Nice people are bad news

September 19th, 2008

As I go through this story you will get a sense of the drama that has contributed to my silence here. When the stakes get high I get a little more cautious about publishing what I know, even in the semi-anonymous form that I follow.

Early in August, the plant manager’s boss scheduled a visit. In anticipation of this event the plant manager and all his staff prepared intensely. Although the plant has been progressing steadily, nobody had forgotten the visit in early May and the threat of drastic consequences if our delivery metrics were not improved. The staff all felt we had satisfied the ultimatum we were given, or got well enough on the way to it, that we were not in any serious risk with this visit. Nevertheless, the plant manager came in early on the day of the visit to put finishing touches on the presentation.

When the time came for the meeting and the corporate boss was ready and waiting, the plant manager was not present. The staff got underway without him, but nobody was quite sure what to make of it. The boss had talked to the plant manager when he first arrived, but he made no comment on the manager’s strange absence.

By the end of the day, when he had not shown up at all but remained in his office, even a naive youngster such as myself suspected there could only be one reason for a sudden change in priorities. And on the second day, when all the staff were paged by the plant manager’s secretary, it had practically been spelled out. But since I am naive boy, I was still confused. Everyone seemed to be getting more and more cheerful and chipper and cavalier. How could this be? Surely I was missing some piece of the puzzle.

But no. It was privately confirmed to me that the plant manager had resigned. In fact, in the official announcement stated that he had given notice of his intention to resign a month earlier. Even I was not naive enough to believe that, but there it was anyway, as a kind of social lie, a lie not ever meant to be believed but merely to indicate some remaining respect for this man who had worked for them for so many years in so many positions, who now was not wanted.

Although the plant manager kept every appearance of satisfaction and politeness until his last day, when he went around the plant and began admitting that he might have liked to stay longer. After work at his farewell party, after being toasted by his choked-up secretary, he said that it was easy to leave a company, and hard to leave people; and as he said so he had to be careful to keep his composure. He was the last person who had worked for the company at that level since Big Scary Guy joined the company and began scaring people.

His replacement was announced once he had left; he had been seen in the plant as early as April, when Big Scary Guy gave his ultimatum.


Sometime in July my own boss had asked myself and several others on his team to work to create a standardized database so that we could all report consistently on our various facilities. At the end of July he also told me to begin tracking every line item we ship late out of our plant–specifically, to identify why it was missed. This explanation of lines shipped late constitutes a “bridge” between our on time delivery and 100% on time delivery.

My boss is headquartered at a warehouse facility; of its nature it is less complex than our production operation, although the volume of shipments is much greater. At the headquarters he had one of his team spending about half a day going through this kind of analysis. I knew there was no way I could get any helpful and accurate analysis of the misses out of our production facility on my own; I would need help from others in the plant. And I knew, from past projects, that a collaborative spreadsheet would result in a jumble of inconsistent information that would have to be arduously compiled, cleaned up, and rechecked by me.

Without feeling like I had any better alternative, I hastily assembled an Access database to keep track of the information with a form to make it easier for the less Access-fluent to understand and use the system. The forms and the attendant Visual Basic for Applications code was the only difficult part of that, but getting that interface put together in three days was a pretty good feat, I thought.

It impressed my boss enough that he wanted it available for the other sites as well. When I told him in a team meeting in July that half of what his team in the headquarters was doing could be done automatically, he really liked that idea. But I said it would have to depend on having the same foundational database in all sites, that project that we were already working on.

As August drew to a close my boss was getting impatient with our progress. I thought we had made progress with the foundational database, although I felt it had been slow; but the further we went with the project the more I felt that one of the other team members was dragging the project down. At first I thought we just didn’t communicate on the same wavelength. I have been accused before of being obstinate, a poor listener, and too absorbed in the details. All true in some measure. But more and more it seemed that C.K. just didn’t understand the spirit of the project. As I had understood the project, we needed to provide a common platform to support the work of all the team members. As C.K. seemed to understand it, we needed to regulate what the rest of the team did and restrict them to running approved queries–and even then it would never work, because the rest were an undisciplined group who did not understand the proper way to do anything and would not follow any rules.

When I talked with my boss, usually for other purposes, and he asked about the project I would mention that we had some difficulties but I thought we were working through them. But C.K.’s dismal view of the other team members finally put me in a position I did not feel I could work through; he was supposed to be representing the entire headquarters team, and he did not think any of them would properly use or appreciate the project once complete. And we had come to the point where the needs of the team had to be well represented to deliver a useful product.

