2 years ago: Playoffs and rocking chairs

2 years ago: Playoffs and rocking chairs January 7, 2013

From this blog, Jan. 7, 2011: Playoffs and rocking chairs

Some lady working on the assembly line at the Acme Rocking Chair Co. hasn’t seen a raise in eight years and her boss keeps telling her that she’s got to increase the product-units-per-hour beyond all reasonable expectation of quality. Every incentive, every instruction Acme Rocking Chair is giving her demands that she lower her standards for quality and accept that it is now her job to crank out crappy chairs.

But somehow she has got it in her head that she doesn’t really work for the Acme Rocking Chair Co. The way she thinks of it, she works for the person who will one day sit in that chair she’s making. And unlike the Acme Rocking Chair Co., that person has never treated her badly. It strikes her as wrong somehow — morally wrong — to provide a crappy chair for that person.

So she works twice as hard for the same pay and bites her lip. And whenever she gets another memo from Mr. Acme informing her that product-units-per-hour must yet again be increased, she thinks, “Screw you — I’m going to keep making good chairs, the best chairs I can, no matter what you tell me, you dim-witted, overpaid moron.” And exactly that — her perverse, rebellious commitment to doing good work as a way of doing justice for the customer and simultaneously flipping off the bosses — that’s pretty much all that’s keeping corporate America afloat.


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  • I have, more than once I think but my memories tend to fade and become hazy and confused, printed off “Playoffs and rocking chairs” to give to people who know nothing of this blog because it seemed relevant to their situation.

  • I was re-reading that old entry, and I ran across one of my comments that I think still holds true, so I re-quote it here for discussion.

    By the time I left that job, I came to the conclusion that the company deliberately set up unrealistic quotas, at a level that was very difficult to meet regularly but not impossible, precisely to produce this result. If the employees do not make the quotas, the company can do things like deny them raises by claiming that they are lucky not to be fired. Or if employees go crooked and make the quotas, then the company can reap the profits the crooked employee is making for them, then let that employee go once they can no longer claim plausible denibility and keep their hands clean. Either way, the company wins and the employees lose.

    Again and again the parallels to the Soviet Union just astound me.

    Konstantin Simis once wrote of how the USSR, in desperation, put some Army officers in key positions in critical factories to try and stem corruption in materials procurement for fulfilling the yearly plan quotas. It didn’t work, because the corruption problem was too deeply rooted. If you ran a factory in the USSR, you had to bribe, cheat and steal to obtain the necessary raw materials to make production quotas. So one of the Army people Simis talked to said he gave up and turned a blind eye, resulting in production going back to “normal” (i.e. with the usual procurement methods of bribing the delivery guy at the, say, metals plant to send over the right volume of steel so his factory could rework them into whatever, and so on).

    Iin the USSR, not fulfilling the plan could get someone from high up breathing down a lot of peoples’ necks, and forfeiture of the bonus wage for plan overfulfillment; in some cases people simply resorted to doctoring the material output figures reported back to Gosplan. The inevitable retail shortage of such goods should come as no surprise to anyone.

    The same “Stakhanovite” unrealism of the mandated quotas now in widespread use in the USA, just as they were in the USSR, has spawned the same culture of widespread fear of lack of fulfillment of mandated quotas, spawning the same reckless outright cheating, fraud and fakery by people willing to be dishonest, and the same fear of getting one’s ass severely (metaphorically) kicked among the more honest.

    I think this sort of weird morphing together of the worst of capitalism and communism is not what John Kenneth Galbraith exactly envisioned when, in 1977, he said the two systems were taking on more of each other’s features. At that time, he was commenting that the USSR was adopting certain reforms such as introducing greater price responsiveness into retail-sector products, and that the USA was expanding its welfare state and government interventionism.

    Truly a warped mirror image it is today.

  • Loki100

    This post really resonated with me at the time and even more so now. I work at a restaurant washing dishes. I make so little I actually can’t cover rent/food/utilities/phone/debt. But I am by far their hardest worker. I work harder than any other employee. So hard that at peak busy hours for my station, I am still able to keep up with the flow. I work ten hour long shifts without a break and do a fantastic job.

    Do you know what my reward for working that hard is? It’s not money. It’s not a promotion. No, instead I get pulled off my station and asked to do other jobs, which, of course, leads to a huge pile up of dishes. So my reward for working hard is more work and harder work. Also, the managers yell at me for sitting around when I have no work to do… because I already did all the work I was supposed to do.

    Also, did I mention I have a master’s degree, and this is the only job I can find? Every day I become more rabidly anti-capitalist.

  • P J Evans

     ‘As long as they pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.’

  • We Must Dissent

    As a teacher, I see this as now the norm in education: the district administration (and the public indirectly via how they vote) give teachers more duties and more students than they can reasonably deal with in their contracted work day. They do this because they *know* that most of us are devoted to the benefit of our students and that those students would be the ones who lose is we reduced our efforts.

  • WalterC

    Eventually, I feel like — for dishwashing, factory work, and teaching — there reaches a breaking point where the working people literally cannot meet additional demand.

    I think it’s a result of the ‘growth’ mentality, which holds that every enterprise should be like an aggressive tumor — growing rapidly. It’s one of the biggest mistakes I would run into with small start-ups when I was still in private accounting. People, reasonably smart people, buy into the “rah-rah” dime-store motivational speaker / business school mentality that says that there is no limit to what you can do as long as you really, really want it. Resources don’t matter. Capacity doesn’t matter. Cash definitely doesn’t matter.

    Then they run into a problem — they’ve committed to half-a-dozen purchase orders that they can’t pay for, in order to supply customers that they can’t even afford to ship to, all because something got into their heads that they can double their growth every quarter for all of eternity just because they were able to do it in the first few months when they were just starting out.

    Like Invisible Neutrino describes, that kind of slogan-based (“We Can Do It!”) mentality is endemic to Communist systems, and can be seen in a microcosm in many failed small businesses. (It probably appears in larger businesses too, but older and established companies tend to have enough free cash flows that they can coast for a long time before imploding.)

  • I think if the Soviet Union hadn’t been just so sheerly geographically massive enough with ample natural resources, they would have found that they couldn’t coast on that kind of sloganeering as a substitute for rational economic management.

    It is so odd sometimes how the parallels keep coming back long after the end of the Cold War.

  • Sereg

    But eventually, after being unable to meet the chairs-per-hour goal, what happens is not a revolution in the chair industry. What happens is that she gets fired, and replaced with someone who meets the chairs-per-hour goal, and can’t get another job or even unemployment because she was fired for cause.

  • MaryKaye

    Sereg writes: 

    But eventually, after being unable to meet the chairs-per-hour goal,
    what happens is not a revolution in the chair industry. What happens is
    that she gets fired, and replaced with someone who meets the
    chairs-per-hour goal, and can’t get another job or even unemployment
    because she was fired for cause. 

    And when the business fails, they are inclined to blame regulation and/or taxation, rather than the fact that they make crappy chairs.

  • Nomuse

    I still get angry when I go shopping for tools  or workclothes or cleaning supplies or any other item that is purchased for functionality.  Almost every store, and almost every manufacturer, cries out “Don’t you want mine?  It’s five cents cheaper than it was!”

    And it is five cents cheaper to me because they saved twenty-five or more by making it out of thinner material, using fewer stitches, saving the heat-tempering, etc.

    And I’d gladly spend that twenty five cents or more to get even the same quality the thing was last year.  Because cheap tools wear faster, and cost you more in the end.