Tag Archives: efficiency

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

The Boom Starts With A Rush

Overturned Eagle Mine TruckThe news that an ore truck overturned last week on its way from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill brought me back to a conversation some friends and I had in the lobby of the Landmark Inn this past October. Earlier that day we’d been touring the Yellow Dog Plains on the smooth wide roads that the Marquette County Road Commission cut through the wilderness for the mining company, keeping count of the big trucks we saw. All the trucks were outfitted with double loads — two side-dump trailers worth of ore — and the ore was covered with black tarps, neatly tied down.

The ties caught my attention. I wondered how long it would be before human nature set in, and workers started getting lackadaisical about how they tied down the tarps, or stopped bothering to secure and check each tie.

I was not even thinking of anything so scientific as studies by Ludovic Moulin, which find that over sixty percent of industrial accidents can be attributed to “organizational and human factors.” I had in mind something closer to the line about the field of the slothful in Proverbs: “yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep,” and disaster can ensue. Eventually, someone in the course of the day was going to shrug and say to himself, “good enough,” slacken his attention, or hurry off to a break, I thought, and things could go downhill from there. A loosely tied load might spill on the highway or on the roadside, even if the driver was taking every precaution on his route. Repeat that small human error enough times, and you have a trail of sulfide ore from the mine to the mill, running through the Yellow Dog Plains and right through the center of Marquette.

Turns out I’d failed to fully grasp the reality of the situation. I didn’t imagine at the time that the tarps used to tie down the ore on the Eagle Mine trucks would rip in the case of an accident. In this case, the tarp of the second trailer was “torn open,” according to Save the Wild UP; Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve has a photograph of the torn cover here. I was also unaware that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality allowed these soft-cover tarps only after Eagle Mine had requested a special amendment to its permit. Hard covers would take longer to remove; with soft covers, the trucks could be more easily unloaded. Time is money.

Special amendments and exceptions seem to be the rule when it comes to Eagle. For instance, though Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear has repeatedly boasted to investors about the great transportation infrastructure already in place at Eagle when Lundin bought the property from Rio Tinto, the truth is that the current haul route for Eagle Mine was never part of the plan. It was a last minute concoction — an “upgrade” of roads hastily authorized by the Marquette County Road Commission. No surprise, then, that a full environmental assessment of the haul route — as required by Part 632 of the Michigan Nonferrous Metallic Mining Law — has never been made.

Last week’s accident might be yet another sign that Eagle Mine was not actually ready for prime time when Lundin announced, at the end of November, that Eagle had entered commercial production ahead of schedule. But consider things from the company’s point of view. Lundin had acquired the Candelaria copper mine from Freeport only a month earlier for $1.8 billion — taking on huge debt — and by the end of November copper prices were declining precipitously. That made it all the more urgent to start delivering nickel at Eagle. After all, analysts expect “Lundin to introduce a dividend in 2015 once its Eagle mine is ramped up.”  Pressure is mounting. The Lake Superior mining boom appears to have gotten underway in a slightly panicked rush.

Steel — and Snow — In The Air

michwis

“We have been blessed with good weather” in the Upper Peninsula, Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear told a small group of analysts on the 3rd Quarter earnings call last week; “I think Indian Summer has arrived.”

We’re well, well advanced on concrete. Lots of steel in the air. The warehouse facilities we have are chockablock full of equipment that’s been delivered, just waiting for the concrete to cure to start placing.

Conibear says he was in the UP with the Lundin Board of Directors and an entourage of analysts and investment bankers at around the same time I was, but they probably didn’t venture far from Marquette. There, it still felt like October. Mornings were cold and damp. Days were mostly sunny.

In the Keweenaw, hail and snow and rain would fall, and then the sun would burst through the clouds and the sky would clear — all in the space of an hour or two. Before I reached Bessemer, big flakes of snow were falling steadily, and it had started to blow. I asked the woman wearing a Packers jacket behind the counter at the gas station if she thought it would stick. “Already is,” she said.

