Simple Sabotage

Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace is a book inspired by a real World War II CIA field manual called “Simple Sabotage” that was written to help “guide ordinary citizens, who may not have agreed with their country’s wartime policies towards the US, to destabilize their governments by taking disruptive action.” You can read the declassified original document at that link.

It’s short and fascinating and much of it is timeless. Operationally, it functions as a “how-not-to” for creating an efficient organization. The CIA’s top 3 takeaways:

1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

These points were once felt to be a great way to sabotage Nazi Germany, but they seem to have been voluntarily taken up by most modern American businesses.

A good example from the book is the “obedient saboteur,” someone who–by doing exactly what he’s told to do–is actually making things worse:

This problem can be particularly acute in organizations with a culture of “continuous improvement.” Continuous improvement is a business philosophy created by W. Edwards Deming in the mid-twentieth century. This philosophy thinks of processes as systems and holds that if each component of the system constantly tries to both increase quality and reduce costs, efficiency and success will follow. But taken to an extreme, even continuous improvement can lead to sabotage.

One company we know had a call center manager driving his team to move from an average pickup speed of 1.4 rings to 1.2 rings. The division head asked, “How often do callers abandon us after only 1.4 rings?” “Almost never,” he was told. “Virtually no callers who actually intended to call us hang up before the third ring.” Yet the call center manager persisted in trying to ensure that all calls were answered more quickly each year. Why? Because getting the phones answered quickly was his job—by definition, quicker was better. He never thought to question whether he had crossed the threshold where process had overridden outcome. He had become one of the Obedient Saboteurs. If you asked him why he was trying to lower pickup times, he would tell you that faster pickup means improved customer experience. That’s true—but the threshold is three rings. Once you get below three rings, faster pickup times don’t continue to improve the customer’s experience anymore.

The problem we see, time after time, is that nobody bothers to go back and tell the call center managers of the world to go continuously improve something else.

To keep this kind of sabotage out of your group, step back and conduct a formal review of any continuous improvement programs you have in place. If they aren’t relevant anymore, pull the plug.

Also see: measure what matters.

To fight back, ask yourself:

What is the stupidest rule or process we have around here?

What are the three biggest obstacles you face in doing your job?

If you could rewrite or change one process or procedure, what would it be and why?

A lot of quality improvement isn’t real:

It’s adding clutter. It’s replacing content with process.

We should be just as ruthless when evaluating quality measures and metrics as we are with the fail points that inspire them.

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