Conventional Wisdom

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Ever wonder where conventional wisdom comes from?

Take, for example, the myth that the private sector always does something better than the post office. I am actually a fan of our postal system, which I find remarkably cheap and fast. Still, I’d be willing to give up Saturday delivery to save it. I suspect I’d stop sending birthday cards if I had to go to the UPS store every time somebody got older.
In fact, based on personal experience, I think the conventional wisdom that privatization is the road to improved government services at reduced costs to taxpayers is probably flawed logic.

Let me preface this by saying that for 25 years I worked at three Fortune 500 companies. For the most part, this was positive and rewarding, and I am a believer in capitalism. At the same time, there are inevitably frustrating aspects to capitalism, and the profit motive does not preclude bad judgment, waste, or inefficiency, for which the price is too often down-sizing, layoffs or failure.

A few years ago, both my son and daughter were entering the private sector, and I tried to think of some sage advice to offer. As you know, irony is my stock-in-trade, so what I told them is they would probably find more truth in the comic strip “Dilbert” than their college textbooks admit.

In case you’re not familiar with Dilbert, he is an engineer in the comic strip of the same name who works for a pointy-haired boss in what Wikipedia describes as a “Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy for its own sake and office politics that stand in the way of productivity, where employees’ skills and efforts are not rewarded, and busy work is praised.”

Let me offer a personal case study to illustrate.

Back in the 1980s when I worked for the Grace Restaurant Group, we added a line of pies to the menu in Coco’s Restaurants. It took a while, but we finally improved the quality. In taste tests, consumers rated our pies better than those of a certain local competitor (named after somebody’s mother).

We presented the data from the studies back in New York, but the Chairman of the Board was grumpy that afternoon and decided he wanted his own taste test. Probably could’ve waited till his next visit to California, but he wasn’t used to being told to wait. So two executives went around Orange County buying up 30 pies from both competitors, which they then flew first class at 35,000 feet on a red-eye from LAX. The pies got three of the first class seats, and the Chairman got his taste test the very next morning.

To this day, whenever I hear somebody sing the praises of private sector efficiency, I can’t help but think of pies in the sky.

And that’s where conventional wisdom comes from.

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