'The Story of John Rogers'

Our Journey Begins

As I expected, Dan showed up on Lombardi Time — fifteen minutes early. Anticipating his discipline that had been learned in the era of that great Green Bay Packers coach, I had arrived at 7:30 to be sure we had a booth. That way I would have a few minutes to revisit some of the things I wanted us to talk about. Dan spotted me when he came in, made his way past those waiting near the register, and slid onto the bench across from me.

After short greetings, we both ordered omelets, home fries, bagels, and coffee. The thing I like about diners is that in less than ten minutes we’d be adding ketchup and Tabasco and starting to put away the food. Breakfast is my favorite meal, and this morning I relished the opportunity to share the time with a friend.

Lois, our waitress, poured the coffee and left us. Having waited as long as I could before asking, I decided to set my mind at ease right then. “Dan, forgive me, but before we get started, I just gotta know. How come you’re working at a job that is so clearly not in your field? You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, you know, but I’m really more than curious…” My voice just trailed off, reflecting how uncomfortable I felt asking that question, but Dan made it easy for me.

“Understand why you’d ask, but the answer is really simpler than anyone might expect. After a while I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now let’s just leave it that this: getting the boot at Weixx-Corp forced me to make some important discoveries about myself and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. Obviously, there are no unduly taxing pressures in my new field, and I satisfy some long-suppressed preferences for being out of doors… no coats and ties, minimal bureaucratic interferences. Stuff like that… Maybe we can touch on that some more later, but for now that sums it up, okay?”

“Whatever you say, Dan. If and when you’re ready to say more, I’ll be ready to listen.”

Dan simply nodded and then move onto the subject at hand. “Been thinking a lot about how to attack your problem since yesterday. You know there is a proven process that’s been around for a long time. Some people know it exists, but most of those don’t use it anymore. So I thought a little historical review might help put your issues into perspective and give us some guidance as we face the complexities of the so-called information age our world is plunging into.”

“Sounds good,” I replied, leaning forward to better concentrate as the noise of the morning regulars reached new levels.

“When I first came into this business more than thirty-five years ago — in what would be ancient times in the evolution of what was then called data processing — the people from IBM leased us those punched card accounting machines you mentioned earlier. Initially, they performed payroll and all of our accounting work, but we also used them for purchasing, inventory control, shipping, receiving and warehouse management. Our people were even trained to process production scheduling and costing using the same type of equipment. Later, when we needed more capacity and faster processing, we moved our applications to the growing number of increasingly more affordable computer systems. By today’s standards, we spent huge sums to lease those computer systems for the volumes of transactions involved, but we needed those capabilities to keep up with demands of the business, and paid the price.

“Though I like to use the term buy when talking about such decisions, hardly any of us bought equipment back then: everything was leased because machines were too expensive. If I tell you we evaluated each of those expenditures the same way we did any other investment, what is the obvious question you would expect we had to answer before approving such budget requests?” he asked.

“What is the expected return on investment?” I offered.

“Of course,” he acknowledged. “We made IBM and our own people prove the worth of those investments before and after the sale. I’ll tell you how that was done another time, but for now just know that we had to consider ROI. And, though I know people today say they look at ROI for particular purchases and projects, too often there is a major difference between their cost justificationprocesses and the ones we used. As I said, we can talk more on that later if you like.”

“Got it,” I said, making a mental note, not wanting to disrupt his flow.

“Because there were very few automated processes that could be readily duplicated for use from one business or organization to another, the total cost for each new application usually included substantial labor hours by skilled systems analysts, programmers and installation support personnel. Consequently, in those early days, very few small enterprises could afford to lease much less buy their own systems. The vast majority of professionals who were available to design, program, and install what were known as data processing systems worked for major equipment manufacturers like Burroughs, GE, IBM, NCR, RCA, and Univac. Likewise, training for those who wrote programs and those who operated and used the new systems was provided almost exclusively by each manufacturer.

“Even if convinced of the need to replace their bookkeeping machines and manual methods or an existing data processing system, most decision makers were very reluctant to underwrite the costs of designing and creating automated applications of their most vital functions. Measurable benefits had to be identified. The sum of the savings calculated for each function to be automated had to be much greater than the amortized cost before decision makers would purchase a new data processing system.

“Though some executives never took the time after the new system was operational to compare predicted benefits with reality, many did. In my case, it was actually the sales and systems people from IBM who first made it their business to give an accounting of results achieved in each installation, and that was usually done near the end of each year. They’d come with their managers and hold meetings with us and we’d all talk about how well we’d done together, identifying both the successes as well as the less than successful efforts since our last session. Then, we’d share our plans for new and different initiatives for the next and subsequent years. Finally, we’d jointly map out plans and assigned responsibilities for the coming year as well as for the longer term as best we could envision them.”

