Amazing articles on just about every subject...

A Thesis and a Question

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE are two philosophies of life, either of which works very well. One of them is to go after what you want and to find your joy in the seeking, even if not crowned with success. That is the philosophy of youth, and inasmuch as our industry is young it is the philosophy of our industry.

The other is the philosophy of not wanting anything that you can't get. That has certain merits. It is the philosophy of, we will call it, maturity. I continue to resent the implications of age, so I shan't even use the naughty word.

But either works well, and inasmuch as neither is perfect, and as each seems to be at its possible angle of divergence, the best philosophy for life probably lies between the two. I think it does.

I would not like to feel that this industry has lost the snap that goes with youth and the willingness to go after anything that it wants. May it be a long time before the stability, to say nothing of the stolidity, of age is upon us ! Still, there is some merit in the theory of not going after something that we can't get. There is a certain rhythmic march which Rudyard Kipling adapted from the libretto of one of the Indian regiments, and I shall quote just one verse of it. Most of you know it, doubtless:

"Do not despise the advice of the wise
Lend wisdom from those who are older,
And don't try for things that are out of your reach,'
That's what the girl told the soldier."

If there is any certainty in the uncertain law of existence, it is that we cannot be absolutely certain about anything. This is the motif of relativity. It has always been so. This was a distinctively relative world before Professor Einstein announced his theory. In the older language of the people, circumstances alter cases, and always did alter cases. Nevertheless, if we are to progress—indeed, if we are to live—we must make decisions, and we must continue to make decisions, exactly as if there were such a thing as certainty.

We may say in a philosophical way that the making of a decision —the saying, "That's that—" is an attempt to establish certainty pro ten, to close an argument and go on and do the next thing. If it be necessary later to justify the decision, we will attempt to state the assumptions upon which it was based, but the recital of those assumptions is ex post facto. It never indicates in truth the mental process which we really followed; and I am taking the chance of using that word "really" as if there were such a thing as reality. Even if there isn't, it is convenient to assume there is. It is some-times necessary.

My thesis is that in our industry, as in every industry, decisions must be made, and, being made, they are as solid as anything can be in this relative world. My question is whether decisions important to the welfare of our industry are, in fact, being made by the people in the industry who are most competent to make them.

It goes without saying, in talking to a general meeting on the invitation of the chairman of the Technical Section, that I have in mind (or did have in mind) questions in which technical decisions were involved. I also have to premise that I accepted the invitation because I believe the Association looks upon me as a tolerable executive and a fair-to-middling engineer. I prefer to think of myself as an engineer who has by force become an executive. I would like to get back to the utter, glorious, complete, irresponsibility of the engineer who is so positive that things are just so, and who gets his executive to put the O. K. upon him. I have always got before me the possibility of seeing that I was the ultimate authority and I didn't make the right decision; thereby criticizing myself. But that is a risk one must take, of course. In any case, I feel that what I may say here will be accepted as being spoken without malice, without jealousy, or without ulterior motive.

All progress in life is by rushes. It is not the ordered progress of an exhibition drill, the front rank moving along, lined up as if by transit. It is the forward rush of the deployed regiment going up on an enemy position. It is irregular. It is difficult to coordinate. Some coordination must be had or the attack will be defeated, but always there is somebody in the line that is in advance of the others. We may have less casualties in the first few minutes, and my part of the line swings ahead. I thereby get out of line with the rest. Some other part of the line must be brought up to me, and the bringing up must be done by some system of control.

It is just the same way in other industries. Engineering pushes ahead, and makes great advances. Sales push ahead, right into line with the engineering. Finance pushes ahead, sometimes, and sometimes it pushes ahead just a little bit too swiftly. I don't quite know whose business it is to get finance by the tail and pull it back into line, but I think that somebody is going to get a good, two-handed grip presently and do a little tail twisting to finance.

