In an ideal world, every worker would follow his or her business processes to the letter so that every part of the company operates efficiently. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that the best-written processes in the world are bloody useless if no one in authority requires workers to follow them.
How would you respond if your boss’s boss sent you a memo telling you that you, personally, owed the company three-quarters of a million pounds? Would you be shocked? Horrified? That really happened to me once, and all that I felt at the time was exasperated. Here’s how it all came about…
I’d taken over my company’s IT department in early spring. Towards late summer that same year, my team collected up all of the obsolete kit from across the enterprise as part of our normal lifecycle management process. My people set all of the useless gear aside in our department’s private warehouse to be decommissioned and scrapped later. The users that turned in the old kit all got new replacements. Under the arrangement, we’d take care of all of the out-processing of their used stuff. The users loved it because it meant less work for them; we loved it because it meant everything got scrapped correctly, and nothing would (we thought) get lost, stolen, stripped for parts or (worst of all) secretly reintroduced to the network under a false identity. 
On this particular year’s end, we wound up collecting about five pallets full of old kit, including obsolete network switches and routers, old rack-mounted servers and stacks of workstations along with the normal compliment of broken CRT monitors and inkjet printers. I didn’t have space to store it all until our normal disposal time came up, and I didn’t have a training budget for my technicians, so I hit on an outlandish plan: I’d sign all of the old gear out to the lads… for a year. Specifically to practice on outside of normal work hours.
I’d discovered a peculiar loophole in the property management regulations that allowed employees to sign for computer equipment on their own recognizance for up to 365 days. The original intent of the policy seemed to have been to put computers in the homes of high-ranking staff members who were too cheap to buy their own. This was back when not everyone had a PC, and no one had a smartphone (because they didn’t exist yet). Nowadays, the concept of a home not having a computer seems like a quaint idea, like riding a horse to school or churning your own butter. Anyway, the rule was legal and it was also worded vaguely enough that my plan was 100 per cent kosher within the law.
When I announced the idea as a professional development idea, the staff flipped out. Within a week, the entire stack of old kit was properly receipted and gone. That manoeuver bought us enough time to completely gut the IT warehouse and create new space for simultaneous equipment in- and out-processing.
One year later, I put out a call for all of the signed-out kit to be brought back with a warning that anything coming in so much as a minute past the deadline would be charged to whoever’s name was on the receipt. It worked like a charm: the day before the sign-out period ended, we had 100 per cent of the kit accounted for and re-palletized for disposal. The next week, we hauled it all over to the transportation dock for shrink-wrapping and line-haul off to the scrapyard. Mission accomplished!
Except… no. No it wasn’t. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Six months later, my head of lifecycle management brought me a report that showed more than twice as much equipment listed on our books than we actually had deployed. It took some forensic work, but we eventually figured out that 100 per cent of the supposedly disposed-of kit from October had mysteriously reappeared on our official inventory. There wasn’t any supporting paperwork for the transfer back, and we had our receipts on-file from giving the pile over to the transportation lads. I told the LCM fellow to run the deletion order again and to clear it up.
Six months after that, we had a recurrence. My lifecycle fellow brought me another cursed inventory roster showing that the entire list of ‘ghost gear’ had been placed back on our roster. I assigned a few lads to run the problem to ground. A week later, a very angry young IT manager came back and told me what had happened:
It seemed that the five pallets of old IT scrap that we’d taken to the transportation office had sat idle on their loading dock for months. The people responsible for having it hauled off had forgotten to submit a request to get rid of it, and then assumed that it would be taken care of by someone else. Months later, a new supervisor noticed the pile and assumed (without checking) that the kit had to be assigned to IT’s inventory because it was in-bound material instead of out-bound. That accounted for the first reappearance.
When my lifecycle team resubmitted the paperwork to have the lot deleted, it spurred the transportation people to finally submit an order to have it all shipped. Unfortunately, during that nine-month break, the rules at the disposal facility changed. When the truck full of old LCD monitors showed up on their doorstep, the scrap tech demanded a comprehensive written inventory. When the truck driver couldn’t produce one, the whole lot was sent back down the line to our loading dock… where the trans people dutifully signed for it and re-added it all to our inventory without telling us, assuming that we must have know that it was coming.
I was livid. I had a loud discussion with the head of logistics over his apparent inability to handle a simple line-haul job, and for his unauthorized practice of conducting midnight property record changes in other people’s books without getting an acceptance signature. Eventually, we worked out a compromise: IT would do all the paperwork needed to dispose of old kit, and trans would simply arrange its movement once the forms were dress-right-dress. We all signed a letter to that effect and went out separate ways. Later that quarter, my people hauled the ghost kit off to the scrapyard and got it formally taken off of our books. Again.
