On sameness (4/20/97)

by Earl Hautala

Copyright © 1997 Earl Hautala. The author hereby grants permission to use this article in electronic form only, in part or in whole, to any person or institution for educational purposes, provided no charge is made for such use.

On the topic of "sameness at international levels" perhaps a related anecdote would provide support to the structure.

I worked on a collaborative project in a facility that used a few tons of sulfuric acid a week. The acid ate up the iron drain pipes. The plant waste emerged looking like a cross between rusty water and tomato juice. A chemical process we developed cleaned up the waste so that it had virtually no color and no predictable environmental impact.

We could do nothing for the pipes inside the plant and as a consequence they continued to corrode. They needed continual replacement as part of the cost of doing business. A crew of 3 tended to repair and maintenance.

As happens in the world of business, someone on the board of directors wanted to see someone he knew (hereinafter referred to as: the Climber) advanced through the ranks of the corporation as rapidly as possible. The plant manager for the facility got transferred and the Climber took his place as an advancement from his previous position somewhere else in the corporation.

The Climber dispatched orders walking in the door.

  1. Cut the maintenance staff by two people.
  2. Order nothing without my signature.
The maintenance foreman complained. The Climber told him to like it or leave. The foreman stayed on. He had a couple of decades in the corporation and wanted to retire at 65 instead of 85. The Climber stayed on for 6 months to fill out two quarterly reports.

Here comes the tie in with "same."

No one sitting on the board of the corporation could overlook the increases in productivity shown by the Climber's plant. It appeared right there "on the bottom line." Most spectacularly, the cost per unit produced dropped precipitously.

[While working outside, I heard that the plant had a shut down. A part had given out and no reserve have been approved. The Climber got word on how long the repair would take, walked into the plant and announced that those on the line would take a day off without pay. The maintenance foreman went on a 4 hour sojourn to get the part and spent another 5-6 hours putting it in. He got a couple of hours overtime. No one else got paid when no product came off the line.]

Everything else appeared "the same" in terms of the quarterly reports. The plant showed an insignificant reduction in production with startling profitability.

I know the Climber moved up the ladder in 6 months, but I don't know if he ever got caught. I can only imagine what happened to the next manager who replaced him. To run a reliable production facility, the Climber's replacement probably had to double the maintenance crew and replace (on an emergency basis) every piece of pipe in the plant attacked by acid. By comparison, his quarterly reports would not appear "the same." He would pay the price, "looking bad" compared to his predecessor, through no fault of his own.

One might suspect that the members of the board of directors of that corporation might benefit by understanding that "the bottom line" on any report represents a high level abstraction. I don't think I have heard of directors who question reports that show dramatic changes in profitablility after 20 years of standard production. With enough Climbers on the board, the corporation will go quickly and quietly bankrupt. They'll go climbing in some other corporation.