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Sunday, 26 June 2011

Thought leaders revisited revisiting sustainability

"Jerry" I say as we drive back from Harrogate, "You realize that we have two managers each for this project. We should make the mots of this and ensure we get the most information that we can"

Jerry doesnt answer, which I consider slightly rude, until I risk a glance sideways - he's fast asleep, probably because its nearing midnight and we've been up since 5 am trying to fix the latest mess we've gotten involved in. Its the third time, on an annual basis, that I have been to Harrogate with nearly (and that word is absolutely crucial) the same show, in the same place at the same time, for the same company. Over the years, the company has shrunk - understandable given current economic circumstances nationally - but claims to have maintained its service capability and improved its practices, while developing a commitment to sustainable practices. The morning meeting I tell (the still sleeping) Jerry I will arrange with the Project Manager, Designer, Client Account Manager and Project Finance Manager in order to sort out the mess they have left us will give us a good idea of how efficient they have become. I had a preliminary meeting with the company in Leeds to discuss this years event prior to accepting the job, and was assured that this year, my only task would be, as it should be, installing a fully prepared, properly cleaned and maintained, pristine, conference stand. I really should have known better.

WHat actually happens is that the company apparently abandon the stand completely. I arrive at their warehouse to find a moldy, dusty old stand, mice nests in its darkest corners, numerous dings and bangs from collisions with forklift trucks in the warehouse. It look terrible, even blessed by the darkness of a dingy Leeds warehouse. And this set is incredibly heavy. All there is to move the set in the warehouse is one very small trolly with three working wheels. From there, things have gotten worse and by the end of the first day onsite, I have no idea how this show is going to happen. Therefore, as I tell Jerry, I call a meeting of the four managers responsible for arranging this project.

We meet on-site as agreed. The first order of business is to establish exactly what needs doing to this conference stand. Essentially, the stand (or show as I interchangeably call it) consists of a raised floor on top of which a four metre high, twelve metre long double sided, internally lit wall sits. Attached to this is a working bar. There is also two seperate elements that demarcate the corner of the stand. While that describes the basics, every year there are subtle changes. It takes three full days to install the set, because behind this simple description, there is lighting, plumbing, electrical installations to arrange and some av work to hook up. Today is day two.

I note this to the designer "I think before we do anything, we [when I use the word 'we' I mean me and Jerry] need to know what changes are there to the set?"

The designer thinks for a minute "Well not that much actually. We [when these people use the word 'we' they also mean me and Jerry]only need to remove the graphics on the bar and figure a way of installing this sign (he holds up a sign, mounted on plastic about A3 size) without visible mountings and apply all the graphics to the overhead truss (this is a big lighting bar hung above the stand)and move the position of the wall mounted plasma tv's."

"And that's all?" I ask increduously.

"Well", says the Client Account Manager, who being a a 'people person' has probably spotted the look on my face "I know that's a lot, but I think we can do it if we work really hard. And there's a few other things to do - the client though the stand looked scruffy last year: we need to replace the chips in the laminate as well. The thing is, we need to know how much time we need. What do you think, Red Mazzer??"

I'm not sure whether Jerry has gone outside to catch a bus back to Hull, or just to try and find some drugs, so I have, temporarily, no partner to provide verification, but I give the best estimate I can:

"Installing the graphics will take about a day, fixing the laminate will take about a day, setting up the show and hooking up the Av will take about a day, and removing the graphics from the bar will take about two days. Effectively, we will probably be finished two days after the show ends. And there's no point sending me anyone to help, unless they are very skilled, because these are all skilled jobs. So do you have anyone?"

"Er, No."

The rest of the conversation goes along similar lines, like:

Can you do with out the changes?

Er. NO.

Have you given any thought what-so-ever to how this show might actually get installed ?

Er. NO.

SO why do you expect me to give a Flying F*** when you so obviously dont?

Er. We do care. I did a 36 hour stint in the office last week.

Well done, although that doesnt show commitment, just murderous intent on the part of your employer allowing that to happen, and total gullibility on your part in doing it. But that aside, what do you want me to do, given the situation you lot have have put us in ?

Er, We were hoping you would tell us.

The worst thing is, when the inevitable happens, and the client comes on site and has an absolute meltdown because their show is, of course, not ready, the Client Account Manager, rather than accepting responsibility for this eventuality on behalf of the company, blames an utterly blameless third party, accusing them of not doing their job properly. Needless to say, the client is so angry that she seeks out this third party to remonstrate with them, and inevitably, the truth emerges. The necessary services of the third party were not engaged by the Project Manager until so late that the third party was only able to provide part of what was requested. The overall effect of this is that half of the stand is unlit. It looks like a Goth has designed it. The stupidity of lying to the client becomes apparent as the third party explains their entirely blameless role in the proceedings and the finger points back to the company. Not deterred by looking like a complete idiot, the Client Account Manager then proceeds to attempt similar lies to explain away other deficiencies in the stand. One of those lies points the finger firmly in my direction, as it attributes the bangs and scrapes in the once pristine laminate surface to lack of care during transport of the show, an area which is part of my remit.

The whole week is a comedy of errors. In actual fact, the company get their show with only a minor delay to the presentation of some video material. And the various company managers breathe a huge sigh of relief. I personally doubt that they have any idea at all how dangerous (in terms of real health and safety) and dangerous (in terms of not getting their product to the client at all) the approach to this show has been. Mostly however, I wonder at the culture of their company that allows this to happen. It is a company that flouts its commitments to sustainability, and its one whose self titled 'thought leaders' emphasize the humanistic and human in their written and verbal statements, its the type of 'new' approach to business typical of media, advertising and the vents industry, all first names and 'banter'. THe need to do long hours is recognised, but its presented by the company as an occasional necessary evil. The occasional stresses when things go wrong are noted by the thought leaders as inevitable in this business (and indeed they are) but the reality is actually total chaos, on a permanent basis as standard operating procedure.

Whether this company continues to function or not, does not make a great deal of difference to me. But I do notice the en0rmous stress that all the workers are under. A common presumption goes like this "If the workers are under that much stress, just imagine how much more stress the managers and thought leaders are under?" The picture of the busy executive getting hit by a mid-forties heart attack because of the stress caused by their restless efforts to keep a company afloat and make sure every one still has jobs is a common one. It is also inaccurate, as the Whitehall Study quite clearly shows. The Whitehall study shows - after investigating 18,000 people over forty years, that it is the ones lower down the totem pole that suffer from stress. Thought leaders should think about this very carefully. They can claim sustainability, walk round the shop floor jovially calling everyone by affectionate nicknames, be trendy, cry when they have to sack people, and appear human. They might claim with some legitimacy that they are supporting local jobs. But what is actually happening in many cases is that they are killing their workers through stress. Its not sustainable, its not human and its not efficient, its just desperate.

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