Replacing the Old Order

I recently read John Lynch’s Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006).  Bolivar played the central role in freeing six Latin American countries from Spanish colonialism.   The eventual domination of his armies and his subsequent nation building destroyed the old colonial order.  However, creating the new order was a much more daunting task than he anticipated.

Bolivar needed to address the interests and concerns of a large set of stakeholders.  Spanish natives living in Venezuela, Peru, and so on had long ruled these countries with iron fists.  However, now that the old order was gone, a wide range of aspirations emerged among various stakeholder groups.  These groups included creoles (native born people of Spanish ancestry), pardos (racially mixed individuals), the people from the vast grasslands (Llanos), native American Indians, and slaves who were mostly black.

All of these stakeholders had long-harbored grievances and aspirations for social justice.  Bolivar’s message of liberty and equality was heartening and provided a rallying cry.  However, the redistribution of land and other wealth was more important to these stakeholder groups.  This made the transformation to true democracy, or even an approximation, quite difficult. New tensions and infighting hindered Bolivar at every step.

As fascinating as this story is, the more general lesson is perhaps more compelling.  Transformation involves unfreezing the old order, moving to a new order, and then refreezing around the new order.  It may be easier to get people to agree to the unfreezing then getting them to agree to move to a particular new order.  Instead, unfreezing may lead to chaos as newly freed stakeholder interests undermine the possibility of any new order.

Perhaps this is why religious and academic organizations, to name just two, cling to old ways in terms of principles and practices. If they allow any slippage, then they expect they will avalanche down the slippery slope of fundamental change. This may enable many creative possibilities.  However, it is also very likely to upset many apple carts.  The old order, despite its flaws, is a source of stability.

Beyond stability, many will have designed their lives, businesses, universities, and so on around the implicit assumption that the old order will persist.  This is even true for those disadvantaged by the old order.  When this order is replaced, there are many losers.  There may also be many more who will respond in perhaps unpredictable ways once they have the freedom allowed by the loss of the old order.  Latin America, as Lynn shows, provides a good illustration of this tendency.

This perspective may make transformation sound hopeless or, at the very least, a process that is inevitably very long and rocky.  One approach to avoiding this is to build the new order in advance of the dismantling of the old order.  More specifically, create a demonstration of the new order in the midst of the old order. This is a typical path for technological transformation, e.g., from land lines to smart phones.

Could Bolivar have taken this approach?  To a slight extent he did, with a bit of nation building along the way.  However, the monopoly of Spanish colonialism repeatedly squashed these efforts.  There is an element of this in technological transformation as well where monopolies like public utilities can block potential innovations because they challenge the reigning order.

However, these types of monopolies do not have armies, guns and gallows.  Liberating countries is decidedly on a very different scale than transforming markets. In fact, it is not just a matter of scale. The behavioral and social components of liberating countries involve a type of complexity that cannot be avoided by simply having a sound “methodology.” Liberation is inherently much, much messier than transforming companies and markets.

Moneyball in Academia?

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.  Lewis relates the story of the Oakland Athletics and their ability to use scientific management to maximize wins per dollar. I could not help but wonder how their empirically derived principles might apply to academia. What is the equivalent of On-Base Percentage for a university?  And, if we could agree on that, how would we align all of our resources to maximize this metric?

The essence of the book’s argument is that many of the truths that organizations embrace and use to guide decisions are, in fact, myths with no empirical basis in fact. Once you look at the data in detail, you can find what really matters. If your competitors continue to embrace the old (false) truths while you embrace the new empirically based truths, you can gain an enormous competitive advantage.

Of course, the priesthood associated with the old (false) truths will do their best to defend the dogma and discredit the new empirically-based truths, often without even paying attention to the source and nature of the new truths. They will attack the integrity and abilities of those presenting the new truths, typically dismissing them as uninformed and self-serving. (See pages 287-288 of Moneyball.)

But, transformation can happen. The Red Sox adopted the Athletics’ practices and, with a much bigger market and hence budget, escaped the curse of the bambino. For much less money, they relied on Ellsbury and Pedroia while getting rid of the high-priced Ramirez.  The Toronto Blue Jays, led by acolyte of Oakland’s Billy Beane, are similarly pursuing the new model.

I know that a university is much more complex than a baseball team, but I wonder if we are not often trapped by our assumed truths rather that empirically exploring what really matters and how the allocation of our resources could truly improve the value we provide.

Transforming Colombia

I gave a keynote lecture on “Enterprise Transformation” at the Logistics International Congress last Wednesday in Bogota, Colombia.  I also listened to several other talks from government officials in various ministries, as well as a few academics.  I spent quite a bit of time talking with a wide range of people.  Overall, I learned much more about Colombia than I did about supply chains and logistics.

I should put my report in context.  Bogota is a city of 8-9 million people living at an elevation of 8,612 feet on a high plane, surrounded by the Andes Mountains.  Although not far from the equator, the altitude results in moderate temperatures year round.  Colombia has a small upper class (5%), a growing middle class (30%) and an enormous lower class (65%).  Income disparities in Colombia, as assessed using the Gini Coefficient, were the highest in Latin America in 2009.

Colombia’s main exports are agricultural products (e.g., coffee), and commodity natural resources (e.g., coal, gas, minerals).  (Brazil, in contrast, exports airplanes, as well as agricultural products and natural resources.)  Agriculture and mining employ much manual labor, but much of this employment is low-wage “informal jobs.”

Colombia is one of the CIVETS countries, which includes Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa.  These countries are in similar stages of economic development.  Ahead of them are the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

National goals, according to several ministries’ spokespersons, are represented by a triangle linking three interrelated objectives: more employment, less poverty, and more security.  They recognize that achieving these goals depends on education.  This poses a couple of challenges.

The high school dropout rate is 20-25% in Colombia, compared to 31% in the United States.  However, because school is only required through the 5th grade, the poor are disproportionately affected.  Many 10 year olds must leave school to go to work to help their families, which tends to perpetuate poverty.  Colombians who are able to attend universities and obtain advanced degrees find a different problem – under-employment and unemployment.

Given the nature of the Congress, there was much discussion of transforming infrastructure related to transportation, innovation, and sustainability.  One presentation indicated nine “technoparques” focused on biotech, nanotech, and other engineering endeavors.

The Ministry of Transportation reported that Colombia ranks lowest among CIVETS countries in terms of “mobility infrastructure” – roads, bridges, railroads, airports, etc.  Colombia is also behind Brazil and Chile, with the costs of mobility quite high in Colombia.  This makes Colombia’s oil, gas, minerals, and agricultural products less competitive.  They are working to get investments, regulations, etc. better aligned with decreasing mobility costs.  They are also working to be more responsive to the damage and destruction of their transportation infrastructure due to major rains and flooding in the area.

Colombia is trying to revive its railroad system, which accounts for nearly zero percent of exports, despite having exports ideally suited to railway transport rather than trucks, for example.  In side conversations, it was noted that the trucking industry has done its best to hinder revival of the railroads.  I also learned that the railroads are deficient across Latin America.  Paul Theroux’s superb travelogue, “The Old Patagonia Express,” wonderfully depicts the state of these railroads.  This book was my companion during this trip.

The Deputy Minister of Transportation also discussed the need to enhance urban mobility.  She indicated that strikes have impeded modernization of the urban transportation system.  Colombia’s average commute time in its urban transportation systems is worst among CIVETS countries.  Road safety, especially traffic-related deaths, is a also major issue.  I was glad to have a driver for my jaunts around Bogota as the traffic was very chaotic and required a seasoned person at the wheel.

The Ministry of Trade reported that Colombia is ranked seventh in Latin America in terms of transportation and logistics infrastructure – Chile is first.  He outlined a variety of initiatives aimed at improving Colombia’s standing.  Despite these many initiatives, one participant told me that the government is not “high velocity.”  Another participant mentioned that the government is strong on planning but weak on execution.

Overall, Colombia’s transformation intentions seem quite well articulated, but progress is very slow.  Many major stakeholders appear to feel entitled to the status quo – as my recent posts indicate, this is common in the United States as well.  This includes politicians, business owners, and the broad, poorly educated working class.  Stability, only recently achieved, is coveted much more greatly than the uncertainties and likely displacements of any leaps in economic development.

One person suggested that Colombians do not like change.  I said it seemed to me that over the past decades Colombia has seen much change, and most of it has had negative consequences.   Thus, despite enthusiasm for new leaders at the federal and city level, Colombians may be justifiably hesitant to embrace the changes being discussed.  From extensive discussions with many people, my guess is that the optimists will prevail.

The city of Bogota is vibrant and exciting.  There are many wonderful things to see, often in the midst of the chaos of road traffic and, in some older neighborhoods, a little grime.  The original old city in La Candelaria contrasts with the upscale Business District (a bit west of the airport) and the exciting nightlife of Zona Rosa.  Monserrate at 10, 342 feet provides a wonderful view of the city from the Andes, as well as a quiet church and two good restaurants.  The Gold Museum and the Botero Museum provide glimpses into historical and contemporary Colombian culture.

Andres DC in Zona Rosa, and the original Andres in Chia, provide amazing restaurant experiences of food and music, with hundred to thousands of fun-loving Bogotanians all in the same restaurant, and décor drawn from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.  The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, a bit north of Chia, provides an amazing experience, especially for Catholics, of a cathedral and numerous chapels, all carved in an enormous salt mine dating from the fifth century BC.  The creation of the cathedral and chapels began in the 1930s to provide places of worship for the miners.

A highlight of this visit to Bogota was a FIFA World Cup soccer game between Colombia and South Korea, in which Colombia prevailed 1-0.  The view of the Andes from the stadium was awe-inspiring.  The logistics of entering and exiting the stadium left nothing to chance.  The security forces were numerous and quite helpful.  Everything was well kept and maintained.  Alcoholic beverages, that might encourage acting out, were not available.  I chatted with the Bogotanian sitting next to me about how well things were done.  He said that the government was determined to overcome Colombia’s image as an unsafe place and, thereby, attract tourists and business investment.  All in all, it was a great event – and we won!

Regarding safety, Colombia had become infamous for its drug wars and the associated violence.  This spring, however, the BBC reported that the International Narcotics Control Board dropped Colombia from its list of countries requiring special observation. Colombia was praised for strengthening its state institutions and its justice system, allowing it to control the supply and demand of drugs more effectively.  More recently, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel, once the richest and most powerful crime syndicate in the world, fell as a direct result of U.S.-led law enforcement and diplomatic pressure about a decade ago. Its toppling remains one of the most significant blows inflicted on modern organized crime.”  The people with whom I discussed these developments were proud of these changes and look forward to many more visitors to Bogota as a result.

Economic development in Colombia may be slower than many would like, but transformation seems nascent.  The friendliness and good will of the many Colombians that I met surely will be the “secret sauce” in this quest for fundamental change. Their eagerness to advance in South America and the world, combined with their enthusiasm, as demonstrated by their passion for food, music, dance and, of course, soccer, will surely enable them to transform their country.

Transforming Public-Private Enterprises: Energy

Most people seem to agree that we need to be more conservative when it comes to energy.  We need to conserve our stocks of fossil fuels while also investing in renewable energy sources.  Our electrical grid is rife with inefficiencies, ranging from transmission losses to power-hungry devices in our homes.  The notion of a Smart Grid has emerged, premised on smart sensing technologies and intelligent control devices.  Numerous TV ads, from a range of companies, show us being able to remotely control everything in our homes from our smart phones.

The EE Times has estimated that it will require a $0.5 trillion dollar investment to bring this vision to reality.  Who will make this investment?  Various studies have shown that consumers would be willing to pay for energy management capabilities that would save them $50 per month or more on utility bills.  However, someone else will have to make the initial investments to bring these capabilities to market.

Electric utilities might be the obvious investors.  Greater efficiencies would enable them to meet increased demand with less capital investment.  States’ public service commissions usually approve utilities rates based on operating and investment costs.  Thus, decreased capital investment, relative to what it might have been, will effectively reduce rates, thereby reducing revenue.  This may be a significant disincentive.

Utilities are usually monopolies in their service areas.  They can set rates at whatever they can get public service commissions to agree.  For companies born and bred in a capitally intensive environment, why would they limit investments and decrease revenues?  Such decisions would not be natural acts for utilities.  Instead, their regulated monopoly mentality is likely to keep them making larger and larger capital investments, securing steadily increasing rates and revenue, and making profits that are safe within this reigning paradigm.

So who will invest and innovate?  My guess is that it will be a non-traditional player, probably a new player.  The impact of Apple on mobile telecommunications offers an interesting example.  The iPod was their first mobile device and the mainstream phone service providers did not see this device as a threat.  Then came the iPhone and the smart phone market mushroomed.  Who will play this role for Smart Grid?  IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle aspire to put the smart in the grid.  Google might be a better game changer.  Or, quite possibly, it could be someone completely unexpected.

Transforming Public-Private Enterprises: Defense

National defense, and acquisition of weapon systems in particular, has long been a target of transformation.  The Packard Commission in 1985 provided a very reasonable set of recommendations for reforming defense acquisition processes.  These recommendations resulted in relatively minor changes.  Blue ribbon committees both before and after the Packard Commission had comparably minor impacts.

President Dwight Eisenhower highlighted the notion of a military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in January of 1961.  He cautioned that the often-cozy relationship between government and defense contractors could result in priorities that were less aligned with the nation’s defense than with the particular interests of the agencies, services, and companies involved.  Fifty years later, this perspective remains relevant.

The acquisition of weapon systems is an enormously complicated organizational process.  A few years ago, we focused on the acquisition of ships.  We learned that if the shipyards could produce ships instantaneously, it would take three years to get one.  The process of buying ships is so complicated that three years are consumed, on average, by the procedures and paperwork associated with acquiring a ship.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that all the various elements of the ship buying process has stakeholders who feel entitled to their roles in the process.  Streamlining the acquisition process would eliminate large numbers of jobs and many companies whose business models were designed to take advantage of how the acquisition system operates now.  Changing the acquisition system would obsolete many business models.  The owners of these business models will not go quietly.

There are also information issues.  There is a lack of transparency of how the system operates, what activities occur when, and how money flows accordingly.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to improve a system when you cannot determine how it is currently operating.

A couple of years ago, I had a series of discussion with a senior defense official focused on what information I could get to employ with the economic models we were developing.  I commented that DoD seemed to collect and archive information on virtually everything, so they should easily be able to provide the information I was seeking.  He said, “You are assuming we have a financial management system.  We do not.  You are assuming we have a cost accounting system.  We do not.  All we have is a checkbook and, usually, we know who we write checks to.”

Finally, of course, there are issues of incentives.  Millions of people are buttering their bread because of how the acquisition system works now.  Thousands of companies were explicitly designed to succeed in the current system.  Hundreds of members of Congress see as their role the securing of as large a portion as possible of the jobs and money associated with the current system.  The incentives are overwhelmingly aligned with preserving the status quo.

Transforming Public-Private Enterprises: Education

We often see dire assessments of our educational systems.  K-12 is judged to be quite poor compared to other developed countries, as reflected in comparisons of educational achievements across countries.  This is particularly true for STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  More broadly, our high school graduation rate of roughly two thirds means that one third of young adults are woefully under educated.

Higher education appears to deliver better results.  Our graduate schools still dominate the international rankings.  However, the costs of higher education continue to escalate – tuition in public institutions in many states is doubling every five years.  This is due to steadily declining support for public education by state legislatures.  This is also much evidence of “mission creep” and administrative bloat with an ever-increasing number of associate vice provosts and similar titles.

What is wrong and what needs to change?  These questions can be addressed using the three core transformation constructs introduced earlier – stakeholders, incentives, and entitlements.  There certainly are lots of stakeholders in education, including students, parents, teachers, administrators, employers, politicians and taxpayers.  There are many conflicts among the interests of these stakeholders, including the costs and benefits seen from their various perspectives.

It seems reasonable to assert that there are many instances where high quality education has resulted for well-prepared and motivated students, involved and supportive parents, well-trained and motivated teachers, and administrators, employers, politicians, and taxpayers willing to invest the necessary resources in these types of students, parents, and teachers.  This equation works well in some parts of the country, but does not work in general.

The overarching difficulties are that many students are not well prepared and motivated, many parents cannot be involved and supportive, and not all teachers are well trained, especially to teach ill-prepared, unmotivated, and unsupported students.  Further, high quality education can be expensive, particularly when small class sizes and one-on-one tutoring are needed.

Taxpayers are unwilling to make such investments.  In fact, they may be unable giving the increasing costs of healthcare (e.g., Medicaid) and prisons in most states.  Yet, a lack of education leads to poor health practices.  Lack of education also leads to unemployment and crime.  Thus, not investing in education now results in much higher costs later.

One can argue, therefore, that we have a traditional investment problem.  We need to invest now for later returns in terms of lower costs of healthcare and criminal justice, as well as increased tax revenues from healthy, educated citizens.  But, the investments are needed now and the returns will accrue years later.  No one seems to “own” that future.

Alternatively, the effective discount rate Americans apply to that future is so high that negative consequences are highly discounted, at least psychologically.  Transformation, therefore, does not make sense.  Current stakeholders will not accept the near-term pain of diminished entitlements and long-term stakeholders are not at the table.  There is no sense of urgency.

A Small Transformation Experiment

On November 15th of 2010, I began a small experiment.  The lease on my car ended that day, and I just turned the car in and took the bus home.  I decided to see what life would be like without a car.

My office is close to a subway stop and there is a bus stop near my home.  I only had to figure out how to get them connected, as well as the schedules of all the pieces of the route.  For those times when I would need a car, I joined Zipcar.  They have several cars located across the street from my office.

This experiment continued until June 18th of 2011 when I acquired a new vehicle.  Thus, it is obviously feasible to live without a car.  However, with hot summer upon us, and my ultimate admission that it is inconvenient to not have a vehicle, I am back among the driving public.

This experiment showed me that I could dramatically reduce my transportation costs, from $700 per month (for lease, gas, maintenance and insurance) to $60-80 per month (for subway and bus fares and an occasional Zipcar).  However, this does not include the cost of my time in transit, which increased substantially.

A cross-town meeting would require determining the mix of subways and buses needed to get from here to there and back.  I had to build in extra time to handle schedule variations.  This sometimes resulted in my arriving at a meeting an hour early because the connections happened to dovetail nicely.  I was only rarely late.

I would catch up on my email or read magazines and other materials during these transit times, so the time was not really lost.  Nevertheless, were I not on public transportation, or waiting at a transit stop; I would not have spent my time this way.  Thus, there was certainly some inefficiency.

I met quite a variety of people on the subway, and especially on buses.  For many cases, my first impressions were dead wrong.  Most people seemed poor, and perhaps unable to afford their own vehicles, but occasional conversations uncovered graduate students, aircraft pilots, and lawyers.  In general, people were quite friendly.

I have become a fan of public transportation.  However, for me to fully transform my mode of transportation from private to public, three things need to change:

  • The transportation network has to be more robust, enabling me to efficiently get between more places.
  • Route planning has to only require a glance, not a web search, either at a posted map or a smart phone app.
  • Schedules need to be much more predictable, with the time until next subway or bus arrival displayed at each stop or on another smart phone app.

Succinctly, I need a system much more like Washington’s than Atlanta’s.

Transforming Public-Private Enterprises: Healthcare

Healthcare presents a major challenge for the U.S.  We pay twice as much per capita as any other country; yet achieve much poorer results in terms of health and longevity.  The current system can be characterized as a federation of millions of entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  Even assuming that everyone is well intended, we have the overarching problem of everyone trying to optimize the system from his or her personal perspective.

Patients feel entitled to care and providers of care feel entitled to reimbursement for their costs.  Insurers and providers of medical equipment, devices, and supplies all feel entitled to profits.  These entitlements, both mandated and assumed, tend to be enormous barriers to change.  Everyone one wants the problem of healthcare costs solved, but no one is willing to compromise their entitlements.

All of these stakeholders have premised their business models on the assumption that the economic system will continue to operate as it has been since they made these commitments.  These business models will only be changed if these stakeholders have no choice.  We need a “burning platform” to motivate the needed changes.

I suggest that two changes of the incentive system will create this burning platform.  First, providers of care, as well as equipment, devices, and supplies, should be paid for outcomes in terms of improved health and decreased risks of disease.  They should not be paid for the costs of their procedures or the number of procedures conducted.  Their payment should be linked to the extent to which a patient is better off than they would have been without the providers’ services.  Ideally, we would create market mechanisms that would enable and motivate people to determine the extent to which they are better off, and then pay accordingly.

Second, it should be illegal for providers to charge patients with employer-based insurance more than they are allowed to charge Medicare and Medicaid patients.  If such “cost shifting’ was illegal, the system would have to change because either all providers would soon go out of business or Medicare and Medicaid patients would not receive any care.  The invisible tax embodied in cost shifting has significantly depressed wage levels across the U.S. for the past two decades.  Making this practice visible – and then illegal – would force change.

One might argue that these two suggestions would result in poor and elderly people receiving inadequate care.  However, the opposite would happen.  If one is only paid for improving people’s health, then one needs to finds lots of unhealthy and at-risk people.  That is where improvements can be achieved and money made.  Focusing on healthy, low-risk people would be a poor choice as one cannot improve their health sufficiently to stay in business.

Transforming Public-Private Enterprises: Introduction

It is difficult to transform a large enterprise.  Leaders of many private sector enterprises have told me that their toughest job is managing the enterprise they have while trying to create the enterprise they want.  Not surprisingly, the failure rate is very high, as illustrated by 200% turnover in the Fortune 500 in the past 25 years.

Much more difficult, however, is the transformation of large public-private enterprises such as healthcare, education, energy, and defense.  These types of enterprise are composed of large numbers of smaller enterprises that typically have conflicting interests and priorities.  Further, there is no one really in charge, so these many smaller enterprises cannot be commanded or controlled to do anything.

This posting is the first of a five-part series that will address the transformation of public-private enterprises.  Parts 2-5 will address healthcare, education, energy, and defense, respectively.  My intent is to find some common ground and perhaps a few good practices across these domains.

First, however, we need to define and discuss a few concepts.  The notion of a public-private enterprise reflects the reality that truly large enterprises have to seek some form of symbiosis with the governments that enable their operations.  Government licenses, regulates, and taxes commerce.  Government also legislates and, in the process, often strongly impacts the business environment.

But, government can be more than just an “externality.”  Government invests in education and research that business consumes in terms of employees and research results.  Government is also often a major consumer, ranging from Medicare and Medicaid payments to Department of Defense weapon system procurements.  Few companies really want the government to totally leave them alone.  At the very least, they want tax breaks for oil exploration and subsidies for agricultural production.

Another important concept is entitlements.  This term tends to prompt thoughts of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  There are, however, much mores subtle entitlements.  The agricultural industry acts as though it is entitled to subsidies for corn and cotton production.  The defense industry acts as though it is entitled to the production quantities originally planned for weapon systems contracts.

Both mandated entitlements and assumed entitlements tend to be enormous barriers to change.  Attempting to change Social Security or Medicare for current recipients of these benefits is likely to result in a firestorm of protests from retirees.  They will argue, quite reasonably, that their personal financial plans were totally premised on the promised benefits from these programs.  As a consequence, we have tended to make changes for future beneficiaries so that, in theory as least, they have time to adapt their plans to these anticipated changes.

More subtle are industries and companies whose structures, processes, and investments – their business models — have all been premised on the economic system operating as it has been since they made these commitments.  Fundamental changes of the economic system could obsolete many of these investments, putting people out of work and hurting shareholders.  It is not surprising that companies fight such changes.

If the Department of Defense were to stop buying military aircraft, for example, and instead lease them by the hour, the business models of defense contractors would be significantly disrupted.  Who, for instance, would put up the capital to buy the airplanes in the first place? Who would insure weapon systems quite likely to be destroyed?  In general, who would take the risks that defense companies have never had to take?

As another illustration, if Medicare decided to no longer reimburse costs – via fees for services – and instead just paid for outcomes, healthcare providers would find their business models very much disrupted.  Perhaps providers would only accept healthy patients.  What if Medicare only paid for unhealthy patients made well, or at-risk people whose risks were reduced?  It might then be worth providers paying high-risk people to avail themselves of their services because they could make so much off the risk reduction.

Not surprisingly, defense contractors would lobby against the “power by the hour” model and healthcare providers would lobby against “pay for outcomes.”  These changes would disrupt their business models and probably marginalize many of their investments.  This leads to a general principle.

When considering transformation of a public-private enterprise, first consider how changes being entertained will affect benefits seen as entitlements, people’s incomes, and companies’ business models.  The more disruptions these changes will create, the greater the difficulty of proceeding and the lower the probability of success.

System-Enabled Incompetence

I wrote early last year about Delta Air Lines transforming a great airline into a bus line.  I really did not anticipate how bad Delta’s performance could get.

I was in Houston on Thursday waiting for a flight to Atlanta. When I checked in at the kiosk, Delta offered me the opportunity to stand by for an earlier flight, which I gladly accepted. Then the kiosk said “processing error” and printed a boarding pass that did not make sense.

I proceeded to a human agent who, after much typing, informed me that my non-sensical boarding pass reflected a change of equipment (i.e., aircraft type).  She also put me on standby for the earlier flight, which she informed me was two hours late due to “weather in Atlanta.”  I called Atlanta to learn that the weather was beautiful with sunny, blue skies.

There are certainly quite appropriate reasons for delays. Why not use these as plausible explanations?  Instead, Delta provides explanations that are obviously wrong.  They apparently do not care that no one believes them. It does not matter — quality service, once their hallmark, is no longer a corporate value.

I went to the gate and asked the gate agent when they would process standbys. He said 45 minutes before departure and, oh by the way, I was not on the standby list. He added me and I jumped to the top of the list — I fly a lot.

Finally 15 minutes before departure the standby list was cleared and several people made it but not me. I pointed to the list and asked him how I, being on the top of the list, did not make the cut. He said that I was not really at the top of the list.

I waited a half hour or so and went back to the gate. I saw that I was on the top of the standby list for the next flight, which would depart an hour or two earlier than my now delayed original flight. I asked the agent if I was really at the top of the list. He told me that I was not on the list at all. Despite what he and I could clearly see on the publicly displayed standby list, his computer terminal said that I was not on the list.

Then good news, he told me that he could confirm me on this earlier flight, in fact in first class. He then typed for the next five minutes and finally handed me a boarding pass — Eureka!

I asked him why it took so long to generate a boarding pass. It seemed to me like an enormous number of keystrokes. He said. “This is not point and click. You have to memorize many, many codes, and then type them all in correctly.”

Waiting an extra couple of hours is irritating but not a major issue, especially if you fly often with Delta. However, dealing with pervasive organizational failure is very frustrating. Delta’s personnel have no idea if they are telling you things that have any basis in reality. Delta has, in effect, fostered system-enabled incompetence.

I am not suggesting that Delta’s gate agents and flight attendants are incompetent individuals. They tend to be well intended and very courteous as they try to meet your needs. However, Delta’s organizational system — their work processes and information systems — have resulted in their personnel not knowing what is patently clear to passengers, e.g., the weather in Atlanta is great and my name is right there at the top of the list.

So, the Delta bus line is increasingly becoming a really bad bus line. There may be some hope as Southwest has acquired AirTran and will become a major presence in Atlanta. They really know how to run a first-rate bus line.