Guestpost by Rudolf Burkhard and Hannah Nowak
Bullshit Jobs is the title of David Graeber’s book1. Graeber writes, “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”… “In capitalism this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.”2 Graeber uses the PPI scandal in the UK as an example of how and why bullshit jobs are created. He writes:
The PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) scandal broke in 2006, when a large number of banks were found to have been unloading unwanted and often wildly disadvantageous account insurance policies on their clients. Courts ordered much of the money be returned, and the result was an entire new industry organised around resolving PPI claims. Elliot reported that at least some of those hired to process claims were intentionally dragging their feet to milk the contract for all they could.”
[…] “We make money from dealing with a leaky pipe – do you fix the pipe, or do you let the pipe keep leaking?”3
This is one example of a bullshit job: a job that adds no value or even – as in this case – does harm.
Bullshit jobs at industrial companies? Let me propose one!
If you are honest with yourself, you will probably find bullshit jobs at your own company. Even as most organizations are hugely focused on cost efficiency, many bullshit jobs are so well-established they are considered absolutely necessary, with no one questioning them. But is each of these roles really necessary for the organization to provide a product or service to the satisfaction of customers?
Sometimes you may find companies among your competitors who have done without some allegedly absolutely necessary functions, and still achieved success. Tesla Motors, for example, have seen a meteoric rise in the automotive industry without any advertising.
How did they do it? They provided a unique product and service to the fullest satisfaction of their customers. Who needs advertising if you can do that?
Continual Improvement with no end in sight
So, what could be an example of a bullshit project?
Every department or area within a business has some sort of an improvement programme, as managers everywhere are told to improve. Not to do so (or at least pretend to) would be damaging to their careers.
But where do the companies these managers work at actually need improvement? It cannot be everywhere. There can be only a small number of places within a company that, if improved, will have a significant positive impact on the bottom line. Many other operations within a company can also be improved – with little or no positive impact on the bottom line (only the out of pocket cost of the “improvement”). These improvement projects with no positive bottom line impact are bullshit jobs or projects.
Reflect on what would happen if management focused more of their people and more effort on those few things that are actually blocking greater profits and profitability. This kind of focus would definitely not be bullshit!
Why do companies insist on improvement projects everywhere and in so doing demoralize many of their people? People intuitively know when they are performing a bullshit job. At the latest when they see the result, nothing to the bottom line, do they realise what management has done to them.
Now you may ask: why should the employees care? If the company wants them to perform a bullshit job, at least they are being paid and can support themselves and their family.
Hang on a minute! What do bullshit jobs do to the company as a whole? Right, they damage the company financially, by costing money without adding value. Employees see this full well, because these projects ultimately risk their jobs. They can be the origin of the next round of layoffs. Employees care about this very much!
So, the question is: how can your company identify the right improvement jobs and projects and cause the right (and right number of) people to focus there? How can management change the culture to focus the organisation correctly? How will the company get the necessary information to know where to focus correctly?
One thing is certain: if management tries to leave the answers to these questions to the various business areas, it is likely to lead to many more bullshit projects. It is the job of top management to identify the one place in the business to focus on, and then to generate that focus throughout the company.
The first secret to achieving this is the ability to say “no”. The most important aspect of focus is knowing what NOT to do.
You can see this principle in action in the Kanban system: it was developed to highlight which parts NOT to produce when there are enough in stock already. In a similar vein, Henry Ford drew demarcations on the shop floor to ensure production would NOT continue once the storage space between workstations was full.
In the case of improvement projects, this means: the more improvement ideas you say “no” to, the more focus, resources and attention the remaining ones can receive – increasing their chances of success.
In terms of your own job effectiveness, this means: the more issues and tasks you have as a manager that you say “no” to (by delegating or eliminating them), the higher the quality of the remaining work you deliver. As an example: do you really need to personally authorize every training course your people go to? Perhaps this could be done by your assistant? Or you might even get rid of the authorization process altogether and trust your team that they will choose courses that help the business and not waste company money. Risky, for sure! But think of all the time you and your employees would save!
You’ll notice you’ve said “no” often enough when you realize you suddenly have enough time to think about what change would really propel your business forward. Often you will know immediately what to do and see a clear path towards a breakthrough improvement – instead of many small bullshit improvements.
1: David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Simon & Schuster, 2001
2: Graeber, p. xviii
3: Graeber, p. 166