Justifying Your Existence

Jul 09, 2001

Paul Schipperknocket’s alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. After a quick workout in his basement gym, he turned on the coffee maker he’d gotten ready the night before, and then woke up the rest of the family at 6:10. A quick breakfast, a glance through the morning paper, five minutes of TV news, and Schipperknocket was in the shower, then driving on the 405 by 7:15. Fifty-five minutes later, after battling the 17 m.p.h. average speed on the Santa Monica Freeway, he pulled his two-year-old Lexus into a parking place at his firm’s building in sunny Newport Beach. Throwing his briefcase in his office, he walked down to the small kitchen area near the mechanical/electrical engineering group and got a cup of coffee. There, he ran into Steve Purlington, one of the firm’s HVAC engineers, who needed to prepare him for a call that could be coming in from an angry client. That lasted about 15 minutes (Purlington was one of those people who just couldn’t communicate very succinctly). By 8:30, Schipperknocket was sitting at his desk leafing through the three-inch pile of stuff that had landed in his in-box since 6:30 p.m. when he’d left last night. After rushing through a ton of junk mail and reading two proposals that had barely made it out to Fed Ex by 7:30 the night before (and thinking he would have done them a lot differently!), Schipperknocket headed into the main conference room for the Tuesday morning operations committee meeting. The next three-and-a-half hours were spent with Parik Tadel, the firm’s chief engineer; Bob Lukemeir, the COO; Jack Jovialsky, the president and CEO; Marge Smith-Frickelstein, the CFO; and Raquel Fratermorius, the marketing director. Each person at the meeting talked about what was coming up the rest of that week. Of course, they got sidetracked, as they usually do, discussing what to do about “Old Joe,” one of the founders, who had actually achieved zero billability for a solid year and hadn’t sold any work for the previous three years! Then they discussed what to do about continued softness in the firm’s Denver office, and finally everyone got up for lunch. Of course, no one wanted to go to the deli in the basement of the building (sentiments being that the food was awful), so they got into three different cars and drove over to the local country club. By 2:20, they were back at the office. Schipperknocket had another two-inch pile of stuff in his in-box, six voice mail messages to return (two from his wife, one from his mother, two from vendors, one from a client), and 10 other phone messages from people inside and outside the firm. After returning as many calls as he could and suffering through two more interruptions from an engineer and architect who were bickering with each other, Schipperknocket got back to his pile. Included were about a half-dozen time sheets with problems (they had already been reviewed and approved by him— what was accounting concerned about?), and the expense reports of 17 people who worked in his department. It was now 4:10, and the marketing meeting had already started. At 6:00, there was an optional training session on how to access the online PM reports that people are supposed to be looking at for budget status. At 7:25 p.m., Schipperknocket was back in his Lexus, returning phone calls and trying to get as much done as he could before getting home at 8:15 to sit down in front of a TV tray and eat the warmed-up remains of the family dinner that was on the table two hours earlier. Before he switched off the light next to his bed at 11 p.m., he glanced at his DayTimer and saw he had a board of directors meeting on Wednesday (that would last most of the day), an ASCE meeting on Wednesday night, a presentation planning session on Thursday (scheduled at the same time he was supposed to be watching his fourth grader’s class play), and a performance appraisal meeting with his protégé. Then on Friday, it was more of the same— internal meetings with the associates’ group, a project post-mortem review, and maybe, just maybe, another 245 e-mails and 72 phone calls to return. The sad thing about it is that, right now, Schipperknocket’s firm needs work and needs billings. His personal utilization was only 5% last month, and he only found time to make three phone calls to clients in the last 30 days. He was named a principal seven years ago because he was good at what he did and could sell, too. Now he spent all his time in meetings and pushing paper. It seems like a lot of mid-level and senior people we see working in design and environmental firms have really lost their way. They spend more of their time with busy work instead of actually getting something done. It’s sad. But the truth is, in many cases, they are just responding to the situation that was laid out for them. That’s what’s expected, and in some cases, that’s even what’s rewarded! No wonder Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, has gotten rich poking fun at the goofy things that go on. When people look busy but don’t do anything productive, it’s such as waste— a waste of human potential and a waste of the shareholders’ money. Whose fault is it? Is it Schipperknocket’s, because he let himself fall into the trap? Or is it his boss’, because he set the tone for the firm’s culture, tolerated the bureaucracy, and didn’t let Schipperknocket know what the real priorities were? I think they are both to blame. Originally published 7/09/2001.

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