Counting Beans

Yeaaaahhh, hi...
Did you get the memo?


“Hello Peter, whats happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk… oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.”
– Bill Lumbergh from Office Space

I jotted this down in the morning before my flight, and happened to check e-mail at the end of the day. Sadly, I had no idea how applicable my first Tirade Thursday would be. Sure enough, now we’re considering how we might be able to reduce training time by 33% when we can barely keep up with what we’re doing already. Why?

Let’s talk about “counting beans.”

No one actually counts beans, I hope. I picture some poor soul in a factory hovering over a conveyer belt, checking off dozens or hundreds of beans. Dear Lord, that’s why we have machines and robots, isn’t it?

But in the military (and I’m sure in many civilian jobs), there are many things we do count, and “bean-counting” is an expression that captures this need. We absolutely must count these things, because if we don’t count them, how will we know if we are succeeding in our mission?

I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because I know that numbers and quantifiable figures generally drive management. No one is ever satisfied with “We produce quality” as an answer unless it is tied to some metric that puts a number on a spreadsheet and shows the quantity of our quality.

That said, it’s difficult to stay motivated when bean counting becomes the obvious purpose. “Beans” in this rant refers to any end product or desired result of our business, something that can be given a number in order to show success or failure. Maybe it’s students trained. Maybe it’s flight hours. Maybe it’s tickets processed, or TPS reports filed in accordance with your eight bosses’ wishes.

A classic military example is how we budget. In order to get the most money out of the upcoming year’s budget, we must show that we used up all the money we received this year. By using it up, we prove that we needed that much money and then some. So when the new budget is drawn up, everyone can see that we need at least as much money as we got last year. Maybe more.

What that leads to is spending money for the sake of spending money. We’ll fly a few extra minutes on every sortie, because that way we use up more flight hours, and that way we prove that we need the money for fuel for however many flight hours next year. Every 15 minutes counts! (Minutes matter, or so I was always told while deployed. I guess it’s true, in a way I never realized.)

My wife spent a few years as a Civil Engineer and saw how this worked in her career field. “We have X amount of money. We have to spend it or else we won’t get as much next year. Let’s buy this top-of-the-line truck to upgrade our fleet of civil engineering vehicles. This will be the best one we’ve got.”

The truck arrives, and someone realizes, “Hey, no one here is certified to use that thing.”

So it sits under a tarp for months.

Count MORE.
Count ALL the beans!

But that’s okay, because getting a truck that is useful was not the point. The point was spending the money in order to get the same amount of money next year. And on that note, they succeeded.

Great success! Count them beans!

Last year, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force put a book on his recommended reading list, and I sure hope some people give it a read. It’s called Start With Why, and it’s all about understanding our purpose in order to make the most of our efforts. Too often, we focus on the beans, the number that captures what we did and how much of it we did.

But the beans sometimes become the mission statement; they demand more attention than they are rightly due. We forget the “why” that explains the value of the beans.

If the count of things you do becomes more important than the things you do, revisit your organization’s “Why.”

If the quantity of product or service outweighs quality, refresh your memory of “Why.”

When something that serves a purpose has now become THE purpose, remember your original “Why.”

Without a good grasp of why, all the hows and whats don’t make much sense.

No one will ever admit that counting beans (the what) has become more important than feeding soldiers (the why). No one ever confesses that quantity gets far more attention than quality. Quality gets its share of lip-service.

But trust me. The peons in the cubicles know what really matters. We’re not fooled. We’re the ones doing the counting, remember? We fill out the trackers and document all the events. No one ever asked how good the beans taste, only how many we counted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *