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It's not that these jobs are bullshit jobs, it's that commonly they are wrapped up in bullshit procedures.

These procedures typically appear when there's an initiative to reduce costs. The easiest and cheapest way to employ an unskilled person to do a skilled job is to hand them a book of 'procedures' on their first day and say "Everything you need to do and know is in this Book". No time consuming cross-training required, no hiring of expensive people who already know the skill. As the Book of Procedures enables you to rinse and repeat the process with every new hire, you are no longer invested in keeping 'talent' within the organisation; good people leave once they realise that the job is 70% procedure vs. 30% actual work... No matter, there's always The Book, let's hire another grunt from the employment queue.

However, because you are filling up your organisation with unskilled workers, errors become more common place. To reduce the error rate, you introduce some extra checks and balances to ensure that the job is being done correctly. These extra procedures go in to The Book. The ratio is now 90% procedure vs. 10% actual work.

People who actually know how to do their job, having learned it well, or had previous skills, get frustrated that most of their workload is 'make-work' following all the extra procedures, and the people who have no skill, just follow the The Book, because they know no different, and it keeps them out of trouble.

Meanwhile, somewhere upstairs in the boardroom, people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back as operating costs have fallen, profits are up, and incidents are down. Creating The Book of Procedures is now considered a valuable skill in it's own right, so the people who care about climbing the managerial pole devote large chunks of their time adding yet more processes to the The Book, and thus the cycle continues, until several roles in the company are nothing but endless procedure creating/tracking without any actual product output.

There's still the problem of a high attrition rate amongst the middle tier staff, but hey, there's always more fish in the sea right?




I think you're right, but I have a somewhat less dire view on this.

I think that large companies optimize for a fundamentally different outcome than smaller companies, like startups. Large companies became large by applying a successful business model, something that startups are still lacking. If you have a working business model and stable cashflow, any change is potentially dangerous and can take down the company. So in contrast to whatever the marketing material says, rigidity and inability to change is actually an asset for large companies. This means the more inflexibility is added to the organization (e.g. by imposing a Book of Procedures that can never be abolished, employing people with no real power to change anything, or self-selecting a staff which is, put blatantly, incompetent to change), the longer the organization keeps existing. Until the market changes fundamentally, that is.


Absolutely.

There are lots of products that are essentially exactly the same as they were years ago, which is great — change is often a bad thing for consumer products and tools. Typically the only value that innovative managers have in these companies is making the product incrementally cheaper and shittier. The value is that it makes room for quality competitors.



One problem with this model is that competition exists. It requires to adjust the business model, or give away (a part of) the market.

This sometimes produces waves of change (seen as painful and haphazard by the old staff), when new ways to run the company are invented to keep up with the competition. Then, with new stability, a new calcification phase comes, etc.


It is funny that one can seen this "inflexibility asset" in many, many organizations, from various industries and areas. People running those really do not like changes..


It's not that penguins have cold blood in their feet because otherwise they could get stuck on ice. It's that all penguins that had warm blood in their feet have died.


Are you saying that as a company grows larger its business model becomes MORE precarious such that they can no longer afford experimentation or optimization of any kind?


One possible view is that a company grows to the point where it goes from being a recipient of investment, to a source of investment. Also, the managers get too far removed from innovation, to directly engage in or direct it.

I work for a F500. The top brass of the company sincerely want us to move into new areas. So they just buy companies that are already innovating.

People recognize the problem of big companies trying to innovate. One solution is to create isolated innovation teams that function more like smaller companies. I work in one of those teams.


Let's not forget, that's essentially how much of the IT industry as we know it got started: companies like Western Electric, AT&T and Xerox hired people specifically to innovate.


Oversimplifying, this is analogous to simulated annealing optimization algorithm that initially tries various solutions - startup mode, and later converges to a (perhaps local) optimum - large company.


Yes, that's the image I had in mind. The cooling is provided by inflexibility, an emergent behavior of large organizations.


> People who actually know how to do their job, having learned it well, or had previous skills, get frustrated that most of their workload is 'make-work' following all the extra procedures, and the people who have no skill, just follow the The Book, because they know no different, and it keeps them out of trouble.

That’s actually an intermediate step. The interesting side effect of “the book” is that any sufficiently advanced organization will and does recognize the codification or procedure as a chance for automation and increased efficiency. The dangerous thing that might occur here is that “the book” became “the system” in the late 90’s when IT invaded every organization. “The system” got an upgrade here or there - but more or less cargo-cult’d the manual process. More dangerously - “the system” works, and got extended to integrate with another “system.” Changing either one would require substantial work, and the individual that wrote the original “book” has long since left the organization, leaving behind a process frozen in time.


