Saturday, February 9, 2013

Management by Sign

The staffer was sitting directly underneath an oversize laminated sign. It depicted a cell phone being slashed by the international “no” symbol. The sign was topped by an enormous headline that read: “No Cell Phones!!!!!!!!” The woman, oblivious, was texting at a rapid clip, ignoring me, her job, and, it goes without saying, the sign. I thought about whipping out my cell phone and taking a picture of this tableaux, but decided that the irony would probably be lost on her management.

It was just another day of volunteering at the nonprofit-that-will-not-be-named, a place where new signs are posted almost as quickly as they are ignored. Each time I arrive for a shift, I find new evidence of an about-to-be-scoffed-at rule, usually created in 72-point Comic font, with enough exclamation points to sink a battleship, if punctuation could do that sort of thing.

I’m sorry to report that it appears someone recently donated a laminating machine, which must have thrilled management, because I’ve noticed that signage production has taken a sharp uptick. I always imagine the Executive Director of this institution creating annual performance management goals that read something like: “Increase funding, serve more clients … and create 30% more signs.”

Here is Kendrick’s Corollary of Organizational Development and Business Success: there is an inverse relationship between management effectiveness and the number of nagging signs posted in a workplace. In other words – the more signs, the worse the environment. The notes about the mandated level at which the thermostat must be set? The clever “Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here” signs in the breakroom, posted over the sink? These are, I believe, clear evidence of a sinking organizational ship.

This fall, I found myself out of town on a Sunday morning, and ended up at a yoga studio that had the benefit of being close enough to my hotel that I could drive there without getting lost. From the moment I walked in the door, I could tell I was in trouble. There was a “welcome” sign in the entryway, instructing me about the correct method of lining my shoes up by the door. The scowling man behind the desk, who identified himself as the owner, led me to a cubby area that contained several more sets of detailed instructions. Notices about the proper way to reroll yoga mats were posted by the props. I went to the bathroom and found a Sunday New York Times’ worth of reading material – all posted on the wall, all telling me the proper way to flush, wash my hands and throw away paper towels.

It was a crummy yoga class, of course. The instructor – that scowling guy behind the desk – began by looking out the window to see if anyone else was coming, and then haranguing the room at large about the paltry number of yogis who were present, what was the matter with people, was the sunshine keeping them away or what.  And so on.

I’m here now, I thought, as I often tell myself at the beginning of class. And I couldn’t help but add, silently, “And you, pal – you’re already in bankruptcy court.”

And yet, for all my wry observations of panicked signmaking in others, I often resort to it myself, at home. I find it has the same sort of effectiveness level as it does in most offices. In other words, I might as well write my pleas in a Bosnian dialect for all the attention that is ever paid to them. But still, I persist. 

Here's a recent, pathetic example. When the washing machine developed a convulsive disorder and began to have frequent seizures, I would often enter the laundry room to find an entire bottle of Tide tipped over on the floor, oozing everywhere. I told everyone in the house about this development, and instructed them to stop putting detergent on top of the machine. More spills. I brought it up again.  My children had the usual lost expressions reserved for occasions of pseudo-attention-paying, and I imagined them thinking:

Did you hear a sound like a woman’s voice? 
 It almost sounds like Mom, 
but I can’t make out what she’s saying. 
Something about Thrills? Chills? Skills? 

Finally, I wrote a frantic sign in my craziest-old-lady handwriting and duct-taped it to the machine: “Jesus Will Weep If You Put A Bottle Here.” I got a laugh, but I still got spilled Tide. And yet, I still keep at it:
  • Please empty this dishwasher! 
  • Who does this damn thing belong to and why has it been sitting on the kitchen counter for three days?
  • Really, did your IQ dip when your hormones surged? Put your shoes away, for the Love of God.
The signs have no effect at all. No one pays the slightest bit of attention to me. But, Sharpie in hand, I still keep doing the same thing and expecting different results – the chief characteristic of insane people, and bad managers, the world over.

There’s only one solution, the way I see it –I’m going to ask for a laminating machine for Mother’s Day.

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