Differences in Levels of Management – Effect on organization

The misdirection that can result from the difference in concern and function between various levels of management is illustrated by this story in this article. We are calling it “the mystery of the broken washroom door.”

The newly appointed comptroller of a railroad in the Northwest noticed, when going through the accounts, that extraordinarily large sums were spent each year for the replacement of broken doors in passenger stations. He found that washroom doors in small stations were supposed to be kept locked, with the key obtainable from the ticket agent on request. For economy reasons the agent was only issued one key per door a long defunct president had decreed this economy measure and had preened himself on thus saving the company two hundred dollars at one stroke. Hence when a customer walked off without returning the key – as happened all the time – the agent had a locked door on his hands and no means of opening it. To get a new key made cost twenty cents and was, however regarded as a ‘capital expenditure’ and agents could make capital expenditures only with the approval of the Superintendent of Passenger Service at Company headquarters, which it took six months to obtain. Emergency repairs, however, an agent could spend from his own pocket and pay for out of his cash account. There could be no clearer emergency than a broken washroom door and every small station has an axe.

This may seem the heights of absurdity. But every business has its broken washroom doors its mis-directions, its policies, procedures and methods that emphasize and reward wrong behavior, penalize or inhibit right behavior. In most cases the results are more serious than an annual twenty-thousand dollar bill for washroom doors.

This problem, too, cannot be solved by attitudes and behavior; for it is rooted in the structure of the enterprise. Nor can it be solved by “better communications”; for communications presuppose common understanding and a common language. And it is precisely that which is usually lacking.

It is no accident that the old story of the blind men meeting up with an elephant on the road is so popular among management people. For each level of management sees the same “elephant” – the business – from a different angle of vision. The production foreman like the blind man who felt the elephant’s leg and decided that a tree was in his way tends to see only the immediate production problems. Top management – the blind man feeling the trunk and deciding a snake bars his way – tends to see only the enterprise as a whole; it sees stockholders, financial problems, altogether a host of highly abstract relations and figures. Operating management – the blind man feeling the elephant’s belly and thinking himself up against a landslide – tends to see things functionally. Each level needs its particular vision; it could not do its job without it. Yet, these visions are so different that people on different levels talking about the same thing often do not realize it or as frequently happens, believe that they are talking about the same thing, when in reality they are poles apart.

An effective management must direct the vision and efforts of all managers toward a common goal. It must insure that the individual manger understands what results are demanded of him. It must insure that the superior understands what to expect of each of his subordinate managers. It must motivate each manager to maximum efforts in the right direction. And while encouraging high standards of workmanship, it must make them the means to the end of business performance rather ends in them.

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