Archive for the ‘General Business’ Category.

KFC and China

Apparently YUM Brands stock is falling because investors are worried about KFC's prospects in China.  I am not a YUM supporter particularly, nor am I a patron of KFC, but from some exposure to China I can say that KFC in China is like Taco Bell in the movie Demolition Man.  They own the market.

Unlike All Those Passive People, I Am Waiting to Be Handed My Big Break

This is an amazing and self-refuting cry for help by Kate MacKay (via Maggies Farm)

By and large, my friends and my friends’ friends are all intelligent, educated, gregarious, and creative. They’re insightful and thoughtful. They’re critical and ambitious. So why do so many employers put them in positions that don’t take full advantage of what they’ve got to offer?...

But this is really bad talent management on the part of our employers. If you have ambitious, smart young people who actually want to do more work and use their talents to the maximum – so that they can grow as people and employees – then you’re an idiot as an employer to not take advantage of this....

The places that we work for are chock-a-block with people who are contented in their positions; they’re sitting low in their saddles, riding out the last miles toward the sunset of retirement. They’re not interested in changing horses any more, the way we are, and so those saddles that we want to have remain full, often by people who have lost more than just their ambitions for new jobs. They’ve lost the drive to get things done quickly, they’ve lost creativity, and they’ve especially lost the outsider’s perspective on the job they do and the company they work for. They’re entrenched in the corporate culture of the place, and nothing kills innovation or ambition faster than people dedicated to the status quo....

This is where I am, and many of my friends are in this position too, just hoping and waiting for either the next better job outside, or some radical shift inside. I’ve thought seriously about changing my LinkedIn profile blurb to something like, “My career goal is to gain a position that energizes, excites, challenges, and values me, so that I can continue to develop my skills and talents, and grow as a person.” I wonder if that would catch anyone’s eye?...

OK, stay with me, I am saving the good part for last, but it is important to get this background.  This person is seriously confused.  Companies do not exist to give one jobs that match one's skills.  In fact, they do not exist to provide jobs at all.  They exist to serve customers and thereby generate surpluses for the owners.  They hire people to do specific jobs that are part of a process to serve these customers and owners.

I am sympathetic to the notion that there is lost value in my employees, that they can do things that might be useful to me that I do not tap.  But I have 500 employees.  I have time to customize like maybe two of those jobs to the talents of individuals, and these are high level jobs where the benefit of that time commitment on my part is worth it.  For the rest of the employees, I have to be satisfied I am missing some value, because at best I don't have the time or resources to customize jobs to every employee's unique snowflakeness.  And at worst, such customization would mess up our customer service process.  At some level, I don't want every front line employee inventing his or her own imagined customer contact or cash management process.

But I promised you the best is yet to come. and here it is:

All of them wonder when their break is going to come, when the thing they’re doing will finally spill over from ‘just making it work’ to ‘making it.’ And I wonder that too, because this risk-taking group of determined individuals should be rewarded by the universe, I think, for their innovation and dedication. The other group, sitting undervalued at their desks, should be likewise rewarded for their abilities and ambitions.

My overall sense is that we’re all in the same place, sitting together in a kind of employment purgatory, waiting for something to happen. We keep working – we’re not sitting idle. We apply for jobs, we network, push for promotions or projects, advertise ourselves, and keep our eyes on the horizon. We are striving, ever striving, for the thing that we want that we know we can do. Economists be damned, we’re all just waiting for our big break, and we won’t be satisfied with a comfy saddle riding toward the sunset.

Did you get that?  This risk-taking and proactive group is determined to sit on their ass and wait for someone in the universe to appreciate them, for some organization to create a perfect job that gives each employee snowflake his or her perfect work experience.

Jeez, I have had a series of sucky jobs over time.  So as advice to those that think a proactive job search encompasses seriously considering a new Linked-in profile blurb, I did two things:

  • I changed jobs, and eventually went to work for myself.
  • I stopped defining my total-life fulfillment by what I do for a paycheck, and took on other tasks outside of work (blogging, writing, building) that brought me satisfaction but for which people have been as-yet unwilling to pay me.

Best Buy: We Focus on Items People Don't Buy from Walmart or Amazon

Well, that is not exactly what they said, but this confirms some earlier casual observations of their stores I have written lately:

Shoppers typically associate Best Buy with TVs and computers, but the retailer plans to dedicate more floor space to appliances in the coming months as the housing market continues to improve.

Here is my translation:  Half of our floor space has gone digital (DVD, CD, games) and the other half has items where Amazon and Walmart are killing us.  But we are locked into long-term leases we can't break for a bunch of freaking large stores so we need to put something out there.  So we will try appliances.  Next up, mattresses?

Problems at UPS

I continue to have shipments lost - badly lost - recently at UPS.  After 10 years of not a single foul-up, UPS has now lost or mis-routed five important shipments of mine in just 3 months.  In several of these cases, shipments that were supposed to be overnight did not get delivered for 4 or 5 days.  More worrisome, the packages seemed to sit (according to the tracking) in random locations until I called and forced something to happen -- there did not seem to be any sort of automatic intervention to save or reroute them.  In the most disturbing case, a woman in Arizona called our office to tell us that our Florida payroll had just been delivered by UPS to her house.

This is particularly worrisome because most of our shipments are date critical - payroll that has to be somewhere on a particular date or bids that must be delivered by a certain time or be voided.  Recently we have taken to paying extra and shipping everything one day faster than we need to give UPS room to screw up - ie overnight when we actually have two days to the due date.  But even so, UPS has fouled two shipments up so badly they were late even with an extra day to spare.

My statistics memory is rusty, but my guess is that my very few samples of a very large system don't necessarily indicate a process problem to any significance.  Still, we are worried.  The problem is I don't know who to switch to -- we left Fedex when they screwed up two of our first three shipments.

On Purchasing in Bulk

My son ordered a book from my Amazon account (the Way of Baseball by Shawn Green) and accidentally had it sent to my house rather than to his dorm.  Looking at my shipping costs on UPS to get it up to him, it was cheaper to buy a new copy for him and have Amazon ship it for free with my Prime membership than it was for me to ship the other copy to him.  I would love to see what Amazon pays UPS.  This is a $24 list price hardback book that Amazon sells for $9.60 and then packages and ships for free.

Statements I Believe Unequivocally

"Everybody with half a brain is coming to California"

-- Governor Jerry Brown

Portents of Doom at Local Barnes & Noble Store

I visited B&N the other day -- tellingly not to buy anything but as a way to kill time while my daughter was shopping.    What I saw gave me a serious case of deja vu -- where the book store used to be all, you know, books, there were now large sections dedicated to toys and games and collectibles and other such stuff.

This totally reminded me of the last days at CompUSA, when floor space originally all dedicated to computers and software was being used for DVD players and appliances and all kinds of odd stuff.  I see the same thing now at Best Buy, with workout equipment and other oddball products.  I told my son on a visit a year ago to Best Buy to expect to see the a larger appliance selection next time we visit.  He asked why, and I said "because Wal-Mart does not generally sell them, and not a lot of people buy their large appliances at Amazon."  Sure enough, you see more appliances nowadays.

I don't think that converting your over-sized book store into an under-sized department store is going to work.  It is hard to shift a retail chain's positioning, though it is possible (anyone remember when the Gap was just a Levis store?)  But things like leases and locations are really sticky, making it hard to change fast if your new concept needs more or less space or different locations.

A Really Bad Deal

In Obamacare, it was mandated that health insurance companies spend 85% of premiums on care (vs. marketing, profits, and overhead) or else they owe their customers a refund.  So if the same standard was applied to unions, how much of their dues would they have to refund?

For example, according to the most recent federal filings, the Michigan Education Association — the state’s largest labor union — received $122 million and spent $134 million in 2012. They averaged about $800 from each of their 152,000 members.

According to union documents, "representational activities" (money spent on bargaining contracts for members) made up only 11 percent of total spending for the union. Meanwhile, spending on “general overhead” (union administration and employee benefits) comprised of 61 percent of the total spending.

The union appears to have spent nearly the entirety, or $119 million of their $122 million in dues, just supporting their leadership  (and various politicians) in grand style.  They actually had to borrow $12 million to do their job of representing their members.

By Obama's standard of good management (core activity costs = 85% of total customer dues paid) then the union should have taken only $17.4 million from their members, and owe them a $104.6 million refund.

