Thursday, July 13, 2006

Retiring Old Heads, Confidence, and Specifications

I spoke the other day with a customer, a man employed by one particular agency. His lament was that several "old heads" were retiring, and the "young guns" hired to replace them were making life difficult. You may insert your preferred description for an unsavory co-worker or boss, something like "a piece of work", "something else", or "unqualified". After the conversation, I began to realize that this is yet another manifestation of the problem that is growing up before our eyes, and quickly becoming the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.

That problem? There are no well-qualified people to replace the retiring, or soon to retire, old heads who make up the greater portion of our Railroad Engineering expertise. Issues have been reported before here at Rip Track. But a more subtle facet of the problem has not. And that's where the confidence factor comes in.

Let's say you are the new guy coming to work for some particular agency. Once all the welcomes and staff introductions are over, you sit at your desk, awash in the consuming silence of your own thoughts. You realize your worst fears, that you may be forced to decide something. And that something has to do with an urgent matter with which you have absolutely no experience! What to do.

You might ask one of your older, experienced staffers. But who? Who can you trust? Ah, you could ask a consultant. Good idea, but many of you are thinking at this very moment while reading, that there are many, many consultants who have no better clue, either! Never mind, once that path is chosen, you as the new guy are pretty much committed to the consultant's recommendation. Don't believe it? A review of your memory should provide you with your own example. Just look in your mental file marked, "The Expert lives sixty miles down the road".

You might go it on your own. This is where my colleague had issues with his new superior. Reminds me of the chorus of salesmen on the rocking passenger car that made up one of the first scenes of "The Music Man", if they changed their lyrics to say, "Doesn't know the property, doesn't know the property!" The new superior is making decisions and spending money based on his former paradigm, and it won't work in his new one.

The confidence factor, yes. Have you noticed that no one goes around yelling that it will be dark right after the evening meal? Everyone knows that! If you have ever gone to a sports officiating training session, you will recall being told that the more unsure you are of a call, the louder you yell it out. Same thing in the railroad business, the more unsure you are of your decision, the more forceful you yell. Lack of confidence, and lack of knowledge for that matter, soon becomes clear to fellow staff and subordinates. Result? Bad work environment.

How about specifications? Might work, might take too long, too. And where did specifications come from originally, anyway? I mean long ago. When did someone move from knowing exactly what was needed to what had to be written down? I think it might have involved purchasing, either the desire to bid competitively or to obtain identical products. For fun, think of the specifications that General Dodge used for the Union Pacific in the 1860's versus what we have now. Interesting thought.

But specs are only as good as the writer. Inexperienced writer, bad specs. We are right back where we started. Even worse, a set of bad specs enforced by an inexperienced person.

This seemingly hopeless situation can be cut down to size. More on that later.


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