In any case, it is decisions of the character that I have spoken of as necessary; that is to say, coordinating decisions, that I have in mind, starting out with the premise that the business of the world cannot go on unless decisions are made, and, bearing in mind a remark which I first heard in some oration of Elbert Hubbard, that a good executive is one who decides quickly and is sometimes right. From more recent reading I think that aphorism possibly has roots in the sayings of an older philosopher, and may be Laconic in its period as well as in its phrasing, but it is true. I would like to illustrate the necessity of decisions by telling a certain tale from the backwoods, but that tale would never get past the censors so I shan't take the chance. I shall offer something prettier as a substitute.

A Moral Tale

It happens that Solomon, the Great, son of David, is a hero of Moslem nations as well as a hero of Hebraic history. I don't know why the Arabs adopted him as a hero, but he appears in many of their tales, and among them there is one tale that will serve my purpose.

When Solomon was just thirteen years of age he was sitting with his father when two men of the Children of Israel appeared before them. One of them said to David, "0 Prophet of God, I purchased from this man a piece of ground of such a length and breadth, and in it when I dug I found a great treasure. I told this man of my discovery, and said to him, `I have purchased only the land from thee, so the treasure is thine.' But he will not take it, saying that he sold me the ground with all that was therein."

So David said to the other, "And what hast thou to say to the matter?"

He answered, "0 Prophet of God, I purchased the plot of ground from people who are long since dead; the treasure does not belong to me."

Then said David, "Divide ye it between you."

They replied, "We have no need of it."

Then David remained in thought, but Solomon said to him, "Wilt thou permit me to speak?" And he said to one of the men,

"Hast thou a child?" He replied, "Even so; a grown-up son." And he said to the other, "Hast thou a child?" He replied, "I have a daughter," Then said Solomon, "Let the son marry the daughter, and give them the treasure." And all agreed to this judgment.

There is something wrong with that story. If they had been arguing as to which one owned the treasure, instead of the other way, it might have better fitted its environment, but then this is somewhat of a fairy story, anyway.

The point I want to make is that a decision was necessary, and that the young sage realized that there might be other factors in the equation than those presented to the judge, which did not furnish the means whereupon a decision could be established. The bringing in of the young son and the young daughter met the equities and the bringing them in in this case was both seemly and useful.

One part of the query I am making is : In every such decision in our industry are all the factors recognized? I doubt it.

I do not propose to hold up King Solomon as a model. I hold no brief for his glorious, blessed and immortal memory. In point of fact, he failed miserably in one of the first duties of an executive: He did not select and train the right successor, and his kingdom went promptly to pieces after his death. The law that I have lived by, and that I have asked the people with me to live by, is that no man is established in his place until he has made a good start in training a good successor, and that law has worked mighty well with me and my outfit.

Solomon failed therein. Likewise, history tells that in his later life he did get his organization somewhat out of shape on the feminine side of the establishment. A record which we are not in position to dispute says that he had 300 wives and 700-well, 700 "Class B, non-voting." That wasn't good business. Just think of the difficulty of that financial set-up ! And think of the difficulty of applying any uniform classification of accounts to such an establishment.

Anyway, I am not holding up Solomon as a model. That decision of his, however, in that it looked a little further than the showing in the report before him, and picked up factors that might be used and that might be important, is a model.

My little Oriental tale illustrates that many decisions may well be compromises. But, after all, someone has to formulate the compromise. It is always so. It is so in my crowd; there is always someone who formulates quietly or positively, arbitrarily or tactfully, the compromise which in the end becomes the decision.

To such a way of arriving at decisions, there is much merit, but lest anyone think that I am in these later years minded to approve of government by committee, I will say that I have no use for committees. A set of good, useful directors who will back you up when you have something to worry about, who will back you up when you have anything to do and tell you to go and do it, is a most excellent thing, and I am prepared to argue with anyone who wants trouble that I have the best board of directors in the country. But when it comes to running things by committee, either in the service or on a board, please forgive me. I still stand by an old expression of mine formulated many years ago, that as between men and women whom God made, no one man could ever equal, in making a decision, the inconsistencies, the utter illogical conclusions of any one woman; but that any five men acting as a committee could be more unreasonable and more unlogical and more foolish than any woman God ever produced from the first woman, whom we are told was made out of a rib of Adam, right on down to the last of the crowd who have- arrived by more familiar processes.

