Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Parable of the Failing Furniture Shop

The following parable is a vivid example of what happens when new methods are substituted for the old standards.

There was once a furniture shop located in an industrious community that was well known for its production of fine quality furniture. A group of corporate investors bought the shop. They purchased all the tools, owned the building, and hired men of skill and integrity. The shop foreman was also handpicked by the investors, and placed in charge of shop production, as well as marketing and sales.

It was the policy of the investors to supply all the employees with quality tape measures. These tape measures were purchased from a manufacturer who carefully followed the national/official weights and measurement standards.

In the process of time, some of the workers became careless with the use of their tape measures. Some did not keep them clipped to their belt, but let them lay in places where they fell to the floor, bending the tips, causing small discrepancies in their measurements.

The workers in the assembly department were the first to have problems. They checked the measurements on the blueprints and noted some small discrepancies. The assembly workers confronted their fellow employees in the cutting department. Those cutting the parts countered with charges of “you are too picky!” and “who placed you in charge of quality control?” “Stay in your department” were their last words to the assembly workers. The assembly department tried their best but ended up with tables out of square and wobbly. Some of the drawers were too large for the openings, and there were gaps on some joints too large for wood filler.

An appeal was made to the shop foreman who in turn called for an employee conference. All employees were instructed to bring their tape measures and were asked to testify whether they used them. No one bothered to inspect the tape measures for damage, nor did the shop foreman take time to mingle with the employees to observe how they used their tape measures. Animosity and tension mounted between the two departments. The frequency of employee conferences increased. Most ended with a vote to “do better” after charges and counter charges were made.

As the years went by, some workers in the cutting department broke, or even lost their tapes measures. Instead of asking for new ones, some made their own measuring devices from the scraps of lumber that were piling up due to the rejection of parts by the assembly department. A few of the workers in both departments considered themselves “men with a good eye” claiming that they no longer needed a tape measure.

Conflicts intensified between the two departments, and on occasion tapes were angrily thrown at one another. Others found it convenient to use their homemade measuring sticks to “thump” an adversarial fellow employee.

At employee conferences led by the shop foremen, nobody checked to see if the employees had their tape measures with them at the meetings.

The shop foreman fired a number of employees whom he determined to be too outspoken at the meetings. Several employees were fired for suggesting that the foreman be in the production areas. “It was not my job to work there. I was not hired to cut or assemble.” Furthermore he felt his position was superior to those cutting and assembling. It insulted his ego to think that these “laborers” might dare advise him.

And it came to pass that the investors became alarmed by the loss of profits from the business. They hired specialists to come to the furniture shop and evaluate production. Rather than visit the shop during working hours, they, too, called for a meeting with all current employees, including the shop foreman.

After introductions and acknowledgements of credentials by the specialists, it was not long until charges and counter charges erupted from both departments. One of the investors who had been trained in public relations skills called for an “affirmation” vote to make the shop a success. He led the employees in a number of chants, “We will succeed, we will succeed, more production is what we need.” This was followed by wild applause, whistling and cheers.

A vote to agree to work together was taken, followed by the cheer. A final recommendation was made to send the foreman to take a series of management skills retreats, all expenses paid. A vocal vote was taken for support of the move. The “ayes” far outnumbered the “nays.”

One of the investors had remained silent throughout the meeting. Before a formal motion was made for dismissal, he rose to speak. As he did so, he opened his case and removed a computer. He projected photos on the wall, accompanied by audio from the furniture shop’s two production areas. This investor had come to the shop, unsuspected by the employees or the shop foreman. He had introduced himself as a reporter interested in the shop’s production. He had snapped photos from both departments, along with accompanying sound bites.

The room was quiet as the camera zoomed in to show bent and dented ends on tape measures.

There were a few chuckles as they watched several employees using their homemade measuring sticks. A burst of laughter broke out as one image showed a man looking at a blueprint, eyeing a board, placing a pencil mark at a perceived spot, then cutting the part to size. The object of the laughter was observed to be developing a reddish-pink tinge around the back of the neck.

