Meet the Wilsons


 By all outward appearances, the Wilsons were the perfect family.

        Matt was a high-powered, high-priced management consultant, dispensing advice to major corporate clients on important HR-related matters. (He had a sure-fire closing line for prospective clients: “If you really believe your people are your most valuable asset, then you won’t choke when I tell you my fee!”).

      Jen was a successful owner and operator of a small business, “Jen’s Jonquils ’n Stuff!” The name for the shop had been Matt’s idea. Jen had initially been skeptical: “That ’n-Stuff part is a little cutesy for my blood.” But Matt was used to dealing with skeptical clients, and he had skillfully persisted until he had secured Jen’s buy-in. Then again, reasonable people could have interpreted her closing comment on the matter as less a matter of buying-in than of having been worn down: “Yeah. Fine. Whatever.”

        Happily married for nineteen years, the Wilsons could have filled up pages with lists of their accomplishments. But if you had asked them for such a list, it would have come back with just two items on it: their kids, Matt Jr. and Jessica.

        Matt Jr. – everybody called him Skipper – was sixteen. An honor student and alto/baritone[1] in the church choir, Skipper was also a top-notch athlete, starting at quarterback on his school’s football team, playing shortstop and batting clean-up on the baseball team, and following in Matt Sr.’s footsteps by holding down the anchor position on the Division IV Sectional Champion bowling team.

        Jessica – Jess – was eleven. Even at such a young age, she was already on Skipper’s heels in the gold-star department. Also an honor student, Jess was president of her middle school class. (“Jess is Besst!” had been her campaign slogan. Yes, Matt had helped out there, too.) And her dance instructor invariably put her in the front row for all of her numbers during the annual spring recital. Matt and Jen were always so excited to see Jess on stage, front and center, that they barely noticed that the cumulative time of her numbers – ten minutes – totaled less than five percent of the program’s four-hour duration. (Skipper always noticed, but his sister had been a good sport about sitting in the bleachers for all of his games and bowling matches, so…)

        Following dinner on this particular night, after the kids had headed up to their rooms to tackle their homework, Matt returned to the kitchen table with a thick three-ring binder and several manila folders.

        “What do you have there?” Jen asked.

        “The results for the latest F-MOS,” Matt said.

        The first thought that this prompted in Jen’s mind was Good Lord, Mattyno! But you don’t stay happily married for nineteen years by always blurting out the first thought that comes to mind. So Jen took a beat, composed herself, and said, “Ah. The results for the latest F-MOS. And what, pray tell, are they telling us?”

        This is probably a good time to point out that Matt had a pronounced tendency to conflate what may have been considered best practices on the job with best practices on the home front.

        There was the time that he had rented the meeting room at the local Holiday Inn to serve as the site for the First Annual Wilson Family Quality/Six-Sigma Day! The kids, who were six and eleven at the time, thought that it was pretty neat to wear name tags and drink bottled water and what they called “fake coffee”it was decafas they participated in what had been described on the day’s pre-printed agenda as the Networking and Sharing Session. (They had been puzzled, though, by the If-you-were-a-tree-what-kind-would-you-be? ice-breaker.) For her part, Jen had fastened on the portentous implications of the word Annual in the event’s name, making a solemn and ultimately successful vow to herself that First in this case would also mean Last.

        Or the time that Matt did what he called a Value-Added Flow Analysis of the family’s table-clearing-and-dishwasher-loading process as part of a Wilson Household Cycle-Time Reduction Initiative. The effort came up short of Matt’s goal of reducing cycle time by 30 percent when Jen had refused to be part of the bucket-brigade-style line running from the kitchen table to the dishwasher. But it had revealed the need for a kanban system to eliminate instances when they would find themselves with a dishwasher full of dirty dishes but no detergent to clean them. (“Wasn’t that discovery serendipitous?” Matt had asked. “I can think of a lot of adjectives to describe all of this,” Jen had replied at the time, “but serendipitous ain’t one of them.”)

        And who could forget the time that Matt decided to prove once and for all that there was a discernible difference between Coke and Diet Coke by running a taste test – double-blind, of course – during Jess’s fourth birthday party. Matt was delighted that the results had supported his hypothesis. The parents of the 50 percent of the party’s attendees who had been heavily-sugared as part of Matt’s quest for knowledge were significantly less delighted, though, as they peeled their amped-up four-year-olds off the walls of the Wilsons’ kitchen before managing to coax them into their cars for the drive home.

        So, yes, Matt could be a bit quirky. But he was a good man and a devoted father and husband, so in the interest of marital comity, Jen had taken a beat, composed herself, and asked him about the results of the latest F-MOS – the Wilsons’ Family-Member Opinion Survey.

        “The results don’t make any sense,” Matt replied.

        “How so?” Jen asked.

