I don’t buy the notion that management is the only group at fault for the failing of companies generally, and I think people are too quick to point to management as the only factor. Many times management is actually ahead of the “workers” and many times the people doing the work (the innovators) can’t handle the added responsibility given to them by management when management gets out of their way. It goes both ways, and I’m beginning to see that now.

    More than enough room for many perspectives on an issue like this. It’s more complex than people realize. I’m looking forward to learning how the Japanese deal with it.


  2. Jaime … I’ll be working from Japan in just weeks now, and I’ll be traveling to China and India frequently, too. So I’ll experience life far away from Menlo Park. I’ll blog about what I see, too. I’ve been wanting to make a move like this for some time now. As I see it, though, the company has changed dramatically, and it’s quite easy to point to those changes. You may or not agree that the changes have been fast or deep enough, but this place is absolutely nothing like what it was in 2000. I remain very confident.


  3. Jim,

    The reason why Toyota is taking all the american car manufacturers to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court is because they let the guys that are actually doing the work make the important decision.

    You’ve heard about JIT? It goes like this. There’s a guy with a clipboard at gate 17 near the rear-seat assembly area for some car model. Now, he notices that they’ve been getting a few more seat spring kits than they need. He sees the driver for Some MegaCorp Auto Supply and tells him “The next delivery is scheduled for tomorrow at 10. Don’t come until 1 PM. Thanks.”

    Now, do you think the driver needs to call his supervisor and management at SMCAS will review the contract and get him and answer by COB? Hell no. The driver just tips his hat and says “See you tomorrow at one.”

    And guess what happens the next day at 12:54PM. The truck pulls up to the gate, and the spring assembly kits get unloaded, at exactly 1PM. Not 1:10PM, not 1:15PM, but 1:00PM.

    Now, do you know what the role of middle management is at Toyota and at SMCAS? It’s to get the fuck out of the way of the workers and get them absolutely everything they need.

    It is the assembly guy at Toyota who has the authority to shut down the production line on the Lexus SUV if he’s got a prickly feeling in the back of his neck about something not being right, not the COO.

    All that to say that the Very Successful companies don’t look at middle management as what makes the organization Very Successful, they see the people who actually do the work as being the one that actually, well, make the company Very Successful.

    Think about that for a while.

    And when management tries to figure out how to get great ideas from R&D all the way to the loading dock, they need to remember to get out of the way of the people actually doing that job.

    I think now you begin to see what the article was talking about. It’s not management that drives innovation, excellence, and efficiency: It’s the people actually doing the work. Management ranges from letting the workers actually do the work well and effectively all the way to making the job of the workers a complete and absolute nightmare.

    Ford complains about Toyota not having to pay high medical costs, etc. Excuse me? Toyotas are made in the US. Lexuses are not, but labor costs are even higher in Japan. Ford can’t get R&D to the production floor because Ford management is actively hindering its workers.

    And one of the indirect ways they are hindering workers is by sucking down departmental payroll budgets. The money also needs to go to the people actually doing the work.

    Same thing at Sun, from my outside-peering-in perspective.

    I was looking to buy a Sun X2100 server but went with silicon mechanics instead. You know why? for the same price, the Sun HW didn’t include the $150 rail kit, but Silicon Mechanics’ did. BTW, same server, same chip, same mobo.

    Now, why the heck is a rail kit $150? It’s 4 pieces of aluminum. I can smell managerial shenaningans.

    In any case, I hope all is well with you and that you have a great flight when you go to Japan.


  4. I’m sorry Jim but, from where I am, you’re wrong.
    Up until recently, I had the clear image that the good guys were winning inside Sun but, the fight was long from over. The error of trying to go the IBM / HP way in terms of corporate culture (2001 – 2004/5) gave power to this “predators and antibodies”, Scott and Schwartz made a good work in pushing them back but, you just need to look at your CFO to know they’re not out yet.
    Sun corporate offices has one reality but, you just need to look at your country managers and sales directors to know that there are still a lot of antibodies out there. those guys (with the blessings of your CFO) are still fighting Sun’s view on Opensource and free software, are the guys that compete exclusivelly on price and don’t even try to promote Sun’s technology, …
    I never tried to hide my feelings for your new/old CFO but, believe me, the fight is far from over, specially the farther away you move from the Sun’s central offices.
    Please, don’t mistake my words for lack of confidence in people like you and Schwartz, but, don’t see the internal changes in culture Sun needs as being done, you still have a more than your share of detractors, some of them, very high in the corporate ladder


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