He was speaking in a confident, matter-of-fact way that served well our need to deal in straight talk as he continued. “Looking back on it now, it’s clear the old-time IBM people knew what they were doing, because even our most skeptical top execs came away with more confidence about how we were spending our budgets to benefit the business. I suspect it’s the loss of that accountability that’s causing part of your heartburn these days.”

Lois placed our breakfast platters in front of us about eight minutes after we’d ordered, according to the Dr. Pepper clock hanging over the entrance.

Dan pressed on like a man with a mission, alternating his words with his eating; I devoured my food and listened. “In the early seventies, technological advances in computer processing, storage media, printers, and a host of associated devices brought hardware prices down. Everything was getting a little easier to use, and we were getting smarter at using them. About that same time, it seemed every level of the American education system became involved in turning out increasing numbers of young people who could operate and program the wider variety of computers then available. Educators from K through 12, junior colleges and trades schools as well as throughout the ranks of colleges and universities — they all embraced the use of computers in their courses. The information explosion as some called it had begun. But, as we know today, that era heard only a whisper of what was to come.

“But, to keep pursuing my earlier theme, as the barriers of price and training were being lowered, the number of organizations of all sizes installing computers went up dramatically. Like the others, and partly from fear of losing ground to their competitors, many remote operations that had the authority to do so felt compelled to get a computer system of their own. As I’ve been suggesting, a growing number of those decisions were made without the same degree of understanding we might have required earlier.”

He looked at me — he expected a reaction, but instead saw my determination to hear him out, so he continued his historical review. “Because the equipment was also smaller and less sensitive to temperature, dust, and humidity, we began to decentralize our data processing, placing systems in warehouses to handle shipping and receiving, on the shop floor for scheduling and tracking production in plants — even in trailers on construction sites. We then assembled their results into our central computers at headquarters.

“Do you recall I said we were seeing many more new employees who were trained to program and operate systems?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, looking back on it all now, it’s clear we gradually turned over to those new whiz kids the responsibility for making critical decisions that rearranged the way we handled information and where we located the necessary computer equipment!” Dan was beginning to show growing displeasure with the memories he was dredging up. His jaw moved back and forth so firmly he was soon unconsciously grinding his teeth. “Most of those folks probably felt they were doing the right thing. But, unfortunately, their lack of practical business experience in such matters meant they had to rely mostly on theories put forth by their classroom instructors. As little as they may have understood about the practicalities involved in automating processes, it was much more than most of our managers of that day knew, so we were apparently quite glad to spend our energies on much more familiar problem areas of the business. As they say, the rest is history.”

I was not sure what Dan was trying to tell me just now and said so. “I’m sorry, but I can’t appreciate what you’re saying to me. I mean, I don’t know where you’re coming from when you talk about the rest.”

“Sorry,” he said, “but it really irritates and distresses me to trace through this whole thing. You can’t imagine how much money we’ve spent, how many twists and turns we’ve made over the years, and all in the name of progress. We’ve had some really bright, well-intentioned computer people in our organization and several have made real contributions to our success. But the great majority were just that: computer people. The main interest in life for most of them was, and still is, to work with technology — the latest and greatest, fastest and most innovative…the bleeding edge, it’s called — with little or no real understanding of how it feels to walk in the shoes of the people who depend on the information they provided.”

“Now don’t get me wrong,” he warned, “There is a real need in every organization for people who understand how to get the most from computer technologies. Obviously, there is also a vital role to be played by those who know how to design and write programs. That said, an essential, missing link in far too many organizations these days results from the failure of management to instill in the I/T people a real understanding of the functional needs, responsibilities and challenges of the non-technical employees who depend on I/T for the proper execution of their jobs.

“A second missing link exists from the failure of management to facilitate the development of a corresponding appreciation among non-I/T people for the capabilities of appropriately applied systems to meet their information needs. So in most companies, we have all sorts of computers, from PCs to mainframes, but far too few are really in sync with the needs of the workers who most need to use them!”

Dan was in his element now, and he could see I was eating it up. “So, as I said before,” he continued, “most of the problems you’re facing are just like those of your counterparts in most other companies today. And just like everybody else, you’re probably seriously looking at outsourcing your I/T. And why not? Seems like everybody else is doing it, right?”

He knew the answer before he asked it, but I understood why he was leading me through the discussion and went along with it by admitting, “Well, of course we’re considering moving some of our I/T outside to try getting better control over our costs. We’ve heard about some really exciting results at several major firms…” I trailed off.

By that time we had finished our food and were working on our third or fourth coffee warm-up. Having tied up the booth in Lois’ station for almost an hour, it was time to let someone else take it so she could continue making her daily tip income. Though I didn’t really want to interrupt our train of thought, I paid the check and we headed towards the Algonquin.

The Basics, in More Than Just Burgers

As we worked our way through plates of little burgers — the kind we used to eat regularly when we were first building our careers in the business and the kind you won’t find at most working lunches in the corporate towers these days — we soon became very popular among the floating residents of the pond. No matter how many tidbits we threw to them, the same pattern repeated itself: the larger and meaner ducks muscled the smaller ones aside and gulped the food as fast as it came their way. So I would pick out one of the less fortunate and try to connect with its mouth in midair. Timing was everything and sometimes we’d outsmart the greedy ones, but not often. Finishing our sandwiches and having nothing left to share, we watched as the same thing happened when the several other human spectators attempted to feed the ducks. Only then did we return to our conversation from before.

I cleared my throat and began. “Earlier you said the fundamentals of running a business and solving its problems haven’t changed since you were first involved years ago. If that’s the case, and I spend all my time and energies trying to make things run better, how come I have so little to show for my efforts?”

“Sounds something like: you’re working harder but enjoying it less . . . or no matter how much money you throw at them, the problems don’t get solved, or something similar?”

“Yes,” I said, “but more specifically, I’m concerned with the bottomless money pit they call Information Technology.”

“So,” Dan said, “The more appropriate questions might be worded something like:
Spending more on computers, networks, people to operate them and the rest of that growing cost item commonly called Information Technology than you’d like? Or, looking for a way to have those non-technical people within your organization more effectively communicate their needs to those highly technical members of your I/T staff?

“Both fit very well,” I nodded.

“Wish there was a way to be more comfortable in your ability to match the return on your I/T investment with the continuing stream of budgetary expenditures you’re told must be made?
Want to have more protection against technological obsolescence, such that equipment you buy today doesn’t become out of date so quickly?
Are those some of the issues you’re struggling with?”

“You could write my script for me,” I said, my pent-up frustrations starting to surface.

“Well, if that’s true,” he said, “I can tell you for certain that you’re not alone. If you could look back over the years through my eyes you’d see we’re right about where we deserve to be. Not where we had to be, you understand, but where we deserve to be!”

“How’s that?” I asked, still propped against the tree, but feeling my bottom going numb from being in that same position too long. It was clear I had struck upon someone who had a lot to say worth hearing and, if I was lucky, might just help me work through the things that were troubling me. I settled back and prompted him, “I mean, if you have time, I’d love to hear more.”

I was fortunate. Dan was anxious to talk.

“Seems to me the difficulties you’re having with I/T are just part of a much more pervasive situation that afflicts many organizations throughout America, regardless of their size. Let me give you a little part of what I’m talking about. It’s true, most large corporations like Weixx-Corp had become over-staffed and burdened by too many layers of management and support people as the non-stop growth of the past decades gave us too much cash and lulled management into a laxness about spending . . . spending that bordered on gluttony. You may remember that many years ago Deming [Dr. Edwards]* warned American management about such dangers in what he called his ‘Fourteen Points’ and other writings. By the way, did you ever read any of his works or study his principles in any of your college courses?”

“Sure, I guess most everyone in business has at least heard his name before, but I really don’t remember any specifics about his ideas,” I said.

“Well, I had read some things he’d written a while back,” he explained, “but had never really become interested in him until I enrolled in a graduate course in management last fall. You will remember that the company gave us all several retraining options as part of our ‘Career Restart,’ and I took advantage of them! Anyway, our professor only teaches one upper-level graduate course at a time. He earns his real living as a management consultant who specializes in applying the Deming philosophies and associated techniques in all sorts of business situations. Turns out there’s a whole network of Deming followers throughout the world who have their own associations, hold regular meetings of local chapters, conduct workshops and seminars and otherwise follow his teachings in their work,” he enthusiastically explained.

It was good to see Dan so excited. I thought, maybe things haven’t worked out so badly for him after all. He continued, “Among the many fundamental premises Dr. Deming espoused, none are probably more meaningful in today’s corporate climate than those I would combine like this: ‘It’s the responsibility of management to create a plan for consistency of purpose, backed by processes in which employees can succeed, free from arbitrary quotas, slogans and the like.’ ”

“As we have seen over the years, when things go too well, many executives forget to stay lean and alert. In some organizations it has been the practice that new players take over every two to three years as those holding management positions move up or out. Intent on making their marks as they climb the ladder, newcomers often take actions that look good in the short run but can lead to long run problems. It has not been unusual for them to overlook those few in their organizations that are not performing, electing instead to let someone else remove good ole Charlie. The result of a series of similar attitudes by successive managers can be that good ole Charlie (or Cathy) is allowed to stick around. Such underachievers occupy a valuable slot in the organization at the expense of those who must carry the extra load. By the time the impact of their decisions is apparent, the fast-trackers are usually long gone, leaving it to their successors to clean up the mess. That’s happened to many of us. Through it all, we failed to heed Deming’s assertion that managers are responsible for proscribing business processes in which the workers involved can efficiently execute their assigned tasks.

