The Elevator Ladies at Eaton’s

En haut-going up. En descendent, going down. Yes. A short story of the “elevator ladies” of days gone by. To be more exact, a few nostalgic  words about the elevator ladies at Eaton’s department store in Montreal, Quebec.

First, let me explain who they were. Elevators were not always automatic, but rather operated by actual people. Elevators had two doors-the external and an interior door, which was sort of a meshed metal  door, to prevent people’s clothes from getting caught in closing doors. Elevator ladies operated these doors, pressed floor buttons as well as announced the floor upon arrival. Sometimes, they added what the “floor” was all about.

  • Second floor; deuxieme etage; womens’ fashion; mode des femmes
  • Basement; sous sol
  • Ground floor; rez de chaussee 

The ladies who operated these doors wore a lovely uniform, white gloves, hats and gorgeous stockings. They were of all ages. And sometimes I used to ride the elevators just to hear them make announcements, en anglais et en francais.

As well, I loved to see how these ladies remembered people who took the lift with them. People who had been riding with them for years. “Bonjour M. LaPorte, ca va? Bonjour Madame Schwartz, how ‘r u”? Small conversations would often develop about the weather, or other small talk.

I marveled at the elevator ladies’ encyclopedic knowledge of where to find what. “I am looking for a red thimble” “Sous sol, madame, basement at the rear” Or,” ou on peut trouver une laisse du chien?” Quatrieme etage”. (Where can I find a dog leash? 4th floor).

They knew it all, in English and French.

I read once a paper about job satisfaction, that is, what elevator ladies liked about their job.

They loved the regulars; they loved practicing their English; and most of all, they enjoyed answering questions properly. At no time did they feel that their work was meaningless or that the routine was impacting their “wellness”.

Yes, we can do without this job, long rendered superfluous by technology. But I sure miss the elevator ladies, greeters, newspaper men at crossroads, people who answer the phone, and people, yes people, who make life less alienating.

I must admit that one of these elevator ladies was extremely attractive. Her name was Louise M. I was her regular.

For great pictures of elevator ladies, click here.



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Strange untranslatable words that organizations use

I love words. Strange words. Rare words. Swear words. Words in three languages I speak and words in languages I do not understand. Even when does not understand a word, you can learn about its’ meaning from the context.

I especially love words in one language that have no equivalent in another language.

In French there is “connective” word “d’ailleurs”. Speak to a Frenchman or even a French woman, or read a newspaper article, or watch France 24, and that word appears again and again. It has about ten meanings, none of which I can understand. When I try to use the word, I use it improperly, much to my chagrin. D’ailleurs, I will give another example! ?

In Hebrew there an often used untranslatable word: davka. The word is used extremely frequently, in various contexts. Very few non-Hebrew speakers can understand it. Nevertheless, I will davka give it a try.

  • In a contrarian fashion. As in, he davka called her at 10 PM, although he knows she goes to bed at this time.
  • An unexpected contrast. As in, he davka went to the anti-government demonstration, although he voted for Bibi in the last election.
  • Indication of a negative surprise. As in, I travelled half way around the city to get to the License Authority and davka they were closed.
  • Indication of a positive surprise. As in “I got the Shingrix vaccine and davka felt fine; my brother was weak some time after he was vaccinated.”

I also have a thing for words that organizations use to show and hide real meaning. Most often strange words and terms both hide and show meaning. The words and terms may be code words. Or they may be words “sui generis”, one of a kind  to describe something that goes on in the organization.

Here are a few examples I have encountered over the past decades.

One t(w)o Five O. This indicates the first five members of the organization who are still around. But they are worth zero, yet hold important positions. It is indicative of management by seniority.

You saw it, you own it. This indicates a culture where in lieu of organizational clarity, issues are owned by champions, who push issues to conclusion. It is indicative of the refusal of an organization to scale.

Test for Basic Functionality.  This means, we know we promised something that can do 500 things, but really can’t. Can it do anything at all? If it can, let’s install it. This is indicative of a highly over committed organization.

Product Expert Troubleshooter. This indicates that there are product issues that very few people can solve, except for a few so called experts. The expertise, however,  often exists only because the product is undocumented, or written in spaghetti code, or those who developed it have left, except for the last Mohican, ie, the product expert troubleshooter.

Client Expectation Management This means that we are screwing our clients in the meantime, so someone needs to “cool the mark” down until we give them something beyond basic functionality.

What does all this mean for the OD consultant. If you use pre-packed OD tools, it means nothing. But if you are old-school OD, I suggest the following.

D’ailleurs, if you have any questions on the methodology of creating the dictionary, click the link.

