If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them:

Reality Check

May 19, 2008

After a couple of days of deep thought followed by two Nu-Way hotdogs, I’ve concluded that it may be existentially suspect to dwell overmuch about natural disasters. Nonetheless, we had one here in Middle Georgia one week ago, when multiple tornadoes touched down. I do not intend to trivialize Macon’s disruptive episode, but it is worth mentioning that simultaneously, there were earthquakes in China, the aftermath of a hurricane in Burma, a volcano erupting somewhere in South America and an overturned chicken truck on I-16.

The world is pretty much a mess and we got to see it firsthand. Experiencing a natural disaster “in real life” is much different than the momentary sympathetic impulse we feel after seeing the story on network news. Even if the wreckage doesn’t affect us personally, it’s still very tangible and a little scary when it happens all around you.

Macon State Damage
The image above, filched from the website of The Macon Telegraph, shows the campus of Macon State College. (For more images, see Storm Photos on Macon.com. ). Nearly 90% of the trees on campus were destroyed. According to news reports, up to 40% of the forest canopy in Middle Georgia was destroyed or damaged. Not good.

Unlike Burma and China, the cleanup effort in Macon happened very quickly. Georgia Power, with lots of help from other Southern Company utilities, got power up and running almost everywhere within 3 days. Volunteers showed up with chainsaws. Streets were made passable. Stores opened back up. Even Macon State College was open for business again on Thursday, a short four days after the storm.

Human tenacity, especially in the face of disaster, is remarkable; but I wonder if God doesn’t see it somewhat like the efforts of ants repairing the after effects of Mikey’s bright red Converse hightops. It’s all very serious and real to us, but only a little piece of the plan to Him. Perhaps we should consider that perspective and wonder just exactly what it is that we should learn. Could it be that all of our activity, all of our “accomplishments,” and all that we take so seriously really doesn’t have that much significance in the grand scheme of things?

Time to rethink the priorities. Time for a reality check.