OR/MS Today - August 2007


The Golden Goose

By Doug Samuelson

Once upon a time, long ago, in a land far away, a farmer had a goose that laid golden eggs.

It was not too clear how this happened. The goose ate seemingly ordinary food and did the ordinary things geese do, and demanded nothing more — but she kept laying golden eggs. Geese are not good at communicating to humans, but the farmer, a kind lady named Mrs. Mulrooney, seemed to be providing whatever minimal care the goose required, and the eggs kept coming.

The eggs kept coming, that is, until....

No, no, the farmer did not cut open the goose to see how the eggs grew. What a silly story that would be! This was a modern, corporate agricultural business. What happened in this case was that Higher Management cut open the farmer — but I am getting ahead of the story.

How, the Higher Managers first inquired, did the farmer's management processes produce such good results from this seemingly ordinary goose? And how could the continuation of these excellent results be assured? In fact, now that they thought about it, how good were the golden eggs, and how could that be verified?

So they asked many questions of Mrs. Mulrooney, but she simply shrugged and explained, "The goose just does this. I feed her, keep her safe and leave her alone, and go collect the eggs. That's all I can tell you."

Clearly, Higher Management concluded, this simple-minded approach lacked proper analytical rigor. "Everything this goose produces must be properly reviewed!" they cried. So they appointed inspectors to examine the eggs and make sure they were really gold. (The fact that people actually were buying the eggs, getting expert appraisals and paying the price of gold, did not seem to impress Management.) Then they had the inspectors map out all the steps in the production process and recommend improvements. Since the inspectors had no idea how the goose actually produced the eggs, these changes simply slowed delivery and mildly annoyed the goose, but Management pressed on.

Management next turned their attention to input: "Cut the goose's feed ration, reduce the size of her coop, clean it less often, and see whether we can produce the same output for less cost," they insisted. Mrs. Maloney objected but did as she was directed when Higher Management persisted.

"This is silly," she argued. "Processes that contribute nothing to production are worse than useless. Friends have told me about companies in the city where someone kept producing bigger and bigger results, on time and within budget, and the clients loved it and kept ordering more and more. When the orders got big enough, the bosses decided more management control was needed, but that just interfered with the work and the client relationships rather than helping. Aren't we in danger of doing something like that here?" To which, of course, the Higher Managers snorted, "You just don't understand the Big Picture, and clearly you are unprepared to control a matter as critical as this."

So far, Management had done little harm, but now an August Personage added another aspect to the situation. This Personage was another farmer nearby, under the same corporate management. He had some background in metallurgy, however, so he issued grand memoranda to Higher Management explaining why metallic products should all be produced at his farm, where he had proper inspectors and processes and controls. Higher Management agreed to do this if the August Personage could show then that his geese, too, would produce golden eggs. The August Personage delivered a fine-looking production plan with a schedule of expected deliveries. He then set several of his subordinates to work stealing the golden eggs, for which he promptly claimed credit in his production reports.

Now Higher Management could see results! It appeared to them that Mrs. Mulrooney had been lucky, but now her luck was running out. Her farm's production was down, the other farmer's production was up, and he had a more convincing (at least to them) story to tell about it. Also, the growing friction between the farmers at staff meetings was becoming a nuisance, as Mrs. Mulrooney claimed with increasing edginess that her goose was the big producer and that now the whole organization was impeding productivity and rewarding dishonesty.

It was at this point that someone in Higher Management suggested, "OK, if it's really Mrs. Mulrooney's goose that is laying the golden eggs, and if she's really vital to making that happen, then she's the factor we need to understand. She can't explain, so we need to analyze everything about her ourselves. Besides, this might end the arguments." And that's when they cut her open, to determine whether something about her diet, or metabolism, or whatever, might be the key to success.

Higher Management's latest innovation had precisely one effect: the goose eventually got tired of not being fed and flew off to another farm, away from all this nonsense.

At the end of June 2007, Doug Samuelson left Homeland Security Institute to join Serco — North America, a general professional services company in Vienna, Va. He remains president of InfoLogix, Inc., a research and consulting company in Annandale, Va.


The author hastens to remind readers that these stories are fiction, obviously meant to reflect general tendencies in many organizations but not to portray any specific actual persons or organizations. He refuses to take any responsibility for what readers may infer beyond that. If, dear reader, you notice a similarity between your organization and one or more of the dysfunctions discussed in The ORacle, the author respectfully suggests that you focus your efforts on decreasing the resemblance.

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