Performance Obsession

In an earlier post, I described the idea that a job compensation may be something other than the salary or hourly rate.   I titled it as choosing a career instead of a salary and used as examples low-pay professions that attract many people because of the opportunity to directly help other people.   Since the very nature of the jobs involve spending a lot of time with a few number of people, the compensation potential is limited by the resources of the clients.    While increasing productivity (serving more people, spending less time per person) can increase revenue prospects, it probably does not balance the loss of the value that draws the practitioners to the profession in the first place: to spend lots of time with individuals to improve their lives in one way or another.

Recently, I noticed a posting on LinkedIn that raised the issue of poor compensation of restaurant chefs despite often very expensive training.   Given that top end culinary schools can result in a very high debt, it is painful to realize the jobs require exhausting work that pays so poorly.    It would be great to improve their compensation, but even the suggestion proposed (sharing tips) would not help very much.   The inherent problem is that they are preparing by hand one meal at a time for a specific customer who will pay just for that meal.   A restaurant will only have so many customers and for many nights will operate with far less than full capacity while still requiring full time support from the chefs.   There is an inherent problem with cash flow.

I wonder why do we even have restaurants any more?   Packaged meals from grocery stores may not be perfect, but are still pretty decent for meals and variety.   There are even ready-to-heat freshly options prepared daily.

On the other hand, there are options of home delivery from kitchens.   Locally these are regular restaurants who offer some menu items prepared in to-go containers.   However, it is conceivable to build more efficient kitchens to support exclusively delivery orders such as demonstrated by pizza shops.

There are ways to increase productivity of preparing meals and increasing throughput so that there is more money flowing into the kitchen with less expenses for wait staff and dining room area.  Yet we don’t see this happening.   Locally, there seems to be endless chain of attempts to start restaurants even in locations that repeatedly fail.   The model stays the same: a unique narrow market restaurant with its own dining room, wait and and kitchen staff.    With the rare exception of the successful owner, the income potential for these ventures are very small and yet there is no shortage of applicant s for these jobs, even highly skilled and expensively trained chefs.

People are attracted to low productivity professions for the fact that it is low productivity.   They want to prepare meals one at a time and impress customers one at a time.   They want to see or at least hear of customer satisfaction or praise.   At the end of the day, especially very busy days, there is a comforting satisfaction of a job well done.   At the end of the pay period, there is the disappointment that that work doesn’t pay well.

In some cases, people aren’t concerned about the low pay.   Unless they are second wage earners, they are coming home to meager accommodations and struggle to pay bills.   However, they enjoy their jobs and have no great motivation to find something that is better paying.

As I mentioned above, a chef could make more money by starting up a larger industrial style kitchen set up for home-delivery of meals over a larger geographic area.   With some clever marketing in the current trend of disruptive marketing using mobile devices, there is an opportunity for success at applying skills on a larger scale to earn more money.   That doesn’t appear to be happening but maybe it is coming and I don’t notice it yet.

Even if there were some disruptive player that provides fast delivery of well prepared and well presented meals on an large scale, I suspect there will continue to be restaurants with chefs serving approximately the same number of patrons each night.    There is a draw to direct personal delivery of a service and the satisfaction of the personal acknowledgement of a job well done.

In the above mentioned LinkedIn article, the suggestion was to better allocate income from tips.  Undoubtedly, in some cases tips do provide significant income.   However, that is not the primary purpose of the tip.  The tip is an expression of gratification for a job well done.    But a tip is one of many options for such expressions.

I recall an evening where I had dinner in a small restaurant where the chef prepared meals in view of the customers.   In the evening there were probably just a dozen total customers.   Toward the end of the meal, I struck up a conversation with the chef / owner and it went very well until I offered to pay a tip.   From his reaction, a tip was not welcome.   This is a place that has fixed prices and although staff would deliver food to the table they insisted they were servers not waiters.   Tips were not part of the deal.   I got the impression that they were insulted by the gesture.    Their meals were priced just where they wanted to break even.  What they wanted from their customers were happy customers, repeat customers.   To them, they would have been delighted if I had every meal of the week at their place.   That’s not just my impression.   The reason why I tried them out in the first place was that the owner met me as I walked past his store during the afternoon.  I was carrying a bag of groceries from the store and he said I should have my meals at his place instead.   He wanted someone to come and be served every night.  I disappointed him in that regard but I did enjoy my visits there.

My point is to focus on a strong need from many people to measure a good day of work by how well they pleased other people on a personal basis.   They don’t want to be anonymous masterminds who come up with something that has billions of customers.   They want to deliver a service to a person and get the satisfaction of knowing that the customer was pleased.   To do this, they make adjustments to live on the little income that does come in.

As I pay attention to macro economic news of growing income inequality and declining labor participation rates, I wonder if there is more going on than some jobs not paying well enough or that good paying jobs lack qualified applicants.    Skill training to match these highly productive jobs, or insistence of higher minimum wages are not going to solve the problem.   There is an inherent part of human nature that many people do not want high productivity jobs that happen to pay well.

As illustrated with the example of restaurant chefs often undergoing years of expensive uncompensated training, people are willing to earn specialized and exemplary skills.   They are simply earning those skills in low productivity professions with the explicit intent of applying those skills in a low productivity manner.    Chefs want to prepare meals daily to people who come in and sit at the restaurant’s tables, usually all that the same peak lunch or dinner times.   Chefs look forward to the challenge of serving full house of patrons with high quality and timely meals.   The memories of such successes will last far longer than a budget allowed by any paycheck.