In our pell-mell determination to keep each quarter’s performance ahead of the last, we had lost track of the overriding, long-term effects we were soon to begin experiencing. So when incremental increases in demand gave way to stagnation that caused earnings reports to no longer push stock prices upward, many CEOs, COOs and CFOs found themselves embattled by unhappy stockholders and funds managers. Those who acted early and with the right amount of public fanfare held onto their positions by resorting to major reorganization drives. They typically stripped out large numbers of middle managers and rank-and-file employees, closed and consolidated operating facilities, and otherwise cut costs that would shore up their quarterly operating statements. Others, unable or unwilling to change their directions fast enough to suit their critics, were too often given millions of dollars in golden parachutes and allowed to vacate their offices unscathed in search of a grand retirement as a senior, former captain of American industry, or to take short sabbaticals before surfacing again at the top of some other enterprise. In too many cases, those most responsible for creating the messes escaped the consequences of their actions, leaving it to those under them to pay the price for such excesses.”

He had delivered those remarks, barely stopping to breathe, all the while maintaining intense eye contact with a scene only he could see. It was clear he had spoken from his heart, for his voice and the animation of his body gave away the emotions he seemed unaware were being displayed. Breaking the mood, he turned back to me from the scene he had been viewing inside himself and smiled a little: “But I must warn you, that outburst is just an example of what can happen if you get me started on one of my rants. Though hopefully of interest to you and related to your troubles, don’t be surprised if I wind up telling you more than you want to know,” he said. “It took over three decades for American industry to begin to take heed of the original admonitions from Dr. Deming — those which were the guiding principles on which Japan rebuilt her production capabilities under his guidance beginning in 1950.”

His voice was much stronger and more authoritative now than when we had met at the fire in the park. His body was upright. He was in control the way he had always been when he was managing in our firm. But still his words came across with no sign of anger or harshness, only empathy. “Still want me to continue?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? How much more time can you give me? I wouldn’t want to cause you a problem with the folks here at the park.”

“Good point,” Dan answered as he looked at his watch. “Tell you what,” he said, “I need to finish clearing and burning this pile before I call it a day. Tomorrow’s my day off. If you can and you really want to, we could take this up again in the morning.”

No hesitation on my part. “Name the time and we can meet at my office,” I replied.

“For old time’s sake, I don’t mind trying to help you personally, but I’m not interested in spending any of my time on anything that might benefit that bunch you work for! So if it’s all the same to you, I really don’t want to ever walk inside another Weixx-Corp building.”

“Understandable,” I said. “Don’t blame you a bit. Matter of fact, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to pay you something for your time.”

“I appreciate that, but let’s keep this just between you and me: two old friends. I wouldn’t charge you anything. Besides, there’s no assurance yet that I have anything to say worth anybody paying to hear.”

I dropped that matter and pressed on, “Fine, we’ll let it ride for now. Let’s start with breakfast at Ralph’s around 8:00, and then go to my apartment at the Algonquin.”

Picking up his rake, Dan agreed, “Eight o’clock suits me okay. Always did like the omelets and home fries at Ralph’s. I’ll see you there.” Now he slipped back into his attendant role, and I was going back to my office without the answers I needed — but feeling much relieved by the prospects of starting to get them tomorrow.

Following My Nose

On the elevator I decided that once outside the building I would try walking wherever the spirits or the winds directed me. It was cold but clear and sunny on the other side of Fourth Avenue, so I jaywalked across and felt the comforting warmth on my face as soon as I turned south.

“South,” my mind said to direct me, so that’s the way I walked, with people moving past me in a nonstop kaleidoscope that was consistently out of focus. It reminded me of the reason I was out there in the first place — so many fast moving objects in my world at the office these days . . . so many of them were strangers I couldn’t recognize who they were. Not the people, for those who had survived downsizing were pretty much the same ones I’d known for a while. No, the strangers were a combination of complicated-sounding names for computer technologies and those smartly dressed experts who were seen wandering in and out of offices in the Information Technology Group (ITG) division. Those were the strangers to me now. They were a big part of my reason for being out on this street, wandering along with my thoughts and questions for company.

Before I reached the corner, the smell of burning leaves and pine limbs caught my attention. “Smells from my childhood,” my mind said, as I could see me at three years old, walking with my grandfather down the rutted dirt road that sloped toward the spring where my grandmother always washed her laundry. We had a well next to our house, which gave us all the water we needed to drink and bathe, but my grandmother had always said spring water was softer and better for washing clothes. Even at that young age I remember knowing my grandmother was the smartest and most loving woman in my life, so if she said something it had to be true and it had to be good for me. Once they were washed and pinned to the clotheslines back of her house, she was content in the knowledge her family would have only the cleanest, best-smelling sheets, undergarments and socks next to their bodies. The huge black cast-iron wash pot was boiling and splashing as flames from the pine logs beneath it roared, sending sweet-smelling smoke into the air. What great times we had back then, I thought. Things were sure a lot simpler in those days. “Why do we have to make everything so complicated?” I wondered out loud. No one answered, but I didn’t care.

