This week I returned from a memorial service for my first collaborator in arts policy research, and my second PhD advisee, to find that my most recent coauthor, on biofuels and global warming, had taken his life. It’s been a tough week, as both were friends, optimal colleagues, much too young, and respectively central to the two main areas of my research.

J. Mark Schuster had been straightarming cancer for years, so we weren’t blindsided. MIT put on a wonderful event, hundreds of people sharing recollections and appreciations of a really remarkable person who had made all our lives better, more productive, more fun, and more interesting.

Alex Farrell was a much more private person; yesterday everyone associated with the Energy and Resources Group gathered to try to make sense of it and we failed completely. The afternoon before he died he was emailing people about plug-in hybrid batteries. No-one saw it coming, no-one remembered a conversation or a hint that he was in despair or depressed about anything. It was a complete black swan: incomprehensible, unanticipated, and devastating.

Alex was only in his mid-40s and high on a steep upward professional path with no inflection point in sight: a key player in California, nationally, and internationally on the most important issue of the current era, and a model of scholarship and commitment for public officials, students, and peers. His death is not only a frightening and painful experience for everyone he worked with but also bad news for ERG, Cal, California, the nation, and the planet.

I spend almost all my time among really smart people and I take it for granted that I can learn something from any of them. We’re all pretty good at defending our positions. Arguing with Alex, however, was a higher-level experience, because while he would roll over for nothing without evidence and some good science, it was obvious that he would rather be forced to change his mind than to change yours. Working with Alex we could all feel ourselves getting better at what we did.

He was an Annapolis man whose career began as an officer in nuclear submarines, and his management style evidenced the best in the military tradition, by which I do not mean command-and-control hierarchical authority, I mean leadership and understanding that the duty of officers is to be sure their troops have what they need to figure out what would advance the mission, and to do it. I wish I could ask him for some guidance on what to do when the captain is shot off the bridge while action is underway; now we have to improvise.

Is there a cost-quality tradeoff?

One of the illuminating koans of management directs attention to the production possibility frontier in a space defined by “good” and “cheap”. My late colleague Bob Leone taught me that while there obviously is one, no real organization is actually operating at that boundary, so we should assume we can make stuff both better and cheaper and see what happens. This in turn raises the question whether management should push in the direction of quality and hope cost savings will follow, or push on costs and hope for quality improvement. The answer to this is well known: go for good and cheap will happen, but if you push on costs, quality will fall. Here’s a classic illustration: Sprint-Nextel is going down the drain because its management tried to cost-cut its way to profitability and ruined the reputation of a “product” that is, when you think about it, nothing but disembodied service, hence quality.

Literary history extended

A common parable about leadership goes as follows:

Halfway through the construction of the cathedral, the architect died. The bishop, not knowing what to do, went out to walk through the stoneyard, and found a man hammering on a chisel. “Bless you, my son. What are you making?”

“About twelve centimes a day, your excellency.”

The bishop moved on, and found another mason doing the same thing. “Bless you, my son, what are you making?”

“Your excellency, I’m making the third voussoir for the second arch on the right up there,” pointing up toward the vaulting.

“Bless you, my son, ” said the bishop, feeling a little better, and walked on to another mason hammering on his chisel. “And what are you making?”

“As any fool can see, your excellency, meaning no disrespect, a cathedral.”

“Bless you, my son. Put down your chisel and come with me, I have a job for you.”

New archaeological research in the middle east has unearthed a probable antecedent of this classic. Gene Bardach helped me translate some of the archaic text.

During the building of the Second Temple, the architect suddenly died. With no idea how to proceed, the High Priest went for a walk through the work area, and found Moishe, chiseling a stone. “Sholem aleichem,” said the priest, “what are you making?”

The mason said, “About time someone asked! I’m making a stone to go up on the second arcade there, but the whole concept of that arch is wrong, it doesn’t go with the rest of the facade and it’s not structurally sound. I explained this to the foreman, but he’s such a potzer, deaf and blind. It’s about time this project got some competent leadership, that’s all I can say. “

“You should live till a hundred and twenty,” said the High Priest aloud, muttered something inaudible, and went on his way.

He asked another mason, “What are you making?”

The mason said, “So, what should I be making? I get a couple of hours to get some work done in between trying to teach that idiot Moishe how to chisel, and now I’m on a quiz show? Better I should ask you: if I don’t get a decent hammer, how do you think we’re going to get any kind of temple before the Messiah comes?”

The high priest came to a third mason, sitting on an untouched stone with his hammer and chisel on the ground, nose buried in a scroll, and just stared at him. The mason eventually looked up. “What?” he said, and after a pause, “Do you not preach to us that study of The Law is preeminent among all things?”

Further along, and near despair, he came upon Itzik’s mother Rachel, bringing him his lunch. “How many children do you have?”

“Eight, including of course my son the lawyer and my other son the doctor and my daughter the rebbetzin. Do you know her husband Isaac? Such a wise man….” At this point they arrived at Itzik’s work area. “Here, bubbele, your lunch,” she said lovingly.

Itzik put down his tools, opened the sandwich, and said “Oy, Mom, you forgot the pickle again! And it has mayonnaise and you know I hate mayonnaise! I told you last week…” At this point Rachel fixed him with the look that distinctively empowers Jewish mothers, and Itzik fell instantly silent and began to eat his sandwich.