So I say nothing for committees. I am speaking for the executive who has to decide.

Theoretically, a good executive takes the responsibility of all offhand decisions and discusses the more deliberate decisions with his board of directors. Therein he finds safety and certainly he finds support. But, after all, does the nominal executive make the decision?

A Fairy Tale

I have given you one Arabic legend. I am going to tell you a few fairy tales now. I am going to ask you, just for this one occasion, to accept a formula of my youth, when I was one of a bunch of young reprobates who made trouble for all the neighborhood outdoors and who when gathered in on winter evenings were encouraged to exercise their imaginations or their intellects or their literary ability—there is no essential difference between literary ability and imagination; ask any advertising agent, if you don't believe me. We were allowed and encouraged to exercise our imaginations, as I said, in making up charades and in telling fairy tales. Among us there grew up the stipulation that if a story was begun with the formula, "Once upon a time," it was a fairy tale and not a recital of fact. That was exceedingly convenient. It didn't always work. I think perhaps that in closing I will tell you of an instance when the formula did not quite serve its purpose, but I will ask you to accept it now, remembering that if I say "Once upon a time" it is a fairy story and you needn't go hunting for the persons or the place.

Once upon a time there was a power plant to be built, and the directors of the outfit who were supposed to build it were very progressive. They were proud of their record of being always up-to-date and usually ahead of the procession. Their generators might not always have been the largest in the country, but each successive plant had been the most efficient of its day.

About a thousand years ago, more or less, the ways and means of producing electricity were being reconsidered. Let us say, considering that this is a fairy story, that the magic charm under which the wheels were made to revolve had been up to that time worked out by the setting up of several camel loads of charcoal or other fuel, and a new charm had been found by which the wheels were made to revolve by the uttering of a mystic formula of which thermal units were the chief component, and many strange things were thereafter done by the genii, djinns and fairies who were imprisoned in the sealed vessels of high temperature in which the magic was worked.

The particular consulting magician, whom the chiefs of this company always went to, had formulated a new incantation whereby he could make electricity with less heat units than had heretofore been required by himself or any other magician, and so he said to those directors, and to the chief man in particular, "Do this according to my magic, and much credit will come to you. It will do great things for your art and for your industry."

But all the rest of the men in the outfit, the men who were to do the day's work, said, "Now, what is all this? We have to live with this blamed thing after it is built. It looks like it is going to cause much trouble. What is it we are seeking to do? Is it to make a new magic or is it to serve the people who depend upon us? Is it to save heat units or is it to save pounds, shillings and pence?"—or they might have said shekels.

All these things the lesser men said among themselves, but they were not asked to speak to the chiefs or to the directors, and so the new magic was made. What is the end of that story? There isn't any end. I would like to say they lived happily ever after, but they didn't. I am not sure they are living happily now.

The Limits of Theory

There is a beautiful demonstration of the theoretical possibilities: Magic is being made with very few heat units, very few indeed, but there is a continuous boiling of trouble, of one thing and another, that is explained by the consulting engineer (excuse me, the consulting magician) of a thousand years ago. He explains these as matters of detail that will be worked out presently—and they have been working them out for about a year and a half, more or less. And will somebody tell me what is a detail in the daily running of a power plant; and if a detail be defined, will some one tell me who it is who is more capable of placing a value upon its importance, to say correctly whether a thing is a detail, or is significant or insignificant, than the men who have to operate the power plant? They didn't have a say in this magic-making, and there was much sorrow.

Once upon a time in another country east of the sun and west of the moon, there were other magicians who did things with electricity, and they called themselves electrical magicians instead of mechanical, and they decided that many things that heretofore had been done by hand and according to orders, spoken or written, might be done automatically, and they proceeded to make every-thing about as automatic as they possibly could. This is all a fairy story, remember. I am not speaking of any such casual, everyday things as automatic substations or anything of that sort. This is a fairy story.

