Tumbling in the Raging White Waters of COVID-19
written by Dave Fearon
Conversing with Dana Gilbert: A Practitioner Involuntarily Tumbling in the Raging White Waters of COVID-19
written by David S. Fearon
Emeritus Professor of Management
Central Connecticut State University
Peter Vaill on his now classic metaphor managing in permanent white water: “I think the revolution we are in is first and foremost a revolution of the situation. It is not just the new kinds of problems and opportunities that we are facing, but whole new contexts within which these problems and opportunities reside….Things that one used to take for granted, treat as a given, can no longer be viewed that way. In a destabilized context, you cannot know exactly what your problems are! Perhaps even the metaphor of permanent white water is not adequate; we are not merely talking about a wild river; we are talking about an unpredictable wild river”. – Managing as a Performing Art (1989)
David Fearon and Steven Cavaleri on the employee as performance excellence vanguard: “This book was inspired by and is dedicated to people working at sea level in companies. Our play on words for this term is to call this place in companies ‘see level’….(where) employees are first to see how customers are reacting to their purchases, they are first to see when a production schedule is slipping, or to see how a task can be simplified or eliminated. Seeing is one of the most human of all capacities and it highlights the importance of people in creating pragmatic inside knowledge. It is people – not computers – that create pragmatic inside knowledge from their problem-solving experiences.” – Inside Knowledge: Rediscovering the Source of Performance Improvement (2006)
Note from now Practice Podcaster with Peter Vaill Dave Fearon: Thirty years later, the wilder-by-far river that is COVID-19 is washing over all manner of practice situations. Washing out most once easily knowable contexts. Now every sort of practitioner is tumbling out into a future of nearly unknowable conditions, wholly novel contexts; carried there by practices that may survive if they manage to learn fast and well enough. Here is a fictional recorded conversation with a concurrently earnest, bewildered, intrigued, and terrified Dana Gilbert. She was the call center employee-protagonist and knowledge-creating exemplar in the Inside Knowledge story. Sadly, Peter recently passed away; but our Podcast continues to explore the nature of practice in conversations with an array of also tumbling COVID-19- waters practitioners. It has been 14 years since Dana and I “met”. She remains working at what remains, so far, of her now nearly global parts distribution company Grand Bay Corporation.
Dave: Well, Dana, here we are on Zoom, eye to eye after all these years.
Dana: Let’s see. It was 2006 when Lewis Fuller was still alive as my wonderful mentor and teacher. Oh yes, and Bailey.
Dave: I am sad to hear that Lewis has passed. He was such a robust fellow, perhaps a bit too much so. Those heavy breakfasts at the Splendid. And, Bailey? Are you and she still communicating virtually? Back then, it was conversation by chat tool, primitive by today’s standards. Now with something like Zoom?
Dana: Are you surprised to hear that Bailey refuses to use video in the too infrequent times we connect? She claims that she does her best spontaneous, even original, thinking while writing in real time dialogue with me. I have printed out and saved every digital exchange. I read them over from time to time to gain or regain confidence in my own ideas on how to get things done. Pragmatic knowledge as you and she call it.
Dave: What do you call it now, Dana?
Dana: Today? Survival. Seeing about what gets me through another day with my sanity.
Dave: Oh? Survival? Sounds serious. At Grand Bay?
Dana: Yes, there, at home, and in this dying town – my hometown. We have lost over half our population since you were last here fourteen years ago. Down to about 6, 000. My Mom’s hospital where she nursed for over forty year, from the time I was three, has been reduced to an urgent care facility. No ER. Several floors have been converted to assisted living. Dave, my mother Maria is still working there! Most oif the residents she looks after are her age – 78 or so. They are our old friends and neighbors. Many should be in a skilled nursing facility, but that was finally shuttered when the Medicaid funds were retracted. Only now, I am terrified each day she heads to work that she will come home infected with COVID-19. There have been two deaths there this month. Since then, Mom stays in a motel room to protect our family. Why, she will not even let her grandkids come near her, and they are the loves of her life!