People Constantly Amaze Me

My company has an email list folks can join to get emails if we have jobs available.  We have about 15,000 people on the list and get hundreds of applications whenever there is a new job, even though we probably have fewer than 20 openings a year.   I got this email today from someone I suppose must have added his name to the list:

Do you know that since I signed up with youI have not recieved ONE e-mail from you about jobs ???  Are you holding out jobs for friends ? Do you just get people to sign up then forget them for fun ??  Or is it that you have no job leads ???
Why did I waste my time signing up with you ????????????

Certainly this man's willingness to turn the smallest frustration into an enormous imagined slight with hints of conspiracy is EXACTLY what we are looking for in our customer service staff.

Corporate DNA

Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example.  Part of this piece read:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

The Biggest Economic Story of 2013...

Sorry, but it is not the fiscal cliff.   It is the complete shift in the US labor model, at least in the service sector, due to Obamacare.

Here is what I am doing for the rest of the year -- working with every manager in my company so that as of January 1, 2013, none of our employees are working more than 28 hours a week.   I think most readers know the reason -- we have got to get our company under 50 full time employees or else I am facing a bill from Obamacare in 2014 that will be several times larger than my annual profit.  I love my workers.  They make me a success.  But most of my competitors are small businesses that are exempt from the Obamacare hammer.  To compete, I must make sure my company is exempt as well.  This means that our 400+ full time employees will have to be less than 50 in 2013, so that when the Feds look at me at the start of 2014, I am exempt.  We will have more employees working fewer hours, with more training costs, but the Obamacare bill looks like about $800,000 a year for us, at least, and I am pretty sure the cost of more training will be less than that.

This will be unpopular but tolerable to most of my employees.  The vast majority of them are retired and our company is merely an excuse to stay busy, work outdoors, and get a little extra money.

But this is going to be an ENORMOUS change in the rest of the service sector.  I have talked to a lot of owners of restaurants and restaurant chains, and the 40-hour work week is a thing of the past in that business.  One of my employees said that in Hawaii, it was all the hotel employees could talk about.   Many chains are working on mutli-team systems where two teams of people working part-time replace the former group of full-time employees.  2013 is going to see a lot of people (who are not paid very well to begin with) getting their hours and pay cut by 25%.  At the same time that they are required, likely for the first time since many are relatively young, to purchase health insurance.

It will be interesting to see what solutions emerge.  My bet is that it will become standard for people in the service sector to work two different jobs for 20-25 hours each with two different companies.  This will be a pain for them, but allow them to keep their income up.  The hard part may be coordinating shifts between companies.  For example, a company that divides their shifts into mon-tue-wed vs. thu-fri-sat cannot share employees with one who divides their shifts between morning and afternoon.  If given time, I would guess that just as the mon-fri workweek emerged as a standard, companies may adopt standard ways of dividing up the work weeks for part-timers, making it easier for schedules to mesh.

Twinkies Going Galt

Via Fox News

Hostess Brands — the maker of iconic brands such as Wonder Bread and Twinkies — is shutting down and firing 18,500 workers after one of its unions refused to end a strike even after being warned it would kill the company.

The privately-held company had reached a deal with the Teamsters, but a smaller union representing bakery workers refused to agree to concessions, prompting the mass layoffs and closing down of hundreds of plants, bakeries and delivery routes. That prompted harsh words from both the company and from Teamsters officials.

"We deeply regret the necessity of today's decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike," Chief Executive Gregory Rayburn said in a statement. "Hostess Brands will move promptly to lay off most of its 18,500-member workforce and focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders."

I suppose Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg are celebrating

Something I Was Reminded of Today

The world's most unproductive task is attempting to enforce self-awareness on someone else.  Keeping this one truism in mind, while shelving one's ego, seems the best approach to solving conflicts in my business, whether it be with partners, employees, or customers.

Bid Rigging for Municipal Asset Management

Rolling Stone Magazine has an good story on the conviction of a number of banks and brokers on charges of bid-rigging, specifically on contracts for short-to-medium term management of municipal bond cash accounts.  Apparently brokers were paid by certain banks to be given a look at all the other bids before they made their final bid.  The article focuses mainly on the ability of winning bidders not to bid any higher than necessary, though I would suppose there were also times when, given this peek, the winning bidder actually raised its bid higher than it might have to ace out other bidders.

