A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Olde Curmudgeon -- Chapter 1

Chapter 1. A Chance Meeting

Jack Heller was glad to get away from the plant and deliberately drove several blocks out of his way to stop at a restaurant he was not known to frequent. The meeting had not gone well and he was convinced that although at the end everyone was agreed on taking action there had not been a clear action plan regarding who was to do what and by when. Too many meetings ended that way, with the illusion of action. Meanwhile, cash was dripping out from the bottom line -- sometimes even gushing out.

The restaurant was a mid-level eatery with booths set between dark wood partitions, or partitions of something that was intended to resemble wood. They were much like the cubicles within which his office staff labored, or did something that was intended to resemble labor. A partition ran down the center of the room with booths on either side of it. More booths ran along the walls. Jack did not think the restaurant could fit any more tables in the room, yet it did not seem to be crowded. A good use of floor space, he judged.

Jack settled alone into a booth near the back center. Someone was in the booth on the other side of the partition, but no one else was nearby. He judged the result as close to solitude as he was likely to get. The main lunch rush was over.

He had not finished reading over the menu before his cell rang and he saw it was Molly Colinvaux at the plant. For a moment, he considered letting it go to voice mail, but he knew Molly would not have called on his lunch hour unless something required his input. He activated the phone.

"Yes, Molls, what is it?"

"Tallman needs your signature on the capital request. He finished it like everyone agreed at the meeting and wants to get it out this afternoon."

"Why the rush?  Corporate turned down the last two requests. They said the justification wasn't properly supported."

"You know Bill. Takes his time, then everything has to be right now."

"Corporate is not going to spring for a new storage tank unless we can show the benefits outweigh the costs.  I thought we agreed at the meeting to get a better handle on the construction costs and on the railroad demurrage, production backlog, and the rest. Tell him I turned my phone off so I could eat in peace."

"I guess he had a different idea what was decided than you did."

Jack sighed. "It's always that way with meetings. They take hours but get reported in minutes. We go round and round, and no one knows why." He finished the call and then, after a moment's thought, shut off his cell.  He turned his attention back to the menu and had decided on the roasted chicken breast salad when a voice said, "I bet I know why."

Jack looked around for the source of the voice and when he saw no one nearby raised his head to look over the partition into the neighboring booth. There was a sour-faced older man sitting there over a cup of coffee and the remains of a lunch sandwich. He was not talking on a cell, but looking at Jack with a faint smile on his face.

"Why what?" said Jack.

"Why your meetings take so long and never seem to get to a conclusion."

"Were you listening to my private phone conversation?"

"If you wanted it private, you would have used a phone booth - hey, remember them? - and not blabbed your business to everyone around you."

Jack flushed. He did have a tendency to raise his voice when frustrated. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you."

"Silliness upsets my digestion," the old man grumbled.  Jack could see that he wore a lapel button reading Get Off My Lawn!

"I'm sorry if I upset your digestion," Jack snapped. "But a couple hundred thousand dollar problem doesn't seem silly to me."

"Oh, the problem isn't silly, but the flailing around is. I'll bet my next coffee refill that you've already had several meetings on this same problem, and you're no closer to resolving it than when you started."

Well, it didn't take magic insight to predict that, Jack thought. "And without any briefing, without even hearing about the problem, you know why we're spinning our wheels."

The old man bobbed his head. "A-yuh."

"Just like that."

"A-yuh." He had a battered black notebook on the table before him and started writing in it.

"So, why?" asked Jack Heller.

"You just have to know three things."

Jack shook his head and resumed his seat. The waitress was standing by patiently for his order, and he spent a minute or two placing it. "The Harvest Salad with chicken breast," he told her. "Unsweetened iced tea, no lemon. Whole wheat bread. Coffee, black, after the meal, with a slice of carrot cake no bigger than this." He indicated with his hands how big. The waitress thanked him and left.

The voice floated over from the next booth. "I bet you don't talk that way in the meetings," he said. "Very specific goals and objectives, specifications... Unsweetened iced tea.  No lemon.  You knew exactly what you wanted and you laid it out so Betty couldn't mistake what you wanted. You should be so lucky people leave the meeting with anything like the order slip she walked away with."

Jack surmised that Betty was the waitress. He sighed. "Okay.  What are the three things?"

To be continued...


  1. Is this going to turn into an episode of


    1. TOF is contemplating a management/statistical text book.

    2. Excellent! We desperately need a readable management/statistical propaedeutic text book!

      Deming had excellent ideas, and I cherish his memory, but the editing of his Out of the Crisis and The New Economics was execrable.


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