Being reminded of my grandfather and grandmother brought back happy thoughts, and I let them take over as long as they were willing to stay. Drawn by the smells toward the fire, I crossed the street and went through the stone archway that guarded the main road into the park. The flames were in full view off to my right, being stoked by a uniformed park maintenance man. He was so intent on his work he didn’t know for several minutes that I was standing near him. Eventually, he turned to look at me, and I looked back, startled.

It was Dan Perdido!

At first I didn’t say anything, and he just nodded. He didn’t show any emotion as his gray-blue eyes looked into mine. He also didn’t move. But it was an awkward time for me as our last meeting had branded itself in my memory.

Two years ago Dan had been one of our senior executives responsible for overall administrative support, including our ITG division. But, when what employees throughout the company called The Great Bloody Ax had fallen, it had swept him, most of the other senior executives and several hundred employees in locations throughout the firm into early retirement. With them had gone their collective wisdom from thousands of employee-years of training and practical experience. With them too had gone the dedication, discipline, and integrity ingrained by the world in which they had grown up. And lastly, gone in their wake was the simplicity that seemed to have existed during their time within our company.

Dan and I had worked on high level task teams from time to time, but not on matters requiring either of us to delve too far into the details of each other’s worlds. For my part, I recall meetings in which my direct-report managers would describe our information needs to Dan and his technical people. They would listen and go away, returning with the added features, functions and reporting capabilities they believed would satisfy our requirements. It often took a few rounds of back and forth between us and the technical folks, with them making modifications and us testing their results, before the finished product that truly filled our needs emerged.

Dan had always impressed me with his high energy, attention to detail and willingness to take the time to question and listen. He had drawn on training while earning his business degree to keep himself well informed about the internal workings of our company, and seemed to have a strong grasp on the realities of our marketplaces. Business savvy from turning around one of the plants that had been in trouble for a time, several years’ tenure on our finance committee, and his strong technical credentials had made Dan one of our most competent executives. He was compensated accordingly. But when the internal coup took place, he had been too visible and too vulnerable when those concerned primarily with cost reductions successfully moved ITG into the outsource column!

Too bad, but maybe you’re just being sentimental again, John, my mind said, so I shook off the shroud of memories and returned to the here and now.

“It’s you, isn’t it, Dan?” It was not really a question.

“It’s me, John. What brings you out here in the middle of the day?” Dan looked at me but kept stirring the flames which danced on the coals.

“Truth is, I’m lost back at the office. I came out here to see if I could find a way through this crazy world we seem to have created for ourselves.” I laughed a little and nodded to his work. “More smoke up there sometimes than you’re making with your fire.”

Stopping and leaning on his rake, Dan observed, “Have to keep the smoke to a minimum in the park on account of the environmental ordinance, but thank goodness such precautions can’t destroy the aroma, huh?”

I nodded.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I’m all for cutting out those gases from the cars and furnaces and such. Been proven it’s not good for anybody to breathe all that stuff. It’s just that sometimes people take their good intentions so far they destroy some of the best there is. Sometimes we don’t understand what’s happened till it’s too late and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean?”

“Sure I do, Dan. Fact is, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between what was and what is. I smelled your pine smoke from down the street and it led me here, and all the time I was remembering being back in the country at my grandparents’ farm. Guess I came here to reconnect to my past,” I observed and then fell silent, waiting for Dan to speak, but he too paused and in that instant I thought about my true dilemma but didn’t express it.

Instead I felt the silence needed to be filled. “I decided to take a stroll and think about some things.”

Dan still said nothing. At this point, I felt there was nothing to lose, so I threw caution to the same winds that carried his smoke into the sky. “Actually, back at the office things have gotten pretty confusing and I’m hard-pressed to know what to do to regain some order. I was hoping it would help to get away from the daily routines and look for some new perspectives.”

Motioning me to follow, Dan moved away from the fire and sat down on the ground. I found a big thick root then sat and leaned back. The old oak tree propping me up was part of a small stand of hardwoods ringing the clearing where the last of the limbs burned. Though my perch wasn’t particularly comfortable, the radiating heat felt good and helped me relax as Dan began to speak: “So, tell me: what’s causing all this confusion in your world, John?”