I take the time to reflect on this because at a gut level, I understand the appeal of performance to satisfy a small number of customers.  My career has been in corporate settings far removed from actual customers of the products I worked on.   Because of this leverage of providing value to a large population, my employers were able to provide a reasonable and stable salary.   Despite this compensation, I was not comfortable with the work for some reason I had trouble explaining at the time.

At one point, I had a job that involved a certain kind of data work that needed a job title so my employer described it as network performance engineering.    I liked that title because of the word performance.  I quickly adopted a private interpretation of performance as an engineer.

In that job, I was on a service contract directly supporting one client who in turn providing a product and service to a large population of customers.   The nature of my contract was for each one year period I was nearly part of the client’s team.   However, because it was a contract I needed to provide a monthly progress report to defend the value I added for the cost of the contract.

I put a lot of effort into that monthly report.   I heard from the client that my reports were unusually detailed and thorough for contracts.   It was such a comprehensive description of activities that they used it as the draft of the department’s internal status reporting.    The point was that I was exhaustively spelling out everything that happened in the month that I had some contribution.

Although I had an annual contract (that was renewed in various ways over 13 years), I approached the job in one month chunks that coincided with the monthly progress report that accompanied the monthly invoice for my hours.    My goal was to treat the monthly report as an itemization of services to match the invoice that showed not only how I spent the hours, but they they received comparable return on their investment for each month.   I was treating each month as a stand alone service where I attempted to show that they received significant value just from that month’s effort as opposed to being some incremental progress on something that may pay off in the future.

I note that I had a unique opportunity that allowed me to do this with direct contribution to current hot topics while gradually accumulating a larger capability.   Current hot topics occurred on a weekly basis and I tried to deliver something of value within that window.    Although I wasn’t using the term, I was essentially being agile with one week sprints.   Similar to the current goals of agile practices, each week delivered a working product while building upon previous capability to provide a broader product.    I wasn’t thinking agile at the time and did not use that term.  It just happened to be a natural way to approach the project with my emphasis on demonstrating value for each period.

Although I was part of the client’s team, I saw myself as an independent actor and my audience (or patrons) was my client.    Of course, a client is a patron.   But I approached the job with a certain attitude to perform something specific each day that delivered something of value each week so that it would be recognized in the monthly report.   I tried to describe this in analogy to a performer on a stage or a professional athlete on the field.   When I was on site, it was like being on stage or on the field and the audience expects a performance, not a rehearsal or a social hour.

This was in fact pretty stressful because I was performing each day with a different script.  The nature of contracts demanded 100% billable time and that left no time for preparation or rehearsal.   The stress was self inflicted because the pressure I placed on myself to continuously perform at peak effort.   But that pressure was rewarded by something beyond the continued contract renewal and thus continued compensation.   I was rewarded by the direct expression of appreciation by the client, my audience or patron.  This appreciation was that I was being helpful in ways that were not expected for the contract.   I was organizing my contract activities in a way to deliver value in the short term instead of waiting for the final product to be finished.

I was doing this because I saw my daily task as being a performer, on a stage or on the field, in front of an audience that wanted a performance.   The contract could easily have been satisfied without this perspective but that is what I wanted to do.

Later, the contract evolved so that my role became more remote from being able to perform in the same way.   I still had a promising opportunity to continue supporting the client but in ways that separated me from the client so that I lost the ability to perform directly in front of them.   I think this is somewhat analogous to the above example of a chef who takes an industrial food preparation project that packages meals for remote and faceless consumers.   In this case, it was more formal scrum-team environment with its inherent isolation of the scrum team from the rest of the work during sprint intervals where the list of tasks were frozen at the beginning of the sprint.

As I mentioned, I had a history of performing work in short sprints that delivered immediate value.  The difference was that earlier I did this work in front of the client and the the task list was allowed to change on a daily or even hourly basis as we refined the goals balancing what is possible with what it needed.    In contrast, the scrum-master moderated agile team approach seals off that visibility and access.   Although the team directly presented the product demo at the end of the sprint, it felt more like a marketing/sales pitch for an existing product.

The modern agile approach is supposed to end a sprint with a product demonstration like a sales pitch.  The focus was on the product that was carefully built to the objectives set at the beginning of the sprint.   The client would judge the product based on meeting those objectives and deciding whether it was useful.   The idea is that the product owner would decide whether the product would be marketable.   If it wasn’t ready, he would suggest new tasks for the next sprint.

The utility of the sprint product was optional.  It often was not useful.   More precisely, it would have been useful if it had been delivered when the goals were first stated.   Since then, the priorities have changed and the capability while potentially useful in the future had no immediate application.   The immediate need for its purpose had expired.

I was delivering a product instead of a service.   I still received good reviews in terms of being a valued team member, but I was no longer delivering anything relevant to the current needs.   The job ceased to be about performing in the sense I had earlier visualized.   The job paid well but eventually didn’t seem worth the effort.   I would rather find something where I could be seen as performing.

Thus, I left the project, preferring to make no money than to work without performing.   This decision was economically irrational, but I felt I had no choice.   The situation may be explained in pseudo-psychological terms as an obsession.   I have an obsession about performing, of being on the stage with the goal of delighting an audience.    This is apparently important enough to weigh against working simply for a salary.  I think I would have preferred being a low-paid chef.

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One thought on “Performance Obsession

  1. Pingback: Artificial Intelligence is easier than machine rhetoric | kenneumeister

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