By Tim Springer
Published in the February 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
How do you respond when you’re asked, “What do you do for a living?” What words do you use to explain what you do to someone else?
This can be especially challenging if the person you’re talking to has no experience with real estate, buildings, facilities, or workplaces. Most people show polite interest, smile encouragingly, and say something like, “Oh, that must be fascinating.” But you know they have no idea what you’re talking about.
If you’re like me, you soon find yourself saying, “Facilities management (FM) is like….” What follows is often a combination of analogies, metaphors, corollaries, parables,and other figures of speech.
I try to use examples that fit the context or experience of the person to whom I’m speaking. Unfortunately, too often I know my explanations fail to explain the profession or its practice adequately.
Formal definitions are of little help. Have you ever tried using this definition offered by one FM association?
Facility management is a profession that encompasses multiple disciplines to ensure functionality of the built environment by integrating people, place, process, and technology.
I’ve tried it, and the result is always a dial tone expression or quizzical smile. So, when you’re explaining what you do, what language, examples, or parables do you use?
Explanatory phrases, metaphors, and analogies are products of their times. In the18th century, thinkers like Voltaire borrowed from the technological state of the art. For example, it was common to use expressions of hydraulics, steam, and pistons to describe how the body worked. More recently, expressions from science (“DNA”) and technology (“bandwidth”) have found their way into common speech.
In ergonomics, my own field of study, a sub-specialty called biomechanics grew out of a theory that employs a mechanical system analogy for the human body where levers (limbs) exert force (strength) and undergo stress and strain. Similarly, a corollary of Murphy’s Law is often applied to ergonomics: “It is impossible to make anything fool proof because fools are so ingenious.”
Business seminars, management consulting, and advertising are fertile areas for finding popular sayings. Boardbreaking is a metaphor for shattering emotional boundaries, while climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro are used as analogies for life.
Conference attendees and regular readers of popular management books and articles are frequently encouraged to “think outside the box,” “drink from the fire hose,” deliver the “whole nine yards,” identify the “800 pound gorilla in the room,” recognize “garbage in yields garbage out,” and find themselves “up to their waists in alligators (when all they wanted to do was drain the swamp).” So while you “may not have the bandwidth, ”it’s time to “wake up and smell the coffee,” “draw a line in the sand,” and “put on your thinking cap.” Let’s go “back to the drawing board,” “throw it against the wall to see what sticks,” and “take it to the next level.”
FM needs to develop meaningful and memorable phrases, sayings, and stories that will help explain the profession and practice. However, I’m not advocating further proliferation of meaningless sound bites and vacuous expressions.
Carefully chosen words have power and meaning to communicate concepts from one context to another. One only has to look at the present political campaigns to understand this truth. Using metaphors, analogies, and parables to convey ideas is very important to building understanding and support.
What would such a metaphor or parable sound like? That’s both the beauty and challenge of the question. Consider this famous metaphor:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
—As You Like It, II, vii, lines 139-140
Perhaps we could add, “And facilities managers are the stage hands.” Not wonderful, I admit. At this point, nearly any cited example can be improved.
When teaching introductory FM classes, I draw parallels between facilities managers (fms), homeowners, and landlords. In any of these roles, responsibilities include maintenance and upkeep, planning and layout of space, and monitoring (and paying for) utility usage—at the very least. However, these examples still fall short of the goal of brief, elegant, persuasive, and memorable phrases or explanations.
I’ve also used the following parable [which rings especially true in light of the “Brain Drain” article featured in Today's Facility Manager]:
A utility company built a huge new power plant. Jake, the long-time head of the physical plant, supervised the design and construction of the plant as his final big project before retiring.
One day several months after his final day at the plant, Jake got a frantic call from his former boss at the utility company.
“Jake, we need your help. The plant shut down suddenly, and you’re the only one we know who can fix it.”
Jake showed up with his tool kit in hand. He looked around a bit, and then grabbed a hammer and crawled in amongst the tangle of pipes and machinery.
Suddenly, there were three loud bangs. A few moments later, the turbines began spinning, and the plant started running again.
As Jake crawled out from the pipes, the grateful plant manager exclaimed, “Jake, you’re terrific! How can we ever repay you?”
With that, Jake reached into his toolbox, pulled out a pad and pen, and wrote the following:
Invoice for services
Labor: 30 minutes $50
Knowing where to hit: $250,000
Fms “know where to hit.”
This may be a memorable story, but frankly, FM is in dire need of (and will benefit from) persuasive, memorable, commonly understood, explanatory phrases—ones that can be used to describe what facilities professionals do in terms that everyone not only understands, but remembers.
That’s the way I see it from where I sit, but then again, I could be wrong.
Springer is president and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. and frequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affecting organizations, work, and workplaces. For more musings from Springer, visit his Web site.
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