A thirty foot wide sheet of ice suddenly appeared on our farm driveway one frozen morning last week.
A previously-innocent-looking black pipe running along the base of the pumphouse wall was obviously the culprit. Following it back to its source required lifting multiple floor boards, and descending with flashlight in hand down ancient steel rungs in the concrete wall of what felt like a bunker deep under the floor, where muddy water of uncertain depth awaited.
The farm plumbing and well system was obviously originally installed according to Rube Goldberg’s precise plan, and refined by subsequent generations of thrifty farmers using materials to hand. The end result, illuminated in all its glory by my flashlight, was a byzantine series of pipes, pumps, valves, wires, and extension cords, some disappearing off through the concrete walls and others just sitting there disconnected (maybe). A shiny, newish looking pump sat enthroned inside the rusty carcass of an old steel tank, balanced on breeze blocks and a tree stump.
One thing was for sure – the water coming out of one old pipe just hanging out of the wall was filling up the bunker. The rusty antique sump pump had fortunately cut in and drained out the worst before it shorted out anything serious, creating our new ice rink in the process. Would the pump work the next time…?
If we could only cap off the pipe.
One thing led to another. A visit to the hardware store for a threaded cap was a wasted effort because the threads of the pipe down in the Black Hole were too corroded to use. Our plumber got soaked with cold water when a loose fitting popped off in the confined space and started jetting well water into the bunker, so he had to go home. But the next day, a large cork, leftover from a wood floor repair project, proved to be just the ticket. Our plumber jammed the cork in, stopped the flow, and was able to clean out the space, simplify the piping and electrical arrangements down there significantly, replace the sump pump and voila, like new (in fact better).
So what does all this have to do with organizational dynamics, you ask? How can I possibly Segway from sump pumps to org charts?
Sometimes, departments or functions or reporting lines look like our pump system: from a time in the distant past that nobody remembers, things have been added or changed or chopped off here and there to accommodate new markets or new challenges or whatever, and nobody really knows why or pays a lot of attention. Then one day there’s a “sudden” acute issue, that isn’t really sudden at all but was building up over time (think lagging efficiency in manufacturing leading to catastrophic failure to get customer orders out the door, or stifled innovation in R&D leading to a crisis when a new regulation wipes out a key raw material). Of course prevention is better – but too often it’s not the way things are. You may have inherited the Rube Goldberg org chart. Figuring out the root cause in order to effect a solution can appear daunting… yet how often there’s a key first step that may be overlooked because it seems too simple. We want to reach for “better data” or a “more robust system” or the current cure-all of “automation”: but sometimes the first step is basic. In this case, a good old fashioned cork was about as low-tech as you can get – but it sure stopped the place filling with water.
So the moral of this story is simple. Like the cork itself. Creativity isn’t always the same as complexity. When confronted with a complex problem, don’t overlook what – or who – you have to hand.