“That’s my first problem,” I said. “The situation is just too complex; it’s cutting across too many variables and so I can’t seem to get my arms around it — you know, like we used to. The more things we try, the more complicated it gets, and then there’s the constant pressures from customers, competitors, suppliers and most recently, from our stockholders. Add in changes in computers, operating systems and other technologies . . . it’s really a mess . . . not simple like it used to be in the late ‘60s for you guys in I/T.” The pained expression on Dan’s face told me I had hit a nerve, but I wasn’t sure which one or why, so I tried to talk on through it.

“I mean when you were first bringing in those old punched card machines you always talked about, surely things must have been easier than they are today. I remember you saying you designed some forms, arranged some wires in the machines and punched information into those IBM cards. Then you got the bills out on time, right?”

Dan smiled, chuckled some, then almost burst into full laughter. The solemness that had prevailed between us was gone now and his eyes were friendly and understanding as he said, “That’s not exactly all there was to it, John, but yes, the way the business ran in those times seemed much simpler than today. The pace of things was considerably slower. Stockholders weren’t clamoring for ever-greater earnings every ninety days! There were fewer domestic competitors nipping at us every day, almost none from abroad, and customers were probably less demanding as a result. But I still believe the fundamentals of the way a company can and should deal with both customers and employees and still find themselves profitable are the same now as they have always been.

He continued, “Look at it this way: it’s not where you light the fire but what you plan to burn and how you tend it that makes the difference between a pleasing aroma and a disgusting smell.”

Again Dan fell silent, but this all sounded good: I wanted him to go on. I gave him an inquiring look, hoping he would just continue on his own. Nothing.

Still not wanting to break the mood and without thinking, I suggested, “Look, Dan, it’s lunchtime, what you say we go over to the Oak Room. . . my treat?”

“Got maybe a better idea, John.” Pointing across the park, Dan said, “Let’s get us a bag of White Castles, sit next to the pond, and see if we can learn anything from the ducks. Maybe they can teach us something about this world we agree is just too screwed up these days! ‘Sides, in case you haven’t noticed, these overalls aren’t exactly the dress of the day at the Plaza.”

Of course! How stupid of me not to think before opening my mouth. I really am out of it, I thought to myself. Like the man said: simple is good and fundamentals don’t change, so we crossed the street together, headed for the White Castle.

In Search of Answers

There was a knock on my door. I looked up and saw the door open just enough for Barbra, my assistant, to check my availability. She then came in, carrying two cups of coffee. It was time for our mid-morning schedule check. “How’s it going so far?” she asked, placing my favorite mug in front of me. Laura had painted I Love My Grandfather on it for Father’s Day four years ago, when she was in the first grade, and it is one of my treasures.

“Not bad,” I said. In one hand I picked up the pages I had been studying and in the other I grabbed the mug. I moved towards the two stuffed leather side chairs nearest the window. Barbra followed, seated herself, then watched as I carefully took a short sip. It stung a little, so I decided to let it cool and looked first out the window, then back at Barbra.

Finally I said, “Not bad, but actually, not so good either,” and gazed out the window again, letting my eyes sweep across the building tops. It was either do that, or try again with the sections of the Proposed Budget for our Information Technology Group (ITG) I had brought with me to the chairs.

Barbra waited, saying nothing. Six years of working with me had taught her about my silences, and she guessed this was one not to be broken until I was ready. She was right. As president of Weixx-Corp, this consumer products manufacturing company, my need for multi-tasking had only grown as the economy had worked its way from recession to rapid growth and competitive pressures from foreign manufacturers has intensified. Particularly brisk had been the rate of import activity from the Asian countries, challenging us in all sectors of our product markets. Barbra had been with the company for over twelve years, first working in various capacities in our plants while she completed her undergraduate degree in finance and accounting, then moving into our administrative offices. Soon, she was tapped to work on the support staff in our executive offices. I had seen enough of her work — and observed how she interacted with our management team — to believe she could make significant contributions to me. Since joining me, she had consistently proven herself to be invaluable, and we had developed a professional relationship that had made us increasingly more comfortable working together. In short, I trusted her instincts, knowledge of our business and discretion when it came to handling matters of the highest sensitivity.

So I broke the silence.

“Have you seen Morgan’s budget request for next year?” Not waiting for her answer, I almost shouted, “He’s asking for another $450 million!” Flipping the pages, I continued, “Says we need to add on to our mainframe system . . . wants to replace over 3000 PCs with new ones, not to mention all sorts of other new gadgets I’ve never even heard of before!” I was getting hotter while my coffee, forgotten, cooled off, but Barbra remained calm and listened as I began pacing in front of the windows. As I said, she knew me and bided her time.

“We just spent over $500 million this year for what he and those partners from that high-priced computer consulting outfit promised last year would carry us for at least five more years! Now we’re supposed to throw almost the same amount into computers all over again? Where do they think we would get off asking our Exec Committee to keep spending these kinds of dollars year after year? Where does it end?”

