Blog: The janitor who put a man on the moon


The janitor who put a man on the moon

Why leaders must make their teams understand the value of the work they do.
The janitor who put a man on the moon

Back in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy was taking a tour of the NASA headquarters, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon!”replied the janitor. 

That was indeed a very powerful statement that carried a sense of intent and the ultimate goal that was to be achieved with that intent. How many janitors (as a metaphor) around the world would visualize the larger role that they are indirectly playing for a cause that has no direct link to the mundane work they do? 

Intangibility of software

This article analyzes the software industry to see how the leaders could define elevating goals to boost employee performance. The intangible nature of software throws in that much more challenge in visualizing an end product, unlike the image of Neil Armstrong putting his foot on the moon. When a programmer is writing a program, does he imagine how that piece of code helps his organization and the end-customer in being successful? In the absence of visible imagery, the next best option to visualize the end product is through narratives. In other words, the art of business storytelling. With the right story and narrative, leaders can move the people who figure in the middle of the performance bell curve towards the left of the curve and to elevate the people in the bottom right towards the top of the curve. 

Business storytelling

If you ask a programmer what he is doing, the most likely answer would be, “I am writing programs for a software product that my company is building.” While developing a product is motivating enough, we can elevate the motivation to the next level through business storytelling. Let us take the business requirement for a customer management solution as an example.

Customer management systems should be capable of integrating the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System with the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application seamlessly. When the customer calls the customer support number, the IVR picks up the call. The IVR has an option to direct the call to the Customer Support Representative (CSR). When a customer chooses that option, the call gets automatically directed to the next available CSR. The call details, and depending upon the options chosen, the call will be redirected to a CSR. While doing so, the system should automatically bring up the details of the customer on to the CSR screen if the customer is calling from a registered mobile number.

However, these requirements fail to convey the pain the CSR goes through while taking calls from the customer. Let us apply business storytelling to refine the above narrative:

Without integrating IVR with the CRM system, the customer calling a call center has no way of reaching a CSR and has to wait for a call back from the CSR later. This forces the organization to make the customer wait that much longer to get their problems addressed. For the CSR, the whole experience of combing through the list of phone calls logged by the customer and then retrieve their details using their registered phone numbers in the system before making a manual call-back is frustrating, to say the least. By integrating these two systems seamlessly, we can address the customer’s problems much earlier. This integration also relieves the CSR’s from the drudgery of doing a lot of the manual work that precedes the conversation with the customer. This, in turn, helps the CSR in focusing on the customer problem rather than the administrative tasks around it. The result is a happy customer and an efficient CSR.

With this changed narrative, if we repeat the question to the programmer about what he is doing, the reply now most likely will be, “I am writing a program that will eventually bring a smile to the customers of my client organization. My program will also help make the lives of the CSR that much easier and boost their confidence in doing their actual work”. Do you notice the relationship between the programs and the intended result in the programmer’s statement?

Linking individual goals to organizational goals

If there is a way to clearly link low-level goals to that of the organizational goals, mission, and vision statements, it has the potential to enhance the performance to the next level. Let us look at a few examples.

Organizational goal: “Reduce operational cost by 10 percent for the year 2019.”

Employee goal: “20 percent of the software developed this year should be reusable.”

Let us see how this can be improved further. 

“By writing 20% of the software that can be reused later, I will be helping my company to reach the coveted profit of $300 Million.” 

Through this goal, the employee is constantly reminded and made aware of the critical role he or she is playing to boost the organization’s financial health. Let us look at another goal that is focused on the customer.

Organizational goal: “Ensure all existing customers are retained in the year 2019.”

Programmer’s goal: “Ensure 100 percent unit test coverage on all programs written/modified in 2019.”

Modified programmer’s goal: “By ensuring 100 percent unit test coverage, I will be helping my customers to conduct their business without interruption. That eventually ensures that my customer builds enough confidence in my company’s capabilities so that they never leave.”


Leaders must make employees realize the significance of every bit of task they do daily within the organization, and how that contributes to the overall success of the organization. Leaders of the organization play a significant role in setting elevating goals for their teams. They also need to help the team members to visualize the bigger cause that their work is helping. Simply put, we need more janitors if we must put a man on Mars one day.

Read full story

Topics: Watercooler, #GuestArticle

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?