Putting Things on Top of Other Things

One of my favorite comedy sketches is the “Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things” by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Over the years I have grown to appreciate its insight into organizational behavior. Here is how the Society’s President opens the meeting

“The year has been a good one for the Society. This year our members have put more things on top of other things than ever before. But, I should warn you, this is no time for complacency. No, there are still many things, and I cannot emphasize this too strongly, not on top of other things.”

For those who haven’t seen the sketch, I won’t give away the payoff. Click on the YouTube link and take a couple of minutes to watch it.

When I was younger, I enjoyed this sketch simply for the absurdity of its premise as well as the deadpan delivery. After becoming a working adult I, came to appreciate that this was absurd yet had much to do with how organizations worked. Organizations are groups of people who come together for a common purpose, such as to put things on top of other things. Large organizational failures are often preceded by activities becoming an ends in themselves. Examples include production targets set for factories in planned economies such as the USSR, Toyota’s pursuit of the vehicle volume even at the cost of design quality systems during the first decade of the 2000s, or the U.S. financial sector forgetting that the purpose of banking was to support the growth of the rest of the economy rather than just to use money to make more money. Putting things on top of other things.

In terms of our personal inboxes, it seems we are “putting things on top of other things”. A typical manager’s daily or weekly priorities are being shifted regularly as new priorities are placed above previous ones. Things on top of other things. This may be due to small problems being escalated ahead of the day’s work, senior managers reacting to new opportunities and redirecting their teams, projects falling behind and requiring management attention, etc. We have a chance to be more effective when we ask ourselves the purpose of our work rather than simply moving things through our inbox.

Some years ago, while at an aerospace company on the east coast, a visiting General Manager who we will call Mr. W observed a problem during a gemba walk. He discerned that the problem with recent performance at the plant was in the shipping and receiving area. Wishing to enlighten and motivate the team, he gave a speech which was essentially, “It’s all about the boxes. Boxes on the conveyor. Boxes in the door. Boxes out the door.” Boxes on top of other boxes. Sure, it was important for the boxes to move through the area in a certain way. The people knew this. What they needed from leadership was not exhortations to “put more things on top of other things” but a connection between their efforts and serving the customer, also a chance for their voice to be heard as internal customers with valid concerns about upstream processes and policies that affected their ability to serve the customer. If YouTube and smart phones had existed back then, I could have pulled up the Monty Python video for Mr. W and asked, “How are these two situations similar?”

Studies have shown that organizations with adaptive cultures are more innovative, profitable and resilient. Non-adaptive cultures are internally-focused and bureaucratic, insisting more on following rules without question and meeting internal targets rather than questioning how things are done, listening to customers and flexing to meet their needs. The Society was about putting things on top of other things, rather than why. As times change, the original purpose is forgotten or fades into the background, our activities inevitably become silly to future generations. It’s early in the year, a good time to look for opportunities to questions things we may be putting on top of other things, and to find the courage to say, “The whole thing is a bit silly.” That way we can better focus our time on serving the customer and our long-term purpose.