Turning to the right page, I held it out for Barbra to see. “And right here there’s another $40 million for our consultant friends. It’s labeled Assistance in Converting to the new PC operating system. That was the very operating system we paid them $10 million for recommending this year. Absurd! This is just ridiculous!”

As I sat back down and only then began to work on my coffee in earnest, Barbra found her opening: “When he dropped off your copy of the budget, Morgan said you wouldn’t be happy. He said that since his department was cut in half in that last downsizing two years ago, he just doesn’t have the people to handle all our internal demands, much less conduct studies and make long range-plans. Said all he has time to do these days is put out fires.”

“Well, he’s not the Lone Ranger!” I nearly shouted, without it registering that Barbra was probably like a growing number of people these days who hadn’t a clue who the Lone Ranger was — was that my memory obsolescence? ‘Another time,’ my mind, replied.

“Nobody has enough people,” I continued. “But the reason we gave ITG so much money the past two years was so they could have computers and phone systems that were supposed to help take up the slack.” Now on a roll, I pulled my chair next to hers, tapped one of the pages for her to follow me, and continued, “And, by the way, he’s asking to add another thirty people to his staff so he can write some new billing and receivables programs. Says here the ones we wrote a few years ago can’t take advantage of the new hardware and this new operating system the consultants say we just must have . . . .”

Knowing full well the answers in advance, Barbra asked, “Aren’t those consultants the same ones who helped McKinnis and the Exec Committee decide how to reorganize three years ago? The same ones who recommended major staffing cuts in ITG?”

“Catch-22,” I said.

She didn’t hesitate. “Nice game if you can get into it,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

Back at the window I spotted a thin column of smoke, rising from the trees in the park. I focused on it and said, more to myself than to Barbra, “I don’t know yet, but I’ve got to figure this thing out before it gets out of hand. Correction: any more out of hand. And, compounding it all is the revelation our newest software won’t readily allow us to fully utilize the power of the Internet! No telling how much we’ll have to spend for software modifications and to streamline our processes for seven by twenty-four communications with our customers, suppliers and our internal operations. If recent history is any indication of what comes next, I’m guessing we’ll start by forking over more money to the consultants to deal with that subject!”

My thoughts went back to the time we were first told our old software might not handle dates beyond 1999. My stomach tightened as I related those memories to Barbra. “Like numerous others caught in the Year 2000 problem, we had hoped we could get by with spending an estimated $50 million modifying our existing programs through a process called remediation, rather than the $500 million required to install a new package and upgrade our core hardware systems. But our CIO at the time said the old software couldn’t be made to work. Soon after I’d convinced the powers-that-be to spend the big bucks and we’d begun work under signed contracts, an outside consulting team showed our own people the necessary modifications could have made our software fully Y2K-compliant for well under the $50 Million the CIO originally estimated! We had bitten that bullet and it exploded in our faces!”

Barbra patiently continued listening, no doubt waiting for me to get this particular set of experiences off my chest so we could move to more positive ground.

Barbra tried to console me, “But who knew, right?”

“We certainly could have taken more time to be certain which course to follow, and we should have done that! But, our CIO at the time, Rick Lasseter, was very persuasive. Too bad we didn’t realize until later that he had his own, personal reasons for wanting the new system… you see, by changing from our traditional operating system to a Unix platform, he would add a significant credential to his technical repertoire. And, within six months he played that card from his resume deck to wangle himself a vice-presidency at a sizeable increase in compensation–and of course, it was in another corporation!”

Enough of this, I finally concluded. The smoke blurred as reality returned me to my office and Barbra, who was watching me intently. I said, “If I don’t get things under control before this budget goes to McKinnis, he’ll be looking for someone who can!”

Always one to be calm and thoughtful, Barbra said, “Well, at least we’ve got ninety days before you have to present your requests to the committee. That should give us time to find out what’s going on and what to do about all this.”

Trying to sound equally confident, I raised the level of my voice as I responded, “You’re right, that should be sufficient time.” But my self-doubts couldn’t be dismissed so easily, so I added, “Trouble is, I’m so far away from understanding it all I’m not even sure where to start.” I knew that was an understatement. “I’m going out for a while, so cover for me if anyone calls or comes by. I need some quiet time to myself, and that’s best done away from here. Call you after a while,” I said as I grabbed my coat, leaving everything else where it lay.


Weixx-Corp executive John Rogers wants to come to grips with the factors associated with continued escalations of annual expenditures for corporate information systems (IT). Repeated efforts to determine cause and effect relationships involving upwardly spiraling IT costs have rendered only partial explanations. As the events to follow underscore, John is not prepared for the wide range of complicating circumstances brought to light by the people he meets along the way.