Lundin needs to keep moving ahead. Though it boasts of having “no high risk, major capital projects,” it’s clear that when it comes to Eagle Mine, high-powered analysts like Pierre Vaillancourt of Macquarie Securities are looking for “any opportunities to decrease the capital intensity a little bit.” Conibear had to admit there wasn’t much room to maneuver:

We’ve inherited a project [from Rio Tinto] that was 50% constructed and designed and 99% complete and permitted, and the clear instructions to the team is you don’t touch anything on the project that has any risk of requiring permit complexity. So yes, the bus [sic, not the train] has already left the station on being able to change any physical aspect in any significant way. You know if we were given a blank sheet of paper would it be designed differently or would it have a different flow sheet or something? Probably, but that’s years ago.

I can’t help but wonder how deep these misgivings about the design of the Eagle project run, especially given the flaws mine engineer Jack Parker and others have pointed to, and if Conibear and his engineering crew are pushing ahead with Rio Tinto’s design and flow sheet despite serious flaws. It’s hard to tell just from these remarks.

In any case, they’re “going as fast as possible” at Eagle. By pushing the schedule, Lundin Mining hopes “to get some capital cost improvement”: “the sooner we bring it in for sure the less overhead there is.”

Delays – and, I imagine, any protracted controversy over the Eagle haul route — will be costly. On site, big ore bins need to be installed before winter. The mechanical electrical piping contractor is already at work. Lundin has “modified the contracting strategy” around the Eagle project to take advantage of “a very competitive contracting marketplace” in the UP, and now “there’s quite a buzz going on” at both the mine and the mill sites. Progress underground is ahead of work on the mill. Conibear seems confident Lundin can commission the mine before the end of Q2 2014, and have the mill running and first ore shipped by the end of next year.

And yet, despite even the best-laid plans, winter is on its way. I saw the first signs of its approach around Lake Gogebic. The next day, in Minnesota, when I cut west on Route 1 from the Palisade Head, the big pines on either side of the road were dusted with snow. It all looked so gentle and dreamlike and the places I drove through had dreamy, faraway names: Finland. The Baptism River. This could not have been the harbinger of the “severe winter” Conibear talked about on his earnings call. It presented itself with quiet grace, like a spell to lull the world into long, deep sleep.

Nature can be the miner’s undoing: “all it takes is one mother nature event to throw you out,” Conibear explained. Whatever cost efficiencies Lundin achieves by speeding up the schedule or managing contracts at Eagle may be foiled by storms or snows or other forces beyond its control. In Andalusia, where Lundin has the Aguablanca mine, “it rains like hell starting about this time of year.” In 2010, it rained so hard that a collapse – a slope failure — shut down Aguablanca until August of 2012.

The Hysteria of H.R. 761

The authors of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (H.R. 761) complain that we depend on China — can you believe it? China! — for rare earth minerals that are “vital to job creation, American economic competitiveness and national security.” But the Act, which passed in a House Committee on Natural Resources vote on May 15, 2013 with bipartisan support, will effectively ease regulation of foreign multinational mining companies operating in the United States, including those who mine here and market U.S. minerals in — yes, you guessed it — China.

Bureaucratic delay puts “good-paying mining jobs…at the mercy of foreign sources,” according to the Act. Our security and prosperity are threatened from without, so we need to protect ourselves from within; and we are asked to believe that the surest way to do that is to replace careful assessment and regulatory oversight of risky mining operations with new efficiencies. The Act laments the weight of “onerous government red tape”: if only Atlas would shrug.

The authors of this act do not even try to disguise their contempt for the role of government in regulating industry and the “environmentally responsible development” they purport to uphold. Citing a report by international mining consultancy Behre Dolbear Group (with offices in Beijing, Chicago, Guadalajara, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, among other places, where, presumably, its teams of advisors and engineers steadfastly champion the strategic and economic interests of the United States), they note that “the United States ranks last with Papua New Guinea out of twenty-five major mining countries in permitting delays, and towards the bottom regarding government take and social issues affecting mining.”

That last clause about “government take” and “social issues affecting mining” gets sneaked into the sentence here without consideration for the social effects mining operations have: society here is just in the way of business and taxes or takings are just a burden. This is reckless thinking, but it’s carefully smuggled into discussions of the Act with the distracting reference to Papua New Guinea. That line snorts mockery and imperial contempt, and it’s intended to shame and prompt outrage — like the newspaper headlines the ranking inspired: The Wall Street Journal: “U.S., Papua New Guinea at Bottom of List for Mining Permit Delays.” Mineweb: “Protracted Permitting Delays Depress U.S. Mine Investment.” The Hill: “U.S. Wins Race to the Bottom on Mining Permits — Again.” The comparison with Papua even figured into an article by M.D. Kittle in the Wisconsin Reporter: “Wake Up, Environmentalists: Your Cell Phone Was Mined Somewhere Else.”

