Good Night Malcolm …

Brass Key

In the dim distant past when ‘lectric had only just been invented, I was working in a nice big department in a very big organisation. At the time, I was getting a fair bit of stick from a couple of accountants way up in the command and control hierarchy. Without any real evidence they were beating the “I’ve never had a delivery job but know more about it than you” drum and ranting on at every possible opportunity, about how my department’s inefficiencies were letting the side down.

All cobblers, we were shit hot, but they had to justify their jobs somehow. Well I was getting really pissed off and in a fabulous moment of inspiration, one of the team leads decided to track, with the diligence of a forensic auditor with Asperger’s Syndrome, an order for – pencils, graphite HB, 1#pack(12). I didn’t realise at the time, quite how much work was required, but to cut a long story short, various cock ups and reworks resulted in the eventual payment of £2.40 for 12 pencils, 9 weeks later. The total cost of the entire process with 41 steps was £140. That’s £140 for a pack of pencils that I could get for £1 from any High Street bucket shop!

I know, sounds mad doesn’t it but almost all the cost was down to the internal transactions between various bits of finance and the wider organisation. Well you can imagine my pride in the next performance review when we reported on a potential cost improvement project. In front of a blather (collective noun) of executives, including the drum beaters, I ran through the tortuous pathway ending in an organisational £50,000 a month on stationery invoices, which if you extrapolate, costs us … I was stopped there! The finance director wouldn’t let me in the same room as him for over a year!

The reason for telling this story is to give you a sense of perspective. Before procurement was invented and when I was in short managerial trousers, there was an old bloke who worked in a place called Supplies. A cantankerous, miserly old bastard called Malcolm. He did various jobs across the organisation down in the workings, under the radar. But Malcolm’s top priority was an old brass key that he kept on a chain, with which he wielded tremendous power. It was the key to the stationery store!

Malcolm was based next to the back door, where deliveries turned up and through which most staff entered the building. Malcolm would be there early, key already in his hand poised to enact his highly polished routine. Pretty much everybody as they walked past would say the same thing, “morning Malcolm” to which there’d be a little nod and a grumpy mumble. Then an occasional person would make eye contact and it triggered the dance.

He’d step straight across the corridor, you had to get out of his way, over to the stationery store door and without even a glance the shiny key span in the well oiled lock and a large purple accounts ledger was flung open, ruled up and ready with the day’s date. With Malcolm, giving away stationery was like cutting off bits of his own body. He could remember every single sodding thing everybody had and if he wasn’t sure, it was meticulously recorded somewhere in that bloody book. He was equally vigilant with his suppliers, of which there were several local businesses, whom he played off against each other. Malcolm easily saved double his own salary every year!

Several people, usually total numpties, complained about Malcolm; his lack of customer service; he wouldn’t answer the phone; he was gone by 3pm when important stuff needed to be done. Malcolm’s boss was old school and told everyone with a complaint to go talk to Malcolm, a great strategy that I still use. Those numpties were really complaining about their own ignorance of the system. Malcolm was in at 6am and open for business before the early shift started to arrive so that the “workers” could simply pick up stationery on their way in. By 3pm Malcolm had already done 9 hours of more productive work than two numpties put together.

Some of the similarly old school team leads (mostly women) when they dropped in on Malcolm, would leave him a variety of homemade cakes and biscuits. Bribery you may think and he certainly loved cake. But there was also a rumour that Malcolm was on first name terms with a few old geezers, who, as he put it “slept in the park”. It turns out that ‘supplies’ was a way of life, not a job.

Now the women were not daft. When you had banked several slices of cake, you could put your arm around Malcolm and say something like, “morning Malcolm, I need two of those blue types, with the vertical stripes to go over the left handed one by the sink”. To which there was a “no problem love, Phil is due in on Wednesday and we’ll have a go for you”.

Believe it or not, with regard to the “love”, at one point some stupid fart in HR tried to get Malcolm on various points of politically correct policy. In their first ‘informal meeting’, Malcolm had in no uncertain terms, suggested that they – extricate themselves with no untoward dalliance in congruence with the increasing possibility of ensuing emotional distress and physical discomfort as he “shoved that up their arse”! Malcolm’s boss said, go talk to Malcolm! The HR numptie didn’t stay long.

Malcolm was in management. It’s not strategic, or visionary, or value based, or flash or full of pathetic pseudo-intellectual claptrap that nobody understands, including the numpties who spout it. He served the people doing the real work, he got annoying things out of their way, kept them honest and when they asked nicely, would go to the ends of earth to supply whatever they needed. Albeit in a grumpy, vocational, insignificant little corner of the organisation.

I remember when Malcolm lost his job, in a transformational improvement programme. Despite protestations from just about everyone, he was parked behind a desk with a phone and a stapler that didn’t work. He soon lost his spark and retired early a year or so later, in the next round of transformational improvement! There’s a lesson for us all – sometimes improvement is simply about protecting the good stuff from the numpties.

Last week, sat peacefully in his favourite knackered old wing-back amongst his family and his friends, Malcolm died. As I’m sure he would have said himself, not a sad occasion after an innings of 82, most of which, spent with a fag in one hand and a glass of Bells in the other. His favourite brass key was still in his pocket.

I hadn’t thought of Malcolm in years, but when I heard the news, in that instant, I lit up in a smile and had to say aloud, “morning Malcolm”.

Good Night Malcolm!


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