Pyramid Scheme

I was having a coffee in the small lounge reserved for senior managers. We had installed a Tassimo-compatible machine and I was trying out the Dark Italian Roast – a full-bodied selection, says the pod, made with 100% high quality Arabica beans. It has an extra bold taste that is both sharp and intense. (Sounds like a bout at the dentist.)

I was sharing what might otherwise have been a contemplative moment with our CFO, General Ledger. He is a curiosity, with ears that make him look like Mars with its two moons. To the left, Phobos. To the right, Deimos. He is no Jupiter, thank goodness; its 67 moons would certainly have made him something to ponder.

So General Ledger was talking about this kid, Jason. Jason is working for the summer in the Accounting Department, entering data. A philosophy major, he is exactly wrong for this job, but a paycheck is a paycheck.

It seems that Anne, Jason’s supervisor, was complaining about him. Jason has six or seven stacks of soft drink cans in his cubicle, each can precariously perched on the one below – or, as he would say it, under the one above. He refers to the stacks as pyramids, which Anne finds stupid and annoying. The stacks are, apparently, in a race to reach the top lip of the office dividers. On his desk is a robot made entirely of thumbtacks and elastic bands. Anne has concluded that he had to be building this stupid thing on company time, although she does admit that it really does look like a robot.

A philosophy major, he is exactly wrong for this job.

To further confound Anne’s sensibilities, Jason works off-kilter hours, which he can do because, after all, he just enters data. He comes in at 10:00, works through the noon hour and takes his lunch at 1:30. So in the early afternoon, when everyone else is working, he is sitting back, reading Descartes’ Discourse on Method or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The other employees look at him and think he is goofing off. Then he leaves after everyone is gone, so no one knows what he is doing.

Also vexing for Anne, who would have made a good puritan, is that Jason is cute and all the young ladies in her group find reasons to drop in on him and chat. Jason is nothing if not polite and he accommodates them with charm and cordiality.

Sounds like a fine lad, I said. So what is the issue? Well, he answered, his outsized ears turning scarlet, Jason is clearly not a fit.

I sipped my very bold coffee slowly. It was still hot. Does he get the job done? I asked. Yes. Does he make mistakes? No. Hmmph, I said, in my best Tom Selleck. Clearly not a fit.

Well, I suggested, if he is cordial and likes working later hours, why not transfer him to our Customer Care Center where he could be a service rep. Then everyone would be happy… except, I suppose, the girls in Accounting.

General Ledger’s eyes lit up. Of course! Why had he not thought of that?

I don’t know. Why? But then, like the man said, as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?

Dead End

Today is fire, tomorrow is ashes. This adage-like statement owes its roots to the Inuit, but has been lifted and flipped around by a heavy metal band called As We Fight. It is the title of a song in their album, The Darkness of the Apocalyse Has Fallen Before Us. (And so on and so forth.) I have not been able to differentiate the song from the apocalypse, the noise of the first being the finest expression of the second. But that’s another post for someone else to write on a terribly dark and stormy night.

One of our young and very promising accountants, James T., was transferred to a recently purchased, wholly owned subsidiary to become its Director of Finance. He is a math wizard who is able to make the numbers say whatever we want them to say. Which is one of the reasons he now finds himself in a mess not of his own making.

The subsidiary is not doing well. It is trailing its targets by a fair bit. The President of that company has been there for years and knows full well what it is capable of achieving between now and year end in the hyper-competitive market in which it is competing. All indications are that the company will lose share and probably money this year. But those are not the indications it is giving the Small Office. The numbers finding their way to General Ledger, our CFO with the Frisbee ears, show an upward swing in the second half of the year. The turn-around will be sparked by some aggressive pricing tactics the company has already initiated on a few core products. Apparently, at least one major customer conversion is in the mix.

Never a believer in the “big December”, I headed down to talk to their senior managers and commercial folks to get their view of things. While there, I dropped in on James.

His door was slightly ajar. I should have knocked. Well, I did knock, but I should have waited for some acknowledgment. When I entered his office, I found James hunched over his computer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was certainly not ready for that. I gently closed the door and sat down, waiting for him to regain his composure.

James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma.

James turned around slowly. His chest heaved as he sucked in oxygen. “What the heck is going on?” I asked softly. He shrugged. Then, after a pause, he unwound a very tangled tale of financial woe. Apparently, our fears were justified. There was no way the planned initiatives were going to change the results in any appreciable way. There was certainly no way they were going to meet their forecasts. Everyone in the company knew this, but the President was insistent that they move ahead with their plans and that James sticks with his numbers.

Now James had a fiduciary responsibility as chief accountant to go behind the President’s back and make all this clear to General Ledger. But that would mean betraying his boss to whom he was loyal. If they didn’t make the numbers and all this came out – that he was hiding the truth – both the President and James would be instantly fired with cause. James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma. Or, to borrow from our adage, James was under fire and would soon see his career turn to ashes. He could see the end but could not find a way to avoid it.

Whether or not a turn-around is really in the offing, whether or not the year can be saved, it is absolutely imperative for James to come clean. General Ledger would then be in full possession of the current facts and correctly advise the analysts of what to expect; he cannot afford to lose their trust.

I told James that I do understand his situation and I sympathize with him. But he shouldn’t have to fall on his boss’s sword. If he can’t get himself to go over his boss’s head, then confront him and refuse to fudge the numbers any longer – even temporarily. Or, as the politician said, “There comes a time to put principle aside and do what’s right.”

So now, let us zip to the end of the story. James did listen to me. He drew a line in the sand. His boss informed the Man from Glad that, despite their best intentions and best laid plans, it was unlikely they would meet the numbers they had only recently provided head office.

Our no-nonsense CEO reacted swiftly. Both the President and James were summarily dismissed. An interim General Manager, one from General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade, was appointed.

All of this proves that it is easier to die for a cause than to live for it.

To the curious reader: The actual Inuit adage referred to above goes: Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly. The message is about hope, redemption, resurrection, that the burnt forest will soon regenerate and become green again. So, perhaps, there will be a new, brighter beginning for James ahead. Then again, perhaps not.

Shape Shifters

Like many companies of size, the Small Office has a health and safety policy. Related to the policy is a very enlightened philosophy of wellness: the belief is that good health and attention to safety lead to greater mindfulness and improved attendance. You don’t show up, mentally or physically, if you are sick or hurt. It’s that simple and it’s something the company is willing to invest in. So, as part of the wellness program, the Small Office is subsidizing gym memberships.

It is practically unfathomable that one or both of General Ledger, our CFO with the whirlybird ears, or Black Widow, our cranky and autocratic head of humane resources, agreed to the plan. But consent and collaborate they did, so compelling an idea it had become.

Compelling, perhaps, but it has also had an unintended consequence: a sizeable body of employees is taking off at noon every day and going to the local gym for whatever amount of exercise a person can fit in over lunch.

Color me skeptical.

It is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months’ time.

To me, you cannot get to the gym, bowflex on your in-motion nordic track elliptical hybrid cross-training cardio air walker machine, shower, eat lunch (say, a light mélange of kale and avocado), properly digest your food, and get back to the office refreshed and ready for work. All within a one-hour span.

Usually the people who would take advantage of this kind of offer don’t need the exercise nearly as much as those who wouldn’t.

Most of all, I think it is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months time. At the outside.

Besides, looking fit is the job of the tailor. You know… God makes and apparel shapes.

Yesterday, one of our marketing people left his laptop in the trunk while he was working his deltoids with competition grade cast iron kettlebells. No surprise here, someone broke into his trunk and stole his laptop. It was the second such incident this month.

I clearly differ from my colleagues on this. I believe there is a time and a place for everything. And I am sure that lunch and exercise are what physicist John Wheeler had in mind when he said: time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.

What’s in Your Wallet?

“In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to basic principles and simple actions.” – Winston Churchill

I was working on a project with a product management team from 3M. Usually I like to go down to their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, but this week, they decided to make the trip to the Small Office.

They flew in that evening. I picked them up at their hotel and we went to a fairly decent restaurant near the airport. Part way through the meal, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. Which meant I drove without my license. Which also meant that I had no credit or debit card with which to pay the bill. I was going to be the perfect host.

I spent the appetizers running through my options – which ran from silly to nilly. They didn’t know me here, so there was no reason to trust that I would return, say, the next day with the money. I have it on pretty good authority that washing dishes is not really a thing. And I left my magic wand at home with my wallet. So first pass… nothing.

Linus (of the Peanut cartoons), for whom happiness is a warm blanket, famously said “there is no problem so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from.” That option was evaluated here and it also came up wanting: I am too slow.

In a moment of lucidity, some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan. Excusing myself, I went to the washroom and, out of sight and ear shot, I called our incontrovertibly heroic CEO, the Man from Glad. If he could join us, he would pay the bill and no one would be the wiser. I knew he would answer his cell – he is 24/7 available under any and in all circumstances. But on this fateful night, he was already engaged and could not help me out.

Before returning to the dining room, I tried calling my wife. Perhaps she could think of something to save the day (night). I called the house – no answer. I called her cell phone – a flip top! no less – but, again, no answer. I left messages, but I had no expectation they would be received and acted upon in time… even assuming she would be in a position to help.

I’d been gone long enough that I had to worry they’d send in the cavalry. So I returned, heavy of heart and light of pocket, to my esteemed company.

Some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan.

I dragged out the meal, hoping for a miracle. Various cheeses. A kind of smoothie concocted of Cointreau, a rosé wine, strawberries and brown sugar. A wonderful desert named Marie Louise, made with lobster-stuffed grapefruit, sweetness and succulence. And so on, while the clocked ticked.

And just when I figured I had run out of time and options, in swept a guardian angel: my wife. She had received my message, found my wallet, jumped into a taxi and came to the restaurant. My guests looked up quizzically as she approached the table.

“Hi guys”, she said with a relaxed smile, as if she had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who she was. She explained to them that she was at a fashion show with girl friends and that, since she had heard so many good things about these people and since she was nearby anyway, perhaps she could join us for coffee.

I could not have been more impressed and more in love with my wife than I was at that moment.

If you’ve been following the Small Office for a while, you would know that stories inevitably become sagas. So, yes, our fairy tale would end happily ever after, but it was not quite over yet. Because just when I figured I’d been saved, in swept another guardian angel: our V.P. Sales, Bull Terrier. He had received a message from our coolheaded CEO, and came straightaway to the restaurant to help me out. My guests looked up quizzically as he approached the table.

“Hi guys”, he said with a relaxed smile, as if he had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who he was.

Well we all had one last Baileys for the road, as my wife surreptitiously slipped me my wallet. So no dishes, no magic wand, just the power of real friends.

I conclude this tale with a line from newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell: A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. With this, I must thankfully agree.

A Bitter Pill

A while back, I wrote about J.C. and how he turned state tax – or, more precisely, the lack of one – into a salary boost. This gave him an unfair advantage over his peers. Well, the Black Widow and her multi-legged HR minions had another weird one to deal with this week. I am never quite sure what she sees from her vantage point (tucked away as she usually is in dark places), but I do know this one had her wickedly pacing back and forth across her sticky web.

The Small Office has a medical plan, which means you do not have to default to The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known familiarly as Obamacare. The company pays the standard cost of a private health plan in whatever location you reside. If you live in Canada, where Medicare has been around since forever, the company outlay is low. If you live, say, in Denver, Colorado, the outlay can be very high indeed. Jessica, a social media maven, lives in Denver.

The cost of health coverage through a private health service provider could run as much as $20,000. This, like the J.C. situation, further hampers us in our attempt to create a fair and equitable hierarchy-based salary structure.

So Jessica made us an offer she was sure we could not refuse. Her husband already has a health plan of his own. It is a Platinum level family plan covering checkups, vaccines, urgent care, lab and hospital services, as well as prescription drugs. It costs him that $20,000 a year. If we were to pay for half of his plan, we would be able to provide the promised coverage at half the cost, saving $10,000. That her husband’s plan would now only cost them half as much should be irrelevant to us. It’s a win-win. The net effect, however – the real bother – is that we would be paying ten grand for coverage she already has. In other words, it is a simple money grab.

What we do becomes what we are willing to do.

But Jessica made her offer in such soft and sincere tones that we could hardly ascribe spurious motives to her proposal.

In the Charles Dickens novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a wonderful image of a similarly calculated expression. Madame Todgers, who owns the boarding house where the Pecksniffs stay when in London, “stood for some moments gazing at the sisters (Seth Pecksniff’s daughters, Charity and Mercy) with affection beaming in one eye and calculation shining out of the other”.

You would imagine the Black Widow, likely trained by the greatest trickster of them all – Anansi the Spider – would have an answer for Jessica. That she didn’t was quite vexing to her. And once again, we were creating precedents, something anathema to the Small Office way of being. We checked with Rigor Mortis, our counsel, who basically said that the exception defines the rule. What we do becomes what we are willing to do. Or, simply put, our actions define our policy.

As usual, it was left to our level-headed leader, the Man from Glad, to end the deliberations. This, he said, will leave a bad taste in our mouths and $10K in the bank. That’s not a bad trade-off. Swallow hard and make the deal.

Which, of course, we did. Which, of course, we were always likely to do.

(Note to Small Office visitors: If you wish to meet the likes of Montague Tigg, Augustus Moddle, Lafayettte Kettle and Zepaniah Scadder, to say nothing of the ladies Spottletoe and Gamp, give Martin Chuzzlewit a read.)

Crunching the Numbers

“Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” – Edward R. Murrow

We were reviewing our mid-year financials, running through the Profit & Loss statement, capital investments, cash flows and so on. This is, for General Ledger – our CFO with the deep-dish ears, fearless leader of the White Shirt Brigade, and resident curmudgeon – the Sermon on the Mount. It is, for me, an interminable drag.

Not that I am disinterested in the numbers but, if it’s true the devil is in the details, this place is most certainly Hell. For a full morning, we pored over the numbers, line by excruciating line. GL’s voice was an incessant drone that has approximately the kind of neurocognitive effects that you would get from transcranial direct current stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Except, instead of stimulating the brain, it dulls it to oblivion.

One of those lines, I admit, did pique my interest. In looking at our operating profit, we went into the details of our SG&A (sales, general, admin) and distribution expenses. Spending here was up year-over-year and explanation was required. Apparently revenues had increased thanks to a very buoyant market and several very successful product launches. By extension, however, shipping costs also increased, as did sales commissions. For some, it seems, this is a problem, the issue being that cost budgets were broken.

Meeting budget is serious business in the Small Office… as it should be. But the end result is that the better our top line is, the more it seems we have to defend it. Like the song says: good is the new bad. Of course, I do get the point, but the attitude gives me pause.

It is simply not important how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

To be fair, there are other accounting constructs that I do not get either. I could never really understand why accounts payable are credits and accounts receivable are debits. If we owe money, apparently, that’s good; if we are owed, that’s bad. Tell that to your spouse.

I believe all this confusion is due to the invention of double entry bookkeeping which eventually begat the balance sheet and likely the inevitable illicit practice of keeping a second set of books.

Balancing is a good thing. Minutiae, trifles, niceties, and all the tiny particulars of life that require sincere answers to stupid questions… less so. It is simply not important how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is important only that they can.

All of this whining is, no doubt, an unintended result of all that transcranial stimulation that deep-dish accounting has on me and I apologize for it.

(As an aside to the engaged reader, accountants furiously debate whether double entry bookkeeping was invented by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk who, back in 1494 in Renaissance Milan, while instructing Leonardo da Vinci on the finer points of mathematics, wrote the Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, or by Benedikt Kotrulejevic (more familiarly Benedetto Cotrugli) who, in 1458 in the bustling Croatian burb of Ragusa, wrote the breezy and beguiling Della mercatura et del mercante perfetto. I believe it is a product of Twilight Sparkle, she of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. You decide.)

Draw Strings

We were in one of our monthly operations reviews a while back. Various operations managers held court, putting up on the wide screen arrays of numbers that numbed and points that seldom made a point. My mind tends to wander – as do my eyes – in such meetings and I noticed, to the left of the screen, an easel with a pad of 3M self-stick easel paper. On the sheet was a technical drawing left over from a previous meeting.

I had no idea what the drawing was supposed to represent. It looked like some kind of compressor with tubing and a circular object coming out of the loop. Perhaps it was a balloon. Of course it couldn’t be a balloon but, in the absence of more information, why not? For the ignorant, nothing and everything are possible.

The thing about the drawing is that it I’m pretty sure it was there when we met for the same operations review one month earlier. Yet another month went by and I – and, apparently, only I – noticed it was still there gracing the left corner of the conference room. Well, grace is probably a large word, because the drawing was as crude as it was curious.

Anyway, at a break, I sauntered up to the easel when no one was looking, took a marker and wrote Helium Machine under the drawing.

I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame – and then I drew that too.

A week or so after that, I went up to the easel and, when no one was looking, took a marker and colored in the balloon looking thing. I made it a bright orange, just so no one from Minsk to American Samoa could miss it. A few days later, I drew a pin with the no (circle-backslash) symbol around it. Underneath, in print letters, I wrote NO BURST.

This went on for a long while, new elements being added to the sheet with each passing month. On the lower left, I drew the edge of a table, onto which were placed, in sequence, some very colorful balloons, a party blower and, finally, an invitation to Jane’s birthday party. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame – and then I drew that too.

To be fair, every element looked sort of technical. I even wrote in a mathematical formula with a sigma, a cosine and several square roots. Not once, in the seven months since some engineer first drew some device on that easel did any of the senior managers say anything about it or the absurdly complex and highly suggestive post-modern piece of artwork that it had now become.

I guess broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow was right. The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.