21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Original Fiction

The Paperclip Counters
J Gilles.

Once upon a time, in a land not so far from ours in space and time, there lived the Paperclip Counters. As their name suggests, the Paperclip Counters spent most of their time counting paperclips. They sat at tables of eight in a big room of twenty tables and counted paperclips. One by one and two by two, they counted them into little boxes: large paperclips, standard paperclips, small paperclips. As well as the traditional silver paperclips, there was a range of coloured paperclips: green, blue, yellow, red, gold, and black. Some boxes were for only one colour; others were for a mixture.

On one side of a paperclip counter as they sat down for work would be a mountain of paperclips; on the other, a pile of small, empty boxes. When the mountain became a molehill, someone poured on more paperclips; and when a substantial amount of boxes had been filled, someone came and took them away and replaced them with empty ones.

All the paperclip counters did the same job and were paid the same salary. The only person who was different was Mr Clipper, who ran the enterprise. Some people whispered that Mr Clipper was greedy and exploitative, but these were seen as envious and mean-spirited. Most paperclip counters were glad of their jobs, and respected Mr Clipper as a successful businessman. He’d even had a profile done in the trade publication Paperclip Review.

So minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, for months and years on end, the paperclip counters counted paperclips. They occasionally saw Mr Clipper coming in and out of his office, but they never spoke to him. Three or four times a year, he would address them as a group to put, as he liked to say, paperclip counting into its larger context.

One day, Tom, who had not long been a paperclip counter, made it his business to speak to Mr Clipper. He knocked on Mr Clipper’s door and asked if he could have a word. Mr Clipper – in a spirit of being available to his employees – invited the young man to sit down. Tom knew it would be unreasonable to expect a busy man like Mr Clipper to know his name, so he briskly introduced himself with the words, "Mr Clipper, I’m Tom. I’ve not been with you very long, but I can’t help feeling we could be counting paperclips rather more efficiently than we are. I hope you don’t think me presumptuous."

"Not at all, Tom," said Mr Clipper, interested. "I’m always open to new ideas."
"Well, the problem is people don’t care," said Tom. "They just come in and count paperclips – no more than they have to really – and then go home. I heard one person say they do enough not to get noticed. We need something to motivate them."
"And you have some ideas about that, do you, Tom?" asked Mr Clipper.
"Yes, sir, I do," said Tom. "I’d like to outline them now, if I may."
"I tell you what, Tom," said Mr Clipper; "I’m a bit busy at the moment; but if you write your ideas down for me, I promise I’ll look at them and get back to you."
Tom had prepared for this. "I have them here, sir," he said, producing two pages of A4, which had been paper-clipped and folded. "I’ll leave them with you. I hope we have a chance to talk later in the week."

A week later, a memo went round announcing that Tom had been made Paperclip Counting Manager and would be implementing new ideas to increase the performance of paperclip counting across the board. Having been formally appointed, Tom set about putting his ideas into action. He divided the paperclip counters into teams of eight (since that was the number on any given table, it seemed a logical choice) and appointed one of the eight as Team Leader. This caused some resentment, and there were a few unkind suggestions made about Tom kissing Mr Clipper’s posterior. Tom didn’t care. It was only to be expected that they would resent his success; they hadn’t thought of it, and they were jealous because he had.

With the teams and Team Leaders in place, Tom encouraged them to compete with each other for the good of the business. He wanted to publish a weekly league table, but Mr Clipper vetoed this on the grounds that it would cause too much resentment amongst those that came at or near the bottom. Tom was not too deflated, and a week later suggested a bonus scheme. It was only fair, he said, that those who regularly counted more paperclips than others should see their efforts rewarded. Mr Clipper gave this his blessing, and Tom introduced three levels of bonus. Those who consistently failed to reach the lowest target would have their performance looked at with a view to helping them meet the minimum threshold.

The introduction of the bonus scheme produced a dramatic increase in the number of paperclips counted, and Tom was summoned to Mr Clipper’s office at the end of the week to be congratulated. "I wanted to take time to acknowledge your positive contribution to paperclip counting, Tom," said Mr Clipper. "Congratulations. You’ve done very well."

