Sri Lanka’s Unsung Heroes : Undetected Mission Critical Personnel

Mission critical processes of large Sri Lankan organisations are often dependent on invisible people. Invisible to the planners, HR managers, executives and common sense. Yet they are essential for getting things done in the complicated chaos of daily Sri Lankan life. The seemingly unrelated support services of Undetected Mission Critical Personnel (UMCP) are often the only thing preventing disaster in many large Sri Lankan organisations. An UMCP’s significance is realised only in the catastrophe of their absence. When the screws of usually smooth operations come off leaving everyone helpless as slaughterhouse cattle.

I had a front row seat in the drama caused by a missing UMCP. The story illustrates the complicated role that UMCP play in an organisation’s heartbeat. It also shows how hard it is for Human Resources Managers to identify such roles within an organisation.

The drama occurred when I used to end up at my father’s office after school. I noticed something odd was going on. The usual hum of efficiency was gone. The few people at there desks were on the verge of passing out in curry lunch stupors. Phones rang in empty offices. Their occupants were said to be prowling street side eateries.

The lunch room was a mess. Splattered with tea and dusted in milk powder. Ants swarmed around puddles of condensed milk, carrying off sugar crystals. The mess was a result of make-the-tea-yourself failures by men who had never made a cup in their lives.

Meanwhile voices on the intercom kept demanding for matter X or Y to be dealt with immediately and where is my tea? Distractedly filed paper work was causing further organisational dishevelment. Management was desperately feather smoothing irate clients over the phone.

It was a barely perceivable crisis to an outsider. Yet it was significant for an investigation – prompted by a cloud of executive fuming. The findings were brutally simple and shocked everyone.

The guy who made the office tea had gone on leave to his village. Without a backup tea maker, the entire afternoon and the days that followed were wrecked.

To understand the magnitude of the situation we must meditate on the essential role of the office tea in the Sri Lankan workplace.

The optimal Sri Lankan office tea is a boiling mix of full cream milk, condensed milk, and multiple megatons of sugar flavoured with tea. The result is a Hiroshima of a sugar rush. It holds back the anaesthetising effects of a rice and curry lunch. This makes the office Tea a major (some might say the only) factor that makes productivity possible in the blaze of the Sri Lankan afternoon. Many require more than one blast of “tea” to function till traffic jam time.

An optimised productivity sustaining office tea has 2 essential elements. It is

  1. configured exactly to each individual’s unvocalised preferences
  2. delivered when the drinker’s body chemistry actually needs it (not when he/she asks for it)

This essential knowledge makes a skilled tea “boy” critical to post lunch mission delivery. However the “tea boy” role is too low for appearing on the org chart. Specially for those who wear ties or at least trousers with shoes.

As a result appearance of a perfectly configured cup of tea at one’s desk is considered an act of nature. Similar to gravity, rain or farts. It is seen as part of office geology unrelated to the day to day operations of the business.

A similar blindness point to factors that might help detect UMCP roles.

  • The untrained guy who knows how to resuscitate the generator so fast the no one knows its dying
  • The poorly paid driver whose knowledge of secret short cuts is the only reason time sensitive deliveries actually make it on time
  • The spacial genius of a parking attendant who prevents the car park from becoming a chaotic log jam.
  • The machinist who saves an unknowing company millions by reducing wear and tear with small undocumented modifications.

When such people fall ill, die, go on leave, or to Dubai, the consequences are devastating. Sadly, when the chaos subsides, the priorities of post debacle office politics overshadow any lessons that could be learnt. The focus is on finding a scape goat and appearing to have heroically averted disaster. The situation if well played, using your connections, can be a critical career elevating opportunity.

Any lessons learned are filtered from third hand horror stories. Embellished over Bircadi-Cokes and bites in the cigarette smoke gas chamber of a sport club bar. Something to entertain your machans with displays of your office politics savvy. They will fear and respect you as a smart bugger. Life as usual will go on.

Granted its been a while since the story happened. Do you think that 21st century organisations in Sri Lanka (businesses mainly) do better?

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