The laughter quickly died as another picture displayed an outbreak of “all out war” between the two departments. Tape measures were seen being hurled at fellow employees accompanied by language that was far from complimentary. As opportunity afforded itself, those who held made-up measuring devices struck blows upon those who had charged them with errors in the past.

Following the presentation, the lone investor then asked, “How many of you brought your measuring devices to this meeting?” Those who didn’t were asked to go to the shop and return with them. After their return, the lone investor/owner opened a box of new tape measures, just like the ones given to all employees when the shop opened.

Walking to the shop, he returned with a board that was an approximately 36 inch long. He proceeded to use a new tape to make a mark with his pencil at exactly 24 inch.

He then asked each employee to bring his own measuring device and check its accuracy. One by one they came. Only a few had their original tapes in good working condition. Some were spliced with electrical tape. Discrepancies ranged from 1/16th inch to 3/8th inch. Some of them were as far as ¾ inch in error. Last, those who said they had an “eye” to measure were given a length of a stick and told to “use your eye and make a mark at 24 inch. No eyes proved to be accurate.

The lone investor then turned to address the shop foreman. In earnest he asked some pointed questions. “Why did you not leave your air-conditioned office and mingle with the employees? Why did you not inspect everyone’s tape measure when they came to employee meetings? Why did you not report to us as investors that you allowed unresolved conflicts to go unaddressed? Why did you not inform us of the huge stack of lumber, cut wrong and rejected by the assembly department?”

The shop foreman stood, head down, awaiting as it were, a verdict from a judge, but he stopped short of asking for a vote among the other investors to have him fired.

Returning to the box of new tape measures, the lone investor proposed his plan of action. A new tape measure would be offered to all the employees whose measuring devices failed the 24 inch test. There was this stipulation. All of the devices that failed in the test must be thrown in the large shop garbage can. Those who had maintained valid functional tape measures broke into large smiles, waiting for and urging their fellow employees to step up to get their new tapes. Seconds passed. No one moved. Minutes went by. The smiles faded and turned into furrowed brows.

It was the investor that proposed sending the foreman to the management skills seminar who broke the silence. “The plan is too simplistic,” he said. “Furthermore, it does not address the issues of interpersonal conflicts between the departments and shop foreman.”

He took charge and called for a vote to accept or reject the proposal of the lone investor. The vote was not even conducted by a raise of hands, but by verbal ayes and nays. A small sound of protest to his action was heard.

He then called for an adjournment of the meeting, after another vote of affirmation to do better was taken and passed.

Several weeks later, the shop foremen went to his scheduled seminar. He returned with great enthusiasm. He first led the employees in a few new chants like, “We are good, we knew we could!” The enthusiasm soon died when the production sheets were read. Charges and counter charges flew like poisoned arrows across the room. Only when the foreman called for a vote to agree to “do better” did any semblance of order return.

One month later, the company declared bankruptcy, and all of the employees were out of a job.

The lone investor who had proposed “too simplistic a plan” sought the few who had kept and used their original, well-maintained tape measures. They started a small shop, and a short time later, began to produce beautiful, functional pieces of furniture. Requests for their products increased and the little shop grew. A few former employees heard of the new shop and its growth, and applied for jobs. When told that they must accept the new tape measures and discard their old ones, they walked away and remained unemployed or filed for unemployment benefits.

The Truth:

Jeremiah 3:14-15: “Turn O backsliding children saith the LORD; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and will bring you to Zion. And I will give you pastors according to my heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.”

Here now is the lesson of this parable:

The quality tape measure is like unto the Word of God. Negligence, abuse of, or disregard for its proper usage will bring serious consequences.

No amount of discussion, dialogue, or simple agreements to “do better” will substitute for the actual usage of quality, well-maintained tape measures.

The shop foreman is like unto a pastor of the flock. Unlike the shop foreman in the parable, pastors must work with and among their people. Special training in relationship and people management skills can never do what time spent with, and thoughtful observation of the needs of the congregation will do.

Those of us as pastors need to be close enough to our people so they can “know them which labor among them. . . . "

John 12:48: “He that rejecteth me and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.”

Posted with the permission of the author, who wishes to remain anonymous.