Tom had a very good weekend. He was, after all, an important man in paperclip counting. Tom was Paperclip Counting Manager, in charge of one hundred and sixty people. Tom’s decisions mattered.

The following week was not so good for Tom. Things started going a little awry on Tuesday, when long-standing clients phoned up to complain that their delivery of standard-sized silver paperclips had contained lots of blue and red paperclips for which they hadn’t asked, as well as paperclips of the wrong size. By Thursday, a sufficient number had phoned up for Mr Clipper to be worried. Mr Clipper summoned his manager and asked him to find out what was happening. Tom was angry. He felt the paperclip counters, in their resentment of his success, had sabotaged his plans. He called a meeting of the Team Leaders and emphasised the importance of quality as well as quantity in their work. He wouldn’t, he said, tolerate shoddy work or excuses for shoddy work.

The Team Leaders took this message back to their teams, where it was received cynically. Those who had struggled under the new scheme said that it was an inevitable consequence of getting people racing against each other. Those who had done well didn’t care; they had done what they’d been asked to do. It wasn’t their fault if management hadn’t thought it through properly.

Harriet, one of the more ambitious Team Leaders, went to see Mr Clipper, and subtly – though not too subtly – suggested that, while the bonus scheme was a good idea, it hadn’t been implemented carefully enough. At the moment, all that was happening was that the output for a particular team was being ticked off as they were collected – which was necessary for the implementation of the bonus scheme – but, she pointed out, there was no way of tracking them once they’d left the building. Her idea was to colour-code the teams and number the paperclip counters within the teams, so that Green 4 would directly identify a particular paperclip counter. This would ensure that paperclip counters did not neglect the quality of their work in pursuit of the bonus, and would simply require a small sticker on every box a paperclip counter filled. She went on to suggest that anyone who failed to meet certain quality standards should forfeit their bonus.

Mr Clipper was impressed, and assured Harriet that these ideas would be duly implemented. When Harriet had left, Mr Clipper summoned Tom.
"Tom, I’ve just been listening to some very interesting suggestions from one of your Team Leaders," said Mr Clipper, "which I think we should put in place right away."
"Oh, really?" Tom did his best to sound pleased.

Mr Clipper outlined Harriet’s ideas without further attributing them. Tom listened without interrupting, though he nodded and tried his best to smile. Mr Clipper finished by saying, "Just as people deserve to be rewarded if they do more work than someone else, they likewise shouldn’t be penalised for the mistakes or sloppiness of others. I think this creates greater accountability amongst the counters, which can only be a good thing. I look forward to seeing these measures in place."

Tom assured Mr Clipper that it would be done. He would like to have been told the Team Leader’s name. He also felt that it was wrong of the Team Leader to have gone over his head to Mr Clipper. They should have come to him with their suggestions; he was Paperclip Counting Manager, after all. Of course, it was possible that whoever it had been had just wanted to make themselves feel important.

Two days later, the Team Leaders announced to their teams that the boxes they were filling were now colour-coded to identify their team, and numbered to identify them individually.

One of Harriet’s team asked, "If everyone’s responsible for their own work, what’s the point of having teams – or Team Leaders?"
Harriet said, "We have other duties."
"Oh, yeah, like what – putting the stickers on the boxes?"
Everyone on the table laughed, except Harriet, who blushed.

Once the system had bedded in, it became routine for the daily figures for every counter in the room to be placed on the desk of every team for the counters to check their own numbers and see how well others were doing. The list was not a league table – in accordance with Mr Clipper’s wishes – but simply a coded alphabetical list of counters with the figures next to them. Thus: B1 – xx (xx being the number of boxes achieved the previous day, and B1 being Counter 1 from the Blue Team). It soon became apparent who the star counters were – the big hitters, as Tom called them – though most counters easily managed to make the first bonus threshold, which made Tom think that perhaps he’d set the bar too low. He was annoyed at the way the counters were operating within the bonus scheme. If you were going to miss the second or third threshold, then you might as well miss it by a lot as a little. There was no point nearly getting onto the top level of bonus. You either did or you didn’t. No-one rewarded you for busting your gut trying and failing. Consequently, those who were comfortably established on one of the levels tended to slack off at the end of the month, knowing they would still hit the minimum target for that level. It infuriated Tom, and he spent a good deal of time wondering what he could do about it.

