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Stovepipes and the Principle of Imminent Collapse

Paradigms of thinking and of actions can be characterized in several ways. In order for organizations to truly be organized, they need to communicate such that each department, division and office knows what is going on. We can call that “making sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.” This is nothing new. All too often an organizational department is a compartment where it is isolated from the others and operates like it is the whole company.

When businesses become too large, they begin to exhibit the Silo or Stovepipe Mentality. Either metaphor is equally descriptive of the situation. This phenomenon is so prevalent in human interactions that even children understand it, maybe even implicitly. Mom said No to the request to go to the party, so now Dad is queried for approval. Mom has been operating in her silo and Dad in his. Neither one knows what the others has been approving or denying. Only when the gig is up, do many parents begin to think ahead of the child and make sure that they decide in concert. This is not to say that each parent actually wants to decide collectively. There are those situations that one parent believes one way and the other, another. They are continually at odds with each other on the rearing of the children. Divorced parents with joint custody have an especially difficult time of staying in synch.

In business and government the lack of communications between and among stovepipes can create an undesirable liability for the impacts of their decisions. While I was employed by the City of Athens, Georgia in the 1980s, I observed that Zoning Commission staff were squirreled away in their respective offices reviewing subdivision plans and requests for zoning changes. Each person was using his or her own memory of previous applications to aid in making future decisions. The result was that one staff person might deny a zoning change request based on some condition while the person in the next office was approving a similar one nearby without regard to the history of requests in the vicinity of the new request. This led to major headaches and reversals on appeal for the previously denied changes. Sometimes the appeals were accompanied by claims for financial losses due to delayed or scuttled plans for development or in some cases the sale price of a parcel of land.

This scenario is an example of the stovepipe mentality that often exists within the same silo. In a building where I worked as a technical assistance specialist in DC, we piled obsolete computer hardware in to two wheeled carts and headed down to the basement level to find our way to the obscure loading lock that sufficed for several clustered buildings and the tenants therein. One of the ground floor tenants is an upscale restaurant on the corner of our block. Our company Director is a hands-on get it done type of person. He made the decision one day that the hardware had to go. He marshaled the troops to load the carts and he and they all went in search of that back way out of the building to the alley. They made blind turns pushing open any basement door that yielded until they met the light of day at the end of their journey. They left the items for the pickup that they ordered. The dock area was a grungy litter strewn platform where all sorts of dripping garbage and dry trash exited from the bowels of the office building. The alimentary canal ended right there.

They also met some of the restaurant personnel bringing in their food supplies. This is where the stovepipe thinking enters the picture. At one time of day the wastes are removed through this orifice and at another time of day, the same company and probably the same employees bring their fresh food supplies in through this orifice without ever considering the gravity of cross-contamination. Our Director returned to our floor commenting that he would never eat at that establishment again after seeing their food and waste handling procedures.

Unfortunately, this singular example is acted out tens of thousands of times a day, every day of the week even in this most sanitary and regulated country in the world. The only question is what will be the nudge that sends the food service industry into freefall and when will it happen. As microbes evolve in our fast paced world, they are faster than are we to respond and adapt. This is especially true as we sit in our silos looking up our stovepipes at blue skies not knowing what the next silo is doing.

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