The games we play often imitate how we work and live our lives. It could be team sports, card games, a game of chess or arcade games. We compete, we strategize, we work in teams, we win and we loose.

The classic arcade game, Whack-A-Mole, is a great example of a game that simulates how many of us work and how many organizations function. The concept of the game came out of Japan in the 1970s. The challenge of the game is simple. With a mallet in hand, the contestant is faced with 5 holes, each hole having a mole ready to pop up. When a mole pops up, you must hit it with the mallet to score. Simple, right?

As the game progresses, the moles start to pop up faster and stay up for a shorter period of time. Hand eye coordination is key.  Multiple moles begin to pop up at the same time to increase the challenge and complexity of the game. The pace of the game quickens to a fury as the constant mole appearances and reactionary mallet pounding brings the game to a sudden end.

The player started in a very slow and controlled way and progressed to a furious and chaotic state.

Moles = Problems

If we think of the appearance of a mole the same as a problem, we can begin to see the relationship to our work. When problems come up we accept them as part of the job, but more importantly, we need to make them go away. Early in the Whack-A-Mole process we are successful in seeing our problems retreat. The mallet seems to work as it should. With more advanced problems, we continue to apply the same solution (the mallet) to a different set of problems. Also, the same problems keep coming back. The problems are not really fixed. Sound familiar?

A Day in the Life

Let’s take a typical day of Joe, the General Manager. Joe has every expectation of making the most of his day. He lays out his plans for the day and is hoping for the best.  It goes something like this…

6:30 am  Breakfast and coffee while writing out his ‘to do’ list for the day.

7:30 am. Arrive at the office.

8:15 am. Shipping Department reports 10 unexpected absences.

Joe’s response: Call a meeting with HR and Shipping Department Manager to quickly backfill the jobs.

9:30 am. The business’ #1 customer calls complaining of the quality of the last shipment.

Joe’s response: Quickly get on a conference call with Sales, Production and Quality Control to understand the problem, replace the products and ensure the next shipments are clear of defects.

11:15 am. Line stoppage reported due to lack of raw material from a new vendor that promised just-in-time delivery.

Joe’s response: Joe announces “Code Red” status for all hands on deck. Emergency meeting called with planning, purchasing and production.  Key customer plans developed and the vendor was ordered in to be put on notice.

2:00 pm. Review and Response Meeting.

This is Joe’s standing meeting to review the status of things gone wrong in the last 24 hours. It takes longer than usual today

3:45 pm.  Contractor on the premises falls from a ladder. EMS is called to the site and the contractor is transported to the local ER for treatment of cuts, bruises and a broken leg.

Joe’s response: Personally conducted safety investigation with the Safety Manager, HR Manager and Engineering Manager.

5:15 pm. Joe’s boss calls. He has just taken a call from the #1 client.  They want Joe to be at the #1 client’s office tomorrow to review the quality issues reported earlier in the day.  They are not happy!

Joe’s response: Joe spends the next hour making travel plans, getting quality data and preparing a presentation.

6:30 pm. Joe walks to his car and looks at his ‘to do’ list. He has accomplished little, if anything.

Joe’s response:  While sitting in his car, he makes a new list for tomorrow.

The Whack-A-Mole Organization

Yes, the culture of Whack-A-Mole is in many organizations today.  It may not be explicit, but it’s there. Too many organizations reinforce whacking and it looks like this…

  • Out-Of-Sight, Out-of-Mindset. Many organizations encourage managers to make problems go away quickly. By not seeing them anymore, there is a false assumption the problem has been solved. But in reality the problems just hiding!
  • Why do we have Moles? Many organizations don’t ask this question. They just want them out of sight. The mallet appears to be working. No one is working on solving for the root cause and getting the moles out!
  • The Whack-A-Mole Hero. In many organizations, the best Whack-A-Mole players are the heroes. They get the recognition for making the moles go away, even though they are right there below the surface. At the awards banquet, they are the ones picking up the trophies. Everyone else is now practicing swinging their mallet.
  • The Whack-A-Mole Promotion. In this organization, no good deed goes unnoticed and the best of the best Whack-A-Mole players get the promotion. It is crystal clear to the rest of the organization if you want to advance you need to whack some moles.
  • The Whack-A-Mole Boss. It’s only fitting the organization fill its top ranks with best players. I was about say former players, but they continue to lead with mallet in hand.  Now they are building the culture of Whack-A-Mole into the organization’s DNA.

Laying Down the Mallet

The challenge for leadership is to reinforce the behaviors that will move the organization forward. Problems do come up and they need to be solved permanently. Leaders need to make everyone a problem solver, and that does not mean giving them a mallet. Even though Joe never got to work on the right things, he felt he did a lot.

That’s a dangerous feeling of success.

Leaders need to take away all the mallets so everyone is free to solve the real issues.

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