Dave: I am at a loss for words. Your family? Grandchildren?
Dana: Yes, I recall that it was just my then three-year-old Judy who you knew. I had divorced and moved home with Mom. Dave, can you believe it? Judy is 17, graduating from Grand Bay High School in two weeks. Well, finishing school, but the graduation will be virtual. She has been “stuck at” home with the other two for nearly three months. Desperately missing being with her friends; and, yes, boyfriend. They are on technology constantly. None of her friends – all really bright kids – are planning to start colleges that have accepted them this fall, too uncertain for sending in the tuition and fees.
Dave: Three children. Wow! With Bill Spencer?
Dana: Of course, with Bill. He has been wonderful keeping them at their online studies so that I can concentrate on my Grand Bay roles.
Dave: Bill is gifted in technology, as I recall. That must come handy in this stay-at-home forced home schooling. Wait a minute! “Roles”? You do more than one thing at the company?
Dana: Now we are getting at why I call my knowledge ‘survival’. I seem to no longer have the luxury of purposely using Bailey’s Principles of Pragmatism; even though she serves them up fresh nearly every time we connect. I just notice myself knowing what I did a moment ago that held back one collapse, disaster, or blind-siding on a given day.
Dana: Here is the quick bio that may explain why I’m wearing three hats at Grand Bay (so far). You recall that in 2006 I was nearly done with my bachelor’s in management at State.
Dave: Yes, you wanted to move up from your customer service representative job in the call center, hoping the degree would catch management on a good day about advancement. And speaking of management, didn’t your bosses Patty Slyke and Vernon Granger get the old heave ho for that Daxio scheme that you, Bill and Belinda uncovered? And that CEO Langley Richards?
Dana: I never heard a thing again about Slyke and Grainger. Probably resurfaced in companies back East where their resumes masked their destructive ways with people. Oh, and Langley stayed on for another six years, or so; until just after Lewis passed away. He really could not handle the ever-more complex job without Lew’s coaching and the many ways Lew fixed and improved how we kept people working here and with our various partnerships with China; then later, Vietnam and the Philippines. Wherever parts and goods we distributed could be made cheaply for our OEM business customers. It was on what came to be his last overseas trip that Lewis contracted food poisoning and died in agony just after he arrived back here. Oh, his eating habits! I haven’t set foot in the Splendid since. I can see his favorite booth from the window and cry all the way down the street.
Dave: The rest of your bio, Dana?
Dana: Oh, there is so much to tell, but this Zoom call will bump up to the three more I have scheduled after noon today. Let’s see. Right after Bill and I married, I was happily enacting, well better yet, inventing my role as an employee knowledge advancement consultant. Based on principles of Pragmatism, I was happily coaching front line workers in the offices, warehouses, even our drivers to take responsibility for continually improving the quality of the knowledge they gained doing what they did, particularly differently, each day. In those days, serving Langley, Nikki, and Lewis, we had the strategy to be a learning organization, to be recognized international for our operational excellence. Golden days, for sure. Ah, but to my bio. I went on to earn an MBA with a concentration in Organizational Development and Change. They gave me the title Director of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness. I had five people working with me. Lewis conferred his corner office on me; and started to work from home. Bill set him up among his hundreds of books, articles, countless sticky notes. His Valhalla, Lewis called it.
Dave: Wow! A chance to earn and use your master’s to practice OD.
Dana: Yes, the Company paid for most of my tuition which meant a lot, for Lois and Cooper were both under five by the time I finished. Bill was one of the first at Grand Bay to telecommute for enough days a week to look after the kids, even cook meals until Mom moved in with us. Then three of us shared and Judy, God bless her, learned to cook and help with the housekeeping at ten!
Dave: Now Judy is 17. Maria is still working. Why did she move in with you?
Dana: That was when hard times really seeped into our lives; for all the Grand Bay town folks. 2008 happened. Mom had taken a second mortgage to help pay the medical bills for Lois’ months of care fighting leukemia. She is cured and now a terrific softball player. Mom had not told us how she really came to have thousands of dollars to lower the burden of those bills that far exceeded our insurance cap. She claimed it was inherited from her brother; then, in 2010 they slapped a foreclosure sign on her lawn. My childhood house stood empty for years like another dozen houses on her block. Young people were not moving into town, nor staying after that recession. Where families were once raised, there was desolation. Then some were bought up as rentals. Mom’s house is a wreck today.
Dave: You said the population has dropped to half of what it was when you were on the verge of quitting Grand Bay and Lewis talked you into staying long enough for Bailey and him to use you as an experiment.
Dana: Grand Bay shed a lot of jobs from 2009 nine on; even the Federal prison downsized and, as I told you, the hospital. It was like a house of cards; but my company was the one taking away the bottom row of cards one at a time. Today, COVID-19 conditions are battering the last two foundational cards. That’s why I have three roles now. And, before we go on talking, I have to say it was an “experiment” in making me believe in the value of what I was learning from the company in each customer call that saved not only my job, but my self-esteem. They were replacing my, our, customer facing CSSR roles with a software package! “Human need no longer apply”.
Dave: What are your three “hats” called now?
Dana: No longer Director of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness. Oh, how I loved that work! People responded with creative problem-solving in every nook and cranny of the company. Remember Bonnie?
Dave: Sure. She had a husband out of work and injured and, what, three kids and one on the way?
Dana: Bonnie is my best friend now. So is her daughter Megan Judy’s bestie. Her husband did pass away. She remarried. Aris Mougalian, our quiet, brilliant fellow whistle blower. They met each other at a Mensa gathering. Bonnie, an undisclosed genius; and they used to keep her doing data entry. I found out in my new role how quickly and powerfully Bonnie learned, each time she tackled a new and more difficult assignment. Now, she and Artis are free-lance software developers living in one of the last houses in town vacated by Grand Bay executives over the last couple of purges of management.
Dave: I’m pleased for Bonnie and Artis. Now, about those hats.
Dana: Of course. I did tell you I have a hard stop for this call at 11:30. So, when they reduced the compliment of managers: senior, middle, and even front-line in our logistics and distribution operations; they shifted much of that leadership, I guess you’d call it, burden on those of us stubborn “locals” who would not leave town. Deep roots, you know. I am mainly HR, Health and Safety, and Training (mostly compliance stuff, no longer about employee development). I can see you looking more closely, Dave, at my weary face. That is pain and heartbreak at work on the face you may have expected when we opened this Zoom call.
Dave: I am not sure you expected to see my shock of white hair; but I confess these fourteen years were mostly easy and enjoyable. A retired college professor with reasonably good health. But there are new worry lines here and here. COVID-19 targets people my age. I’ve barely left this house for three months. Oh, Dana, here I go making this about myself, when you just said, “pain and heartbreak”.
Dana: When my HR calls come here at home, where you can I am also honoring the State’s lockdown, they are almost always about letting people go; only some furloughs, mostly layoffs. Dave, I know most of these people personally. This is not a town nor company with lots of turnover. These Grand Bay friends have been with me for my sixteen years and more. Second, even third generation workers. When I sign those documents, each name is familiar – president of my kid’s PTO, Cooper’s baseball coach, my cousin’s husband. This afternoon, I must tell Bill he is laid off. They are making me do this myself. Cowards!
Dave: Damned Awful! Who is “they” these days? Surely not Nikki, EVP for HR when I left you in 2006.
Dana: If only it were Nikki! No, she moved away right after Grand Bay was taken over by venture capitalists. She had no choice. It was a clean sweep of our C-suite. I’m glad, in a way, that Lewis did not live to see it. Nikki has a horse farm in North Dakota, not far from where Bailey still lives. You ask who “they” are. A CEO that investors announced as a turn-around and efficiency expert took over about three years back. We were still making money; but he gradually cut off most of our international distribution network partners.
