Large Organizations

Insight into the impacts of too much communication

When I read this article this morning I was amazed because the effects described pretty much every large organization I have worked for. This would seem to be especially true for governments but I have no direct experience with those organizations save as a user of their services.

Any organization is tied together by communication — top down for direction, bottom up and peer to peer for information. The model asks what happens to the coordination of the system when communications lag or become imperfect. The results suggest that the overall behavior of the organization degrades rapidly.

Some years back I was consulting with a large financial organization that was going through a process supposedly to make them more effective. This was called ‘Management by Objectives’ — and in theory the folks on top communicate their goals downward through the organization and the layers were supposed to determine what they needed to do to support the higher level goals. But what happens when the folks on top say ‘no, we are not telling you’ — ‘you formulate responses based on what you think we want, but we wont tell you if you got it right or not’. Implementing this program was an audit issue of course. So endless agonizing meetings as folks under the gun struggled to guess what their bosses wanted — the results were hugely destructive.

While this was an extreme example, this kind of pathology plays out every day. Staff in hospitals wonder why their hours and support services are being cut and conditions of work degrade while personal risk increases — but a lavish building program proceeds. And no one has the decency to explain to staff why they are being sacrificed (if that is the real issue). A major communications vendor wonders aloud why they are losing customers and yet their customer service staff regularly lie to customers. And politicians campaign on doing certain things but as soon as elected do the opposite. Well, the last one is more an aspect of politics as usual — like salesmen, the acid test for telling when a politician is lying is ‘he is still breathing’. Just gets harder to tell who will steal the least.

I guess at the root of it all is the loss of feeling for the enabling parts of the organization. The folks on top have a glorious vision of their own importance and just cannot waste their time to communicate downwards in a timely and effective manner to the people who actually do the work. I suspect it is an inverse relationship between how highly these people think of themselves and what is really being accomplished. Northcote Parkinson suggested that bureaucracies tend to grow simply because they exist — not in relation to the work they do. This is certainly apparent in the Ontario utility sector since they embraced the Enron theory of energy management.

It seems reasonable to assume that as internal coordination degrades the organization becomes increasingly dysfunctional. Companies can go out of business regardless of how good a product they produced. But governments just seem to go on and on — wasting even more of the precious resources they take from their citizens.

In the end it would seem that the accidental or deliberate breakdown of communications could lie at the root of the dysfunctionality that seems endemic. That certainly has been my experience.

Acid Test for Conservatives

Now that the Fall election season is heating up we are besieged with messages from the right about the evils of government and government provided services. Social security, healthcare (current and future), and I suppose clean water and sanitation, highways, air travel to name a few small things.

But there is an irony associated with these messages — government spending it seems is evil UNLESS it is in their district. Or government healthcare is creeping socialism and is evil and must be stamped out but we won’t mention the lavish healthcare program provided for these legislators at taxpayer expense. Funny how it can be bad if it goes to anyone else but ok if applied to themselves.

No, the small detail that these things are bad but only for other people suggests we are not hearing from Conservatives but rather FAUX Conservatives. A real conservative would put themselves and their district at the head of the list to stop taking as an example to others. The legislators could buy their own healthcare policy from an independent provider and experience first hand the excitement of discovering what was covered and not — after the event. Or how much fun it is to campaign when 1/3rd of the budget that used to come from other taxpayers via the government now must be made up from local revenues.

But I don’t think this will ever happen. For centuries, perhaps millennium, the real tragedy has been a politician who retired from politics as poor as he entered. Where does all this wealth come from over and above the first rate retirement income and continued healthcare that public service provides?

And then there is the romance of trickle-down economics and deregulation — the government cuts taxes for the wealthy, relaxes the rules to enable riskier business ventures and we are all supposed to be better off. But the experience in the US with these policies starting with Regan was that while the rich got richer the masses got poorer and increasingly unemployed. And then the rich got the masses to bail them out when their finance games went sour. Doesn’t sound very capitalistic to me… somehow.

