Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

It is a truism to say that Quality Managers tend to be stable individuals with the sort of children (that translates as: any over 8) who would like to watch the film of "Lord of the Rings". So the parents escort the children and sit back, satisfied to watch them so enthralled and they (the parents, I mean, I can't speak for the children) completely miss appreciating any of the quality implications.

Uh, quality implications for a work of fiction? Depending on which commentary you read, Tolkien was either setting out to create a mythology for Middle England or writing a long series of episodic letters to his son, parts of which ended up, patched and refined, in this long epic. Or it was a side-effect of Tolkien's research into linguistics. No one (that I can find - which is probably not the same thing) has ever suggested that Tolkien was actually constructing an interesting quality plan.

And yet, so much makes sense when seen through a quality focus. The first thing a quality manager learns is that no improvement initiative can ever succeed without senior management support. I'm sticking my neck out here by equating the fate of the ring with a quality initiative. To Sauron, it was a restoration of the world order with Sauron at the top and everyone else totally subdued and obedient. Or, as Gandalf puts it "[the] strength and knowledge to bear down all resistance, break the last defences and cover the lands in a second darkness". Lord Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord, whose only appearance in the book is a single giant glazed yellow eye, rimmed with fire, the black slit pupil opening into an abyss of nothingness - he can surely qualify as senior management. He throws everything into getting the ring back - all his resources, all his emotional involvement, until that last dreadful moment when Frodo claims mastery of the ring. "The magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash" writes Tolkien rather smugly "his [Sauron's] fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him".

Turning briefly to Gandalf, he also provides management support, though his goal is to use the destruction of the ring to maintain as much of the status quo as can survive the trauma of a World War. But his turn will come later.

Moving into the logistics of it all explores the quality/management interface. Now, Sauron is a bad being. I don't say that he is evil, since morality is relative, and it's noticeable how few evil people actually subscribe to that definition of themselves. Sauron, for example, may see himself as a Robert the Bruce "try, try and try again" type of guy - unjustly defeated on the slopes of Orodruinn deep inside his own territory, he flees to Mirkwood to re-group and only gradually manages to infiltrate back to his home state of Mordor.

My objection to Sauron is that he is a bad manager. He rules by fear - Tolkien notes that in the land of Mordor, the combination of forts and natural defences act not so much to keep people out as to keep the few servants and many slaves of fear in. But, worse, he rules by misinformation. When he first hears the ring has survived, for example, he attempts to negotiate with the dwarves and downplays the value of the ring "the least of rings ... but a trifle" is the way it's described. Even in Mordor, the orders are blurred: "Prisoner is to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring or trinket is to be sent ...". These orders are guaranteed to inspire resentment and apathy; they appear to generate gratuitous paperwork for no obviously good reason.

Nor does Sauron choose his subordinates well. Sauruman is the only character explored in depth; first coaxed, then forced into Sauron's service, it is really no wonder that he searches for independence and plots for Sauron's downfall in a sneaky and episodic way. I could only find one creature showing any loyalty to Sauron, beyond the dumb subservience shown by those whose first instinct is survival - the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur aka the Mouth of Sauron, and he's not the sort of thing I would like to meet in a dark alley.

In his own way, Gandalf is as bad a manager as Sauron. He sets off with good intentions, but the terrors of Moria reveal his lack of contingency planning (but, be truthful, would you have built a balrog into your risk management calculations?) He doesn't pace himself properly, hence the famous words "What an evil fortune. And I am already weary" and he is more than a little indiscreet about his private opinion of the rest of the company as he slips into the abyss: ""Fly, you fools" he cried and was gone".

He also has a very irritating habit of navel-gazing, self-flagellating himself for not acting super-human when he was already tired and had done more than anyone could have expected. Pippin would have got hold of the Palantir one way or another - it seems to have had the same sticky obsessive magnetism Edmund experienced towards Turkish Delight in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". Would time have been changed if Gandalf hadn't let himself be reassured by Sauruman the Wise at the begining? Gandalf had no reason to suspect the Head of his order - it was only the intuitive snowflakes of knowledge whirling inside his head and his deep knowledge of hobbits which made him suspicious.

However, it is Elrond, rather than Gandalf, who suggests the idea of Nine Walkers to set against the Nine Riders (those awful Nazgul). He follows Belbin's group theory to a certain extent, in selecting a small number (Belbin suggests 5-7, but the 9 is a more symbolic number) with a blend of team roles. The idea to have representation from the Free Peoples of the World (humans, elves and dwarves) is good, as it adds an empowerment aspect and Elrond, naturally I suppose, wants to hold the balance of power with members of his own household. Elrond has got it all planned and is a bit taken aback when his pawns won't move into the allotted places. Merry and Pippin, especially, want to go with Frodo and Sam, even though that makes the group top heavy with hobbits. "My heart is against his going" says Elrond about Pippin, which is his way of saying "over my dead body". It is Gandalf, who always makes these semi-prophetic predictions about what might possibly happen, who persuades Elrond, commenting that "it would be well to trust rather to their friendship, rather than to great wisdom". Throughout the whole book, there is always the feeling that strength of arms is all very well, but success will come with imagination, ingenuity and out of the box thinking.

So, Frodo is the core member, who has to destroy the ring or die in the attempt. The others go as free companions who "may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows".

Tolkien, of course, being pre-Belbin and more interested in story-telling than character development, did not match the company exactly to Belbin-type profiles. Belbin defines each of his 9 team roles as "a tendency to behave, contribute and inter-relate with others in a particular way", using his 10 years' research with middle managers at Henley as source material.

