Friday, July 24, 2009

Confusion of Means and Ends, Part 2

Back when I was in the army we were inspected regularly, especially at one big Annual General Inspection. An officer would not only look at things like how neatly the soldier dressed but he might ask questions. The most important question was, “What is your mission?” If a soldier got that one wrong his commander was in trouble; it was the commander’s job to make sure that his people knew such things. (In fact the soldier was also in trouble since his commander would know who couldn’t answer.)

That was a good start to the problem of confusion of means and ends. If every member of an organization knows what the goals are, they are more likely to contribute to reaching those goals. However it takes more than just an occasional question to create that awareness and an understanding of its importance. In fact the army training in general failed to emphasize the mission. The officers paid a lot of attention to ceremony, spit and polish, how we rolled our socks in our footlockers etc. We usually could have passed the visual part of the inspection and answered the questions, but few if any soldiers really gave much thought to the mission. In fact I was tempted to say that our mission was standing inspections.

How do we solve the problem of confusion of means and ends? Awareness is the first step; we must keep our goals in mind and think about how our actions relate to those goals. This should be in our minds whenever we make a decision or take some action. . However that is only a start. People have to make wise decisions that put the goals first, before such things as their individual status. It is the people making the decisions and taking action that determine how effectively we advance toward our goals.

How do we get those people to decide and act wisely? One obvious measure is to push decisions down to the lowest level feasible in any organization. If people close to the issue are empowered to decide, they will usually make better decisions than someone way up in the hierarchy. In a chain of stores, local managers should be able to decide on how much of which products to keep on hand. Yes, some will make mistakes but almost certainly not as many mistakes as if someone remote from the area makes those decisions. It is the local employees who know that people in one town prefer grits while in another oatmeal will sell well.

This extends to families as well. Parents may think their little ones look just darling in certain clothes. However those clothes are likely to collect dust in the closet if the children hate them. The goal should be responsible children, not fashion statements. Of course parents can and should place limits on their children, for example not allowing their daughters to dress like whores. However children should have reasonable discretion according to their maturity, they know what they like to wear better than their parents do.

This decision-making power should be attached to responsibility of course. The local store manager is responsible for profits and if he what he buys sits on the shelf he may find himself demoted to a position where his mistakes don’t cost so much. Children should not be given unlimited clothing budgets but should know that they have only so much to spend. If they blow it all on the latest fads, they will not have money to buy the new fad that comes along next month. They will be out of style and will quickly learn the benefits of buying things of lasting value.

This is one reason to devolve government responsibility to the smallest jurisdictions feasible. The local town council or county commission is likely to know how much they need to spend on police, jails, road maintenance etc. Edicts from Washington, D.C. are likely to overfund some areas while leaving other needs starved for money. One example was the federal effort a few years ago to fund more local police. It was well-intended but the objective was not more police. The objective was to keep criminals off the street. More police were only a means to that end. Many jurisdictions already had a “revolving door” problem with their jails; they had to release criminals for lack of space. More police simply spun those revolving doors faster.

In government, business, family and personal life we have to keep the goal in mind. Every manager or parent should make sure that people understand the goal and why their own actions are important to that goal. If some activity does not help reach the goal, it should be re-evaluated. Each employee or family member should also be assertive in asking why his work is important. It is up to each one of us to know what to do and how that contributes to the overall goals of the organization.

As our actions move us toward our goals instead of simply concentrating on means, our lives, our businesses, and our government will improve.

If you like my blog, please tell others.
If you don't like it, please tell me.

No comments: