Oinam Digital Garden

How do you fix a broken company

This appeared in a comment on HackerNews (unable to find the link yet). It is a fun read about truth of running companies. Reproduced verbatim here;


Let’s say you were just hired as the President of a furniture company. The owner says he knows it’s good furniture but even despite huge investments they can’t seem to sell any furniture. Your job is to turn things around.

You start on the factory floor. The furniture is made by a combination of machines and human workers. Some people are employed to set up and configure the machines to make furniture parts. Around 150 people work on actually making furniture, either assembling it, doing quality tests, or setting up and operating the automated machinery. Things aren’t perfect, but you aren’t going to make any changes on your first day so you make some notes and move on.

The furniture hasn’t changed much over the years, it is still basically the same as it was when the furniture store opened. The furniture gets ‘improved’ from time to time, you see a step stool with an alarm clock, a small safe, and a web-cam built into it, but when you ask the foreman he tells you nobody has ever turned on the alarm clock or used the safe or connected the web-cam on any of the step stools. People seem to mainly use the stools so they can reach things that are up high.

There is a problem where sometimes people slip when the stools are wet, so they worked out how to add a nonslip pad, but the product managers have decided that the next feature will be to add scents to the stools, so you can buy a stool that smells like cinnamon or one that smells like apples. They have a big advertising campaign already paid for and they already sent out the press release announcing “ScentedStools”, so the machines need to be set up to start stamping out stools that smell like “Fresh Linen” by the end of the week. There are daily status meetings to update them on the progress. If the “Fresh Linen” stools aren’t being produced by Thursday they are going to start having two status meetings per day.

You hear it’s someone named Jim’s last day, so you set up an exit interview. Jim tells you that the bosses and people upstairs don’t really know what is going on in the factory. Most days he just sits and reads the news, his “nontechnical” manager doesn’t know anything about furniture or how Jim does his job so there’s no way for the manager to know what is going on other than to ask Jim. Supervision primarily consists of making sure Jim is sitting at his desk and looking at his monitor.

Since it is not a Startup thing to set Jim’s specific hours for him to be at work, his manager has started scheduling 9AM meetings every day to force people to turn up. Every week or so Jim has to update some Product Managers upstairs about what is going on, and he just says they are making steady progress and comes up with some specific problem to explain why they aren’t done, pretty much anything with jargon will work since nobody upstairs “could tell white oak from red oak”. It takes about 5 minutes to give his status update but he’s expected to stay for the entire 1 hour meeting, so he brings his laptop so he can read that FurnitureNews website. He says he is quitting to take a much lower paying job because he is bored and doesn’t respect his manager.

Next you go upstairs to the office space and find 300 people having meetings with each other about annual plans and prioritization, writing mission statements and meeting to discuss mission statements. The 300 people upstairs are constantly in motion and complaining about how over worked they are. They each have 5, 6 or even 7 (sometimes more!) 1-hour meetings every day, but you only see them meet with each other, nobody has any meetings with anyone from outside the company, nobody has meetings with possible customers, and only very rarely do you see anyone from the factory floor in these meetings, and then it is almost always just to give a status update. None of these folks really understand furniture very well, they can’t really tell good furniture from bad furniture, they literally don’t know the difference between solid oak and cardboard, they don’t know how long it takes or how much money it costs to build a chair. After a few days of meetings you haven’t met anyone who cares about furniture at all, they all seem to want to work at the furniture factory because it pays well, or they like the prestige of being ‘in furniture’. Mostly they talk about how overworked they are and make the case for hiring a few more people. If they could hire another person for their team they wouldn’t be so far behind. You aren’t sure what they are getting behind in, are they talking about meetings they can’t attend because it conflicts with another meeting that is more important somehow? Do they need more time to work on power point slides for the next days meetings? Some of the office folks have degrees in furniture science, but none of them have ever successfully built or designed any furniture outside of little school projects.

Then you go out behind the factory and see a massive mountain of furniture stacked up to the sky. The factory workers have been building furniture every day for years. People all agree that it is good furniture, maybe the best there is. Nobody ever buys any of it. It’s not sold in any stores. No hotels buy it. No businesses buy it. Lots of people are lined up as far as you can see to pick furniture out of the pile for free.

How do you fix this company?