Stories

All the events in the following two “case studies” are based on situations I’ve encountered in my career but, as individual stories they are entirely fictional and any similarities with real situations are entirely coincidental.  However, you might notice some similarities to organisations you know and it might get you thinking…

The Window Cleaners

Adam and Alan Alexander are brothers who decide to set up a window cleaning business. They buy themselves some ladders, buckets, squeegees and so on, and an old van. They get their name painted on the side (AAA Window Cleaning) and start looking for work. They gradually build up a small business around the local housing estate and a few local shops – long hours but they earn enough to support them and their families.

A new supermarket gets built on the edge of town and they bid for the contract to clean the windows – it will mean at least one day a week steady work. They get the job and decide to take on a new employee, initially part-time, to help out and relieve some of their hours. As more work comes in, part-time becomes full-time, a second employee is engaged and the brothers buy and kit out a second van. So far, the business is quite loosely structured. The new employees are able to take on new customers on their round, but the brothers are in full control – they make all decisions affecting the business and maintain full control of finances (both money in and money out). Even as the business expands to a third and fourth van, plus a part-time book-keeper, everyone looks to the brothers to make the decisions.

One of their employees gets married and moves to the next town; the brothers decide to try their business there and a fifth van comes onto the fleet. Business expands and the brothers have stopped doing their own round – one is coordinating the rounds of housing estates whilst the other focuses on their business contracts. With a couple dozen vans and 60 employees, it’s still very much the club culture. A couple of their early employees are now managers but everyone still looks to the brothers for decisions – and Adam still signs all the company cheques. Some of their commercial customers are parts of major organisations who like to see a bit of paperwork and send out vendor questionnaires – a few basic procedures get written and an organisation chart drawn up. These show a conventional hierarchy with the two managers being responsible for day-to-day operations but that’s now how it really works. The managers don’t really have authority – the power still lies with the brothers. One manager gets offered a job with a rival firm in the next county, a job where he’ll be allowed to properly manage – so he leaves. A bit of rejigging on the AAA organigram and life continues.

Eventually, the brothers decide they could sell the business and retire; trying to keep control of everything has become tiring. AAA is merged into the business structure of the new owners – a formal hierarchy. Not everyone likes the new way of working, of course; the old hands had gotten used to dealing with the owners direct. They liked the autonomy they felt they had on their rounds – the new way is more formal and there’s more paperwork. Some adjust, stay on and progress their careers; others don’t and only stay on until they can retire or get another job elsewhere.

The Engineers

Bill Bow has an idea for a new widget he’s invented. He needs to pull together a small team to fill in the details, get a prototype made up and then tried out by an adventurous customer. His team includes a couple of draughtsmen, an engineer and a secretary/PA. They get the detail design done and get it made – a team effort with everyone pulling together and mucking in where they can. Bill tramps the offices and finds a willing customer and it’s a success. The company (BB Engineering) gets an order for a few more and the team gets to work. Bill has bet his livelihood on this as, so far, almost all the cost (including the team’s wages) is coming out of his pocket. Bill now gets some support from the bank and grows the team.

His engineer becomes Project Manager, they take on another couple of draughtsmen, a couple of engineers and an inspector. Bill is able to start drawing a salary for himself. Bill focuses on marketing and sales whilst his PM manages the design and manufacturing. The widgets are straightforward now but the applications take the effort – customisation and installation is different for each customer. After a while, BB Engineering finds their project design skills are being sought and the widget isn’t always part of their work. The company is growing and Bill is getting less involved in each job. There is a Marketing and Sales Manager who, over time, grows a team to interface with the broadening customer base. Engineering is getting diversified with a range of specialist engineers (mechanical, electrical, process, civil, etc) and multiple project teams – each has a Project Manager now reporting to the Projects Director. IT and HR specialists join up.

Project teams form for a project, drawing their members from the ever growing pool according to the need. Engineers have discipline leaders who coordinate and ensure consistent standards. Most engineers will work on more than one project at the same time, reporting to their Discipline Lead on technical matters and the Project Managers on project issues. There are disagreements on who is actually in charge at times, with each Project Manager fighting for his/her share of the resources available. Bill has become the figure-head but gets called in to mediate – a task he hires an Operations Director to take on.

The company continues to grow and take on more varied work. Efforts to document its structure with a basic hierarchical organisation chart don’t really help as project teams are too dynamic – we have a matrix organisation, though nobody realises it needs a different organisational approach. Notwithstanding, a larger competitor decides to invest; Bill, getting disillusioned with the hassle he now gets. stopping him from doing what he really liked doing, sells up; he can retire comfortably but the company name is no longer his lasting legacy. The once dynamic company becomes just another division of a player in a competitive market and the BB Engineering name disappears.

(Posted as a blog 18th January 2014)

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