Knowledge Hoarders & The Mack Truck Theory

Q. I’m the office manager at a large Midwestern distribution company. We sell a variety of products to retailers across the US, and have a sophisticated computer system that can show the status of orders with just a few clicks. My problem is that the operations managers like to work the orders on legal pads and only update an order status when the full order ships. Customers call constantly wanting an update on their orders and the operations managers are never available to take these calls. What do you suggest I do? Todd in St. Louis, MO.


Interesting problem, Todd. As surprising as your issue might seem to someone working with technology on a daily basis, there are many industries where technological advances meant to improve productivity are simply underutilized.


Knowledge Hoarding


The reasons many people continue to underutilize technology vary from a simple fear of computers to a lack of training to general laziness to a lack of oversight to the ever-insidious knowledge hoarding. While all of these reasons could be bad news for your business, knowledge hoarding is often the most damaging.


From updating customer records in a CRM tool to repair orders in body shops, I’ve seen too many instances of salesmen, managers and other associates hoarding knowledge in an effort to make themselves seem indispensable.


Regardless of why your operations managers refuse to properly enter order status on incomplete orders, the customer satisfaction issues that arise from it can damage your reputation and harm your company’s ability to grow. It is clearly a practice that should be stopped immediately.


When I’ve encountered similar instances, I generally take them to the highest level in the company. Surprisingly, about half of the leaders I’ve approached with these issues are reluctant to do anything to change these practices. Their argument is simply that the knowledge hoarder is a long-time, trusted manager who already enjoys great productivity. There’s no need, in their minds, to force change onto such a valuable employee.


The Mack Truck Theory


The next words out of my mouth are “so you don’t subscribe to the Mack Truck Theory, do you?”


After a few seconds of puzzled looks, I generally ask them if this trusted manager, let’s call him Bob, drives to work, walks to work or takes a bus. Whatever the response, I then ask what they would do if Bob was struck and killed by a Mack Truck on his way home tonight. How would they identify and service Bob’s customers?


This is usually followed by a few more seconds of puzzled looks and the standard “well, I don’t know” answer.


No One Is Indispensable


The truth is that in more than 30 years of management I have never, ever met an indispensable employee or manager. I’ve met some truly great ones, but I’ve never met anyone that was actually the “glue” holding the entire company together. This is not to say that I haven’t worked with CEOs who believed someone in their employ was indispensable. Unfortunately for these CEOs, their beliefs in these superstars keep them from growing others in the organization.


I generally argue that these “indispensable” people are really hurting the company more than they are helping. The company is better off without them. By hoarding knowledge, they are, in effect, running their own businesses within the confines of your business.


When they leave, and they often do, they take with them customer histories, relationships and knowledge that they would have shared with others had they cared more about your company and less about making themselves indispensable.


But What About Todd’s Problem?


Todd, my advice to you is to first introduce your company’s leaders to the Mack Truck Theory and then offer to train the operations managers on the proper use of your order fulfillment system. If that doesn’t do the trick, let me know and I’ll pass your resume around to companies I know in the St. Louis area.