The trouble was that anything he wanted to implement would have to be cleared with Mr Clipper, and Mr Clipper had made it clear he wanted a period of stability. Tom, having no-one with whom to discuss the problem, began to focus on it. One counter, who had never hit the top bonus, was right at the top end of the second level with a week to go; but rather than putting in an extra special effort in the last week to try and achieve the top level, he simply slacked off (unacceptably in Tom’s view), finally coming in at the lower end of the second level. Tom decided to have a word.

"Richard, I wanted to have a word about your figures," Tom began. They were sitting at a table in a small meeting room.
Richard, who had always managed the second level, said, "Fine."
"I was a bit disappointed you didn’t manage the top bonus level last month," said Tom.
"Not as disappointed as I was," replied Richard.
"But you didn’t try for the last week," said Tom. "You just settled for the second level."
"What do you mean?" Richard, a paperclip counter for four years, took offence at the suggestion. "I did the best I could. I always do. I’m sorry you don’t think it’s good enough."
"Richard," said Tom soothingly, "you’re one of our most valued and experienced paperclip counters. I’m just interested to know why your figures fell off so dramatically in the last week."
"Well, if you’d bothered to check, you’d have found out that I was on Small-Mixed-Colours for the last week – which are always the hardest to count because there’s more chance of making a mistake. Everyone slows down when they do Small-Mixed-Colours. If you get the Small-Mixed-Colours wrong, you’re more likely to get a complaint than on any of the others. I was on Standard-Silvers the first week, Large-Silvers the second, and Standard-Single-Colours the third. I just did the hardest at the end last month. You wouldn’t have noticed if I’d started with the Small-Mixed-Colours. If you really want me to get the top bonus, you could let me do Standard-Silvers all month, though I don’t think the other counters would approve."

The meeting hadn’t been quite what Tom expected. He believed Richard about being on the Small-Mixed-Colours (if only because he’d be unlikely to lie about something that could be so easily checked), but wondered if that was the whole story. Tom was convinced that there were counters who were comfortably making a certain level, and then easing off so that they only came in at the bottom end. The top level, after all, was only ever just made. No-one ever did it with plenty to spare, though it often looked like they might with a week or so to go.

On a more personal note, Tom didn’t much care for the staff’s attitude to him. When he was passing the figures round, some of the older counters would take the opportunity to tease him. "Your mum must be very proud of you," said Martha one morning; "what with you being such a high-flyer in paperclip counting at such a young age." She was nudged by one her colleagues, who said, "Don’t tease him, Martha. He’s got a younger brother who’s very big in drawing pins."

Everyone seemed to think this was hilarious. Tom smiled grimly and moved on to the next table.

Ben, on the Red Team (or R2, as he liked to call himself), was endlessly sarcastic. "Where would the world be without paperclips?" he would ask rhetorically. "I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat thinking about it. Imagine a world where you had to get by with just staples. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve nothing against staples. Some of my best course work was held together with staples. But it has to be said – they lack the elegance of even your average paperclip. I’ve always said, if I’m going to be counting things that hold bits of paper together, I’d rather be counting paperclips than anything else."

Very funny – at least, his fellow Red team-mates all thought so. Tom simply ignored him.

The next day, Sue – one of the younger members of the Yellow Team – held up a red and gold paperclip (obviously a result of faulty manufacture) and said, "Behold! My magic paperclip!" She announced she was keeping it to show to her as yet unborn grandchildren. "You don’t mind me keeping it, do you, Tom?" she asked.

"No, of course not," said Tom, somewhat irritably. He was annoyed – mostly with himself – because he couldn’t be sure if she were making fun of him or not.

Amanda, on the same team, suggested that there should be a magic paperclip every week with a prize for the counter who found it. "You could suggest it to Mr Clipper, Tom, as a way of further motivating the troops."

"And you can say you thought of it all by yourself," Sue said generously.

Poor Tom; it was quite lonely being a high-flyer. He smiled thinly and carried the figures to another table. Paperclip counting had begun for another day.

© J Gilles 2006

More Dreamscapes Fiction here


© Hackwriters 1999-2007 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.