Stupid Things That Companies Do

Dec. 21, 2004
And they wonder why customers and employees jump ship.

Some years ago, I got a phone call from one of my friends who asked: "Why do companies do such stupid things?" A lengthy discussion ensued, after which I began compiling a list of stupid things that companies have been known to do. As you might guess, it grew rapidly. Some of the items warranted entire columns for their genuine dumbness. Others were scratched off the list as the "Dilbert" cartoon strip illustrated them better than I could with words. But my list is still plenty long, and I add new items weekly. To give you an idea, here is my current "top ten" list of stupid things that companies--and managers--do. Like David Letterman, I'll present them in reverse order:

10. Expect all employees to react immediately to meet the needs of the company, then take excessive time on minor administrative tasks like reimbursing expenses, paying medical claims, and resolving employee problems. (Double standards are acceptable as long as they favor those of higher rank.)

9. Develop strategic plans and operating plans, but don't tell anyone outside the executive group what's in them. (Of course, this is all very high-level stuff and highly confidential. Why would anyone in the office or factory need to know the game plan?)

8. Offer customers extra discounts and extended payment terms in order to ship twice the normal amount in the last two weeks of the month, thereby eliminating most of the business for the first two weeks of the next month. (This affliction is most common with public companies approaching the end of a fiscal quarter.)

7. Fire technical specialists and then contract out the work they did to the temp firm they end up working for, paying two to three times their former hourly rate. (Downsizing often does create an opportunity for significant cost reduction--later on when the work is brought back in-house.)

6. Fail to maintain machines--and then act surprised when they break down and create chaos. (Isn't there an old saw about "an ounce of prevention" being worth a pound of cure?)

5. Fail to adequately train people--and then wonder why they screw up production and the equipment. (After all, training takes time and costs money up front, while screwups get buried in the day-to-day operating costs, which were based on prior years of doing things the wrong way.)

4. Make speeches to employees about how tough things are, and then hop into a limo--to get to the company jet--to fly off to the senior executive meeting at a five-star resort in Acapulco. ("Tough" is a relative term.)

3. Ship products late or send the wrong items--and then get upset when customers switch to different suppliers. (After all, they shouldn't have been naive enough to believe those claims about top quality and "whatever you want" service. That's just marketing lingo.)

2. Lie to people regularly--and then wonder why they no longer trust you. (Actually, a few serious lies will suffice. Some of the most damaging are those dealing with people's futures, like promising "nothing will change," just before everything changes.)

1. When a problem arises, don't ask the people involved with the operation on a daily basis how to solve it. Instead, hire an expensive consultant to ask them and then tell you. (That is often what consultants do. But, in fairness, the best consultants usually know some better questions to ask, and add value in translating the answers.)

This list is really just a sampler. Countless "stupid things" are done by companies, their managers--and unions, too. What is most troubling is that many of the people responsible don't realize the genuine foolishness of it all. Often the problem is rooted in executive styles--such as a tendency toward favoritism. Assuring even-handed treatment of the people who work in an organization is always a challenge; and when a manager is perceived to be "playing favorites," morale usually heads downhill fast. Likewise, focusing on negatives--rather than emphasizing employees' positive contributions--can be just as debilitating to the energy level of the organization. Now that I've started the ball rolling, how about sharing some of your observations on corporate and managerial stupidity? I'm sure many of you can come up with candidates for a future list. Simply send your suggestions to the email address below. Together, maybe we'll open some eyes to better ways of doing things. John Mariotti is president of The Enterprise Group. He lives in Knoxville, Tenn., and does consulting and public speaking. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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