Black tape and bananas

It always used to be said that Government offices were best with too much red tape. But all that’s changed! Now there’s an infestation ofblack tape at government offices in the North East. It seems that the government is paying a company called Unipart, who I thought used to do spare parts for cars, but are apparently spare parts themselves, or “consultants”[1] as they prefer to be called, to review people’s desks.

Now there are quite sensible (mostly) regulations governing computer screens and general ergonomics. Is your chair adjustable, is your screen free from glare, and so on. However, the spare parts consultants have gone a wee bit further. They have marked people’s desks with black tape, showing exactly where the keyboard, mouse, telephone, stapler, pens and indeed anything else should go.

This is apparently part of the “Lean programme”, intended to keep workplaces tidy and staff thoroughly demoralised and dehumanised. Well, they only admit to the tidy bit, but I’m sure that’s the intention…

It is alleged that in a Scottish office, a member of staff was asked

Is that banana on your desk active or inactive?

Which is apparently spare part consultant language for “are you going to eat that?”

You could make it up, but people would say you were being silly.

[1] In the words of Dogbert: I like to con people, and I like to insult people. Put them together and…

2 thoughts on “Black tape and bananas

  1. mark howard

    So you believe in straight bananas and bent cucumbers stories?

    There’s nothing the media and it seems bloggers too like better than “the world’s gone mad” stories. There’s also another journalistic truism about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

    The taped up civil servants’ desks is a classic. By reducing to absurdity, the media missed the point of lean working which has led to Toyota, becoming the world’s best and most successful motor manufacturer. In fact it is hard to find many companies who are not looking at introducing lean principles

    Lean isn’t about tidy desks but the mindset that goes behind them. Everyone is familiar with mechanics putting tools back on a peg board.

    They do that so they don’t waste time hunting for the tool the next time they need it. The lean principle about being tidy and ready for work is simply applied commonsense and no, Unipart never recommended putting tape round items on desks but that’s just a tiny point

    Lean is really about getting the people who do the work to suggest continuous improvements to how they work, have them reviewed by their workmates in a structured way which tests new ideas rigorously and have a system which allows improvements to be cascaded rapidly.

    It kills command and control management as in lean it is the team that does the work which decides how the work gets done. That’s a tough sell to layers of middle management but it is about as far from turning workers into robots as you could get, 180 degree opposite!

    To get lean right you need that culture as well as the tools and techniques. It’s not easy but Unipart is way ahead of the field after 20 years refinement.

    Still that probably would not make such a good media soundbite! But don’t take our/my word for it have a look at what an independent academic says at

  2. Les Post author

    No, as it happens, I don’t believe in straight banana stories. I do, however, believe that fads in management come and go, and that attempts to make people follow this week’s fad are generally expensive and a waste of time.

    There is also a problem with the notion that a system that works well in one area can be applied equally effectively in others – this is what led to incredibly inappropriate implementations of QA procedures in many companies.

    You seem very enthusiastic about it, though. And I can believe that in organisations where the culture actually develops, it may be a Good Thing. The same was true with Investors in People, where some companies actually believed. Sadly, many more just jumped through the necessary hoops to get the nice logo for their letterhead.

    And yes, this kind of thing does make a good story, which is why people write about it.

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