        “We’ve been doing the F-MOS for five years now, and every year the results are the same,” Matt said. “The scores have always been good for the more tangible things.” He scanned the margin of his three-ring binder until he found the tabs he was looking for: “Quality of Housing Facilities, Square Footage of Personal Space, Selection of Cable Channels, Vehicular Options, Sufficiency of Unstructured Hours, Food: Quality/Selection/Availability, Medical Care, Recreational Equipment. All rated Excellent! And that’s every year for five years!”

        “So what’s wrong with that?” Jen asked.

        “Nothing! But it’s when we get to the other stuff…” He riffled ahead to another tab – Intangibles. “…when we get to the Intangibles, that the scores are consistently lower. Values…EngagementEmpowerment…Trust & Respect. Those sorts of things.”

        “But haven’t you always told me that those things are always the things that are trickiest for your clients?” Jen said. “What’s that expression you always usesomething about those things being the difficult part?”

        “The expression is: ‘It’s the soft stuff that’s the hard part,’” Matt replied. “And that’s true. But it isn’t as though we haven’t been doing anything about those things. Remember when we decided to focus on Respect?”

        Jen shrugged an I’ve-got-nothing shrug.

        “It was three years ago,” Matt said. “We tried some new things to improve our Respect scores, but it didn’t seem to work. Did we stop there?”

        Jen correctly assumed that this was a rhetorical question.

        “No, we did not!” Matt continued, without so much as a pause. “We redoubled our efforts and launched a new-and-improved Respect program the following year. Do you remember what we called it?”

        This was too direct a question to have been rhetorical, so Jen was on the spot. “Was that the thing you called Respect 2?”

        “Not Respect 2,” Matt replied. “Respect-Squared. The 2 was a superscript. But that didn’t work either. And did we stop there?”

        “Um, no?” Jen said, stalling for time. “Of course not?”

        “You’re right!” Matt replied. His excitement at the memory was showing through. “Instead of spelling it R-e-s-p-e-c-t-2 we started spelling it R-e-z-p-e-c-t-2 – with a z instead of an s – so that it would seem more hip to the kids.”

        “Down,” Jen said.

        “What do you mean ‘down’?” Matt asked.

        “Kids don’t say that things are ‘hip’ anymore,” she explained. “When they want to say what you would say if you wanted to say ‘hip,’ they say ‘down,’ as in ‘I’m down with that.’”

        “Why would they say ‘down’?” Matt asked.

        “I don’t know. They just do.”

        “If it’s something that’s hip, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to say ‘I’m “up” with that’?”

        Jen’s exasperation had gotten dangerously close to the breaking point. “Up, down, in, outit doesn’t matter! What matters is that the scores are still low!”

        Nineteen years of marriage had taught Matt a few things, too, so he remained silent for a few seconds to allow the tension to abate.

        Jen broke the silence. “So, mister fancy-pants management consultant, what should we do next?” Her now-playful facial expression took the edge off the question.

        Matt played along by affecting an exaggerated version of his best consultant-to-client tone: “Here’s what we’re going to do, Ms. Wilson. First, we’re going to remember that when things don’t turn out as we’d like them to, it’s not because of the people. It’s because of the processes used by the people. Then we’re going to identify those familial processes that are causing the low scores with the so-called soft stuff, apply best-practice improvement techniques to those processes, all the while tracking the key metrics we’ve identified so that we can make mid-course corrections as needed.”

        Jen knew that there was no turning back once Matt had built up this sort of head of steam. So she decided on the indirect approach.

        “Okay, fine,” she began. “But make me a promise.”

        “What’s that?” Matt asked.

        “No blind taste tests?”

        “Fair enough,” Matt replied. “No blind taste tests. And I think you meant double-blind.”

        “Whatever,” Jen said. “And no offsites at the Holiday Inn?”

        “Absolutely,” Matt said. “We’ll use our living room for any onsite offsites we might need.”

        It was all Jen could do to squelch another Good-Lord-Matty-no! reaction. She opted instead for getting one final concession.

        “And no bucket brigades in the kitchen?”

        “You got it!” Matt enthused.

        “Okay,” Jen said, screwing up as much fake enthusiasm as she could before adding, “Sounds like a plan.”

        “Sounds like a plan that’s F-U-N!” Matt enthused again.

        Jen gave a puzzled frown.

        “Your store’s slogan.” Matt explained. “Where F-U-N is Right There in Our Name.

        Jen forced a laugh of recognition, adding, “You must be referring to my store’s ‘catchy’ slogan.”

        Now it was Matt’s turn to laugh a contented laugh. He was confident that the results of next year’s F-MOS would be cause for a big celebration. Jen gave a patient smile borne of nineteen years of happily married life as she decided not to admit to Matt that her confidence level was considerably lower.

[1] A sixteen-year-old boy’s voice is prone to sudden register changes.

© Copyright 2015, by John Guaspari


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