This is classic government contracting fraud and it's great to see this being rooted out.  I am not wildly confident it is going to go away, but any prosecutorial attention is welcome.

But I am left with a few questions:

  • It seems that government contracting is more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.  Similar stories have existed for years in state highway contracting, and the municipal bond world has had accusations of kick-backs for years.  Is this a correct perception, or is the rate of fraud between public and private contracting the same but we just notice more with the government because the numbers are larger, the press coverage is greater, and the prosecutorial resources are more robust?
  • If government contracting of this sort is more susceptible to fraud, why, and how do we fix it?

The latter is not an academic question for me.  I run a company that privately operates public recreation areas.  I bid on and manage government contracts.  Frequently, a major argument used against the expansion of such privatization initiatives is that past government outsourcing and contracting efforts have been characterized by fraud and mismanagement.  The argument boils down to "the government has so many management problems that it can't be trusted with contracting for certain services so it needs to operate those services itself."

The only way to reconcile this view is to assume that private actors are more likely to act fraudulently and be dishonest than public employees.  If this were true, then the public would be safer if a public management process of questionable ability were applied towards public employees rather than outside private contractors, because those who were being managed would be less likely to take advantage.  And certainly there are plenty of folks with deep skepticism of private enterprise that believe this.

However, I would offer that only by adopting an asymmetric view of what constitutes fraud would we get to this conclusion.  Clearly, banks colluding to shave a few basis points off municipal asset returns is fraud.     As the author of the Rolling Stone piece puts it several times, the crime here is that the public did not get the best market rate.  So why is, say, elected officials colluding with public employees unions to artificially raise wages, benefits, and staffing levels above market rates not fraud as well?  In both cases insiders are manipulating the government's procurement and political processes to pay more than the market rates for certain services.

This is Bastiat's "seen and unseen" of the privatization debate.   Yes, the world is unfortunately littered with examples of government procurement fraud.  This is often cited as a reason for maintaining the status quo of continued government management of a diverse range of services.  But what we miss, what is unseen, is that these government services are often run with staffing levels, work rules, productivity expectations, and pay rates that would constitute a scandal if uncovered in a division of a corporation, particularly if the workers were spending a lot of money to make sure the manager handing them this largess was able to keep his job.

Yes, the public lost several basis points on its investments when it did not get the market rate of return from cheating bankers.  But it loses as much as 50% of every tax dollar sent to many state agencies because it does not get market rates (and practices) for state labor.

I Find This Impossible to Understand

Most of you are familiar with the razor and blades strategy:  Give away or sell the razor below cost to ensure years of profitable razor blade sales.  We had a great example of this at AlliedSignal (later Honeywell) Aerospace where we pretty much gave Boeing the brake assemblies for the aircraft plus a free spare plus I think we put some cash in the box as well, all to get decades of guaranteed high price brake replacement business (courtesy in part to government regulation which made is extraordinarily difficult to the point of being impossible for anyone else to produce aftermarket parts).

So what I don't understand is, why is this company proposing to sell only the razors while inevitably leaving the blade sales to someone else:

The UK's biggest bookstore chain has announced that it will start selling Kindles alongside other digital services from Amazon. Waterstones stores will let Kindle owners digitally browse books in-store and link up with special offers, tying into the chain's plans for substantial renovations that would also include dedicated digital book areas and free WiFi.

One buys the books right from the Kindle interface.  I understand the issue that browsing books online is less satisfying than in a book store (but much more convenient), but I am not sure how they are going to make money.  Are Waterstone Kindle's coded to give Waterstones a share of each purchase?  I can't find anything like that in the media reports, but I would certainly demand that at Waterstones.  If not, this is like selling gift certificates for your competitor.

I will confess to being a book store free rider.  I shop airport book stores but if I see something I like, pull out my iPad at the gate and buy it.  Yes, I understand the appeal of physical books and it frankly pulled at me for years.  But having just gone on a trip with 100 pages to read in the third Game of Thrones book, the relief I felt in having both the third and fourth books on my iPad rather than carrying both physically  (think 800 pages or so each) was great.

