#159 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 5          May 1995

FORUM—from our readers

Help, We’re Being Consulted to Death!

My company is really into improvement.  It seems that one consulting firm after another is coming to offer us new ways to manage.

We try one, then move to the next, sparing no expense to be certain our company is "doing the right thing in the right way at the right time."  If dogma could produce profits, we'd be rich.

We should be utterly confident about the future, since few of our competitors spend so much time and money following the wisdom of the management gurus.  (Actually, I never figured out why we pay so much for their services since you can buy their books for a few dollars.)

As vice president of R&D, I have to integrate my teams with the "management style of the year."  There were several useful consultants, but most spoke generalizations that were more appropriate to manufacturing or marketing than R&D.  The other vice-presidents in the company seem to accept consultants’ recommendations, and don't find them especially burdensome.

Yet researchers just can't swallow many of these recommendations.  After one consultant convinced our company president of the need to measure, and track, everything, our Quality Coordinator informed us that all measurement devices should be calibrated at least twice a year--including ordinary lab thermometers and beakers (maybe the glass would stretch from year to year?)! 

It got worse.  We were told to keep better track of lab chemicals, just as secretaries were to track computer disks and, presumably, paper clips.  Now, every little bottle holding 100 grams of this or that must have a record in a computer file.  If I remove 5 grams, I have to record it on the computer, which brilliantly enough, performs the subtraction and reveals--that 95 grams remain.  (By the way, this goes for every chemical--even sodium chloride.) 

Previously, except for expensive or dangerous chemicals, we would just order a new bottle when the container was almost empty.  Occasionally, someone would complain that they had to wait a day or two because a chemical had not been replaced in time.  But this was infrequent and involved far less imposition, overall, than the requirement to always update the computer record.  (And guess what?  Even with this "efficiency device," we still run out of chemicals because sometimes somebody forgets to update the record.)

Then we brought in one of these brainstormers who taught us to "think creatively."  We spent many hours with him; and he was finally satisfied when we produced 30 solutions to a research problem in 30 minutes.  Did he care that the ideas were entirely impractical?  No.  Yet many in other departments raved about how great he was.

Another forward-thinking consultant convinced the president that the only thing on a desk top or lab top should be what you’re working on at that moment.  In other words, when you leave your desk, it should be clean.  Yet the desk tops in my department typically hold a journal not yet read, a notebook requiring some entries, a reprint to be re-read, or a memo not yet answered.  I frequently examine one item, put it down, then look at another.  This activity stimulates my thinking.  Hyper-organization stifles it.

It's gotten to the point that I shudder every time the Quality Coordinator knocks on my door.  He doesn't seem to want to appreciate the special needs of R&D.  Why should he permit us any exemption to the rules?

Fact is, researchers are naturally a bit more independent-thinking, and tend to resist, resent, or ignore rules that make no sense—if they don't laugh out loud at them, as my staff does. 

R&D is a relatively small department in my company, and my opinions usually carry less weight than those of other vice presidents.  It's always, "You have to adapt to practices that are necessary for our success."   

Of course, what this really does is erect an additional barrier between R&D and the rest of the company.  People wander around thinking, “Why can’t those scientists follow experts’ advice and become civilized, like us?”

R&D is an inherently difficult working environment—but the precious advice of these outside experts only makes it worse.

Anonymous

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