Monday, March 19, 2007

Middle Managers, In Search of a Reason to Exist

Last week, Barista Brat had an interesting post about changes going on at the Starbuck's chain. She mentioned how people from the corporate offices are pushing baristas to sell expensive espresso and coffee machines. Her reply was great-- "there is a reason i’m not a car salesman." She points out how detrimental it is for the overall functioning of a busy coffeeshop when a barista is pulled from his or her role in production and made to try to sell something that in all liklihood, as she points out, the customer is not interested in.

I'm certain that there was some middle-manager who made that bright decision.

I was reminded of an incident at a restaurant I worked at right out of college, in 1986 and 1987. I usually worked the lunch shift there. This was the Bennigan's on North Michigan Avenue, the one in the ICC building. The lunches were fast and furious. At about 11:30, the place filled up and didn't let up until after 2:30. If you weren't good at what you did, you didn't last. If you weren't prepared, your shift was hell.

One day, as we approached the bewitching hour, ready for a rocking shift, our busboys were suddenly pulled from the floor. Every one of them. The place was filling up, and suddenly we were having to do a bunch of stuff that we normally didn't have to do. It threw off our game badly-- important in a place that advertised "15 Minutes or It's Free" lunches.

What important mission were the busboys on? It turned out that Steve S., the "Associate Manager" of our and three other Bennigan's had shown up and had the busboys moving the crane machine around to decide where it should be. You know-- those crane machines that they have at carnivals. In an attempt to add "ambience" along with the fake old road signs and such, every Bennigan's had one of them in the lobby. It was hilarious-- mass-manufactured ambience.

In the Bennigan's hierarachy of management, we had, at the bottom, assistant managers. There was a General Manager for each store. There was an Associate Manager for every 4 stores, and a Regional Manager that handled about 20 stores.

There were some severe problems in the chain, and at that store in particular. It was the busiest Bennigan's in the country. It was so busy, that they opened two other Bennigan's, down the street across from the Art Institute and across the loop in Presidential Towers, and there was not a blip in their gross income. Yet, there were days and nights the place was a nightmare to work, for various reasons. The place was prone to complete melt-downs, where people were waiting an hour or more for food.

The problems were all solvable-- all it took was the will. Steve S. apparently did not think that these things, which impacted the actual production and profit of the place merited his attention.

In any event, as the place filled up, our busboys continued to be tied up moving the stupid crane machine from one place to another while Steve S. pondered it. This process was beginning to interfere with the restaurant's operation even more, as customers who were in the lobby waiting for tables now had to move as the phone-booth sized machine was moved from place to place in the tiny lobby. It was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen in a workplace. And it was not an isolated event.

I was struggling to get started in life at this point-- just out of college, beginning to pay back student loans. I needed every dollar I made every shift. Steve S. lived in Buffalo Grove, one of the richest suburbs in the country. I felt like I could teach him a thing or two about management. Or at least give him a few choice words.

A few weeks ago, my father sent me this great list of office terms. Things like "prarie-dogging"-- peoples' heads popping up out of cubicles in response to a disturbance. My favorite of the list was the "seagull"-- a middle manager who has no idea what is going on, who swoops in, makes a lot of noise, leaves a lot of shit, and then flies away.

At least now I have a nickname for Steve S.


Natalie said...

I have eaten at that location for lunch a few times. I can't imagine how insane a manager would have to be to suggest such practice.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I know all to well about middle managers. There was one at our correctional facility that didn't know how to conduct a meeting. Coworkers were yelling at one another and the conference room was getting pretty heated up. I pulled him aside and recommended that he use a "round robin" forum where each person get's their chance to speak. It was as if he'd never heard of it before. His biggest "seagull" move was to make it a rule that the inmates couldn't wear hats in the school building. Try telling someone that murdered a bunch of people that he couldn't wear a hat inside the building. Stupid. Plain stupid.

GETkristiLOVE said...

That's funny stuff.

I work in the 'burbs, in between Boulder and Denver and I'm always frustrated at having to go to restaurant chains or strip-mall places to eat lunch instead of some good ethnic or ma/pa shops. My lunch buddies and I pronounce the name of the restaurant where you worked aptly, as "Been Again."

Skylers Dad said...

OK, so I screwed up trying to do a fancy scmancy link to your post. But I gave you some love over on my blog...

Grant Miller said...

I believe I would make a great middle manager.

lulu said...

I work for seagulls.

Toccata said...

I used to work for a school division where the common practice was to take the incompetant teachers that you could not get rid of because of tenure and move them up into administration jobs. The problem with this is eventually you had all the nut cases making curriculum decisions. Making the kind of silly no hat decisions that jr's thumbprints speaks of.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I know a different definition for "prairie dogging" but I won't repeat it in such polite company.

Anon. Blogger said...

Sadly, the seagulls usually disappear because they were promoted! oy.

cheer34 said...

I was a middle manager at a bank when I was 22.I worked in the Mortgage collections department. When I refused to have the collections department call people on Christmas Eve for deliquent payments my VP threaten to fire me. He didn't. But I got the last laugh. He was fired a while later for sexual harassment. I told on him, hehehe. He was after 2 of my staff memebers.

Johnny Yen said...

Yeah, it ranked up there in the Stupid Manger Tricks Hall of Fame. I'll blog about a couple more of his.

I had a feeling you had a few stories. The more I read your tales, the more similarities I see between prison administrators and school administrators.

Meetings are the bane of my existence. What is it about administrators that makes them love to hear themselves talk?

That reminds me of the guys in Office Space having to decide which faux-antique laden "Bennigan's-esqe" place to go to.

Skyler's Dad-
And I thank you for it!

I think you would-- I read it in the file your wife forwarded to the Agency.

I feel your pain, my friend. There's something about the Education field that breeds them.

That's also common practice in Chicago with principals that have been removed. For teachers, I've heard stories of creating teaching positions where there are no actual students. At my school, which has a population that probably 85% of the kids have learning disabilities, we call it "the special education teacher," who seems to spend most of his time shuffling papers in his office and making inane points at meetings.

I am familiar with it too, after seeing the movie "Ratrace." ("Dad, I'm prarie-doggin'!")

You are exactly right. Did you ever read the book from the seventies "The Peter Prinipal"-- the idea that everybody rises to the level of their incompetence, and so eventually virtually every position in an organization is filled with someone who can't do their job?

Good for you!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Oh, jeez, I was an asst. mgr. at Starbucks when I first moved to LA. It was the only job I could get at the time.

They were constantly on us to 1) cut staff, 2) sell expensive espresso machines. I'd look at the line of cranky people out the door, overflowing garbage and condiment stations, filthy floors and tables, the bathrooms that had to be hosed down with bleach hourly, and say are you fucking kidding me?