Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

Labour is not Cheap

Today, as we honour those who toil, we might do well to look over our shoulders to see what has been happening. Only by remembering what was can we truly see what we have become. For example, see if you can find photos of yourself and your loved ones that go back over a generation. If you can, and you put them in date order, you will be swept up by the stop-frame movement through time. It will take your breath away.

I was a young person in the 1960’s. It was a time of intense hope and idealism. We spoke of not joining the man in his quest for money and status. Alas, it was not to be. We grew up and joined the man. It was the beginning of what Cornel West calls the Ice Age.

Another name for the man is the scientific management movement. Following Henry Ford, it broke up manufacturing into small chunks that minimized the need for skill. You could, the thinking went, make high-quality goods without the trades, without apprenticeship, without good work. And if you didn’t need good work, you didn’t have to pay for it. All the skill (and the pay) resided in management.

Barry Schwartz, in Rethinking Work, a well-timed piece in the New York Times of August 28, pointed out that it was Adam Smith himself who provided the seed for the growth of the man. In the foundational document of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, he opined that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Professor Schwartz (psychology at Swarthmore) also tells us that Adam Smith’s idea that the worker is lazy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would add that if work is cheap, you will get cheap work.

But there are more – and more disturbing – revelations in Rethinking Work. They have to do with a worker’s engagement and enjoyment, which in turn flow from his feeling that his work is meaningful, that it makes a difference. According to Gallup polls, says Schwartz, Nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

I know this is harsh and heretical, but here is my thought for the day:

Yes, Adam Smith laid the foundation for capitalism. While not perfect, it has been the best option for centuries. But Adam Smith was and is wrong about the human being. We are not lazy. We can tolerate being dirt poor. What we cannot tolerate is a life without meaning, a life remote from connection with the larger society. So what do the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed do?

In West Side Story, they joined a gang. In The Wire, they sold drugs on the corner. In 2015, they join ISIS and commit to jihad. Is that so far from what Cornel West calls the fire?

Fire means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are willing to live and die.

Can a mistake of Adam Smith have borne so much strange fruit? Income inequality, gangs, drugs, jihad. What a terrible waste of our precious and talented youth!

Rule by Metric

Survival?

In the grand scheme of things, there is not the slightest doubt that humanity can survive. The peril of the planet and the challenges of leaving it are not beyond our husbandry. But it will not be the market that saves us – it will be ourselves.

To this end, there is a heartening article in today’s Sunday Times: Why You Hate Work. The authors have done surveys which, in a nutshell, find that employees (and management, too) are most productive when their needs are met in the workplace. What needs are these? The physical need of rest and renewal. Feeling valued and cared for. Being allowed to focus on the task, and thereby finding purpose and meaning in work. Feeling that their work has made a difference, however small. Surprised?

We are not machines. Our output is not proportional to time spent on the job. Our capacity for creation is huge and unknown, but it is delicate and must be given room to flower.

Our Metrics

Where have we gone astray? It’s the metrics, stupid.

By worshipping the market we come to the conclusion that the purpose of enterprise is the bottom line. Managers define productivity as income or profit per employee, or worse, as hours worked per dollar of wages. It is any wonder that the phrase the working poor has made it into our modern vocabulary?

We are using hours and money to measure the value of work. Then we use the market to make our existential decisions for us.

This is not because we are evil. We are human and in trying to grasp our complicated selves we seize what is doable and ready to hand. And as to the larger decisions, we are overwhelmed and beg to be excused. For how often, in our daily lives, are we visited with silence, peace, and courage? It takes all of these to acknowledge the existential decisions that face humanity. Our humanity. Us.

Money is useful. Only by having some – in today’s society, at least – can we make a space for thought. Money is a tool, a medium of exchange, and exchange is essential.

Money is also an abstraction, a practical means of evaluating both things and ourselves. But the value of things is debatable (that’s why we need money or barter in the first place) and we ourselves are beyond value. And when we cede to the market we are putting our trust in an abstraction of an abstraction, a tool without form.

What Metric?

Let’s go back to what is really essential: exchange.

Farmers a century ago did much of their work alone, but building a barn required co-operation. (That’s where the phrase barn raising comes from). If I help my neighbour, he will help me in the really big jobs I can’t do alone.

Today we have before us a really big job: the survival of humanity. No amount of management or regulation can achieve this. Nor can capital, in the way we think of it. Financial capital will of course be necessary, more than ever before, and the financial world would do well to refocus on its primary purpose. But the other capital – human capital – is more important by far.