Needless to say, these newspaper discussions aren’t balanced by any appreciation of the complex social, environmental and human rights issues around mining in Papua New Guinea (or the United States). The promoters of H.R. 761 certainly aren’t going to invite debate on the situation in Papua — where growth in the mining sector has brought corruption, violence, and environmental devastation. Their intention is clear: they want to hold up Papua as one of those foreign and dirty places, a slow, corrupt and silly place, a little, squalid, underdeveloped and dark place. Certainly not an efficient place.

Lest the Chinese enslave us or we end up living like pygmies in grass huts, we have to make it easier for big mining companies to give Americans jobs. That is the hysteria just under the surface of H.R. 761. The legislation is so broadly and poorly written, and either so cynical or so ill-conceived, that any mining operation will be able to claim its protection from regulatory oversight. The “strategic and critical” exemption from government interference and delay will be repeatedly invoked, as it was by Republican Chip Cravaak in 2011, who at the time represented Minnesota’s 8th district in the U.S. House.

Before his defeat in 2012, Cravaak advanced the claim that exploiting the copper and nickel resources of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota would be “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” According to a 1978 law, those areas can only be mined in case of national emergency; but Polymet, a Canadian company, has been working since 2006 to obtain permits for an open pit mine in Superior National Forest. They negotiated a land exchange and loan scheme to get around the prohibition. Cravaak waved the stars and stripes for them on the Hill. Meanwhile, Toronto-based Polymet made a deal with the Swiss company Glencore to sell its American metals on the global market. At the time, Elanne Palcich noted, demand was especially strong in China and India.

Machines and Monsters or Thriving Markets?

If you haven’t yet read it – and I admit I am late on this, as I am on nearly everything else – have a look at John Cassidy’s profile of Bridgewater hedge fund manager Ray Dalio in the July 25th issue of The New Yorker. Cassidy exerts most of his energy trying to figure out whether Bridgewater, which has bragging rights as the world’s richest and biggest hedge fund, is a Fountainhead cult, a Maoist re-education camp, or just a big bond-market player that happens to be run by a super-rich sociopath with intellectual “pretensions.” I was most struck by the passage where Dalio is “rambling” about how “everything,” or “almost everything,” is a “machine.”

“Almost everything is like a machine,” he told me one day when he was rambling on, as he often does. “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.” His constant goal, he said, was to understand how the economic machine works. “And then everything else I basically view as just a case at hand. So how does the machine work that you have a financial crisis? How does deleveraging work—what is the nature of that machine? And what is human nature, and how do you raise a community of people to run a business?”

I’ve talked about this view of nature, “the life cycle,” and the world as a machine in another context. Its philosophical heritage stretches back at least to the 17th century. But in Dalio’s case it’s hard to decide whether this is a considered view, informed by careful reading and thinking, or just some immature posturing, intended to create the impression that Dalio is an amoral übermensch. It’s not even clear how seriously Dalio takes himself: is everything a machine or is everything “like” a machine? The distinction is a crucial one, but Dalio wants to have it both ways.

It’s unfair, I suppose, to expect coherence and rigor from ramblings. And yet Dalio’s express goal – “to understand how the economic machine works” – deserves to be taken seriously. He’s betting the future of his firm on it; it’s key to his success. And it’s not just an offhand remark. As Cassidy explains, this mechanistic outlook is of a piece with Dalio’s crude social Darwinism.

He regards it as self-evident that all social systems obey nature’s laws, and that individual participants get rewarded or punished according to how far they operate in harmony with those laws. He views the financial markets as simply another social system, which determines payoffs and punishments in a like manner.

There’s nothing self-evident about any of this; and to track “all” social systems back to “nature’s laws,” whatever those are, is merely to admit one’s ignorance of social arrangements and social history and to confuse metaphors. The confusion, moreover, is not just Dalio’s; it’s general, and it fails us every day.

When, like Dalio, we regard the economy as a “machine,” and markets as a “social system,” we are inclined to put the system first and relegate people to the status of beneficiaries or collateral damage. The system does not serve human priorities. Instead, we put aside those priorities to keep a dysfunctional system running. The system “determines payoffs and punishments”; the system is the ultimate arbiter of our lot in life. We’ve already surrendered.