So I went to my boss and said we needed others involved in the project, and explained why. But when I was talking with the team supervisor in the headquarters (we site-local team members and the data team report directly to the manager, but the headquarters team has a supervisor), explaining that we really only needed to load the queries the team needed into the database format we had agreed on, she said that she was not comfortable having C.K. do that.

C.K. is one of the two data specialists on the team, people who are focused specifically on the extraction and manipulation of data. Everyone on the team has to work data, but these two are meant to be the experts that the rest of the team could rely on. When the team supervisor said she could not rely on C.K. to build the queries her team used into a format that our project team agreed on, and she would rather have me travel there to do the work, I realized we were saying that C.K. should not hold the position he had.

And it came to pass that I was called to headquarters, along with rest of the team, to finish the project. We were given a week to finish the foundational database and the automatic bridge I had offered in concept a month ago. I knew our chances of completing that bridge were slim, but I drafted a schedule to aim for it. After the first day and a half I scheduled myself in a breakout group frantically working on that project, which only I of the team could envision and understand. That interface with the VBA code was disowned, disclaimed, and decried by C.K., who pointed out that this “Bridge” was too complex for anyone else to maintain, and would utterly depend on me, and was thus high-risk for a sector-wide tool. All true enough. But the person on the team who should have been ready to learn what I had done and prepare to support it was C.K. himself, along with his junior peer who had recently joined the team.

Before I got on the plane to travel to headquarters, I had given my manager, at his request, a written statement explaining my concerns with C.K. My manager had also made it clear that I was not alone in having difficulties with this member of the team and indicated that he was about to take decisive action to resolve ongoing issues.

So this was the situation I flew into. It crackled with tension, as C.K. was still on the team but, from my understanding, we were all there because he was not adequately fulfilling his role. And in that first day, when I had to leave the room, he took one of the critical queries off in a direction completely incongruent with where we had been taking the project. He said the whole team had agreed it would be best; but later when I talked to the individuals they said they did not remember discussing the matter at all.

For the rest of the week my job was basically to distract, divert, and occupy C.K. while the rest of the team finished the foundational database. I was also supposed to be working on the bridge, but I found I was much distracted trying to explain to C.K. the concept we were trying to achieve with the queries he was assigned to build. I think I had to explain four times that I wanted data refreshed with delete and append of rows rather than deletion and recreation of the entire table; he did not seem to grasp this relatively simple concept in database construction.

During this time when I was attempting to explain to him the concepts of database design as I had learned them I was not getting much done with the bridge, but I was building the beginning of a rapport with C.K. If he goofed something obvious to both of us I tried to put him at ease by recounting how often I made the same mistake. If he talked about some other project he worked on I listened and expressed appreciation. In short: I was nice.

As the week wore on–and it did wear, one 12 hour day after another–the team leader and I grew more and more frustrated with C.K.’s constant drag on the project, tugging whatever he was a part of in a direction different than what all the rest of the team agreed on. When we needed to use some functions within our queries, he immediately washed his hands of it, declaring it far too complex–and yet I managed to write it correctly on the very first try, because it really was not complex at all.

Thursday afternoon the team supervisor left the room to call the manager to tell him that C.K. was simply not effective. When she got back C.K. was summoned to talk to the manager (by phone, since the manager was at another facility the whole week). “I’m nervous,” the team leader confessed to me; we both thought this might be the end.

But when C.K. came back, it was not just to collect his belongings and leave. Instead he said, “Apparently some people on this team have told our boss that I am not cooperating with this project, so I’d like to ask everyone: what do you want me to do?” This was a most unfortunate conclusion because we actually wanted him to do nothing; he had not lacked for volunteering to do anything, he just did not understand how to do anything in a manner compatible with the goals and methods of the team.

It was an awkward moment. But we continued to be, as ever, as nice to C.K. as to anyone on the team, and yes, perhaps nicer. To his face we were as sweet as sweet tea.

Would it have been better for me to tell C.K., “I don’t think you understand what we are doing and I would rather if you’d just go back to your cube and do whatever and let us finish this ourselves?” No. And neither would it have accomplished anything good to treat him in any other way than with respect and courtesy. Yet it still felt wrong to treat him as nice as could be to his face while we told his boss we couldn’t stand working with him.

I thought he might be fired this Monday, but he remains in the employ of Acme, still my official liason to the headquarters team for the data projects. Only now he has had such conversations with our manager that he must surely suspect that we are all against him and saying awful things behind his back, no matter how sweetly we talk to his face.

Little children, do not trust the nice people.