Where Did Those First Solar Subsidies Go? $32 Million went to their Failed CEO

It would be impossible to trace all the ways taxpayer money ends up in the coffers of solar manufacturers like First Solar.  Most of First Solar's money has been made selling panels in Germany to solar plants that, by law, can rape electricity customers with prices 10-15x higher than the market price for electricity.  First Solar also benefits more directly from direct subsidies, loan guarantees, "retraining" subsidies and even government Ex-Im Bank loans to sell panels to itself.  While First Solar vehemently denies it is a subsidy whore, it is telling that when Germany began to cut its solar feed-in tariffs, First Solar's stock price fell from over $300 to around $20.  Just watch day to day trading of First Solar stock, it does not move on news about its efficiency or productivity, it moves on rumors of changes in government subsidies.

Let's look at one subsidy.  In 2010, the Obama administration gave First Solar a subsidy of $16.3 million, ostensibly to help open a new plant in Ohio.  But it is interesting that this private company, which apparently could only raise the $16.3 million it needed by taking it by force from taxpayers, had plenty of money to pay its CEO.  In the 13 months leading up to its $16.3 million taken from taxpayers, First Solar paid its new CEO $29.85 million!  

Rob Gillette, the ousted CEO of First Solar Inc., earned more than $32 million in compensation from the struggling company for his two years of service, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday.

Gillette came to First Solar from Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace in October 2009 and was fired by the Tempe-based solar company's board of directors in October 2011....

Most of his compensation came in the three months of 2009 that he worked, when his total compensation, including salary, bonus, stock and options awards and other perks, reached $16.55 million. In 2010 his total compensation was $13.3 million, and last year he earned $2.46 million, which consisted of $763,000 in base salary and a $1.7 million severance.

Yep, they can't scrape up $16.3 million of their own money for a factory but they can find $30 million to give to an unproven CEO they eventually had to ride out on a rail.

By the way, I don't know Mr. Gillette, but I was once an executive at Honeywell Aerospace for several years.  I can tell you that it's a great place to find an executive who is focused on process to manage large complex organizations in a relatively stable business where manufacturing, logistics, and schmoozing large buyers is important.  It is a terrible, awful place to seek an executive for a fast growing business that needs to rapidly shift business strategies and where grinding through the process gets the wrong answer 12 months too late.

Can You Name a Retailer Who Has Had A Second Act?

Apparently, the nose dive at Best Buy is accelerating.  Watching retail just as a consumer over the last few decades, it seems that whenever a retailer starts going down the drain, they never recover.  Calls are made for more visionary management to reposition the company, but I can't remember any such effort ever working.  The slide may be fast - Circuit City, CompUSA, Borders - or slow - Sears, A&P - but the nose dive never seems to reverse.  The only retailer I can possibly remember really executing a fairly large shift was maybe Gap from just being a Levi's outlet to whatever it is today.   And maybe Radio Shack, which is sort of this zombie you think has been outdated for like three decades but keeps hanging on.

Greatest Corporate Value Proposition Ever

From Tacocopter:

Flying Robots Deliver Tacos To Your Location

If this is an April Fools joke, I am going to cry.

Price Signal Flashing

OK, those of you looking for a business opportunity, Taylor dominates the soft-serve ice cream machine business.   Today one of our machines broke.  We got a quote for a refurbished machine -- with trade-in of our old macine - $14,000!  The brand new ones cost as much as a car.

So investors -- there is your flashing price signal.  There should be a big enough umbrella here to make some money with a good design and thoughtful sourcing.  And I can tell you everyone who uses these machines is eagerly awaiting such an entrant.

Interesting Inspection Technique

Love this story ... hope its not apocryphal

That got me to thinking about a wonderful story of how one of rock's legendary bands ensured that their shows were set up properly - and safely.  Van Halen's contracts would spell out any and everything that had to occur before they would go on stage.  Not surprisingly, since these contracts covered everything but the kitchen sink, it would be nearly impossible to make sure all the i's and lower-case j's were dotted.  So they came up with a smart way to make sure everything was followed to a tee.

In their contracts, they buried a rider in that said that the band would be provided with a jar of M&M's with all the brown ones removed.  The thinking was that if the contract were read thoroughly, the M&M's would be provided sans the brown ones.  If that was done properly, so, likely, would everything else.  So rather than checking to see if everything was taken care of, they simply looked for the jar of M&M's.  If there were brown ones inside, they'd have everything checked top-to-bottom

When you think about it, that's a nearly costless way to check for quality control.  So much for the dumb musician stereotype.

