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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

How Many Sputniks Are In Your Workplace?

How to avoid low-flying loafers

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2006 - 22:00

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first orbiting satellite, Sputnik. This elliptical sphere the size of a basketball took 98 minutes to encircle the earth and emitted a faint beep as it made its momentous trip. It provided no information back to mother Earth and yet it became a symbol of dominance in space exploration. Various workplaces have "human Sputniks" wandering aimlessly throughout the workplace, providing little, if any, important input when they’re ensconced at their desk or workstation. Yet they somehow manage to stay under the radar screen when it comes to cutbacks.

Perhaps they work in an operations department, where they’re able to hide among the masses. Maybe they’re in a planning area or in research or a customer service department. Maybe , they’re part of senior management. Wherever they are, these stealth employees are somehow able to avoid the structure of the workplace and just meander through the day. Perhaps they contribute a maximum of two hours of work a day, so that they don’t garner any unwanted attention from supervisors. On the other hand, very few supervisors understand what these people do, and because they’re generally long term employees, no one bothers to inquire.

Every workplace has these Sputniks. Sometimes they’re lower -evel employees or the ones who are categorized as nonessential when it comes to closing down the workplace when an emergency occurs. Other Sputniks encapsulate themselves in an office with the door closed, which sends out the message that "these are very important people and must not be disturbed." What they do in those private confines is a mystery.

These are people who arrive precisely at starting time and then proceed to the cafeteria for a coffee and Danish, finally returning to their workplace 45 minutes later.

Sputniks are the first to alert the workplace to an approaching snowstorm. As the first snowflakes begin to fall at 9:30 a.m., they’re already pondering their trip home and asking management if they’ll be able to leave early so as not to disrupt their personal plans. When asked if they’ll be leaving home early the next morning to arrive on time at work so as not to disrupt the office plans, they counter with an aggravated, perplexed look on their face.

How should organizations’ leaders handle these human Sputniks? Well, the original Sputnik finally exhausted its power and crashed to Earth. Human Sputniks seem to have an inexhaustible storehouse of energy to avoid work and thus they can continue to circle the workplace for years.

The remedy for this lack of productivity is a detailed job description for every employee, including senior management. The job description should summarize the job requirements and explain in detail the various tasks inherent to the work. It should include questions such as:

• While you’re away from the office, either on vacation or due to an illness, who handles your workload?

• What’s the effect on customers if you fail to complete your assignment on a timely basis?

• What’s the likely effect on the company if your job were eliminated?

These are tough questions and a sure way to ensure that every function, every job, somehow ties into the overall strategic plan of the organization. Once this project is completed, management can have some assurance that the workplace is devoid of waste and that all human Sputniks with minimal positive influence on the bottom line have been jettisoned. It’s a process that should be executed periodically. Job descriptions are the lifeblood of any organization.

The original Soviet Sputnik gave off an audible beep as it circled the Earth. If only our human Sputniks had a similar trait, we could pick them up on the radar screen and provide them with a soft landing either in a job that’s more meaningful or put them in orbit outside of our organization.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semi-retired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.