The organ tuner’s parable


“That should take care of this instrument for a while,” the organ tuner smiled.

The OR/MS analyst, who also happened to be the chair of his synagogue’s music committee, smiled back with approval. “I can hear the difference,” he acknowledged. “I have to tell you, though, that I had a hard time getting the budget committee to approve this tuning, because we’re in a bit of a financial crunch and several of them couldn’t hear the difference.”

“How did you get them to go along?” the tuner asked.

The analyst grinned. “I told them, look, this isn’t just aesthetics, it’s maintenance. You can pay for a $300 tuning every year or you can start planning to replace a $30,000 instrument in about 10 years. That woke them up.”

“Nice job,” the tuner laughed. “But I’m surprised that even that worked. As you can guess, I have a number of customers who have middle and upper management positions, and I’ve noticed a common complaint: When finances get tight, often the first items that get cut are maintenance and training. Another organ I’ve tuned several times is in a church that ended up having to replace the roof because they ‘saved’ a little money postponing repairs on some storm damage. You’d think more people would understand roofs than organs. But short-term costs seem to outweigh long-term benefits all too often.”

“I’ve seen the training issue, too,” the analyst said. “I don’t know how many organizations I’ve worked with that paid big money for computer software packages but then didn’t get their people trained in how to use the software. I’ve even seen a few instances where the training was free, sold as part of the software provider’s package, but the buyer wouldn’t even let people have the time to take the training! You can guess what that approach did for productivity.”

They shared another laugh.

“Sometimes the consequences go to more than money,” the tuner added grimly. “You know about those three fatal crashes in the past few years on our public transit system, right? People tell me the problem was that the board of directors and the sponsoring governmental bodies kept cutting maintenance, especially after the recession clobbered their budgets, until pieces of track started failing. Then there was a big hue and cry, of course, investigations, searches for culprits – but not much change in maintenance funding after that initial burst of activity. I used to love this system, but now I’m nervous enough not to ride it much.”

“Yeah, I ride it less too,” the analyst concurred. “But another part of that was that they didn’t have enough parking available at the big suburban stations. They relied on feeder bus service, but then – surprise, surprise! – they cut the bus service after the rail lines opened. So now they’ve been building parking garages, but that’s another reason they were running short of money for maintenance.”

“Penny wise, pound foolish, to quote an old English saying,” the tuner commented. “And a lack of systems thinking, which is what you OR/MS people are supposed to be good at, right? Maybe they needed more of that. Or maybe they just needed more people like another guy I’ve met, the head of security for the system. He’s a stereo buff. He was the one who figured out that their multi-million-dollar emergency response system was failing to communicate information and instructions to riders during crises because the announcements were going out through $50 loudspeakers! He got them to buy new, better speakers, so now you can often understand the announcements in the stations. Did you notice?”

“I did!” the analyst exclaimed. “I didn’t know the story, but I did hear the difference. You’ve conversed with some interesting people!”

“Now that I’m thinking about it,” the tuner said, “there’s another story that fits the pattern. One of my customers is a military historian. He’s read a lot about the Vietnam War, including Nguyen Cao Ky’s book about why we lost. My customer told me that Ky was a conniving politician all the way, whose explanations were not necessarily to be trusted, but he was also a highly regarded fighter pilot and commander.

“And what Ky wrote,” the tuner continued, “was that when he and other Vietnamese nationalists were fighting alongside the French against the Communist Viet Minh, they had a few dozen mechanics who could take a propeller fighter engine apart, pull out the spark plugs, file and re-gap them, and get another 50 to 100 flying hours out of that plane. Then the Americans came, with their F-111s, and the Vietnamese asked how to repair those engines. The Americans just laughed and explained: scrap the engine and install another one from the warehouse full of them at Cam Ranh Bay. So when the Americans left, and the steady supply of engines stopped coming in, there wasn’t a mechanic in the Republic of Vietnam who could put a fighter back in the air when the engine failed – which F-111 engines did frequently, by the way, since reliability and ease of maintenance weren’t major features of their design. How’s that for a horror story?”

The analyst looked properly appalled. “That does explain a few things,” he nodded. “But people take a long time to learn certain lessons, don’t they?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and a senior operations research Analyst with Group W, Inc., in Merrifield and Triangle, Va., supporting the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) and, more recently, U.S. forces in Korea.