While trying to first understand and then deal with the business challenges facing him, John has a fortuitous encounter with Dan Franklin. Dan is the former head of the Information Technology Group (ITG) at Weixx-Corp. Forced out of the company in a downsizing move a year earlier, Dan is found working in a most unlikely setting. Though he is quite comfortable in his new occupation, and in spite of his enmity for Weixx-Corp, Dan is drawn into helping John in his quest. He sees John’s predicament as an opportunity to demonstrate from outside what he had long believed he rightfully should have been charged with handling when he was still on the inside.

Together, they delve into the underlying reasons for — and the far-reaching implications of — what they will initially dub the march of technological obsolescence. But from the simple premise John started out to explore — budgeting for technology — he and Dan are led to confront just how far the effects of a number of recurring trends in business extend. It leads them to New Beginnings, a support organization for several displaced persons — and some voluntary retirees. Included in the ranks of that group are those whose past job responsibilities represented many of the most vital functions in corporate America today. What unfolds are exposures to people whose stories reflect symptoms of what might be called, the march of individual obsolescence.

Beyond the recurring, often redundant capital expenditures and associated operating costs for information technology described by those John and Dan come to know, they all discover the damage to corporate intellectual capital already in evidence. They come to appreciate that many corporations and other organizations across America, are suffering from the rapid loss of so many experienced people in all disciplines. Seeing parallels to conditions at Weixx-Corp, John and Dan note actions and decisions in organizations may not be apparent in terms of their short-term effects, but become increasingly apparent in their long-term repercussions.

As a result of joining in the regular meetings of New Beginnings, John, Dan and the others form a diverse and formidable brain trust. Together, they develop a retrospective on the evolution of business cultures as the attitudes and philosophies of top management have dramatically changed regarding traditional values.

Finally, this story returns to the real reason Rogers takes to the streets in the first place: to provide some open space between himself and the problems pressing in on him within the Weixx-Corp offices. In dealing with issues surrounding IT, the characters paint a broader picture that predicts how much more productive our organizations can be when business decisions must consider respect for the individual and be in accordance with stricter ethical standards.

The conclusion focuses on the reason Dan was so willing to lift himself from the simplicity of the life he had chosen after Weixx-Corp: The Bottom Line is really all about people and how they interrelate with each other — regardless of their station in life or organization with which they are associated.

Although this may seem to be good strategy in the present, who knows what will be the lasting effects on organizations and shareholders – not to mention the rest of us? These are the central themes addressed in this writing, offering some suggestions for remedies or preventive measures based on observed business practices in a wide variety of commercial and governmental organizations. For those facing situations today that are similar to the experiences related by the individuals who speak on the following pages, perhaps the best advice is to rely upon well-established business principles and practices — guided by healthy doses of common sense!

We hope you’ll post some comments to the posts that follow this one and join us on our journey.

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Through good and bad economic times, as new technologies are continuously made available, as new management fads come and go, and regardless of pressures brought to bear on management by shareholders and directors, customers and employees — the validity of the fundamentals of business do not change. Since the introduction of machine-driven accounting over a hundred years ago, most business owners and managers who have not been specifically trained to understand the basics of automated information processing have generally viewed such data processing as mysterious.
First hand observations over many years cause us to conclude that we who lead businesses, like those who have led nations,
continue ignoring the admonition to their peril: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Thus, every so often we seem prone to sing the same tunes all over again, just filling in what we believe are different verses. There is perhaps no better example of this recurring theme than the romance-like infatuation of American business with technology. We embrace the continuously changing flow of computer tools and techniques and dance with them as new partners in our zeal to improve our bottom lines. But, as surely as too much familiarity with most things we experience can breed contempt, playing the same music over and over again — without proper regard for the necessary balance between the machines and their human counterparts — has not produced the levels of satisfaction we envisioned, or promised ourselves. As a result, we are repeatedly paying more to dance more often, but enjoying it less as the expectations that were raised by the glowing promises of each new generation of technologies too frequently leave us disappointed with the outcomes.

Though the characters in the scenarios described in this writing are fictitious, they expose the reader to a wide range of business practices in differing environments that include but also supersede reliance on technologies. In addition, they present a series of same tunes circumstances that illustrate what often happens to individuals and their companies when management fails to practice proper respect for the fundamentals of business.

At a minimum, we hope to stimulate discussions and examinations by our readers of circumstances in their organizations that are similar to those illustrated here. Experience with other readers of previous editions of this writing suggests that those who trace through the journey presented here will likely find circumstances and events that are too eerily and personally familiar. To the extent these situations and their consequences for the personalities described here are applicable to you and your organizations, we hope such reflections might prompt remedial or preventive measures that benefit all concerned.

Finally, we hope readers will post comments about the content of this writing as well as descriptions of circumstances and results associated with their own experiences. Should you want to engage in discussions on these or other subjects with the author and/or other readers, please use this site for that purpose as well. Thanks for reading and please continue…

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