At any rate, they put up the most remarkable set of controls. They worked it out most beautifully on paper, and it really wasn't bad at all. As a demonstration of what could be done automatically, it was excellent. Out of so many hundred thousand hours of required operation, the interruptions were a negligible fraction of 1 per cent. Out of so many required functionings of the automatic starting, stopping, controlling and other devices, the failures were few, possibly 1 per cent.

But somehow the old heathen, who in those fairy days was ultimately responsible for all of this, said, "That is all right in talk. An expression of the accuracy obtained in terms of percentage is just simply lovely; it is so nice to be told that the relays operated perfectly. It does you a lot of good to know that." But his question was: "Did anything in the nature of an interruption or failure of service happen to those automatic outfits that would not have happened had there been a competent attendant on the job?" And if so, was the decision to be automatically a well made decision? That decision was made by the magicians (we call them engineers sometimes). It was not made in either recited case by one who saw all the possibilities after giving due consideration to all the possibilities. It was not made by one who had consulted all the people who might have knowledge of the matter. So the thing goes along its way, and after many years, perhaps a century or two, it is going to work very well.

These seem to be technical tales taken out of the history of fairyland, but here is one that isn't technical:

Once upon a time in a country east of the sun and west of the moon, there was a company that did a very nice service for many of the inhabitants of that country, and did it in many, many towns. In one of these towns there were envious people who said that the company was collecting too much, that it was not doing the right thing, that it was overcharging, and the people who made, these remarks declared that they were serving the public in making this palaver. But the wise people in the company knew they were not serving the public by such talk, and that they were merely seeking the franchises of the public.

The financial organization of the company, for this particular city, was not as pretty as it might have been. There had been a history of much juggling. There had been changes of ownership, and at least one change of ownership had taken place at a very low price during a period of great depression.

To answer the complaint that was made before the courts along the line, that the service was worth what was being paid for it, that it could not be performed at a cheaper rate, that there was no real complaint among the people, that there was, in fact, no complaint at all, that the rates were reasonable, if not liberal—to answer in that way did not seem expedient to the rather exasperated management of the company and to their legal advisers; and the legal advisers decided that they would fight the devil with fire, and they devised a technical defense against what was, after all, a technical attack, and that technical defense was set up.

Who made that decision? So far as I know, one man of the numerous counsel consulted did, in fact, make that decision, and it was unwisely made for this reason. If that city had stood alone, it would have been all right, but there were other cities where the attacks, as they came, were even less meritorious than in this city. There were other places where, in point of fact, the attack should have been met bluntly on the ground that the service was worth more than was charged, that it cost so much to render that service, and that, after all, nothing better could be done; that it was a good service and that the people were well pleased with it. But counsel said, "We cannot prejudice our case in the first city by setting up such a defense anywhere."

Who made that decision? Of course, this all happened a thousand years ago, and you will have to look into pre-Renaissance history, which is not overreliable, to know what came from it all. But somehow I think the effects of that mistake have not yet died out. In fact, I fear that they are somehow or other behind the microphone and being widely broadcast by a loud speaker; and that the committing of a certain very important group and a certain very important service to a policy of technical defense based upon precedents, based upon decisions which some court may question or reverse, has been a decision unwisely made. I am afraid that an accumulation of ill-will is being produced by that technical defense, by the aid that it gives to general faultfinders who are more numerous now than ever; who were numerous in fairyland a thousand years ago, and always will be numerous.

The Scripture says, "The poor you have always with you." Scripture might have said, "The liar you will always have with you," and been just as accurate. The politician is not only with you; he is in, and around, and about you, and he is not going to sacrifice any play that appears to be to his immediate credit in the eyes of the people. And the best way to fight him, I believe, is to demonstrate the righteousness of your case, instead of meeting his technicalities with similar technicalities taken from law books.

