Throwing away the toaster

Toaster on kitchen worktop

Today I took an old toaster to the bin.

That’s not really news, is it?

No, but it did then serve as an analogy in a discussion with a colleague about ownership of tasks in the workplace, and decision making, which was much more interesting than the disposal of the toaster itself.

The toaster was dead. Kaputt. Or to paraphrase Monty Python, it was an ex-toaster. However, it had been left on the worktop, on it’s side, in a kitchen used by dozens of people, for several days, until I dumped it (with apologies for the whole not-recycling-properly thing). One might attribute this to the old everybody leaving the job for somebody model, and of course that might well be contributing to the fact that it had not been moved to where it belonged (the skip!).

My colleague mooted, as many would, why it had just been left, why had no-one thrown it away. Are people just not bothered?

Well that got me thinking that there is probably more to it than that. It’s a reflection of how people – especially within the culture of a large organisation – are sometimes reluctant, or don’t feel able, or are afraid, to take responsibility for doing something that is slightly unusual. I don’t think it’s just jobsworth-ness (is that a word?) or laziness.

So, for example, in a bureaucratic organisation, consciously or unconsciously people might be thinking …

  • Does electrical equipment have to go in a different bin?
  • Is there a record of that toaster somewhere that has to be updated before it is disposed of?
  • Are there health and safety rules about disposing of an electrical item?
  • Someone else would have contacted the janitors about it?
  • Will I get into trouble if I threw away an “asset” without checking?
  • Will someone think I’m nicking a toaster if they see me leave the building with it?
  • Does a new toaster have to be ordered and the old one taken away by the supplies department?

…. and so on.

Work meeting cartoon, leader saying "lets throw away the toaster"
Click for full size cartoon

Anyway, I digress. The important thing is not really the toaster disposal episode, but what it says about a working environment that doesn’t empower people properly. If people are afraid to dispose of an unserviceable toaster, I can’t imagine they would be prepared to come forward with good ideas for a change where it really might matter, and take initiative in delivering it.

Thus managers should aim to create an environment where people can throw away their broken toasters without fear of retribution.

An equally, those with ideas and ambitions for their organisation, please do have the confidence to throw away the toaster. Of course a spark of initiative does bring an element of risk, but no initiative means no change, means no improvement, means a very stale life indeed.

After all, as William Arthur Ward wrote… risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. Those who risk nothing, do nothing, have nothing, and become nothing.