In the end it comes down to this — political posturing, especially in an election year, is merely story-telling to get elected or stay in office. But how they act shows the reality of their belief and somehow I don’t see any of them NOT excluding themselves and their constituency from the benefits (evils) of government services. That would appear to be the true acid test of their Conservative nature — and I am not encouraged.

Coping with Time of Day Electricity Charges

Ontario Hydro has recently introduced time of use metering for residential electric power. Under the new billing scheme, usage is divided into three periods — on-peak, mid-peak and off-peak — on-peak and mid-peak switch places winter and summer. With delivery charges, debt retirement charges (probably Ontario Hydro partying charges) and the new and improved ‘Harmonized Sales Tax’ representing roughly 55% of the bill the new charge structure is a stiff increase in utility costs.

Over the last few years we have averaged around 0.14/kw-hr , with the new structure our average is just under 0.17/kw-hr. I suspect that many people will see a much larger jump — here a lot of work has been put into understanding where we used power and allowing us to monitor usage on an ongoing basis. (It may have helped that back in the 70s I went through an extensive program on industrial energy auditing.)  And a few changes have been made to help manage when power was being used. This information might be helpful to others seeking to do the same thing.

Living in a rural area we use electricity for water pumping and treatment — a cost not shared by city dwellers. Otherwise we are pretty typical — other than our local computer network and redundant internet connections. As we had considered adding alternate energy sources to offset our power costs I had done a detailed energy audit — basicly a list of every electricity-using device in the place cataloging when it was run and (if possible) how much power it actually used. I purchased a ‘Killawatt’ power meter that plugs between the appliance and the wall — this allowed me to measure actual usage over an extended period for 110v devices. I also bought and installed a whole house power monitor that provides second by second usage and line voltage information and logs it on a computer.

What we learned is that some appliances used far more than we expected — the ‘energuide’ stickers were just wishful thinking. The old refrigerator went quickly when we realized what a pig it was. Over a couple of years the savings in utility costs paid for the new one and we are almost used to the funny noises it makes. And almost all of our lights are compact florescent or LED. One surprise was the standby electricity usage for our A-V entertainment equipment. In ‘standby’ the total draw was on the order of 120 watts – $16/month at our current rates. Everything was plugged into a power bar so adding a remote switch made it convenient to toggle everything off untill we want to use it.

Another change was testing how long we could draw hot water from our electric water tank with the power off. We had added an extra insulating blanket on principle so knew it stayed hot for a long time. The whole house meter showed that the heater kicked on roughly every 30 minutes — generally not on for a long time but it added up. With the power off we could go all day without significant cooling. So I put a heavy duty timer on the power feed that turns it off between 7am and 9pm.

We had already put computerized thermostats on our electric baseboards and added an air-sourced heat pump for the bulk of our winter heat and cooling. With less than 24 inches of topsoil the rock drilling costs of a ground sourced heat pump would have put payback into the 20+ years of an alternate energy (in your dreams) project. Cost savings for the heat pump over baseboards had a 5 year payback. And with no ductwork in the house our realistic choices were very limited. Adding insulation and sealing air leaks also helped a lot — and this was all before the spectre of TOU metering reared its head.

And we looked real hard at all the computer gear that was left running and decided to turn roughly half of it off, except on weekends when the off-peak rates are in effect all the time. Probably just as well, spend too much time at the thing anyhow.

The other big thing was deciding to schedule activities where possible to use the cheap rates. House cleaning is a weekend activity, as is baking and laundry. The dishwasher is run at bedtime. And the drier is rarely used — a new laundry line gets a real workout when the sun is up. But we use the microwave as needed and do other activities at reasonable times — like using the table saw to cut material for projects.

Overall, between awareness and proactive changes we have been able to shift our usage so that between 65% and 70% is in the off-peak rates. And our continuous power draw for water system, refrigerator, freezer and assorted appliances dropped from 1.25kw/hr to 0.7kw/hr. As retirees on fixed incomes this is significant — were we working or still had children to care for it would probably have been much more difficult. But it can be done — but there is no substitute for trying to understand our usage habits and the demand patterns of our electricity-consuming devices. Then make changes and monitor the results. This is probably the only way to be successful in controlling utility costs.