Dave: I remember how you helped Ming make fuller use of her call center practices when that partnership in China was just underway. How can you remain a global distributor for your OME customers with those relationships ended?
Dana: I may have to rush this answer, because you still need to know about my Safety and Health “hat” and, my now tiny training cap. At first, we thought they were going to revive our own dormant manufacturing capacity, which would have been a boon to our town. We still had some machinists living here and able to train people. I started to set that up (my Training hat) with our struggling tech high school, then, boom! Top management started to see off chunks of our enterprise, including the remaining overseas holdings. They did not even unpack their boxes, figuratively; they came to strip out the cash and run. That brings me back to the Safety and Health hat with only eight minutes before the Zoom call where I will be fighting with the “temp” VP HR.
Dave: About Bill?
Dana: About masks. Gloves. Social distancing. Worse of all, she wants me to withhold (she calls it “delay”) reporting Virus-related illnesses and the first death which happened yesterday. Their legal eagle sends down an actual script that says this delivery driver’s family is in our ‘thoughts and prayers’, but that there is no evidence that he we infected on our premises. Bullshit, of course.
Dave: That’s horrible! Why not the other COVID-19 protections?
Dana: Many of our remaining employees – call center, business office, sales – are working at home. Bill’s team got all this worked out back in March. They are relatively safe. It’s those who we rely upon to keep our warehouses here and in other regions pumping out SKU’s. In my Safety and Health role, I put in orders for PPE’s for all those good souls, with their supervisors’ blessings. There were delays, while hospitals, even my mom’s assisted living facility, had priority. In the meantime, we improvised with bandana’s and fresh work gloves every day. Then, yesterday, moments after I learned from the regional hospital where they had flown my employee that he died from COVID-19 causes, I heard from Purchasing that my PPE order was pulled by “upstairs”. This will be my second Zoom call. There is no freaking way they can justify this as one of the CEO’s cost savings.
Dave: Dana, when we began this conversation you called your knowledge ‘survival’. Now I have to ask, whose survival? Yours? Grand Bay’s? Your lovely family’s? What remains of your community? For this is knowledge of another quality altogether.
Dana: All of those things and more. I need to know how to act to get us to the weekend, let alone to the only to be imagined time, when the Virus is gone and business recovers. Dave, please, can we have another call so you can tell me what you mean by another quality altogether? I’m so grateful that you have found me after nearly fifteen years. However, I’m not so sure you are. A peaceful day of retirement now laden down with my woes.
Dave: Dana, I am grateful, too. I am my colleagues, contemporaries and up and coming professors, need to see, hear, moreover, feel, what I am experiencing with you right now. I don’t yet know what I mean about a new quality or character of knowledge for practicing in a post-pandemic, even continuing pandemic ecosystem. I just sense deeply that the source of such knowledge will be you, Dana, and the thousands of practitioners of every kind who will know at the end of each hyper-turbulent day what worked to keep moving forward. Steve and I once called your story Inside Knowledge: rediscovering the source of performance improvement. Were we to write its 2020 sequel, I think we would call it Surviving Knowledge: discovering practice as the authentic source of new theory. Something like that. Fewer words, but attribution for advancing though where it now belongs. The courageous, determined Dana Gilberts of the world.
Dana: Well, what I must conjure up to change some set minds this afternoon has not yet occurred to me, Dave. It is like I am kayaking down a raging rapid. Dodging boulders, not knowing what is around the next bend. But I’ll be damned if I let myself capsize!
Dave: My mentor and teacher from decades ago, Peter, called your apt analogy permanent white water to introduce his vision of what was head for managers back in 1989. Nothing staying the same moment to moment. Placing the highest premium on the practice of learning. COVID-19 released more onto your rapids; but I believe your learning practice will not be vanquished. Dana, now you are my teacher. I’ll send you some days and time for our next conversation.
Dana: Dave, I’m terrified. Goodbye.