The waitress’s parable

Doug Samuelson

The four OR/MS analysts were enjoying a friendly dinner after the first day of sessions at a national conference, cheerfully ignoring the “informal reception” (several hundred people milling around eating pretzels and potato chips and drinking sodas, with little opportunity for meaningful conversation) scheduled for that evening. One of them mentioned a recent column in the association’s news magazine, describing a situation in which a project sponsor wanted the analytical team to fail.

“Good story,” Craig, who had worked in a consulting firm with many federal clients, acknowledged, “but I think he overlooked something important, or maybe he was just being kind. What if the real problem is that the manager is just plain crazy, or incompetent, or both? Have you guys ever experienced that?” The others all nodded.

Ted, another of the analysts, volunteered, “I had a manager some years ago who ordered us all to use those Microsoft split keyboards, which most of us hated, so we would keep our inventory costs down by having only one model of keyboard in our spares stock. But our ‘spares inventory’ was the Circuit City about three miles down the street – we just bought what we needed when we needed it. None of us could explain adequately to him why this idea was just plain dumb.”

“At least all it cost was some aggravation,” Carol, another of the analysts, chuckled. “I worked a few years ago in a military unit commanded by a light colonel who insisted that all our files for each project had to be on the same disk, ‘to maintain version control’ or some such thing. I pointed out that in the event of a disk crash, it’s extremely helpful to have your backup on a different physical device. ‘Oh, the operations people can just restore from backup,’ he replied. I said, ‘Sure, but after a crash they’ll be dealing with dozens of urgent backup requests. Isn’t it better to be able to recover on your own?’ I guess he didn’t think so, because not only did he cut off the discussion right there, but he also stopped inviting me to those technical review meetings.” They all laughed.

Mike recounted, “I worked some years ago for a micromanager who had made her reputation finding where health claims coders hid their backlog – behind file drawers, above ceiling tiles, wherever. Her basic rule of life was that everyone’s hiding something, and men were especially untrustworthy. One of the top technical people told her, when we started a big database load, ‘The disk drive is chattering an awful lot, like it’s struggling to keep up with the data transfers. I think we need another gigabyte of RAM.’ This was maybe 20 years ago, and that extra RAM would have cost about a thousand dollars. ‘You techie guys are always trying to get bigger, hotter toys,’ the boss scoffed. ‘Live with what we got.’ Another appeal, this time telling her that the cabinet was getting warm to the touch on the side where the disk drive was, got the same answer. Then came the email: ‘The disk drive caught fire. The drive and the motherboard are toast. Please advise.’ Call it a really hot system, right?”

They all laughed some more.

Craig added, “Those managers were incompetent, but I have had a couple who were just plain crazy. You know, the ones who scream at everybody about everything, and don’t see that what someone did might just be exactly what the manager had told them to do, at least as they understood it. Not much you can do about those types, other than leave, right?

“I had one pair,” he continued, “let’s call them Hans and Fritz. Hans was totally out of his depth – he’d been recruited from industry, didn’t know how government works, didn’t have the patience to learn. He saw everyone as out to make him look bad. Fritz did know how to get things done, but he had terrible judgment about what to do, and a mean streak. Mostly he kept trying to undermine Hans. If he thought you weren’t on his side in that conflict, you were the next enemy. Talk about a place you’d want to get out of as fast as you could! And I did!”

Craig smiled at the waitress who had, as it happened, arrived to take their orders as they were exchanging stories. Reading her name tag, he added impishly, “What do you think, Cindy? Have you ever worked for someone who seemed just plain nuts?”

“They’re pretty common in this line of work,” Cindy affirmed with a sly grin. “I’ve had plenty of screamers, too, and bosses who didn’t understand enough about how the kitchen worked to understand why some orders took a long time. Once I had one chew me out, in front of the customers, for not serving the wine I’d just opened for them to the ladies first – I guess he’d never heard that you’re supposed to give whoever ordered the wine a taste, and wait for that person’s approval, before you serve anyone else. Fortunately, the customer did get it, and he gave me a conspiratorial wink and a nice tip. But still, ugh!”

“So what do you do about it, other than try to find someplace else?” Craig asked.

Cindy’s sly grin grew broader. “Well, actually, I appreciate it. I’m a writer and actress, doing this job while I look for a break. So these incidents aren’t just annoyances, they’re material for the novel I’m writing! Would you mind if I use your stories I overheard?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va. The reference is to “The Parable of Desired Failure” in the April 2015 of OR/MS Today.