The Last-Straw Ratchet

Camel pulling overloaded cartWhen companies create bad conditions for good employees, they fall into a last-straw ratchet.

What is a last-straw ratchet?

Let’s say your caravan is made up of sick, weak camels. If you add straws until you finally break a camel’s back, you can replace the sick, weak camel with a vigorous, strong camel. You ratchet up. This might even work if you were on a tight budget when you built that starter caravan (and opted for more camels, rather than better camels).

But let’s say you built your caravan from the best available camels. If you add a straw that breaks a camel’s back, the one that replaces it will not be stronger unless, miraculously, strong camels have become more plentiful and cheaper. More likely, since you’ve already grabbed the best available camels, the new camel will carry less than its predecessor. You ratchet down.

Did you build your caravan with weak camels on purpose? Probably not.

There are four three important differences between a camel and a human.
1. Humans cannot carry as much as a camel.
2. Humans get to choose which driver they work for.
3. Humans are picky about the specifics of what they carry.
4. Humans don’t spit at you when angry or threatened.

Because of #2 and #3, careless employers lose employees who, but for those last straws, would have stayed. When the a strong employee breaks under a last straw and quits, the company ratchets down.

To keep the quality high, they’re on a constant treadmill, trying to replace the good employees with good employees. They are mining, not farming. They’re not stepping back and asking which straws are the back breakers.

The Manager’s Three Misconceptions

The root problem is that managers labor under a set of misconceptions that make sense when camels are many and loads are light, which is rarely.

Misconception 1. The Good Employees Need Their Current Jobs

The first misconception is that they think that employees need that job. Most of us need a job, but that’s different from needing this job. Strong camels always have a place in a caravan, but unlike camels, human workers also get to choose their caravan. If another caravan looks better, they just switch.

Misconception 2. Good Employees Will Do Any Work Asked

The second misconception is they believe they need to find people for work instead of finding work for people. A friend who built the largest company of its kind told me that if he finds a “Level I” kind of person, he hires immediately. It doesn’t matter if he has an opening or not. He says “I can always find work for that sort of person.” With that strategy, he has attracted and retained some of the best in the industry.

Companies sometimes act is if getting employees to do more or different work is simply a matter of rewriting job descriptions. And because they already have misconception #1 (the employee needs that job), they have no idea how close they are to breaking the back and how many other camel drivers are eyeing that strong, unhappy camel.

The best employees do their best work in jobs they like and they like jobs where they can do their best work. Obviously, work is work. Nobody pays accountant wages to have the accountant write poetry, no matter how much the accountant loves poetry and hates accounting. But in many cases, keeping an employee happy is just a matter of checking in and finding out how things are going.

Misconception 3. A Manager’s Job Is To Figure Out How to Bear the Load

The bad camel driver manages to the load, rather than managing to the capacity of the camels, which leads to the third misconception.

The manager thinks 27 things must get done this week and demands it of an employee who is willing and able to do 17. Every week the employee accumulates failures and stress by only doing 17 things. After too many straws, he decides to do zero things. The company loses that knowledge ratchets down.

Most of the time, the manager doesn’t understand the choice he’s making. He thinks he’s choosing between having the employee carry one more or one less straw. He has forgotten about the differences between camels and people. He’s actually choosing between having the employee bear one more straw and quit at the first opportunity or be happy and stay long term.

He misunderstands his role. He think it is to get more production out of the employee. In reality, the good employee is already doing her best work. The manager’s actual job is to clear the road and retain that talent.

A couple of friends quit their jobs recently. In one case, there were many factors and the “too much of the wrong load” problem was only one of them.

In the other, it was a friend who might have stayed a few more years, but the new company that took over the contract he was working under took away his assistant manager. With an assistant, he was working four days a week. They had a day to overlap and a good quality of life. When they took away his assistant, they said “Well, you’ll just have to work seven days.”  But that was where the company was wrong. He didn’t have to work seven days a week. He chose to work no days at all.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been surrounded by cases like this. In many cases, long-term employees with deep knowledge leave because the employer fails to understand that person has other options.

All those years of experience are lost. The company loads on a last straw and ratchets down.

Meanwhile, I go to a dentist who is only open four days a week. I think he’s a great dentist, but I also noticed everyone who works there seems happy and energized and punctual — my hygienist has never been late in dozens of visits. I asked my hygienist how he was to work for. She immediately started in with how much she enjoyed working there and then she said an interesting thing: at her old practice, she worked part-time because that’s all she could stand, but with Dr Buca, she works full-time and enjoys it. Her patients love her. Take a few straws off, stop short of a crushing load, and the whole practice ratchets up.