“Come with me, woman. I have a job for you,” said the High Priest, smiling broadly.

Wei wu-wei and the art of persuasion

People find silence uncomfortable and will say anything to fill it: even “yes.”

My sister &#8212 the clever one in the family &#8212 offers a somewhat Taoist thought about the fundraising enterprise, a thought that perhaps applies to the general problem of getting people to agree to things:

KEEP SILENT AFTER THE ASK! This may be the hardest thing about major-gifts fundraising—-not what to say, but when to say nothing. People find silence uncomfortable and they will say anything to fill it—-even ‘yes.’

Footnote More on wei wu-wei (action without action, or effortless effort) here.

Fares and fees

David Lazarus’ column in the SF Chronicle this morning riffs on airlines’ recent decisions to sell services that used to be included in a ticket price for ‘extra’ charges. The implication is that passengers are somehow being chiseled, but I’m not sure this is the right way to look at it. One could easily say they were no longer charging people who don’t use things: Spirit Air, for example, charges to check a bag, which means they don’t charge people who don’t check bags, unlike most airlines who charge everyone whether they do or not. I think this is fine, assuming competition is keeping the various prices close to cost.

What’s not so fine is that things like airplane tickets and hotel rooms are bought on the basis of a base charge quoted without really making it clear what other charges (like local taxes) will apply or what services are extra, like high-speed internet. Hotels have, it seems to me, a self-defeating habit of charging completely ridiculous prices for things like minibar items and telephone calls and tacking on add-ons that surprise me. I’m sure it’s all legal, but the net effect is to make me suspicious and resentful of any hotel, fearful that they’re trying to chisel me rather than offer a good service at a fair price. Lazarus’ choice to see air travel price disarticulation as anti-customer is further evidence that this behavior may bear a big reputational price.

I don’t know anyone who will even open a minibar or make a call from a hotel phone now that we all have cell phones, so I can’t imagine that hotels are charging the right prices for these things. They also seem to be deaf and blind about what business travelers really want. I don’t need three kinds of soap, and I don’t need a mint on my pillow, or seven pillows. What I could really use, me and everyone who goes in a hotel room, is a desk 27″ high with no lap drawer that I can type on on my laptop, and a reasonable chair; fat chance.

Nor am I confident in airlines’ judgment about anything: this is an industry that has not made a penny of net profit worldwide since the Wright Brothers. What is it about aviation that cripples the judgment of its executives? I almost always get in the plane and arrive where I’m going, but everything else about dealing with them is on a steady decline. Their outsourced call-in centers and now, email response units, are a radiant example of how, though quality-seeking usually brings cost savings, cost-cutting usually dings quality. Someone in some business school has told these people that if agents call people sir and mouth really cloying apologies, they don’t have to listen to what they say or actually read their mail (takes too long; faster to guess) or solve the customer’s problem. That person is wrong, and being groveled at by people who are not actually doing the small thing you need may be the worst combination of affect and practice known to man.

Service and quality

I just got around to following Mark’s second of Brad DeLong deploring the GM and Nationwide Mutual Superbowl ads. First, yeah, what they said. Second:

How can a person with a moral sense and intelligence higher than a turnip’s, or pride anywhere in the positive range, even engage with a meme that being of service is somehow degrading? This is the completely toxic hidalgo mentality that sabotages the societies of extractive wealth, and Latin America generally – that it is somehow admirable, and an object of aspiration to live without creating value (by having others create it for you). I’m in a fairly high-status line of work, and I seem to do nothing but go around being of service to people, helping students and colleagues get smarter and more useful: I roll up my sleeves and mop up ignorance and puddles of sloppy thinking, and I’m really grateful to the people nice enough to notice mine and deal with it. Doctors, lawyers…they’re all servants if they’re good for anything, who spend a lot of time engaged with really yucky stuff cleaning and sanitizing. Indian chiefs too: no modern manager thinks her subordinates are there to serve her; she’s there to be sure they have what they need to create value for others, and so on and on. The really despicable character is the trust-fund parasite and the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert.

[UPDATE: The new boss at Home Depot gets it: they’ve started posting the organizational chart with the customers and line workers at the top and the execs at the bottom again.]

And third: as regards the GM ad, how can grownups high up in a big important company put out a commercial that so completely reverses the fundamental principles of exactly the quality assurance systems they’re trying to boast about??!! The whole idea of modern quality theory is that you can’t fire your way to it, nor scare people into it (Deming’s first principle is “drive out fear”), and that it isn’t attributable to individuals. When a worker ‘makes a mistake’, exactly what you don’t do is fire or shame him: you have a little meeting to discuss what parts of the whole system could be improved to make it less likely to happen the next time! As soon as quality becomes an excuse to unload group responsibility onto a scapegoat, the system starts to fall apart and so do the products.

[I’ve vented here about the failure of the current administration to fire anyone for anything, and I’m not being inconsistent. Mismanaging a whole program, from a position where one has been entrusted with a lot of authority so as to provide more, better service, has nothing to do with making one slip. An executive’s failures are much less often due to a deficiency in the system that surrounds him than those of a guy putting the right front fender on.]