There are other fairy stories I can tell you. We will take ship to sea to another far country, where an exceedingly energetic engineer decided that he needed for his station much more of the lighting service of the residences of a certain great city. At the time of this happening in fairyland, he was just getting a Iittle bit of this residential lighting business. This was in a far country, remember. He figured his costs. He insisted on being allowed to develop residential business by giving a very low rate, without appliance service; that is, without the extra servicing that most of us know is essential. He tried to sell kilowatt-hours upon sheer low price, and so far as he went he sold on sheer price. Now I learn that he is facing the proposition of having to extend this needlessly low rate over a much extended territory. He has discovered that the synthesis of a rate is a different thing from the analysis of income from a rate. He discovered that he would not have had any less lighting business if he had charged in the beginning a rate which would have enabled him to follow up his customers' service, to educate, to advertise, to give house-to-house visitations, to make the service popular. He failed to see, being an engineer and not a salesman, that if he once sold the 33% per cent of the people to whom all the 100 per cent of the people look up, the other 66% per cent of the people would have had to follow.

Getting Residence Business

When it comes to residential business, let me tell you something: You get the leaders of the community to adopt electric service, and all the rest of them will follow. They will follow for just the same reason that you can't persuade their womenfolks (after all, it is the womenfolks who settle that commercial question for you) to wear last year's styles when their somewhat more prosperous neighbors are wearing this year's styles, or what they think are this year's styles. If the service had been made acceptable to the great leader-ship of the city, all the rest of the community would have followed the leaders. The error was in failing to see the sales psychology. The rate adjustment should have followed.

All these cases happened, of course, in fairyland. And there is a case of a certain group management, a centralized management, a most scientifically controlled management, which tries to be automatic and isn't. The group had purchased some properties in a new territory, and they were starting to bring the service up to date. The territory was almost undeveloped. There was much to be done. It was a territory where people habitually paid their debts, but did hate to bicker. They were touchy about their credit.

The sales division put an enterprising local manager in and a good staff, and they started in. Things went well to begin with. Then there came an order from central, in an attempt to unify practice, requiring that every customer, unless he was a property owner of real estate or unless he had such a guaranty, should pay a deposit. In other words, a centralized credit office set up a rule of credit, with a view to establishing a minimum loss by unpaid bills; and in doing so it made a decision which just undid a year's work, a year's actual local sales effort, and which continued to undo it, and even to reverse it, until the discovery was made that it wasn't necessary in that territory and the order was revoked.

How about it all? It isn't a matter of these recited decisions only, as I said. It is a matter of many others. Are they made by someone who has a broad knowledge of the whole situation? I am afraid not. Are they made by an executive who has time to consider the matter and get acquainted with all the facts and conditions? Are they made by some one who knows, or are they made offhand on a showing, by some engineer or department chief, that this is a good idea?

Let Him Who Knows Decide

I am afraid that we are suffering not so much from too much irregularity in our advance, because, after all, advance is advance, and the thing to do with a line that is too far ahead on one flank is to -bring up the middle and the other flank, and not to send questions for a judicial procedure that will finally result in a compromised decision, much too late. But we should see to it that the person who makes decisions has the knowledge with which to make them, that he has listened, and listened in a friendly way, to all the people who could inform him on the matter.

There - is always in any organization some department that, for the moment, seems to have the inside track. In my own organization it is not so many years since I overheard the remark made (and laughed about it; it wasn't a thing to get sore about) that my sales department could get away with murder. Well, perhaps it could, but there is no reason why some of the others shouldn't do what the sales department was then doing—and that was to present its case clearly, cleverly and continuously, using sales methods upon the executive, to show that certain recommended things should forthwith be decided and done.

There are many other things that I could use to illustrate my remarks. Just take a look at this matter of these highly efficient plants. You can spend money on a new plant for three purposes, and spend it wisely—thus:

You can spend it to save heat units; you can spend it to increase reliability; or you can spend it to make operation easier, surer, more convenient—to add, in point of fact, to the amenities of the operating force.


All of these three things must be included, but the mixing of them is also very important. I have been recently experimenting with the American cocktails at a renowned Continental bar—in fact, at the bars of two countries—and I have discovered that the constituents of the cocktails are according to formula, but there is something definitely wrong with the mixing, because they don't taste as they should. I may be out of date. I may not remember what a good cocktail should taste like, but I have a strong conviction that the formula of these cocktails that I tasted was absolutely all right, but the judgment of the mixer was absolutely wrong.