“Don’t just automate, obliterate.” Michael Hammer and James Champy. (1990s)

If my memory serves me correctly.


I feel like even this is being optimistic about the prospects of the book. The idea of The Book is appealing, until someone tries to actually write the stupid thing. Anyone who has ever tried to write any sort of unskilled user facing documentation realizes the cost and training it takes to produce a high quality manual, which naturally the company won't want to pay for, so now you have a half-assed barely legible "Book" that's full of confusion and madness which spirals closer to pure noise with every new "clarification" - pretty soon people aren't doing activities because it's procedure from the book, they are doing activities that are the equivalent of signal noise because no one knows what the book is even trying to say. "No, no, to get a raise first you have to fill out form 2123b, and THEN you sacrifice the goat."


I'm reminded of procedures in the [US] defense industry. A "good step" in a given procedure would be absolutely clear in mind-numbing detail. "Pretend you're writing for a sailor" may be half a joke but it is also very real; sometimes word does get back to you about how something was unclear and a piece of equipment got buggered [or whatever], you look at the section in question, and all you can think is "How can you fuck this up?" but yes a pair of sailors in the Pacific did and now you have to make Sesame Street even easier to understand.

No offense to any of our sailors intended, and this is also true for civilians. You won't necessarily have The Expert or The Author right there during execution, for example.

Also on top of that: sometimes the procedures really are hosed [first draft going live, change the test at the last minute, whatever] and deliberation has to be made until you can rewrite the step for clarity//accuracy//reality and move along. Bring lots of red pens, bring more than you need because you'll burn through all of them.


Not necessarily it being insulting, with Navy sailors, there is a very real chance that when they are needing to read that manual, they are under attack, and thus don't have the time or ability to think through what the step is actually trying to say. Making it extremely clear means that even when being fired on, the correct thing can be done.


First thing I do when being fired upon is ZDV 3/11 "Gefechtsdienst aller Truppen (zu Lande)", the German soldier's bible.

Handbooks are read during downtime not primetime.


I agree.

If I may be fair to myself, the incident in question was during peacetime in the middle of nowhere and was completely routine. Yes that monotony and similar can be a Great Evil, but still... all of my wow.


I believe it was Charles Stross who had a character say "We would like to have Albert Einstein working in the patent office, but it still needs to function if we hire Mr. Bean".


This is what frustrated me after reading the "E-myth" book. Apparently, the recipe for successful business is to enshrine everything in superdetailed Book of Procedures, and have employees follow its content like they were programmable automatons. Now maybe this works, but eliminating human agency like this doesn't sit well with me for some reason.


The main reason why organizations evolve to a bureaucratic mess is human agency, in particular the fact that each individual has personal interests and is motivated to achieve their personal goals. Bureaucracy is designed to restrict personal initiatives that favour the individual worker at the expense of the organization. For example, in Greece public sector workers abuse their position by expecting grafts to do their job, and they deny service to those who don't pay by giving a higher priority to everyone else. Thus, rules are put in place to restrict how prioritization is handled by public sector workers to mitigate this problem. Yet, now public sector workers are bounded to a rigid set of rules which dictates how and when a process should be processed.


Exactly this. The procedures are put in place to prevent abuse of the system by the individual. The problem is that they rarely have the intended effect. First, frequently the policies are put in place to prevent an abuse which performed by an individual at some point. As time goes on, not only do conditions in the world / org change but the people who were part of the org when the abuse happened leave. This creates a situation where people can't remember why a rule exists, but follow it blindly just because it exists, even if in current circumstances it hampers the organization.

Second, inevitably there will be a series of edge cases which any rule is poorly suited to address. These edge cases require a thoughtful application of regulatory authority, which itself requires a thorough understanding of the current context and the purpose of the rule. This thoughtfulness requires intelligence or deep domain expertise, which is often not found in the regulators because if they had these things then they wouldn't be in boring regulatory jobs like HR to begin with. Evaluation of edge cases also requires work, and it's far easier for someone to simply say no than it is to actually investigate the request.

Third, everyone knows that some employees are more valuable to the organization than others and should be allowed to bend or break simple rules as long as permission is sought. However, this will inevitably invite a bullshit lawsuit and so companies have a huge incentive to codify policies and be rigid about them.