Different From My Household

In our house, I am the milquetoast that accepts offers as presented and my wife is the one who challenges and negotiates.  But apparently that's not typical.

My Most Difficult Customer Service Problem

The most frequent customer service fail we have in our company is when an employee, thinking they are doing me some kind of favor, go nuts on a customer trying to enforce some trivial rule or trying to collect the last $5 our company might be owed.

It is astronomically hard to train people to use their judgement the same way I would in a customer situation.  This is particularly true when ego gets involved, when the employee feels like they have somehow taken a ego hit, with the customer "winning" and them "losing."  I once had an employee drive out of the park we were operating and chase a woman down the road over a misunderstanding about whether $5 had been paid correctly.  Incredible.  Unfortunately,  I have found no amount of training can fix judgement this bad, and the only thing I know how to do is fire them as fast as possible so they can't do any more harm.

I have always supposed this over-zealousness was a general human train, but in certain am-I-crazy moments, I wonder if somehow I am preferentially selecting for this kind of nuttiness.  Apparently not:

A Hawaii couple’s 3-year-old daughter was taken away from them for 18 hours after they were arrested for forgetting to a pay for two $5 sandwiches.

“This is unreal this could happen to a family like ours,” Nicole Leszczynski told Hawaii’s KHON.

The outing-turned-nightmare happened Wednesday while the family was shopping at a local Safeway.

“We walked a long way to the grocery store and I was feeling faint, dizzy, like I needed to eat something so we decided to pick up some sandwiches and eat them while we were shopping,” Leszczynski told the news station.

Leszczynski, who is 30-weeks pregnant, her husband, Marcin, and daughter Zophia bought $50 worth of groceries — but forgot about their two chicken salad sandwiches.

“It was a complete distraction, distracted parent moment,” Leszczynski told KHON.

As the family left, they were stopped by store security, who asked for their receipt.

“I offered to pay, we had the cash. We just bought the groceries,” Leszczynski told the station.

Instead, the expectant mother told KHON that the Safeway manager called police. They were taken to the main Honolulu police station where they were booked for fourth degree theft. Then Zophia was taken into custody by Child Protective Services.

I will say that I think the public agencies we replace in operating these parks are generally worse at this than we are, simply because so many of their employees have law enforcement certifications.  Dealing with customer service issues using law enforcement officers is often a recipe for bad outcomes.

It's Hard To Change Corporate DNA

Especially when the government is doing all it can to damp the forces of evolution and extinction.  Via Mickey Kaus

Dysfunctional–or at any rate, not-functional-enough–corporate cultures are hard to change. That would include both the culture of the Old GM and that of many of its suppliers. Obama should have been more skeptical about “New GM’s” ability to turn itself around with its same old workforce and same old union

I warned of something similar long before GM was rescued by Bush and Obama:

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM’s DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

When Investors Have Police Forces

I have argued many times that private investors, over the long haul, will make better investment choices than the government, in part because they have better incentives and information to guide their decision-making.  The straw-man argument against this is to point out anecdotes of failed private investments.  Heck, I can do that.  Pets.com famously blew through $300 million of private capital with a corporate strategy that never made much sense to people.

The Pets.com investors were chagrined, and probably learned a lesson from their mistake.  Certainly most of us thought the blame, if blame existed, for the debacle rested on the investors for pouring money into a bad proposition.  Certainly no one accused the management of fraud -- I am sure they were diligently, honestly trying to make the company a success, even if they were misguided as to where that success lay.

As it turned out, everyone, not just the Pets.com investors, learned from the mistake.  The failure was an important driver in an industry-wide rethink as to what a successful Internet business model might look like.  This benefit only came because people were willing to acknowledge not just that the Pets.com investment was flawed, but that it represented a systematic mistake that was being made vis a vis Internet startup investments.

Now, consider solar manufacturer Solyndra.  It failed this week, likely taking with it most of $535 million in taxpayer money that the Obama Administration was so eager to give them that it short-cutted its internal processes to fork over the cash more quickly.

Many of us on the outside would love to see the government rethink such investments in a systematic way, and reconsider if it is even possible for the government to make such investments, and in particular whether "green jobs" investments make any sense at all.