Except that they didn’t. Oh, the transfer forms all got signed. That part went fine. Unfortunately, a well-meaning jack-wagon at the national property management office saw the mass removal of accountable items from our site’s master inventory record and assumed (without checking) that it was an incorrect transaction… and voided the deletion. The next time our inventories re-synced with national, all of that gear wound up flowing right back into our records… in an old inventory database that we’d stopped using for official property tracking a year earlier.
No one knew that there was a problem until a posse of auditors showed up on our doorstep one day with an inventory to run. Their equipment listings didn’t match out records at all. The auditors demanded to know where all of the (by then) five-year-old ghost kit was. There were words, many of which were blistering and venomous. We eventually worked out where everything had gone pear-shaped during the deletion attempt and put together a plan to clean up the records. Again.
At the time, we had system access rights to simply delete all of the offending serial numbers from the inventory database, but that would have been morally wrong; it would have looked like we were trying to do something shady. Instead, we took the high road and submitted a request for a formal investigation so that someone else – a disinterested third party – could perform the deletions with confidence that everything was above-board.
The regulations said that the investigation needed to be done within 30 days. Instead, it took more than three years for the logisticians to complete the bloody investigation. More people had their hands on the fouled-up investigation paperwork than had ever actually handled the original equipment. It was a complete cluster. When the final report finally made it to my desk for approval, I saw that one of the investigators had called for the equipment to be marked as ‘lost/stolen’ and to have the former accountable property managers charged for the lot. I denied the request and kicked it back with a scathing rebuttal. We had proof to show that the kit had all been properly disposed of. Proof, I might add, that was inside the package. Proof that the ‘investigator’ clearly hadn’t read.
Because of the dispute, the entire investigation had to be redone by a new accountable officer in an all-new package. During that time, our higher headquarters found out that our site was many years late getting property accountability issues sorted and demanded a full accounting. My boss (who was, it should be noted, a bit of a sadist) decided to try and stick me with personal financial accountability for the entire truckload of ghost kit. He sent me a memo formally notifying me that I’d be expected to pay the company back for $1.1 million. I sent one back cheerfully encouraging him to get bent.
In the end, it took nearly nine years of paperwork and hundreds of labour orders to get the property books corrected. My back-of-the-napkin math suggests that over $30,000 of effort was wasted in the process… all because of a series of completely-preventable screw-ups made by people who both knew better and were required to be held accountable for their actions. Those folks never were punished for their misconduct. They all got promoted and moved on to better jobs without so much as a coffee cup stain marring their personnel records.
The fact that all of the errors were easily preventable is what really chaps my hide even after all this time. There were supervisors of record on duty whose sole business function was to ensure that those logisticians and property managers did their damned jobs correct. This whole bureaucratic nightmare was a failure of leadership, through-and-through. At each major point in the process, checks and controls were in place to guarantee that just that sort of thing didn’t happen, and at each major point a supervisor failed to perform his or her duty to hold their offending workers accountable for following the mandatory process. There is no such thing as a process that’s immune to human negligence; that’s why we have leaders: to know the standards and to enforce the standards.
At first, we all thought that they reoccurring property records were the result of some sort of mysticism or witchcraft; no matter what we did, we just couldn’t get the darned things off of our inventory. Investigating the problem didn’t solve anything; it just led to some nasty people (most notably, my boss Bob and several of his high-ranking allies) to take their anger out on us in IT even though we’d followed the rules in good faith. A lot of innocent careers nearly died as a result…
We all learned one priceless lesson from the experience: never trust someone that you have no leverage on or authority to handle something on your behalf that can blow back on you. From that point on, us IT folks did all of our own property disposal and inventory transfer paperwork – in triplicate – and never let the transportation or the logistics people handle our old kit until and unless they signed for fiscal accountability over it. That way, when they inevitably screwed things up – and when their bosses inevitably didn’t hold them accountable for their sloppiness – none of us IT folk would be forced to pay for their mistakes.
 That actually happened a lot; my predecessor had run a very sketchy program where workgroups could turn in their scrap PCs and then ‘steal’ them back from storage to use as stand-alone devices. So long as they never turned back up on the network, they could keep using them. Of course, they always wound up back on the network because they were bloody useless e-mail terminals when they had no connectivity.
Title Allusion: Tony Hillerman, The Blessing Way (1970 Book)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.