Gandalf must be the Co-ordinator - it's an obvious role for him as he is dominant, but in an unassertive but relaxed way (except when he loses his temper and evaporates a warg or cries out "Fool of a Took!"). He's the one who presides over the team. Aragon acts as the Implementator, stable and controlled with integrity, able to turn ideas into practical actions. When Gandalf disappears in Moria, Aragorn immediately takes over the group and leads them to (relative) safety. Strangely enough, I'd put Sam in that category, too. Sam's able to sort out objectives and pursue them logically: in the fuss of the dissolution of the Company, when orcs are all over the place and Boromir is, for once, finally acting properly, it is Sam who works out how Frodo would act and who, alone from the Company, accompanies him on that last part of the journey to Mordor.

Of the other hobbits, Pippin, though younger, gets more of a high profile and could be cast as a Resource Investigator. He's likeable, sociable, gregarious, makes friends easily. I'm not sure that he prevents the rest of the team losing touch with reality, but he keeps the information dumps flowing with his questions. Merry, I'd put as a Team Worker. He's loyal, worthy, a good team member and, though I hate to say so, I find him a bit of a bore. But he's a good team member.

I hesitated quite a lot, about Legoalas and Gimli, before eventually categorising Gimli as a Completer Finisher. Yes, he's got self-control and strength of character, but to use the number of people he kills as a metric of how he meets his deadlines and fulfils his schedule seemed a bit gruesome. I did think he displayed the classic weakness of Completer Finishers - being inclined to worry unduly - especially when it comes to Moria - but many people start with one role and, as circumstances change, move on to another. This could be why I initially thought of Legolas as a Monitor Evaluator. This type can contribute in measured and dispassionate analysis, be solid and dispassionate dependable but without jollity, imagination and spontaneity. The only time Legolas gets really excited is when he hears the seagulls and turns his mind to sea. He's been warned against it, but, damn it, all his life he's been a good woodland elf, I think it's only fair that the whiff of salt air should lead him into exciting, uncharted territories.

Of all the company, the most clearly defined is Boromir. He's a Shaper. Or, at least, he thinks he is. The fascinating dichotomy of his character is that he is a second-rater who aspires to be a leader so much that he deludes himself. Right from the beginning, at the Council of Elrond, he displays his personal competitiveness, arrogance and intolerance. "For few, I deem, know of our deeds and therefore guess little of their peril, if we fail at last" he boasts. He's making assumptions (which is bad, bad, bad). He knows - and cares - nothing of the knowledge of the other Council members - Elrond, Gandalf, even Glorfindel - and, while ostensibly coming for advice, lets no opportunity slip for self-glorification.

Shapers are prone to provocation (and paranoia). They offend people's feelings. But they get things done. Boromir certainly gets things done. He very nearly prevents the Company going through Moria by raising as many objections as he can get away with and eventually forcing a majority vote. In the end, it takes Gandalf to publicly slap him down - something Gandalf doesn't do very often - saying "You [Boromir] speak of what you do not know, when you liken Moria to the stronghold of Sauron. I alone of you have ever been in the dungeons of the Dark Lord ... but I would not lead you into Moria if there was no hope of coming out alive".

So what else does Boromir do? Destroy the Company, that's what. Virtually single-handed. He sneaks up to Frodo and, in a very patronising and heavy-handed way, reminds him just how superior men are. "Yet often" says Boromir "I doubt if they [elves, half elves and wizards] are wise and not merely timid ... True-hearted men, they will not be corrupted". Then, showing his own corruption to the reader, though not, of course, to himself "What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? ... Why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of command".

And when persuasion fails (and it must have taken a lot for Frodo to stand up against him), Boromir turns to force. ""For I am too strong for you, halfling" he cried: and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eye".

Frodo escapes the only way he can, by putting on the ring, and Boromir shows yet another unworthy side of his character, as he runs round searching for Frodo, cursing him spitefully then, on his return to the campfire, lying about the whole episode.

Frodo is charitable about it, blaming this madness on the ring. I'm not so kind. It's often convenient to externalise a character weakness to remove individual responsibility. Later conversations with Gandalf and Faramir throw further light on Boromir's character - a spoiled, younger son in a family which deliberately stays loyal as guardians instead of claiming the place of honour Boromir thinks it should have. Boromir was also not initially chosen to join the Company as a representative of the world of men - Aragorn was the representative, and it was Aragorn who suggested Boromir, as being "valiant". Boromir was, therefore, yet again put in a secondary position, always overshadowed by Aragorn.

But with so much at stake, Boromir's actions cannot be excused just because he is carrying so much emotional luggage. He dies, an Orcish pin cushion, and it's really very difficult not to feel relief.

What is so satisfying about the book - and a further confirmation of the quality implications - is that it doesn't end with the destruction of the ring. In quality, there is never any ending. Even after the task has been achieved, the cycle must continue with review and the search for opportunities of continuous improvement. With the book, the hobbits have to tackle the Shire which, after centuries or millenia of remaining sheltered and unnoticed, has finally been sullied by fallout from the War for the Ring. Tolkien could be writing in allegorical terms about increased industrialisation, but his point is very clear. Life goes on, whatever the circumstances. And while life goes on, so does quality. It may change its focus, it may even change its relative importance, but where there's life, there's quality.

And, at this point, it's easy to imagine the relief with which Bilbo wrote "The End", because preparation for this article has involved reading parts of "The Lord of the Rings" thirteen times. It's definitely time to move on!

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:11 PM : 

Saturday, August 17, 2002  
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