But the likelihood of that kind of introspection happening in the public world is about zero, and my bet is that Obama is going to propose more of the same tonight in his speech.

In fact, the Department of Energy (the source of the loan) and the FBI have today sent armed agents into Solyndra looking for evidence of fraud.   While Zero Hedge argues that fraud would be bad for Obama, in fact I think it would probably be the best possible outcome and one he is hoping for.  If he can say, "wow, you and I both got tricked here by some evil folks we are going to put in jail" it deflects attention from the fact that he put a half billion dollars of taxpayer money into a business plan that never made a lick of sense.

Another me-too solar manufacturer with a factory in California of all places was never going to compete in a global commodity market.  This company's plan was always to sell dollars for 50 cents and to make it up on volume.  I don't see how any investor thought this was going to work.  My guess is that the private investors didn't know much about solar and invested because it had a certain hip-ness to it, or less charitably, they knew it never made sense but hoped that Uncle Sam, once it was already in for a half billion, would keep more money flowing or perhaps agree to buy out their production at above market prices.

There may have indeed been fraud, but as in the case of Pets.com, it is perfectly possible no real internal fraud existed and they ran through a ton of money against a stupid business plan that should never have been funded.  Obama would greatly prefer to call it fraud rather than his own failure of judgement.  As an aside, Fannie and Freddie are pursuing exactly the same course in suing banks, arguing that they were defrauded by the banks in buying mortgages, a fairly laughable proposition in the great scheme of things when one considers Fannie and Freddie were at the forefront of the industry in driving down lending standards and promoting the expansion of the mortgage market.

Major Justification for GM Bailout Falls Apart

As GM was failing, I argued for the normal laws of bankruptcy to be allowed to work.  After all, valuable brands and manufacturing facilities were not just going to go *poof* -- someone would purchase them and employ them, and hopefully those someone's would to a better job than the previous owners and managers.

A big part of the "logic" for bailout and Presidential intervention in the auto companies was that auto purchases would halt if consumers were unsure whether their warranties would be honored and service would be available.

From an AP story, November 13, 2008

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Industry supporters are offering such grim predictions as Congress weighs whether to bail out the nation's largest automakers, which are struggling to survive the steepest economic slide in decades....

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

Well, it turns out that this was partially bogus.  The written warranties are still honored, but GM argues it left liability for any defects or design problems in the old shell company

General Motors Co (GM.N) is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit over a suspension problem on more than 400,000 Chevrolet Impalas from the 2007 and 2008 model years, saying it should not be responsible for repairs because the flaw predated its bankruptcy.

The lawsuit, filed on June 29 by Donna Trusky of Blakely, Pennsylvania, contended that her Impala suffered from faulty rear spindle rods, causing her rear tires to wear out after just 6,000 miles. [ID:nN1E7650CT]

Seeking class-action status and alleging breach of warranty, the lawsuit demands that GM fix the rods, saying that it had done so on Impala police vehicles.

But in a recent filing with the U.S. District Court in Detroit, GM noted that the cars were made by its predecessor General Motors Corp, now called Motors Liquidation Co or "Old GM," before its 2009 bankruptcy and federal bailout.

The current company, called "New GM," said it did not assume responsibility under the reorganization to fix the Impala problem, but only to make repairs "subject to conditions and limitations" in express written warranties. In essence, the automaker said, Trusky sued the wrong entity.

"New GM's warranty obligations for vehicles sold by Old GM are limited to the express terms and conditions in the Old GM written warranties on a going-forward basis," wrote Benjamin Jeffers, a lawyer for GM. "New GM did not assume responsibility for Old GM's design choices, conduct, or alleged breaches of liability under the warranty."

Of course, this happens all the time in bankruptcy  (and it is my experience, but I am not a legal expert) that GM may or may not succeed in this argument.  It is not always possible to leave liabilities behind in an old corporate shell, or else companies would reorganize every year.

But the point is that the special treatment of GM was supposed to be to protect consumers, and that turns out to be BS.  The warranties were likely always going to be protected in any bankruptcy, as such consumer benefits nearly always are in chapter 11 (the fact that you still hold any frequent flyer miles is proof of this, as nearly every airline in the country has been through chapter 11 in the last couple of decades and none of them disavowed their frequent flyer miles, despite the fact that holders are the most unsecured of unsecured creditors).