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Face it, Your Boss is a Rat
Who REALLY moved your cheese and why!

By: John Shepler

If you think something smells rotten in corporate America, you're right. It's a foul aroma wafting in from the executive suites, where the rats are jumping for joy at the success of their latest manifesto, "Who Moved My Cheese?", subtitled...get this, "An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and In Your Life."Employee being enticed.

"We moved it," they squeal with delight, "and when we want to, we'll move it again." Why? Very simple. Management has discovered that moving or removing YOUR cheese can be quite advantageous to them. But they've known that for a more than a decade. What they've just begun to realize is that it's possible to sell employees on the idea that this is perfectly OK. I'll elaborate, but first let me tell you how it all began.

It Takes Only a Minute
Management has a Holy Grail and it is known as "the silver bullet," also called the quick fix. It's epitomized in a small, thin book called "The One Minute Manager" by Kenneth Blanchard, Ph.D. (piled higher and deeper) and Spencer Johnson, M.D. (mostly deeper.) The theme of "The One Minute Manager" is that business people, especially managers, spend way too much time mulling over problems, internalizing them, and debating on what to do next. Much better, proposed Blanchard and Johnson, to jump in, collect all the facts that are at your fingertips or can be coaxed out of your subordinates, and make a snap decision in one minute or less. Actually, the primary decision is which employees can best be made to take ownership of the problem, strategically moving the burning acid of responsibility from your stomach to theirs. If things improve, you allocate no more than one more minute to tell them how great they are doing. If the situation deteriorates, you allocate that same minute to making darn sure that they feel terrible about it and will work even harder to keep the problem from returning to you.

Think this is funny? It's revolutionary. The enabling power of one minute management has caused the entire Fortune 500 to refocus from the concept of stewardship, with a responsibility to the community that spans generations, to a slavish devotion to the needs of the institutional investor, primarily an increased stream of earnings every fiscal quarter. White-collar layoffs, almost unheard of prior to the 1980s, are now a standard tool of expense management. With only a minute needed for problem solving, the span of control for managers has increased as much as ten fold and the number of people assigned to non-producing supervisory functions proportionally reduced. Productivity, as measured by corporate earnings, soared to create the raging bull market of the 1990s. Johnson and Blanchard are lauded in corporate circles. But the emphasis on rapid decision making has led to shortened attention spans. It's already time for something new...

The Big Cheese
The toll of one minute everything is burning out once naive and eager employees, anxious for their leg up the corporate ladder. The abuses of ever increasing demands have created calluses of cynicism that are best portrayed in the characters of Scott Adams' Dilbert. Now everyone sees themselves as an oppressed Dilbert or Wally and adopts a passive/aggressive approach to corporate survival.

Re-enter Johnson, sans Blanchard, with a new silver bullet, this one cleverly disguised as an irresistible morsel of cheese. And who can resist the power of cheese? It's a story that is designed once again to get the onus of action into the mind of the common employee. Without giving too much away, here's how it goes.

It seems that there are two mice and two small people living in a maze. They dine on a seemingly endless supply of cheese provided by an unseen benevolent caretaker. All are complacent and happy with this scenario, until one day the cheese is gone. The mice shrug and take off down the corridors of the maze to find more cheese, as you'd expect lab mice to do. The two little guys, however, get in a snit and simply pout in expectation that the cheese will soon return. Whoever created this situation must resolve it. Only intense pangs of hunger and a sense of futility in waiting anymore drive them out in search of replacement cheese. Finally they got the point...but what point?

No wonder management is doubled over in delight with this literary masterpiece. First of all, the new rules for business are clearly being spelled out. Management provides the nutritious cheese in the form of salaries, benefits and perks, but they may be changed or removed at any time without explanation. That's acceptable and to be expected. When changes occur, it is the employees' job to go scurrying after new cheese, preferably without hesitation. The employee must sniff out where there might be opportunity, negotiate an unknowingly complex maze, and persist until he or she finds enough cheese to be temporarily sated. What's more, these new rules are perfectly allowable. The happy employees of the future are the ones who enjoy the thrill of the cheese chase and ask nothing but the opportunity to be allowed to run the maze each day with the assumption that somewhere there just might actually be cheese. No guarantees.