> As time goes on, not only do conditions in the world / org change but the people who were part of the org when the abuse happened leave. This creates a situation where people can't remember why a rule exists, but follow it blindly just because it exists, even if in current circumstances it hampers the organization.

Not only that, organizations measure different things differently even from the start. If someone is socializing at work and this wastes 15% of their time, but a procedure to prevent them from socializing at work wastes 40% of their time, everyone is actually better off to just allow employees to socialize (or what have you). But "employees slacking off" is an unsanctioned thing to be reduced whereas "employees following procedure" is an officially sanctioned thing to be increased, so the fact that the procedure is more costly than the "abuse" never enters the decision process.


Interesting. The same happens in Italy; however this hyper-regulation doesn't actually ensure that jobs are performed well and ethically; rather it has the effect of removing personal agency and accountability, while those who seek personal profit still find a way to circumvent the rules.


This sort of bureaucracy is like bicycle training wheels. They hinder those who know how to do the job and want to do it well, they are a major inconvenience, but they stop some riders from falling down. Yet, some people who want to crash the bike do eventually find a way to render them useless.


A while back I took flying lessons. They have a procedure and checklists for most things. This is decidedly a good thing. Checklists are great for reducing errors and should be used in more situations.

Of course there is also a question of whether these procedures can be updated. And whether you can improvise in an emergency. You need more training for that. But this doesn't mean checklists are bad.

Another example: when cooking a new dish, if you start with a recipe you'll probably get up to speed faster than just winging it. This doesn't mean there's no creativity.


Totally not against checklists, especially in aviation. It's just something is rubbing me with the recipe for business involving such degree of micromanagement.

> Another example: when cooking a new dish, if you start with a recipe you'll probably get up to speed faster than just winging it. This doesn't mean there's no creativity.

Fair, but a recipe is about as far from a checklist as you can get while still retaining bullet points. The degrees of freedom in typical recipes are so large you could drive a train through (it's probably unintended - people writing down recipes having zero experience with precise communication). I'm not a very experienced cook, so ambiguous recipes are a pet peeve of mine.


Former chef here, the variance in balances of different chemical constituents can be so massive between two pieces of fruit picked from the same tree that precise recipes would be useless without requiring each reader to have access to a mass spectrometer (and any clue as to what its readout means). This is largely where the "art" in culinary arts comes in. While you could teach someone to read a mass spectrometer to determine the exact chemical result that a given mixture of different ingredients applied to a specified heat curve, it's more likely that they'll just have to learn how to approximate it via taste, smell, and sight.

Good baking books will actually get a lot closer to having specifics in them. They can do this however because a lot of the ingredients that are used in baking are rated based off of various levels of one or more of the chemicals that will significantly affect the result of your baked product (ash level, acidity, sugar content).


This raises an interesting question, relevant for more than cooking: In a process with variable "inputs" , is there a method(probably statistical) to create a recipe that will work,even with this variability, while minimizing the expertise needed ?


"Time Tested" recipes have already done this work - they've performed the process over a long period of time with a wide variety of small input changes/variable ingredients.

For example, the Toll House Cookie recipe has been executed how many millions of times with predictably good results.


Why did you stop being a chef? Too much stress from crazy restaurant owners?


I’ll answer for him. It’s a terrible, stressful, dangerous job, with insane hours & criminal working conditions, that pays peanuts. Might just be my opinion.


Thanks. What are some of your favorite jobs/careers? Or are you still looking?


Yes, and that looks like another argument in favor of very detailed procedures for beginners. (Better than typical recipes.)


I have never deviated from a recipe in twenty years except for being out of ingredients. And I only have one recipe that I can remember without referring to the printout. Checklists have entirely replaced the need for knowing how to cook and I'm glad.


Procedures are to tell machines what to do. As long as you treat people as machines, you'll be revising the Book of Procedures.

Policies are to tell humans what the priorities are so they can use their brains to solve new problems. As long as you have new problems, write policy to guide people.

In both cases, you need good feedback in order to improve. People frequently distrust the feedback mechanisms in the Book of Procedures, because they have experience that says that those books have cycle times exceeding any reasonable amount of patience.


I agree with your view. The "E-myth" book was advocating detailed procedures though, not policies - hence my frustration.


That is because companies are now considered as money-making black boxes. Human agency at execution level isn't relevant.

