Once upon a time a group of engineers lived in a large space divided into little boxes and devoid of any windows. The engineers were basically happy. They all worked on different projects under different supervisors but were united as one big happy family under the same kind and attentive manager.
The engineers enjoyed the company of an incredible administrative assistant, who occupied one of the little boxes. She helped them with expense reports and labor corrections and equipment requests and a myriad of other things. One of her unofficial duties was the planning and execution of Snack Days.
Snack Days were glorious occasions where everyone would bring food from home to share. The admin would orchestrate the whole thing including arranging everyone’s stuff into sensible groupings, stowing food away in the fridge or trashing it at the end of the day, and cleaning up the common serving utensils that had built up over time and were stored in her cubicle.
One day, life came crashing down around the ears of all the happy little engineers. Their distant overlords disrupted their daily lives by splitting up the family. They all still worked in the same space on the same projects, but no longer for the same manager. They all got new ones – three news ones, actually. Each little cluster of people with a new boss. And the beloved admin was assigned to yet a fourth one.
Since she was no longer responsible for anyone in the space, she soon moved out. The utensils moved to a credenza in one of the walkways. And since the admins now responsible for the people in that space were already cozy in their existing spaces next to their managers, none of them moved in. The engineers were adrift.
Eventually, they developed a plan for snack days. They agreed that each team would sponsor a snack-day-worthy holiday. The scrum masters for those teams would do the coordination, but the team members were responsible as a group for setup and clean up. The engineers had failed to consider certain edge conditions, however.
You have to understand, these are people who, when someone brings random food and sets it out on the front table to share, often leave the empty container when they take the last item, instead of throwing it away. These are the same people who tended to assume someone would take care of the leavings of their snack day offerings. They barely pick up after themselves and have little motivation to clean up after others.
Which brings us to the dirty cake knife. A couple of the teams who still worked for a common supervisor had an end-of-year party in December. The supervisor had it catered and also bought a cake from Costco, which is way more cake than even a group of hungry engineers can polish off after a catered meal.
Someone brought the cake into the work space along with the spatula and knife that had been used in its serving. No one thought to move it to the refrigerator at the end of the day. Eventually, the next day, someone decided it probably was not safe to eat and balanced it on top of a trashcan. The janitor got the hint and took it away. The cake-encrusted spatula and knife were set down in an empty cubicle near that trash can.
And that was it.
No one was responsible for cleaning the utensils. No one even seemed to notice them, tucked away in the empty cubicle at the end of a row. Whoever set them there either forgot about them, hoped someone else would step up, or fell victim to a serious bout of “not my job”-itis. Regardless, the utensils sat. And sat. And sat.
The engineer who occupied the office across from the cubicle had been absent the day of the cake eating. When she returned was the day the cake rested on the trashcan. She had no idea how long it had been there. She didn’t notice the utensils until some number of days later.
And true to her profession, when she finally noticed them, she thought, “Well, I wasn’t here to enjoy the cake. I’m not going to clean them. Someone who actually got to eat some cake can clean up after themselves.”
And with that, she went about her job and forgot all about the dirty utensils – just like everyone else.
Except she kept rediscovering them. Eventually, she started thinking about taking them down the long hallway to the break room at the other end of the building, which was the closest location of a sink. She thought about it, but figured they’d have to soak. And for how long? She needed to check her email again.
And then she’d forget. Again. And then rediscover and think about taking them to soak. But it was time for her daily stand-up meeting. Maybe after. And then the next time she remembered, maybe on the way out at the end of the day. There was always a reason that “now” was not a good time. And, really, it wasn’t her responsibility. After all, she’d just be doing someone else a favor.
One day, she heard another engineer discover the dirty knife and spatula. “Who do these belong to?!” the engineer exclaimed.
The first engineer hurried out of her office and explained.
“Well, should we just throw them away?” asked the recent discoverer.
“No!” the forgetful one said, shocked. “They are a perfectly good spatula and knife. They just need to be cleaned.”
“Well, obviously no one cares enough to clean them,” replied the second, holding them with every intent to just throw them away.
“But it’s the only knife we have,” tried the first. “We won’t have a knife the next time someone brings a cake in.”
“Oh,” replied the second, now understanding. “I assumed the boss had brought his own spatula and knife.” This engineer was a relatively new resident to the space.
“No, we’ve got a small stash of spatulas and serving spoons and that one knife. I mean, I guess I could see if there’s another knife, but it seems like a shame to throw this one away.”
“I agree,” the other responded. She looked around awkwardly like she was unsure what to do with the knife now that she had decided not to trash it. “I guess…” she hesitated… “I guess one of us should clean it… but…” she set it back down in the cubicle. “I’ll have to maybe do it later. I’m running late to a meeting.”
The forgetful engineer sighed at the lost opportunity for someone else to clean the knife. And then she returned to her office. She had stories to write for the next sprint, after all. Maybe she’d take the utensils down to soak later. She could leave a note explaining that they were the collective problem of the entire work area and that anyone who saw the items soaking could pick them up out of the soapy water, scrub them clean, and return them to their credenza. But she forgot later.
And then one day she heard the banging of credenza doors opening and closing, drawers sliding open and shut. And a voice asking no one in particular, “does anyone know where a knife is?”
“You need a knife?” she asked with a smile as she exited her office.
“I do!” he responded. “I went to Baton Rouge this weekend and it’s the season. I brought back a King Cake.”
She led him to the empty cubicle. A cubicle, incidentally, that was adjacent to his own.
“There’s our cake knife,” she said, pointing into the cube.
“Oh.” he responded. “Oh.”
“That’s from when you guys had cake without me at the group party last month. It would only make sense for someone who actually ate some of the cake to clean it.”
“Whoa, wait. That’s from that cake?!”
“Yes. I was going to take it down to the break room and soak it but it was never a good time when I thought about it. So it just sat there.”
“Ok…I guess I’ll… go clean the knife.”
“Excellent!” the first engineer said, relieved of the responsibility but a little embarrassed to demonstrate that she had known about, but not dealt with, the knife and spatula.
The spatula was soon clean and resting in the credenza with the other serving utensils. The knife took up residence on the front table with the boxed King cake and a stack of napkins. It was covered in almost as much cake debris as it had been mere moments before. Except now it sat alone.
How long will it sit unclean? Until another cake arrives? Will it ever rejoin its mates in the credenza drawer? Will some engineer, maybe the bringer of the King cake, actually clean it as soon as the cake is gone? Only time will tell.