We Should Have Known All Along
Another reason that management is in stitches is in the irony of the symbolism chosen by Johnson. How many times have you heard "it's a rat race and the rats are winning." Yeah, they are. But the rats aren't the little people scurrying about in the office. They're the ones who own the maze and decide how much cheese is put in and when. Everyone else is reduced into becoming meek mice, scurrying through the maze of cubicles, hopefully sniffing the air for a whiff of the benevolently provided cheese. Oh, you don't work in a maze? Climb up on your chair sometime and get an aerial view of your office space. It's no accident that modern office layout has evolved to emulate the rat maze. It perfectly supports the new paradigm. Now run, mouse, run.

The ultimate irony is that all good mice must eventually come to an end. Even in the laboratory, cooperative white mice are removed from the maze when the experimental results are achieved. What becomes of them? Well, when there are more mice than are needed, there is no reason to indefinitely keep feeding them. They must be disposed of. Some become pets and keep honorary positions. The more fearful forms of corporate disposal include firings, layoffs, demotions, forced early retirements, and scaring the meek into bolting on their own for other opportunities. Now I ask you, was Scott Adams prophetic when he assigned the job of Human Resources Director to a cat, Catbert?

The Light at the End of the Maze is Outside
"Who Moved My Cheese?" is a long running best seller. It's obviously supported by legions of upper management who find the employee re-education benefits so valuable that they order copies by the carton and distribute them to the workforce. But this book is also being gobbled up by anxious employees, wanting desperately to know what the new rules of the game are and how they can best comply.

"Who Moved My Cheese?" should be taken as a warning. Just like "Animal Farm" alerted a generation to the dangers of totalitarianism, this story is a cautionary tale for today's workforce. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life hoping that someone will drop some cheese into your cube?

The real ways to win this game are to own the cheese factory, hoard some cheese for times of need, and don't get so addicted to chasing the "big cheese" that you live for nothing else than running the maze. But those are other stories.


Books of Interest:

Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson & Kenneth H. Blanchard. This is it. The holiest of the holy cheese (Swiss?) grail. If you haven't memorized key passages to enhance your management presentations, then you are going nowhere in the corporate world. You should read this even if you find the stench of management's cheese repulsive. It is better to know ;-)

Who Cut the Cheese? A Cutting-Edge Way of Surviving Change by Shifting the Blame by Mason Brown. In case you haven't guessed, it's a parody of the Johnson and Blanchard masterpiece. A little crude, but funny.

Who Cut the Cheese? A-Mazing Parody about Change and How We Can Get Our Hands on Yours by Stilton Jarlsberg & Kenneth Bleucheese. Yes, a separate but equal parody. Apparently, the "cut the cheese" angle is just too much to resist.

The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard & Spencer Johnson. This is where it started going horribly, horribly wrong. The astounding adoption of this diminutive work as management dogma surpassed that of even Chairman Mao's little red book. It would no doubt come as a shock to Paul Revere to discover how the term "Minute Man" has been corrupted in today's workplace.

Animal Farm A Fairy Story by George Orwell, C. M. Woodhouse & Russell Baker. The original cautionary tale that we boomers read in high school. It was meant to save us from being duped by communism and corporate totalitarianism. Well, 50% ain't bad, right?

Aftershock: Helping People through Corporate Change by Harry Woodward and Steve Buchholz. This is a serious book on the process of change in business and the expected human reaction. An excellent resource for managers who must deal with the execution and aftermath of downsizing and major company disruptions. It is also a good read for employees who want to know what the bosses know, and maybe a lot more.


Also visit these related sites:

Dilbert's Home on Facebook - The gang has made the move to social media. Like 'em!

Managing after Downsizing - Advice for those who must deal with the aftermath of corporate restructuring, reorganization and downsizing


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