However if you consider a company as a means to a shared endeavour, then human agency becomes extremely important.


A company is a shared endeavor--for those that own shares in it. But for most companies, most people that execute the work are not shareholders; they're just employees. The interests of employees are simply not the same as the interests of shareholders, so any company that has employees will have to deal with that. The larger the company, the more they will have to deal with it.


Indeed, that book starts really well, in that it states an existing problem: the sole owner overwhelmed by their business, and losing their sense of purpose and happiness. But as it goes on the solution it suggests is disappointing. It may make sense for company owners to delegates and run their operation like a machine. But it is a recipe for frustration for the actual workers—who then may find themselves in the same situation the author's entrepreneur example starts with...


I'm not sure the E-myth is really targeted at the kinds of tech businesses HN readers are after.

If you view it in the context of small-scale food/retail/manufacturing it fits really well. It doesn't fit well for creative efforts, but I'm not sure that invalidates the book either.


Maybe that's the reason. I found it indirectly through HN though, and for that reason I assumed it's a very general small business book.


That's an uncharitable interpretation of what The E-Myth had to say. His point is that you need to make the business run in a way that is independent of you being there. It doesn't mean removing agency from your employees: that is a very bad thing. It means creating enough procedures that people aren't left floundering around waiting to be told how to do something.


I don’t want the cook at In and Out applying their “human agency” to a product I expect to be consistent. I wouldn’t want some minimum wage high school kid deciding on the fly what food safety guidelines are important or not.

It’s ok to have non-scalable businesses; but E-myth isn’t about that kind of business.


Well, that's how things work in Human Resource Machine [0] so it probably works well in reality too, right?

[0] https://tomorrowcorporation.com/humanresourcemachine


> people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back

There are no people in black suits patting themselves on the back. They have bullshit jobs by The Book too. It's The Book all the way to the CEO, who just performs procedures from Another Book to appease the anonymous crowd of stakeholders.

And your favourite *coin will make it even easier for there to be even more ruthless anonymous crowd of stakeholders, yay, progress. I don't even care what's your company named or of it hurts their employees or makes weapons, my blockchain AI owns a stake and I demand the next quarter profits to raise.

No malice. Just ignorance and inability to escape incentives everywhere.


>>Meanwhile, somewhere upstairs in the boardroom, people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back as operating costs have fallen, profits are up, and incidents are down.

That's the key to win in this game.

You define the rules, and the conditions that qualify as success. Once you've done that you make the remainder of the story opaque.

One more thing is to talk in vague terms of percentages and averages. Most people won't understand a word of what you are saying and will still look a good story.


"A surprisingly common part of my life: a patient asks me for a doctor’s note for back pain or something. Usually it’s a situation like their work chair hurts their back, and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain, and they have no doctor except me, and their insurance wants them to embark on a three month odyssey of phone calls and waiting lists for them to get one."

The problem here is that the patient doesn't have a general practitioner (GP, I will call it your/my "doctor" in the rest of the post) or that apparently there's huge wait lists. If I call my doctor, I can get an appointment within 2 work days or roughly half a week. And everyone in my country (The Netherlands) is insured for such visits. In fact, if I want to see a psychologist or physiotherapist or psychiatrist I first need to see my doctor for a reference, for my insurance. That's how it works here. Your doctor is your entry level. So, why not go to your doctor if you have a health issue? Here you would, but apparently in the country this person is from (I suppose USA) that's nigh impossible.

Also, employees have medical privacy here. Yes, a doctor could write such a letter, but ultimately the patient has privacy. Many doctors here flat out refuse such written statements, saying it isn't necessary. Though that might be on a case by case scenario.

On the other hand, I do understand the employer's PoV as well. If person X wants something special, then person A, B, and C also want that something special and before you know it you have half of your employees with -say- all kind of odd food allergies. Although it seems in this case the employee brings their own chair; here that'd be unheard, the employer would arrange a chair for the employee which suits their special needs. So, I disagree that this is a bullshit procedure but I am unsure how to solve the issue in a way where privacy is guaranteed, and then I say: take the loss of privacy in this case for granted and get the written sign.


The Book of Procedures is like a computer program. The unskilled workers are the CPU and those who create the Book of Procedures are like programmers.


This is hauntingly similar to my corporate experience. A procedure book seems helpful when it's standardizing general cases, although when it becomes only an end for safety rather than a beginning for further innovation, the dead weight builds up.




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