Bad Luck or Just Bad Management?

Following on from the previous post here is a slightly closer look at the Carillion debacle.

Barely into the new year and the news broke that a large company handling many multi-million-pound government contracts had gone bust. That company is (or was) Carillion and included in their remit were several large hospital and school construction projects.

Everyone has a Carillion Story… Don’t They?

Now the name Carillion is in the news and everyone has a story to tell. OK, maybe not everyone; but I do. I once worked for a company when they (like many others) were taken over by Carillion. That company was known as Mowlem and their management was equally poor. And that is being kind. Back then Carillion was evolving into an industrial behemoth taking over many well-established engineering companies and dealing with an increasingly large number of important projects being handed out by the government.

In most engineering projects acronyms are used in documents and drawings for all kinds of things. One particular project more or less had its own acronym dictionary there were so many. An acronym by definition is an abbreviation formed by the initial letters from a group of words or phrase. One of those acronyms we used was for what was called the Southern Operations Building – literally an operations building at the southern end of the construction site– hence SOB. Obvious right? Well; read on…

Enter the “Management”

One day a meeting was attended by the overall manager who hardly ever visited or paid much attention to the obvious lack of progress. This manager was a woman whose name escapes me. With all the usual issues on a large construction job you might expect some helpful feedback or inspiration from someone so high up the food chain, right? Wrong. The only thing she seemed concerned about was that all references to the SOB needed to be changed to something “more appropriate” like “SOP” (her suggestion) to mean Southern OPerations building.

I had to think long and hard about that one. Finally, I realised what it was all about and my colleagues confirmed. This woman actually thought that SOB could be taken to mean Son Of a Bitch. That (still) pretty much American mid-ranking insult.

It Takes Your Breath Away…

This would mean changing thousands of references in hundreds of drawings and documents. Obviously at a cost. Yet this is what she insisted upon.

I remember thinking; REALLY??!! No; it can’t be. But it was true. This was the height of Tony Blair’s reorganisation of anything that may have once worked correctly. Such people were appearing almost out of nowhere and taking up highly paid positions in all kinds of companies. They still do of course.

In reality the acronym SOB probably does not conjure up anything to most people. Especially when being used in technical documents; you just look it up in the list of acronyms and abbreviations section of a document and there you will find the definition/meaning. If you were to visit a hospital in America as an outpatient complaining of symptoms like shortness of breath it is quite likely your record will have SOB written on it. In some circles “SOB” has a specific and, clearly in this example, important meaning. But none of this would ever be considered by managers like this woman.

Where does that leave us?

So, where does that leave us? What does that tell us about the people who run these companies? I use the term “run” loosely. They probably couldn’t run a bath if you left them alone.

When Carillion took over was its senior management any better? What do you think? I seem to recall that the ‘manager’ mentioned above left before the Carillion take-over; but sadly the new incoming management was equally confident in their own inabilities. Is it really such a surprise that Carillion folded like a deck-chair?

Just how are you supposed to explain this kind of thing to your kids as they grow up trying their best at school and making career defining decisions along the way?

Is there a new subject in schools that teaches kids how to hide in a large company, do as little as possible and get paid a lot of money for it? I doubt it; so where do these people come from?

More worryingly maybe; where do they go once they have ruined your project or company?

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