A restaurant manager gets bored of restaurant work and decides to be a facilities manager for a company in a small town in Japan, leaving a well known business and the country to newer experiences. The Japanese company always hosts a banquet for its executives on every Friday. Tempura is one of the delicacies ordered in large numbers along with other Japanese delicacies. The majority of the food is prepared before in the kitchen and served on the table except tempura and a few other dishes which is prepared in a live counter and left to self serve.

The manager observes at the end of the banquet that there is a shrimp tempura left, instinctively thinks about the cost because of recent shrimp shortages and how much do they have to pay for high quality ones. So the manager orders lesser number of tempuras to be prepared for the next dinner. Surprisingly one tempura remains and the cycle continues until tempura is removed from the menu.

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This goes on for a few months with the other live counter dishes until the live counter itself is removed because of non usage. The cost savings when seen from an individual’s point of view was big. The proud feeling of being able to prove one’s ability to bring in efficiency was giving a high. At the end of the quarter, the facilities manager gets a notice period from the boss to leave the position as a lot of executives have complained about missing the live counter and poor quality of banquet experience.

No one told the manager anything, but what was progressing as a great cost savings plan ended up costing the job. Why did it happen that way? In the group of people who dined, they have a common agreement that it is rude to take the last piece in a buffet, how hungry you are or how tasty it is, it does not matter. For an outsider it looks like wastage, but for the diners it was part of their communication.

Another angle to this is, feedback does not come directly in many cultures. It will often be hidden or wrapped in euphemisms. In this story, one of the diners would have expressed that they need more tempuras but never picked the one on the plate thereby confusing an outsider with mixed messages. Cross cultural work which is a given for knowledge workers nowadays is full of these problems. One book that is helping me is ‘The Culture Map’. I keep rereading a few chapters before getting exposed to a new culture so that I can be well prepared to understand the style of working. It is not foolproof, but it helps you to be better prepared.

Recently I have seen a lot of leaders put up policies on their linkedin walls saying they respect sane working hours, weekend holidays, encouraging personal time off and many more. This is a case of giving back what was taken from others but disguised as a perk. Working late and on the weekends had been baked into as a given thing for a lot of leaders. It gets equated to more effort which was presumed to end up in more productivity.

The mindset is infectious, a person who comes into the workforce gets subjected to late working hours and weekend work, it becomes imbibed into their minds and they repeat for other new comers. The idea continued to grow stronger by Lindy effect, with people promoting workaholics and thereby creating more workaholics.

There is a change in workforce dynamics. Two decades ago, knowledge work boom brought in jobs that elevated the standards of living. The upgrade in lifestyle was so big that people were ready to do what was asked at the workplace. Leaders who were used to manufacturing mindset jumped on the opportunity and took it towards a downward spiral. Eventually people who worked insanely long hours and weekends were seen as committed irrespective of the outcome they bring.

What changed now is the workforce that is entering the market, a good chunk of the workforce has a pretty decent standard of living and what they look for is quality of life. The long working hours immediately removes the quality of life aspect and hence a lot of leaders are scrambling to understand how to improve productivity without stretching the people.

It was never fruitful to prolong the working hours to get more done in a knowledge work situation, yet a lot of leaders held on to that opinion strongly and rewarded hustle culture. Now that there is not much option to hold on to the hours of working, people are forced to return what was never theirs and look for different ways to engage and improve effectiveness.

In the software world, focussing on developer experience will attract and retain talent while helping achieve goals in a sane and sustainable pace. This involves balancing standardisation vs freehand, homogenous vs fragmented tech, governed vs federated ownership along with information symmetry and clean communication.

We would have read the story of ‘The conditioned elephant’ where a fully grown up elephant is tied using a small rope but it never tries to break free as it was conditioned as a kid that it cannot break a rope. We humans are also trapped with those constraints that we learned to become helpless. I have some stories during my journey.

When I started to program, access to computers were very limited. I have to write my program in paper, verify it a few times, get it reviewed on paper before getting system time and trying how mine works. Even my first few job interviews, I wrote the programs on paper and my interviewer went through the input and output manually before pursuing my candidature to solve tougher problems using a computer.

What this meant was I learnt the language fundamentals well, I understood many gotchas on the syntax and often I can write 100s of lines without syntax/compilation errors, without referring to any manuals or help articles. My behaviour continued even when I had my own system full time along with internet access. I spent a lot of time understanding in detail before I would claim myself proficient in a specific language or a tool and also refused to use IDE.

Barring a few occasional WOWs, I was slowly slipping into struggle like “The boiling frog“; observed in an experiment that a very gradual raise in temperature can kill a frog without it realising that it is being boiled. My years of conditioning with poor hardware and no internet meant I had to get a fair degree expertise before I could code professionally. While it is a good thing that something forces you to master a topic, the bad thing about this is I learnt to have a delayed feedback about trying new things out. When it came to experiment I used to lag behind as I was more inclined to deep dive instead of fail fast.

Every time someone whom I know coaxes me into changing my ways of working, I was held back by IT policy of “not upgrading the machines until they fail”. For a few years my machines at work never supported anything beyond a simple text editor which reinforced my older ways of working. It was only after an upgrade (I bought my own laptop), I realised the joy of programming in an IDE. For the first time TDD was a breeze and I fell in love with that method but not before wasting a few years in an outdated style.

Every few years information, hardware, connectivity, software is becoming more accessible. It is churning up faster than we can sense and adapt to the new landscape around us. We are often caught up like boiling frogs and stick to our trusted and tried methods at work until a jolt comes externally. New year beginning is always a good time to identify what constraints are we victim to and do they really exist? Every year I keep finding things that are outdated in my style of working and upgrade them. It is not just limited to workplace, it is in every aspect of life. Try finding out, what constraints are holding us back and do they exist?