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By Tim Springer
Published in the December 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
December is often a season for reflection over the past 12 months (oh what a brutal year this has been!) and hopeful consideration of the future. I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I’m always enchanted by the hint of magic in the air around this time. Whatever one’s beliefs, the end of a year and the beginning of another fosters hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Among the many Western traditions are several that could be termed magical. Santa Claus knows if you’ve been bad or good and visits children around the world in a sled pulled by flying reindeer. Not only that, he carries a bag of toys for all the “good little girls and boys.” If that’s not magical, then call me Ebenezer.
Facilities professionals are often called upon to deliver magic at various times of the year. Unfortunately, most facility managers (fms) don’t have workshops full of elves or magic bags of goodies like Santa, and some requests seem remarkably like the “I want a pony” wish made by many young children.
For example, during a recent focus group discussion at a healthcare organization, a majority of participants expressed a strong desire for windows or skylights in their workplace. Ordinarily that might be considered a reasonable request. After all, access to daylight is an important element in contributing to employee well-being.
The problem was this: these folks were moving to a larger, nicer space on the lower floor (essentially the basement) of a new building—literally, where the sun doesn’t shine. So the only way to provide windows or skylights would have been to wave a magic wand—Presto! Change-o!—let there be daylight.
This illustrates the first type of magic that fms are called upon to perform. I sometimes like to call this The Parlor Trick. (You know the parlor trick. The cartoon character known as Bullwinkle used the immortal words, “Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Nothing up my sleeve!” And presto, out pops a rabbit or other small animal—seemingly out of thin air.)
A common form of facility management (FM) parlor trick occurs when HR or another business unit calls the FM department and says, “We have 15 new hires starting in two weeks. Where shall we put them?” Resisting the urge to tell the people in HR where they might put them, the weary fm obligingly goes, “presto!” and creates 15 new workspaces, seemingly out of thin air.
The second type of FM magic is what I call the The Goldilocks Challenge. Typically, this occurs when someone calls the FM department to complain, “It’s too hot,” “It’s too cold,” or perhaps, “It’s too big,” or “It’s too small.” Few people call to claim something is “just right.” Or if it is just right, that situation is fleeting. But the beleaguered facilities professional is expected to make things “just right”—even if it means changing things back to the way they were before the call was made.
Similar to the Goldilocks Challenge, The Cinderella Solution arises when a business unit leader or other decision maker has in mind a very specific “remedy,” often to a problem that either doesn’t exist or has yet to be identified. For example, an executive VP proffers a hastily hand drawn sketch of an office layout (probably on the back of a cocktail napkin) and proclaims, “This is exactly what we need for my unit.” Never mind that no such space presently exists or, if it did, only half the unit would fit into it. Once again, the fm goes into his or her bag of tricks and manages to find a solution that actually does fit—but only the needs of that unit. Perfect! Magic!
One form of magic familiar to all FM professionals is The Rumpelstiltskin Test. In the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin was able to spin straw into gold. When applied to FM, this form of magic often starts with a decision by upper management to cut costs across the board—usually by some seemingly arbitrary percentage.
While any such decision presents challenges to all areas of an organization, it is especially difficult for facilities. Do you trim energy by the requisite X% by turning the lights off or by shutting the HVAC down so many minutes a day? Of course not. The FM professional retreats to his or her lair and quietly and professionally figures out a way to meet the cost cutting goal while maintaining the same excellent array and level of services—just like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.
Magic is a wonderful thing. Believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny brings joy and awe to children. But it is, to borrow a time worn expression, “A hell of a way to run a railroad.”
One of the great problems with being a proficient magician is that your audience keeps expecting more magic. They want bigger and more impressive tricks. Professional magicians and illusionists are always seeking bigger and crazier magic and illusions. Unfortunately, as I often joke, this type of expectation is so common that with each parlor trick, the poor rabbits start looking skinnier and scrawnier.
I don’t know if I have a solution. I will say, those FM professionals who are effective magicians are also often effective at communicating what they do. So, when they do seem to pull a rabbit out of thin air, make things fit “just right,” or spin straw into gold, the folks who count—the decision makers—understand that it takes a consummate professional to make something so hard, look that easy. So to all those FM magicians who make it look so easy, well done!
That’s the way I see it from where I sit. And by the way, happy holidays and to all a good night!
Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit and for future musings from Springer, visit his Web site.