Attempting to always squeeze out a little bit more “production” is a classic example of Goodhart’s Law. The company puts pressure on managers to keep labor costs low or to launch more marketing tactics or to run more shuttle buses. The managers focus on that one metric. Over the short run, they “improve” by piling on straws. Over the short term, existing employees carry that load, usually for the same pay.

The best of them, though, don’t carry the load very long. They have options, so they leave.

The system ratchets down.

The company is mining employees instead of farming them. They burn through the good people locally. Their own employees do not tell their friends when there’s an opening. They struggle to replace them with employees of similar quality. They have to redefine the jobs so that people with less knowledge or experience can do them. They replace specialists with generalists.

They not only achieve less, they eventually aim lower too.

Costs ratchet down and quality does too, one last straw at a time.

2 Responses to “The Last-Straw Ratchet”

  1. Richard in Oakland

    This was really fascinating to read. I’ve never read an analysis like this. … and to be honest, I thought this website was about tech tips and help. So this was very unexpected.

    It’s the kind of thing that could be expanded into a book, that becomes a New York Times bestseller, that spawns seminars and so on.
    Good job thank you for your insights.

  2. Thank you! I’m flattered. I don’t see a bestseller in the future, but you’re perfectly welcome to steal the idea and write one yourself. Let me know if you do and I’ll buy a copy ;-)

    Your comment that you thought this website was about tech tips and help, but this post is rather different, is more insightful than you can guess. The short version is that I write a lot of things like this in my journal, but I don’t publish them for many reasons. Mostly fear in various forms. In fact, I already have a long essay in my journal about the various forms of fear that have held me back from publishing more often here. My biggest fear is simply that people will read this blog. My second biggest fear is that they won’t! I think those all have smaller fears: Not good enough. Not interesting. Who am I to say how managers should manage? Who am I to inflict my poetry on people?

    Recently, I realized that the whole reason I started a blog was to have a place where I felt less constrained than I did in my professional writing as, at the time, an academic historian. And yet, I was putting constraints on myself mostly out of fear. I finally realized that the goal of this blog is not to have a lot of readers, a lot of traffic, sell ads, launch a bestseller or anything like that. That’s part of why it has such an obscure title – I specifically don’t want to “match keywords” or any of that. I just want to write for my own benefit.

    So why hit the publish button at all? That’s the question I keep asking. I can write and not publish, of course. But after a career of writing for publication, it feels strange to me to write in a journal without any concept of audience. But also, I think it’s good for me to be willing to let others read what I have to say.

    Partly, it just helps me refine and rethink my ideas. I’ve gotten some good comments, even angry but good comments, on some bits I’ve written, but every once in a while even one of the angry people changes the way I see a problem. So it’s a way to get outside my own head (in theory, assuming people actually engage).

    Partly, though, I think it’s just useful practice being vulnerable and putting yourself out there (I don’t feel that way with academic writing or How To tech recipes, but I do feel it with something like this). I used to have an insane fear of public speaking. I literally couldn’t eat for at least 24 hours before I had to speak. But then, over the course of my career, I estimate I’ve given 500 to 1,000 public presentations. I still get nervous before a crowd. When I rose to spoke to my congressman at a town meeting in front of 300 people, my mind initially went completely blank (though people in the audience told me they thought it was a rhetorical flourish and I looked and sounded very calm!). But I actually find that my talks are well-received and part of me really likes doing it, even if I am much more comfortable at a dinner table or a small classroom.

    On some level, I think it’s the written equivalent of fear of public speaking that has held me back from publishing more here. One of my New Years resolutions was to publish more here. If people don’t like it, that’s okay. The writing is more for me. The piece here was an exercise in clarifying my thoughts on the subject rather than imparting my great wisdom. I told my wife that it was somewhere in the third draft that I really understood the half-baked thought that was bothering me when I started.

    So I’m glad you liked it. There’s a good chance you won’t like the next dozen things. I have ideas for posts on life and nature and poetry and who knows what. I can’t imagine anyone would find half of them interesting (and when I go back and look at some of the old posts that I find uninteresting and not worth remembering, lately I’ve just been deleting them). And that’s okay. I’m writing for me, not for you. If you get something out of it too, that’s the bonus!

    Thanks for reading.