As Christmas approaches and stores fill up with scary amounts of extra stock that they hope will all magically vanish by Christmas Eve, I find myself thinking about the time when I was put in charge of stock ordering for a major business.  They delegated to me too soon, and I nearly brought the operation crashing to its knees.

This was a year or two afterwards.  Still smiling...

This was a year or two afterwards. Still smiling…

We’re going way back here, to my first job in business.  A fresh-faced Oxford graduate with a shiny MA in Music, I elected, not totally logically, to go into Distribution Operations when offered a graduate trainee job with a leading player in the UK drinks business.

3 months into my training programme (in those days such programmes lasted 18 months, would you believe) the stock controller for the wines and spirits side of the business went off long term sick.  Yours truly was seen by the Depot Manager (the top dog in other words) as a bit of a spare part who spent most of his time watching other people do stuff.  He wasn’t far wrong.

So he decided that I would be the best man for the job.  Michael Brown became, overnight, Wines and Spirits stock controller for a distribution operation serving thousands of pubs, clubs and restaurants.

I got told to spend half a day with the office manager, who told me what he knew, and then I was on my own.  How difficult can it be:  use this computer print out showing how much of each line sells per week, and reorder to ensure we hold enough stock to cover 4 weeks.

With little else to go on, I used this printout as my bible.  Intuition and experience didn’t come into it, as I had none.  I took things literally.

So when I read a memo (this was before email) saying all the wines and spirits shops on the patch should order their big selling wines for the Christmas period in October, I assumed they would.  Did the maths, and got it ordered.  Big mistake.  They waited until December, as they too didn’t want to have to clamber over it for 2 months.

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

During the following weeks truckload after truckload of the stuff started to arrive.  Pallets of wine were stacked literally to the roof.  There was so much of it they couldn’t get it into the secure area of the warehouse, and had to shove it in next to the beer barrels.  This meant the stock was no longer covered on insurance, there were health and safety risks, the lot.  I think we even had to take on extra security to guard the stuff!

Eventually when we had to start turning trucks back because we simply did not have any more room, an ashen-faced Depot Manager presented himself at my desk.  Much of his “feedback” would be unprintable, but I could summarise it as along the lines of:

“Mick, what the fecking hell do you think you are doing?”

You can imagine the rest.  The conversation concluded with me being offered further coaching and support, from someone who at last did know what he was talking about, ie the guy on the shop floor who had been there 15 years.

This was an instructive experience.  An object lesson in how not to delegate.  What are the basic errors here?

  1. Delegating too soon, where insufficient coaching had taken place
  2. Failing to establish the level of competence
  3. Not engaging in a dialogue to find out areas of concern, level of motivation etc
  4. Not monitoring and reviewing until it was too late
  5. Not having a regular feedback loop in place
  6. Assumptions
  7. Excessive risk taking

There are probably more.  At the root of this lay what I would characterise as laziness, conflict avoidance and excessive pragmatism on the part of the Depot Manager.  He went for a convenient and quick short term fix, without putting in any compensatory mechanisms.  In a way he hung me out to dry.

Fortunately I didn’t end up carrying the can for this incompetence, and I lived to tell the tale.  I went on to clock up loads more of these experiences, which is why I am such an expert incompetent.

What have been your bad experiences of delegation?