The visit from the oversight committee came as a shock.
“That’s it,” Nora sighed, “heads are gonna roll.”
“You don’t know that,” Dan said as he read the newest data and threw his lever.
“Sure I do,” Nora said, frowning at her data stream and leaving her lever where it was. “Efficiency reports have been low for weeks. If the oversight committee is here, it’s because they’re looking for someone to blame.”
Dan shrugged. This was the only thing he’d ever done. Sure, there were operators who were faster than him, and probably a lot of them who interpreted their data streams better than he did, but he gave it his best. His job was simple. An endless data stream flashed before his eyes. If what he saw was positive, his lever went one way. If it was negative, the lever went the other way. A lot of the operators complained about the monotony of the work, and even for Dan, who always seemed to look at things more lightly than the others, there were days when he wondered if the levers did anything at all. Maybe the oversight committee was coming to clean up an unnecessary department. Or, as Nora suggested, to place blame.
The head of the oversight committee, Margie Ayes, walked loops around each of the stations, making notes on her clipboard. The other members of the committee stood back and observed quietly, making notes of their own. After a few rotations around Dan’s station, Margie stopped and checked through pages of notes.
“Dan Cog,” she said, “please come with me. Sylvester will run your station in the meantime.”
With a flick of her wrist she gestured for one of the observing committee members to approach. He stepped into Dan’s station without a word and took control of the lever. Nora gave Dan a sad, knowing smile as he followed Margie from the room.
“Take a seat,” Margie instructed, guiding him into a small side office with a couple of chairs and a desk. “I want to talk about your method.”
“With all due respect,” Dan said, “I flip a switch. Methods are for those more educated than me.”
He chuckled, expecting the usual smiles and banter that came up in this section when the subject of education arose, but Margie merely made a note on her clipboard.
“You don’t believe that education is necessary to do what you do?” she asked.
A cold sweat started to work on Dan’s brow. If he wasn’t already out of a job he had a sense that he was working his way out of it now.
Margie didn’t wait for him to answer.
“We’ll set aside semantics. Call it what you will, there is something that makes you interpret your data stream more productively than your peers and we want to know what it is.”
“More productively?” Dan repeated incredulously.
“Were you not aware of this?” Margie asked, jotting down a new note.
“I wasn’t even convinced that those switches do anything,” Dan admitted.
“Lack of reporting,” Margie said as she wrote the words. “Good. This is good. What else?”
Dan was still laughing over the shock of learning that he was considered productive.
“Where does it go?” he asked. “When we flip the switch, what department gets that data?”
“Need to improve training,” Margie mouthed as she scribbled the words. “Your data goes directly to the response center,” she said. “Has no one told you that?”
Dan shook his head.
“What does the response center do?” he asked.
Margie stopped writing. Then, after a second, set down her pen and clipboard altogether.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, “but I hope you’ll satisfy my curiosity on something first.”
“Shoot,” Dan invited.
“How do you choose, when you’re interpreting the data stream?”
“If it’s good the switch goes to good and if it’s bad then the switch goes to bad,” Dan said.
“Yes, but you’re interpreting data that’s often nearly identical to what the other operators are seeing and your results tend to be more… beneficial. I’ll ask it this way. What is it about you that is different from the other operators?”
“Oh, they say I have a brighter view on the world,” Dan shrugged. “Plus, I stay focused.”
“Stay focused?” Margie prodded.
“I don’t go wandering off for long breaks or toss a coin or make the switching into a game, you know, stuff like that.”
Margie’s eyes looked about ready to bulge out of her head and her hand slipped deftly to the pen and clipboard again. She held it in such a way that Dan couldn’t see what she was writing but he had the sinking sense that he’d explained things the wrong way.
“Does that happen often?” she asked casually.
“Like I said,” Dan shrugged, “it’s not really clear that what we’re doing is actually… doing anything. Most operators say we’re just there to make the company look busy.”
It took a minute or two before Margie finished writing. Dan fidgeted.
“Thank you for your candor,” she said, setting the clipboard face down on the desk. “To answer your question, the response center makes the decisions that interact with the outside world. Those decisions are based upon the data streams that come from your department.”
She let that sink in.
“How we do,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “our overall performance and success, is a direct result of those switches you flip all day.”
“That’s… good to know,” Dan said.
That hadn’t been the answer he’d expected at all.
“Yes,” Margie agreed. “Dan, this brain, or this company as you put it, well its entire job is to interpret and respond. There are millions of departments like mine and yours, all feeding into the whole, and every one of our jobs matter.”
She rose and began pacing the small office.
“We’ve been tracking trends recently that indicate that input that could have been viewed as positive was being delivered to the response center as negative, which sets many series of actions into motion. Stress levels go up, physical well being is diverted to accommodate the extra needs in the stress centers, attention is rerouted to the wrong departments, emotions… there’s a long list of resources that are reallocated to departments that are only staffed to handle occasional bursts of work. They’re wearing down, and with them, the health of the whole… company, to use your term.”
“We’ve been hearing that the reports recently haven’t been good,” Dan agreed.
“Yet no one thought to tell you that your department was in a key position to turn that around,” Margie laughed without humor. “Except for you. Your reports are in the ninetieth percentile for accuracy, according to our replay and remorse teams.”
She took her seat again and grabbed her pen and clipboard.
“If you were to train a new hire, what would you say?” she asked, pen poised.
Dan thought over her question.
“I’d say read the data assuming the best,” he said at last. “You get a fifty fifty chance of getting it right, and when you get it wrong don’t beat yourself up about it. Just remember so you can do better the next time. And when in doubt, flip to the positive. I always figured that if someone was reading my results, and maybe they were smiling every time I switched positive and crying every time I switched negative, well they’d spend most of their time smiling.”
Margie nodded as she wrote. Finally, she set the pen and clipboard down and sat back in her seat in a posture of relief.
“Thank you Dan Cog,” she said. “With that mindset we might be able to turn all of this around. I’m going to issue a memo to the central office recommending that we implement your method at once.”
“Turns out I have a method after all,” he said. “Who knew?”
“You do,” she nodded. “I’d offer you a promotion for your help and your good work, but in all honesty you may be in the most crucial position in this… company.”
Her lips quirked into a smile.
“And we’re going to do a better job communicating that to you and every department like yours. Just think,” she added with amusement. “All it takes is one Dan Cog… I think we’re finally looking forward to a prosperous future.”
Back at his station Dan smiled every time his switch went to positive from then on. When it came time years later for his retirement party, a lavish celebration was held. Prosperity had followed, as Margie predicted, and there was an air of ease and plenty around the place that hadn’t been there in Dan’s early years. A great big cake was rolled out to the sound of applause, and on it were the words that everyone knew him by: SMILING DAN.