In order to save heat units, increase reliability and make operation convenient for the operating force so that they will operate willingly and cheerfully and get the best they can out of it, an adept mixer is required, and the adept mixer is not usually a consulting engineer.

It has occurred to me that there may be a measure of the trueness of the adaptation in any system of several plants, or in any plant whatsoever, by comparing the test results with the results obtained year in and year out. If the amenities are well protected—if, in fact, the things that the operating force consider to be important in the continuous performance of their work are duly considered—it is more than likely that the test results will be very closely lived up to.

I know many plants, for some of which I claim credit and others with which I have nothing to do, where these amenities have been well considered, and I find that in these plants there is a close approximation between test figures and practice. Of such a plant one of the leading consulting engineers of the world said to me, "I can build a plant that will beat this. I can equal anything that anyone can truly tell me, and I can think of a few things that can beat anything you can tell me; but somehow I cannot so closely approximate my year in and year out operation to the test figures."

I think that herein there may be a measure of good mixing; a measure of the good judgment which can only be exercised, as I say, with a knowledge of the values of all of these things: of reliability of service from the commercial point of view and the social point of view; of heat units, which knowledge is more than a matter of calculation (and if any one will calculate the cost of coal for the next ten years, I will pay for the calculation); and of the other factor, good will.

Of course, some one is going to fire this question back to me: "What are you doing about it yourself?"

The daily bidding and forbidding of my organization is now in the hands of a man who is my principal assistant and will, I hope, be my successor in good time (I am not in any hurry that he should step into my place, thank you, but all the same I don't want to re-peat the mistake that Solomon made). If there is any snap decision required, he makes it. To myself I am giving time not only to study what is written, and to listen to what is said, but to go and see.

I am at the moment somewhat incredulous. I am not believing much of what I read, and still less of what I hear, and I have looked twice before believing some things I saw in recent visitations that I have made. Nevertheless, I am trying to familiarize myself once more with a great many things that once upon a time, 'way back in fairy days, I knew very well indeed, but with which, of necessity, I have ceased to be so familiar in these years between, when there has been little leisure and much pressure.

Understanding Means Coordination

That is my story. I am asking for greater understanding on the part of the executives, for consideration as to whether it is wise to follow the rush of the moment into over engineering, into over advertising, into overselling. You can even have too much selling. There is such a thing as making yourself a perfect nuisance to your customers by fussing around all the time asking them about their service. They want to take their service very much the way they take their air and their daily supply of water, if they drink water. They want to take it as something that comes along naturally and doesn't have to be fussed about.

All of these errors, however, are results of lack of coordination, and coordination requires understanding. I would ask those who, like myself, have gotten to the place where they can take a little leisure, to take a trip and look around. Get the true story of other people's experience; take the time to look ahead—to look ahead five years or more, and do some guessing on the fifty years beyond that; and then apply all the knowledge that you have attained to the real adjustment of major decisions, to the making of Solomonic rulings, to the mixing of a good cocktail, so to speak—and, after all, the man who made a good cocktail was a friend to society.

I said that I might at the conclusion of my story tell you about one instance in which that formula of my childhood did not work. On this occasion, the youngest audible member of a family, who had a wonderful imagination, was sitting by the fire along in the evening of one lively day. The whole family was gathered around the great table and he had been telling a perfectly wonderful tale in which he figured as the prince and his rather pretty sister, to whom he was most devoted, figured as the princess, and his father and his mother and his governess, Miss Wilmot, figured. Please keep your eye on Miss Wilmot. She is part of the story. The story went along wonder-fully. Things all came out right, as they should. The prince was duly received into his kingdom, and then the story-teller said, "And everybody lived happily forever after, and mama kissed papa, and papa kissed Miss Wilmot and that was the end."

There was a little sound from mama on the other side of the fire, "Who kissed who?" Then there was a chill on the atmosphere. Papa looked up. He was a wise papa and he didn't say anything. Miss Wilmot looked at the boy a little savagely. And he said, "Mama, I said, `Once upon a time.' "

She said, "Once upon a time is plenty."

Once upon a time is plenty, gentlemen. Good day!

Home | More Articles | Email: