Monday, July 2, 2012

Credit cards, light bulbs, and vending machine availability

When Brock Hatfield shared my earlier tymshft post on the reasons for the Netflix/Pinterest/Instagram/etc. outage, Hatfield (who, coincidentally, works at IBM, one of the companies that I've referenced regarding causes of disasters) commented on the nature of decision-making. Specifically, Hatfield noted that there have been instances in which IT has recommended a particular course of action, but management has rejected the recommendation for cost reasons.

I'm not claiming that IT is always right - there are cases in which business rationale outweighs a technical recommendation - but there are certainly times when penny-pinching is not advised.

Hatfield shared a link to a Tumblr blog that documents such failures. One case stood out in my mind. At an (unnamed) remote IT support facility employing 1,300 people, the facility itself - presumably providing critical IT services - was down.

But the credit card-equipped vending machines were still running.

Why were the (presumably) non-critical vending machines up while the (presumably) critical IT facility itself was down? Perhaps it had to do with the credit cards. Credit card providers want to make sure that transactions can be accepted all the time, so maybe the vending machine was engineered in such a way to meet the credit card company's high availability requirements.

Regardless of the reason, it's obviously a troubling sign when an IT support facility offers worse availability than a vending machine.

But while I was trying to locate the facility where this occurred, I happened to run across another vending machine story that is troubling in its own way. FacilitiesNet shared this wonderfully inspiring success story from Grubb & Ellis:

Remove light bulbs from all vending machines as an energy-savings initiative. Each machine with the lighting removed was posted with a notice that the machine was in operating condition and the light bulbs had been removed to reduce electric energy consumption.

Removing the lights reduces electric usage that is non-essential to facility operations and ensures that the facility is not paying for a portion of the electricity provided to a vending service to operate privately owned equipment.

Finally, it aligns the facility department with broader efforts to be environmentally conscious.

— James Vetter, vice president, accountÊmanager for Grubb & Ellis Management Services

But before Grubb & Ellis Management Services pats itself on the back for being green, let's look at what just happened.

First, you had to pay people to go to every vending machine and remove the light bulbs.

Second, you had to pay people to post the sign on every vending machine.

Even if you still have cost savings after doing all that, there are two other factors to consider.

First off, how do the people in the facility feel when they come up on a blacked-out vending machine? Does this inspire them to do their best work?

Second off, how do the people associated with the vending machine feel? Take Coca-Cola, for example. Coca-Cola takes great pride in its branding, from the shape of the bottle to the colors in its logo. How would Coca-Cola feel if you dimmed that bright red color?

And however much you saved pennies by removing those light bulbs, it might not make a lot of difference in the end. James Vetter's cost-saving tip was published in October 2009. As noted above, Vetter was working for Grubb & Ellis in 2009. Guess which facility Vetter was supporting?

According to his public LinkedIn profile, Vetter was at General Motors during this period. You'd have to have pulled a lot of lightbulbs to keep General Motors from sliding into bankruptcy court. And Vetter's activities weren't the only nickel and dime efforts by General Motors during this period:

The drive to pinch pennies came two weeks ago, says David Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1714 in Lordstown, Ohio, when the plant there was told workers could no longer work overtime. Workers decided to cancel a bake sale they hold each year for the Toys For Tots program because GM wouldn't let some line workers earn pay while working at the sale as it has done in the past.

Robert Lutz has been very critical of General Motors' past efficiency drives - but ironically, he thinks that things were fine in 2008:

When Bob Lutz got into the auto business in the early 1960s, CEOs knew that if you captured the public’s imagination with innovative car design and top quality craftsmanship, the money would follow. The “car guys” held sway, and GM dominated with bold, creative leadership and iconic brands like Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, GMC, and Chevrolet.

But then GM’s leadership began to put their faith in numbers and spreadsheets. Determined to eliminate the “waste” and “personality worship” of the bygone creative leaders, and maximize profitability, management got too smart for its own good. With the bean counters firmly in charge, carmakers, and much of American industry, lost their single-minded focus on product excellence and their competitive advantage. Decline soon followed.

In 2001, General Motors hired Lutz out of retirement with a mandate to save the company by making great cars again. As vice chairman, he launched a war against the penny-pinching number-crunchers who ran the company by the bottom line, and reinstated a focus on creativity, design, and cars and trucks that would satisfy GM customers.

After emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, GM is finally back on track thanks in part to its embrace of Lutz’s philosophy, with acclaimed new models like the Chevrolet Volt, Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Equinox, and Buick LaCrosse.

Regardless of what actually happened in the months before bankruptcy, by 2011, efficiency expert James Vetter was managing facilities at Walgreens. I don't know why Vetter left GM. Perhaps Lutz chased him away. Perhaps Vetter saw a lightbulb in a Walgreens aisle an idea.

Sometimes we get so distracted by trivial matters that we ignore more important issues.
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