Friday, September 23, 2011

Suggestion box

Your credit card statement comes. There’s a charge ascribed to some company with an obscure name you don’t immediately recognize, but there’s an 800 number associated with it. So you call the number, speak with someone who eventually answers, and find out that, indeed, this was a purchase you made and agreed to pay for. You hang up.

What has this cost the company (which is obviously set up for just this transaction and probably goes through the process many times an hour)? The call cost something. The representative’s time cost something. Let’s call it $5 (wild guess), which is a cost they then have to build into their prices, probably lowering total units sold.

But there’s a solution. I just received the following email:
Dear Dick Margulis,

This notification is just a friendly reminder (not a bill or a second charge) that on Sep 9, 2011, you placed an order from [obscure company]. The charge will appear on your bill as “[even more obscure rubric]”. This is just a reminder to help you recognize the charge. You will not be charged again.
Bingo! One email, sent by automated script two weeks after the purchase, alerting me to what I’ll see on the bill. Total cost: less than a penny.

Some employee of the company suggested that strategy and hopefully got a reward or a promotion for doing so.

I don’t know if you’re old enough to recall when every box of Kodak film came with a folded sheet of instructions printed on lightweight paper. You may not even be old enough to remember film, but just go with me on this. Kodak had an employee suggestion program. Any employee could write up a suggestion, and if the suggestion was implemented, the employee would get a hefty reward. The number that sticks in my mind is ten thousand dollars, which was nothing to sneeze at fifty years ago.

Well, one inspired employee came up with the idea of printing the instructions on the white inside surface of the yellow box itself, rather than on a separate piece of paper. The cost of the reward was recouped within weeks of making the change, perhaps within days.

A decade or so before that, another Kodak employee noticed that the Brownie camera kits sold as Open Me First Christmas presents were being returned in large numbers because of dead batteries. The batteries were dead because they were inserted into the cameras when the packages were put together, in July, so they could be shipped to stores in time for Christmas sales. The employee suggested packing the batteries in a separate slot in the box, rather than in the camera. Problem solved. Returns cut to a negligible level. Millions of dollars saved.

When was the last time, in this age of MBA-led corporations with their attitude that all innovation comes from the top, that you saw an employee suggestion box?

Just asking.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What color should I paint the hall?

Caller: Is this the architect to whom I am speaking?

Architect: Yes. How may I help you?

Caller: Well, I’m thinking about building a house. I don’t have a piece of property yet, and I don’t know how big the lot will be or whether it will be in town or in the country or near the ocean or near the mountains or what direction it will face or whether it will be in a neighborhood where it’s safe to have picture windows or what style I want the house to be, but there’s a paint sale on at Sears, and I want to know what color I should paint the hall.

The other day in a LinkedIn group called Creative Designers and Writers, someone began a discussion thread under the heading “How do you choose the best font?” [If you can access the group link and then find the discussion, go ahead and do so. I think access is restricted group members, though, so you may not be able to until you are accepted into the group.]

The question, though, is like asking what color to paint the hall. It’s approximately the last question to ask when designing a block of text for a book or a website or anything else. This is old ground for me, but it’s worth repeating. A few of us old type hands tried to put the question in context. Alas, others kept extolling their favorite typefaces (and continuing the confusion about the difference between a font and a typeface, which are not the same). As I said in my comment, “Context. Context. Context. What’s the medium? Who’s the audience? What is the content about? Does the type have to be read, or is it just there to make a statement or draw the eye? If it is to be read, what are the page dimensions, margins, line length, character count, leading, …?”

Details matter.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Two cultures

A visitor last Sunday by the name of Irene blew a tree onto a neighbor’s house. Onto two neighbors’ houses, actually. It was a mature white oak that yielded two good-size saw logs.

The complicating factor, aside from the precariousness of the tree’s crown over the second house (its lower trunk having already crushed the front porch of the first house) was that the neighbor lives on a state road. So the state owned the tree, but the tree fell on private property. Well, rules are rules. It was the homeowner’s responsibility to get the tree taken off the houses. The homeowner, after due consultation with an insurance adjuster, called in a tree service who had worked on the property before.

It was quite a show.
Wednesday, three people showed up in two vehicles. One was a large stake-body truck that would be used to haul away branches and brush. The other was a log truck, the kind with a large hydraulic boom and claw mounted on the back.

One man did all of the technical work. He did both the chainsaw work and the claw work, making a complicated, difficult, dangerous job look like child’s play. It’s a joy to watch someone with that level of skill ply his trade.

His two helpers flagged traffic while he went about his business. Now I don’t know how traffic is flagged on construction sites in your state, but the standard practice around here is that the contractor gets a permit for doing pretty much any work on or near a road, then pays for a police officer to come park a cruiser with flashing lights and stand around in a Day-Glo vest chatting with the workers and occasionally glancing at traffic. In this situation, though, perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of the storm, that requirement seems to have been waived. There was no police officer anywhere to be seen. And despite the two large trucks jutting into the road, there were no traffic cones and no vests of any kind. Just two guys, one before and one after the worksite, in nondescript clothing, with nothing but hand signals, stopping traffic when it had to be stopped and letting it pass when it was safe to do so.

Some people took umbrage at being told to stop by a person not wearing a uniform and decided to thread their way through at inopportune times, but there were only a few near misses and no actual collisions.

Total of three people. At the end of the day, a full truckload of branches and brush headed out and the log truck stayed parked.

Thursday morning, the crew returned, this time with a fifteen-yard Dumpster instead of the large stake-body, and finished the cleanup, then left. No muss. No fuss. Just working guys doing their job as efficiently as possible.

All that was left was the upturned stump, where the tree had tipped out of the soggy ground. State tree. State right-of-way. The state’s job to remove the last piece. This is not a dangerous situation anymore, as the stump is nowhere near power lines or structures of any kind.

This morning, seven state vehicles arrived.
Supervisor’s pickup, large front-end loader. Backhoe. Cherry picker. Three dump trucks.

That was an hour ago. They’re still here. The road, during commute time, is blocked at both ends, forcing traffic to detour. At some point I’m sure they’ll get done with what they’re doing, but what they’re doing consists principally in picking up one large, heavy object and placing it in a truck for removal.

Just working guys doing their job, in full compliance with all state work rules.

To all those who complain about regulations hampering private business,
I offer this counterexample.