Each of us, however poor or simple, has a light within. How can these small flames be kept burning? How can they be nurtured and combined to illuminate and power a larger purpose?

Not by demand. Not by fear. As in all things human, we give ourselves willingly when we feel valued – in fact we give willingly that which did not exist before we felt valued. It is how we treat each other that determines whether our gifts will flower or come to naught.

So it is with work. Our survival depends on each of us doing his best work. What metric will we use to value that?

Work and Words

It is said that we form our thoughts in language. It follows that words are important – that their meaning, changing through time and usage, also affects our thoughts.

The News

Last Friday’s “jobs numbers” have left me thinking about words as well as about jobs. What is a job? Is it what we need? What we want?

Job creation last month (December, 2013) was the lowest in some time, and yet the unemployment rate went down. Why? Because fewer people were seeking jobs. Why? Because they are discouraged? Too old? Too young? Uneducated? Can survive some other way?

Yes. Yes to all of these and more. But we must also consider some of the employed: the working poor.

Employees of fast food outlets and big box stores typically earn the minimum wage and are hired as temporaries without benefits. Even though they work full time in their “temporary” position, their annual salary puts them below the poverty line. Their full-time job can’t support a family. They survive with the help of food stamps, medicaid, and good luck. A company gets cheap labour and the taxpayer foots the bill for the small help that the working poor receive. The profits from this system go to (at best) shareholders or (more likely these days) to a small group of stakeholders.

The Writers’ Almanac

Garrison Keillor ends his Writers’ Almanac with a sign-off which feels like a sending-forth: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” Because I hear the Writers’ Almanac several times a week and have been doing so for years, Garrison’s sign-off has lodged in my head, a touchstone for reflection.

I think about it more often than I hear it on the air. It takes on the form of a prescription, even a prayer.

I think about the order: be well, do good work, keep in touch.

First we must have health. We must have food and shelter; we must be able to survive.

Next – perhaps surprisingly – we need work. We must employ our God-given gifts for good, for making or accomplishing something, for making a difference, however small. This is our purpose. It is why we are here. It is what will bring meaning to our lives and comfort to our deathbed.

Finally, we must “keep in touch.”

I have struggled long with this one. Why is it last? How can we say that love, family, friendship and companionship, social and political action, and even faith and religion must come last? This seems to go against all teachings and norms.

But wait. Can a person who is not whole truly love another? Can a person who has yet to find meaning feed his family or bring energy to a friendship? Can he be a responsible citizen?

These are cruel thoughts. One could follow them into a judgment of the sad, the poor, and the simple. Thankfully, Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”, so I can accept the cruelty of my thoughts as I accept the cruelty of nature, and move toward the lesson, toward what I have learned from Garrison’s sending-forth: work is important.

Work

So what is work?

Etymology, the study of words, can sometimes remind us of meanings which, although to all appearances lost, still hover ethereally at the fringes. I was surprised to find, for example, that a Greek word for work is ergon, from which we get urge. Can this be a clue? Is work an urge, something that we must do? Baudelaire said  “Work is less boring than amusing oneself”, calling into question the primacy of play.

Jobs

In contrast, the etymology of job leads us to gob, a cartload, a piece of work. A piece of work that is low, mean, temporary, and lucrative. Petty, piddling work. A piece of chance work. The sense of job as work done for pay dates back to the 1650’s.

Conclusion

Etymology can lead us through histories of meaning. Current usage can inform us about today’s pressures and politics and give us perspective on our own thinking.

But all writers, consciously or not, try to re-shape words, to use them in ways which expand their meaning.

Drawing on the Greeks, Baudelaire, and Garrison Keillor, I would honour work as what we must do: use our gifts for good, however small. If we can feed our families through this work, so much the better. We are lucky indeed.

If (at least for the moment) we cannot, then perhaps we must find a job, a piece of work which is low but lucrative.

But I pray that as individuals and as a society we may see the difference. And I pray that more of us may find fulfillment in work. It will make a difference for humanity.

Management: Blinded by Success

Blinded

We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.

Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn’t fixing it.

The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.

Atul Gawande

I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.

I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.

We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.

Finland

For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.

The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.

Management or Collegiality?

As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient’s medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.

All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn’t wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland’s example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.

Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?

Financialization

Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney’s background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.

Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?

Human Potential

George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night’s debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son’s policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual’s God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father’s prophecy?

Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.