But we don’t have to. Umair Haque put up a postyesterday called “How Our Economy Was Overrun by Monsters and What to Do About It.” It offers a reminder that the market is a social construct – our construct, something not just hedge fund managers but human beings from all different places and all walks of life make and remake every day. And what we’ve created, says Haque, are monsters of opulence and greed, rather than markets that work for people and help us thrive. This is not just a moral reproach and it’s not (at all) an anti-capitalist rant. It’s simply about getting priorities right, and putting human prosperity before the efficiencies of a dysfunctional machine.

Is High-Speed Rail Un-American?

It’s hard to see very far into the future wearing a green eyeshade, and Wendell Cox obviously didn’t take his off before sitting down to write his grouchy op-ed against the Obama administration’s high-speed rail plans.

For Cox, who served on the Amtrak Reform Council and who has co-authored a study of the Calfornia high-speed rail proposal, the billions already promised for high-speed (and other) rail projects in California and Florida are nothing more than a “political plum”; and, he says, this is only the first installment: the rail projects being planned now, he argues, will require subsidies for a long time to come.

And the benefits are not guaranteed, in Cox’s judgment. His own studies have shown that high-speed rail will have a “negligible” impact on highway traffic. But he doesn’t entertain the idea that American travel habits could change over time – just consider how President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System changed American life in the course of just two decades — and he sneers at the thought of making automobile travel more expensive in order to increase rail ridership, as the French did for their Paris-Lyon line and the Japanese for the Tokyo-Osaka train.

His figures show, further, that the trains are a costly way to reduce greenhouse gases, exceeding, by far, the cost-per-ton “estimates” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published; but he leaves it unclear whether he thinks those estimates are right, or just overly-optimistic, and whether the costs of reducing greenhouse gases would change if people were given more incentive to leave their cars at home and travel by rail – or if we figured high-speed rail into a larger plan to decrease our dependency on automobile travel.

These and other questions linger. But in the end it seems Cox simply can’t imagine a future in which we do not travel between cities primarily by automobile, alone, in our cars, on the Interstate. Travel by high-speed rail just isn’t the American way. “High-speed rail,” writes Cox, “is driven by little more than a romantic notion to confer a European ambiance on American cities.”

The remark is telling, not just because it has a familiar whiff of Francophobia about it (I guess they’re still serving Freedom Fries at Wendell Cox’s barbeques); but also because Cox takes it for granted that his readers will view with suspicion and disapproval the notion of importing into our cities that “European ambiance.” So he never has to say precisely what that ambiance is, or feels like, or how it works.

And it’s crucial that he doesn’t say.

Cox apparently likes to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible – ambiance be damned; and he thinks most American travelers will share his point of view. (So did the Bush administration, which made speed of travel the primary criterion for judging infrastructure projects; the Obama administration has now said that quality of life concerns are also part of the equation.) He figures travelers on the Orlando-Tampa line “will be better off driving,” because “driving would probably be faster.” And on the Charlotte to Raleigh and Chicago to St. Louis lines, where speeds will hover around 80 miles an hour, “car trips will normally be as fast door to door, and they will be far less costly than taking the train and then renting a car” at the destination city.

Leave aside, for the moment, the notion that destination cities might link to high-speed rails with their own trolley or subway systems, obviating the need for a rental car or driving within cities or in sprawl, where traffic tends to snarl. Those urban and suburban infrastructure improvements – all of which contribute to quality of life — apparently aren’t in the cards for Cox.

But there are other advantages of high-speed rail travel he doesn’t consider. You don’t have to do the driving. You’re not alone. You get to spend time with other people – other Americans. Trains are more likely to roll in bad weather or winter weather that might make driving dangerous. You can take a high-speed rail to one city and connect to another high-speed rail to another city. While aboard, you can eat, nap, have a coffee or stretch your legs if you like. You can work on your laptop, use wifi services, talk on the phone, and do business. You can look out the window and think about the country.

Romantic? Maybe. But it also sounds downright American, doesn’t it?

Management in your mocha, a Taylorist in your tea

Back in the early spring of 2008, I wrote about Howard Schultz’s plan to shut down all Starbucks retail stores for a day-long training exercise. Apparently the Starbucks CEO was convinced that his sagging stock price must somehow be the fault of his employees, or at least could be improved if his employees were only better trained in the Starbucks way.

It was only a passing reference. I was half-seriously wondering if Schultz’s decision had inspired Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, in a caffeine-deprived moment, to write a clumsy email announcing that he’d be shutting down Chrysler’s plants for a full month in the summer of 2008. We now know how all that turned out. Nardelli was trying to save a sinking ship, and couldn’t. Fiat now controls Chrysler; Marchionne has supplanted Nardelli. And Starbucks? Schultz is still in charge; and the company’s fortunes seem to have improved, but only a little. Starbucks was able to beat analysts’ expectations for the third quarter, largely through cost-cutting measures.

And management is once again going back to the baristas, whose performance at the counter has come under fresh scrutiny. That’s because a big part of this new cost-cutting approach has to do with making coffee service at Starbucks more efficient. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the other day focused on Starbucks use of Japanese “lean” management techniques, applying the sorts of “scientific” management approaches in their coffee shops one usually finds on manufacturing floors.

The new emphasis at Starbucks on making their business “lean” is inspired by manufacturing improvements at Toyota, and it all comes down to reducing the amount of time baristas spend going through the motions of getting you coffee: “Motion and work are two different things,” says Starbucks’ Scott Heydon. “Thirty percent of the partners’ time” — partners is a word Starbucks uses to describe its counter-help – “is motion, the walking, reaching, bending.”

(Heydon styles himself the “Vice President of Lean Thinking,” and I suppose that makes for a fun business card. But whenever someone has a title like that, odds are he works at a vastly over-managed company that has lost sight of its core business – or at least has mistaken the business of management for management of the business.)

Of course, another word for “lean thinking,” as Heydon practices it, is Taylorism. There’s really nothing all that Japanese about it. Management teams travel to Starbucks locations around the country, armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head doll. (I’m not making this up.) They teach the virtue of efficiency by asking store managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head doll, and then to improve on their own performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work.

The Taylorists then apply the same tests to the fetching of coffee or the grinding of beans; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to document confused movements behind the counter or divigations across the shop floor; and they prescribe new, more efficient coordinations of action.

The objective of these rites and mysteries, we are told, is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that’s obviously management double-speak; the objective here is to sell more coffee and coffee drinks and other Starbucks stuff, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but one barista from Minneapolis just thinks Mr. Heydon and the Taylorists plan to turn the workers into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. After all, the most efficient Starbucks would be a Starbucks free of slackers behind the counter – an Automat, with espresso drinks served up by mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.

It’s clear that some very powerful people at Starbucks decided a while back that the coffee business is really the fast-food business. In so doing they lost sight of, or consciously jettisoned, some basic truths about coffee and cafes. The most important of these is that coffee is a social beverage. You don’t need to go to Vienna or study the history of coffeehouses to understand this; just drive out to the suburbs, where very often the Starbucks is the only place in town – or in the strip mall – where people can plan to meet.

The Taylorist approach to coffee preparation and service makes much more sense if you are serving coffee at a drive-up window. It does for coffee what the fast food joints did for the meal – strip it of its sociability and make it something to be consumed on the go. That’s not exactly conducive to making the coffee shop a place where people want to gather. And if you go this route, you have to assume that all of your customers are going to be Taylorist in their pursuit of coffee – that, for them, coffee is a fix. The very idea is offensive.

Starbucks is not alone in this regard. Apparently even Mom and Pop coffeehouses are now discouraging wifi use during the day because online customers tend to linger. This is not a welcome trend. To sit in a coffeehouse working, or talking with a friend or reading a book – or, better, talking about a book with a friend — is to feel oneself a part of the civilized world.

On my way to a meeting in Chelsea the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorist experiment. There wasn’t much of a line – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? — so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, he said, a doppio. (But he said it like, dopey-o.) Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. He turned and communicated something inaudible to the young woman working the espresso machine. She looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, she said. I guess she was just starting. Another woman came over and took her through it, and as she was doing that and I took my change from the clerk, I chimed in from my side of the counter: and not too much foam. Just a dab.

This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: even if the woman at the espresso machine knew how to fill the order, I wasn’t going to let her do it without oversight, because I like my coffee just so. As do most people. In this instance, the rookie barista didn’t even come close to making the coffee I wanted. What I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath.

When I asked if she could take some of the foam out of the cup, she looked confused. The woman who had been training her intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said she’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Just a dab. I was starting to enjoy this. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.

A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the register and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest subway. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the subway system, and he asked what any New Yorker would ask: which train do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which train would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had started. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in New York City, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.

Mr. Efficiency

The business guru Jim Collins has a stopwatch – an impressive, digital stopwatch, judging from the picture of it in the New York Times.

His stopwatch keeps three separate times, a running tally of time spent on pursuits he labels “creative,” “teaching,” and “other.” Collins tabulates the readings of the stopwatch on a spreadsheet; then he posts the results on a whiteboard in his Boulder, Colorado office. His aim, he tells the Times, is to keep the creative pursuits (writing and exploring ideas) at or above fifty percent of his time, and to divide the rest of his time between his teaching duties at the University of Colorado and the managing of his small enterprise – which supports all the things Jim Collins does: writing business books about why companies succeed and fail, giving talks, and consulting.

Bravo, I would like to say. I know the vigilance required to keep other obligations from impinging on one’s creative work, and though I am not teaching right now, I aspire to a balance much like the one Collins has achieved. But then there’s that stopwatch, and the spreadsheets (Collins even logs his hours of sleep: he needs 70 to 75 hours every ten days), and I have to wonder just what sort of guru Jim Collins really is – or what religion he’s out to spread.

Adam Bryant, who wrote the profile for the Times, calls it “doggedness.” Collins takes an “exacting approach to time management and research,” Bryant writes, and lives according to a “method” he “borrows from other hypersuccessful people. He approaches every aspect of his life with purpose and intensity.” That’s certainly one way of putting it. But it misses an important point, and misses why I can’t bring myself to applaud or approve.

Bryant’s portrait of Collins is a study in what I would call ethical Taylorism. I think the coinage is sound and the label applies. Taylor, of course, is F. W. Taylor, the great grandfather of “scientific management” and management consulting. Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru, described Taylor as “the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work.” In the time studies for which he’s best known, Taylor analyzed a bit of industrial work and broke down the actions required to perform it into hundredths of a second to look for more efficient ways to perform the action. He thought there could be a “science of handling pig-iron” and a science of shoveling (and, incidentally, that the pig-iron worker or the day laborer was too stupid to figure out the “one best way” to perform his appointed task).

Collins has turned his whole life into a Time Study. He has made a habit of efficiency – habit here in the Aristotelian sense of an ethical habit, a disposition or hexis. It is only fitting, I suppose, that this creature of scientific management should devote the “creative” work he so jealously guards from other obligations to questions of management theory — those are less likely than others to lead him to other obligations — but the real point here is a simple one: ethical Taylorism makes a virtue of efficiency. Or, to put it another way, it mistakes efficiency for virtue. (In this light, I have to wonder how ethical Taylorism might have played into the financial crisis, or how it might play into the impending business failure of the New York Times.)

The most popular expression of ethical Taylorism is probably Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book nearly everyone professes to have read but hasn’t, because books like this are ultimately unreadable — and not ever meant to be read (because that would be a waste of time). It, too, is a celebration of the life efficiently lived, of effectiveness; the two Taylorist terms share an etymological root in the Latin efficere, and a philosophical confusion of human being with an efficient cause.

Or they both rely on an unphilosophical reduction: in this conception, human work is merely a means to an end, so it should be made as time-efficient as possible, and human beings are agents — no, merely agents who bring about an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. There is not much room here for human dignity, or true vocation, or even a sense of creative work as discovery and self-discovery. (The creative is harnessed to a regime of production.) I might go so far as to say that there is not much room here for the human aspect of human being; ethical Taylorism reduces the human being to an economic or industrial agent. Think of the business organizations that embody this ethos; think, too, about the politics that follow from this reduction.

Forget wonder. Focus, instead, on success, only on what works, on being highly effective, even “hypersuccessful.” With doggedness and luck (Collins attributes much of his success to luck), things might work out for you. But — win or lose — the real trouble with ethical Taylorism is that it offers (at best) an impoverished idea of virtue or human excellence. Eventually, you’d think, the human will rebel, or wander from the plan of “creative” work into unfruitful and unscientific speculation on his Creator, or nap. I certainly hope so.