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Deciphering a company’s language-code

Jacques Lacan approached the unconscious via language. And you do not need to be influenced by Lacan to understand that there is a fascinating connection between our language, our actions and our thoughts.

Put aside the stories and narratives you are told when trying to understand an organization for a moment and listen to the words. You may hear words and phrases exposing the raw nerves of the company’s beliefs and DNA, as it were.

In my work, I often put together a short dictionary of a key phrases that are a part of the company’s vernacular-then work with the company to translate these words into what these words expose, and hide.

Here is an example of how this work is done. Company Y has six terms that repeat themselves in almost all meetings and chats: Challenging; Complex; Urgent; Damage Control; Sandbag; Phased Delivery.

Let’s look at the meaning. Challenging means that something is beyond our capability and/or resources. Complex means that we do not (yet) have a solution. Urgent means what we need to do today, at the expense of everything else. Damage control means catching up with our committments all at once and/or cooling off the customer with sweet talk, discounts or future functionality. Sandbag means to exaggerate the amount of time needed to do something to prevent management tasking you with more work. Phased Delivery means promising one thing, and delivering far less, and catching up in stages. Often the first phase of phased delivery is giving nothing but more promises.

Now imagine a series of discussions in a company where this dictionary is discussed, and certain terms are phased out and replaced by others.

Like the signs I remember on the Montreal Metro: Dit pas “le weekend; dit la fin de semaine. (This encouraged the proper use of the French language)

And thus, over time, language and actions become more accurate and less obtuse, internally and with the client.

Yes with the client as well. Whether this is good or bad is the subject of another post.









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Learning from master spy Philby about problem solving

Kim Philby, the master-spy for the USSR who was a very senior officer in MI6 in charge of Russian counterintelligence  🙂  said that if you have a very important item that needs to be investigated, it is best given to a junior officer.  Senior officers are not always ready to work hard, they have system perspectives more than event perspectives and they don’t want to shake up the boat.

Philby’s logic is very relevant for organizational problems as well. Via 3 short stories, I shall illustrate this.

Howard is an electrical engineer who wants to leave his job because he’s been offered 600 USD more at a competing firm. Pierre, Howard’s boss, know that it could take up to a year to replace Howard. And if he cannot be replaced, his function will need to be outsourced at a huge cost to an overseas firm. Norma, VP HR, is please that Howard may be leaving because if the organization kowtows to Howard’s demands, the whole salary structure will be shattered.

Sam is a senior software engineer who has been asked to estimate the time need to develop a certain feature. Sam’s time estimate is 4 months for 4 engineers. Sam’s estimates have never been off target by more than 2 weeks. The CEO did not like Sam’s estimate, so he gave it to Ze’ev, Sam’s boss and VP R&D for a second opinion. Ze’ev said the work “can probably get done in 6 weeks, with just a few odds and ends to be cleaned up at the customer site”. When the rubber hit the road, the project took 5 months.

Hadassah, a customer service engineer, is frustrated because spare mechanical parts (needed to fix a broken piece of equipment) are not available due to supply chain issues. Martin, VP Supply Chain has presented an optimistic report that supply chain delays are down 12% in Q2. Hadassah reports that the client will uninstall equipment, and indeed this is what happened.

Yes, the view from below can be a parochial one, with limited scope. But analysis and decisions made at the top can be flawed, distorted and painfully wrong.

The key to getting this right is to solicit input  both from below and above, make decisions NOT necessarily based on hierarchy, but rather on risk mitigation. 


PS and PPS

Thanks to Eike Spengler for the input to the initial draft.

Kim Philby was probably the best spy in modern history. His motive was purely ideological and driven by his abhorence of fascism. I recommend this book for those interested.



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The “face that you keep in a jar, by the door”.

Who would have thought that in order to buy a train ticket or movie ticket, board a plane, or set up an appointment with a doctor, or know when your car is ready at the garage after a tune up-you need a telephone.

And the telephone is expensive and needs replacing. Often.

And if you don’t buy a phone, your goose is cooked. You can do nothing. Nada. Rien de tout.

Organizations are same same, just different. Hidden from the new employee hide a series of hurdles, and if you don’t have the right platform, you may be out of luck.

When one joins an organization, you need to acquire a new language. For example, an impossible deadline becomes a challenge; employee dissatisfaction becomes churn rate, piss-poor managers are go-getters, politics is self-advocacy.

It gets worse.

You may be asked to feign agreement, kiss your bosses’ arse, attend meetings and read memos concerned with gender politics. You may even be asked to celebrate events that run against your beliefs.

Eventually like in the  the Beatles Elinor Rigby,  you learn to wear “a face that you keep in a jar at the door”. At times you may feel like a character in Black Mirror.

So no, you do not need to buy a phone. You just need to fake it.

And espouse authenticity.

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