Open main menu



Chicago, July 8, 1911.

My Dear Boy:—You write me that your work is heavy, that your territory is extensive, that you wish to divide it into two districts each under a general superintendent. If your president follows his usual practice and asks my advice it will be summed up in four letters, “d-o-n-’t.” For years I have been seeking in vain for a general superintendent’s district with an entirely satisfactory administration. I know many strong general superintendents. The trouble is not with them, but with the system. Organization is a series of units. These units get out of balance when they are defective or incomplete. There is usually withheld from the general superintendent some such vital process as car distribution, on the specious plea that such activity is so different it can be more cheaply handled by some higher office. If the organization unit is created it must have the same full chance for life and development as the rest of the offspring. A principle in organization cannot be violated with impunity any more than in other branches of science.

The average general superintendent’s office is a great clearing house for correspondence. Few matters receive final action and many are passed along to the general manager’s office. The resulting delay usually does more harm than good. On the other hand, since we all like to feel that we are highly useful, the general superintendent, or his chief clerk, is unconsciously dwarfing the initiative of superintendents by requiring references to him of matters that should receive final action at division headquarters. If you do not believe it, check up a few general superintendents’ offices and study the processes. I am not referring to jurisdictions where a general superintendent is required by charter or other legal requirements. I have in mind districts which are arbitrarily created by ill-considered executive mandate.

The general superintendent starts out with a brave determination to get along with a small staff. Sooner, rather than later, human nature asserts itself; he feels that my man can be more useful if he is on my staff. He builds up a larger staff with an inevitable retarding bureau of correspondence. He perhaps has a $200 traveling engineer finding fault with the division performance of the $300 superintendent.

Sometimes a general superintendent is located at a large city under the theory that the importance of the metropolis demands an officer of higher rank. There are various ways to skin a cat, and the method we have seen is not necessarily the only solution. The Pennsylvania handles successfully large cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago with a superintendent who has the authority of a general agent.

The unit system of organization, because based on sound fundamental principles, solves several vexatious problems. Among these is this matter of general superintendents’ districts. Under the unit system every assistant should have his office of record in the same building with the head of the unit. For example, it is a violation of good organization to give a district passenger agent the title of assistant general passenger agent with an office of record at a city away from the general offices. If such outlying office of record is necessary, and it sometimes is, a complete unit should be segregated under a head with some such distinct title as district or division passenger agent. This does not, however, preclude having an assistant reside in the outlying city and maintain his office of record at the general office in the same file with the head of the unit.

If I were you I would appoint enough assistant general managers so that you can have one reside at each point where you have dreamed district headquarters are necessary. Give him a business car and a stenographer, but let him understand that his office file is a part of yours. Let him live on the road as a high class traveling inspector, superior in rank to the people he is inspecting. He is your staff officer with line authority available for action when in his judgment circumstances so require. He can obtain all necessary information from the files at division headquarters or by telegraphing your office. Your chief of staff, the senior assistant general manager, will promulgate instructions, while this traveling representative, like a trainmaster on a division, will see that they are carried out. When he finds it necessary to give instructions he should promptly notify your office, that the record may be completed and confusion avoided. He can do all this without becoming bureaucratic, without putting the company to the expense of a great circumlocution office maintained under the feudal notion of his royal importance. Railroad administration suffers from too many offices and instructions, not from too few. The best officials, and the best train dispatchers, give the fewest orders. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative proposition.

The moral effect of the presence of an official cannot be discounted. We need more officials and fewer clerks. The railways are over-manned, because they are under-officered. The great mistake of the past, due to crude conceptions of organization, has been in creating offices rather than officials.

The same line of reasoning applies to the handling of outlying terminals on a division away from a dispatcher’s office. The old idea has been to locate a trainmaster with an office at such points. The moral effect of his presence is unquestionably good. The objection is that he must necessarily be on the road much of the time, and the train crews are handled by a clerk. Duplication results because most of the correspondence and records have to be referred to the superintendent’s office. The Union Pacific has found it better under the unit system to have an assistant superintendent reside at such important terminals. His office, however, is located with the superintendent, which encourages travel back and forth, just what is desired, and discourages sitting in an office and carrying on correspondence which can better be looked after by the chief of staff in the superintendent’s office. The train crews are under the immediate direction of the yardmaster when in the terminal, and of the train dispatcher when on the road.

The railroads of this country have suffered from rigidity in administration. The unit system permits an elasticity of assignment to take care of conditions as they come along. For example, your non-resident assistant general manager can, if desirable, chaperon three divisions when movement is heavy, and four or five, if you please, during the dull season. You can on short notice throw all assistants to the most exposed points. A non-resident assistant superintendent can likewise be sent to an exposed district. A permanently located trainmaster requires an official circular to have his jurisdiction extended, and if suddenly ordered away can leave only a clerk to represent the company. A railway has an ever-present firing line. The more mobile the official force the more promptly can weak portions be reinforced.

A striking violation of the unit principle in organization is to have the master mechanic report to the division superintendent in transportation matters and to the superintendent of motive power in technical matters. This is a half-way attempt at divisional organization which lacks the courage of conviction. Better have a straight departmental organization with its divided authority and expensive duplication than thus to straddle the question. If the division is to be a real unit, it must be complete and self-contained. The lack of balance in this attempt at divisional organization comes from the fact that units are mixed. The superintendent of motive power, a general officer with jurisdiction over the entire road, is a member of the general manager’s staff. He has a rank and value superior to that of a divisional officer, the superintendent. The poor master mechanic is often puzzled which superior to please. His natural inclination will be toward the man higher up, the superintendent of motive power. Again, it is difficult for any three men to agree upon what are technical matters. The chief of staff method is not applicable to this phase of the problem, because units have been mixed. The master mechanic and the superintendent of motive power are not components of the same integral unit. The unit system of organization requires a superintendent of motive power to transact all business of record with the office of the superintendent of the division, a component unit of the general jurisdiction. The senior assistant general manager and the senior assistant superintendent, each, as a chief of staff for the head of his unit, decides promptly in the absence of the head of the unit, what matters are sufficiently technical to demand the attention of a particular official. Clear-cut, definite and prompt action is possible, with proper checks and balances, because units are not mixed. The governor can introduce a balance without throwing the administrative machine out of gear to avoid stripping its cogs. The splendid personal equation of railroad officials often serves to carry an illogical organization in spite of its fundamental defects. Similar violations of scientific principles in material things would cause bridges to collapse and locomotives to break down. The showing made by the railroads is a tribute to the administrative ability of their officials rather than to their knowledge of organization. The Pennsylvania a half century ago, and the Harriman Lines in more recent years, are said to be the only roads that have made comprehensive studies of the science of organization. Both of these great railways are prepared to stand the test of time. Both will grow stronger as the years roll by. So feudal is the conception of organization on most railways that the essential elements of self-perpetuation are sadly lacking. Fortunately their traffic strength is so great and our country develops so fast that errors due to preconceived misconceptions and personal caprice are covered up by increased earnings. One encouraging sign is that railway officials have ceased to be quite so cocksure of themselves and are seeking the underlying reason for the faith that is in them. True science ever finds its vindication in impartial inquiry and intelligent investigation. The world advances by definite steps rather than by leaps and bounds. Do not lament the fact that some roads are groping ahead only to occupy the abandoned organization camps of the Harriman Lines. Be thankful rather that they have moved forward at all, that though lacking in faith they are coming to a position admitting of enlarged perspective.

Affectionately, your own,

D. A. D.