Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 4
FURTHER GRUELLING OF THE GENERAL MANAGER.
Tucson, Arizona, April 29, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—After the commission kicked for rest, the general manager tied up in his caboose. Nobody was allowed to run around him and he was marked up first out the following morning. The commission not having any agreement about initial overtime, the attorney acting as yardmaster handed him a switch list and told him to dig out these loads:
Question: How many letters a day do you write?
Answer: I don’t know, a great many.
Q. How many a day go out of your office?
A. I can’t state exactly, probably a hundred or more.
Q. Then you do not see them all?
A. No, that would be impossible in such a large office.
Q. Does the chief clerk see them all?
A. I think he does.
Q. You are not sure then?
A. No, not entirely. I have had no complaints about that.
Q. Is the only way you know about how things are going to have a complaint come in?
A. Not exactly. I try to keep ahead of the game.
Q. Are the offices of your subordinates run in this same haphazard manner?
A. I do not admit that it is haphazard. The general method is the same.
Q. Who is in charge of the distribution of cars?
A. My superintendent of transportation.
Q. To whom are his instructions given?
A. To the division superintendents.
Q. Does he give his instructions personally?
A. The important instructions he gives personally. Of course, he cannot do it all alone. You understand that his department deals with individual cars and has an enormous amount of detail.
Q. How many men are authorized to sign his name and initials?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Then you do not regard this as an important matter?
A. Not as important as some others. That is a matter for which the superintendent of transportation is responsible. I look to him.
Q. Do you think every man charged with duties should be allowed to select his own type of organization and decide as to his own methods?
A. As far as possible, yes.
Q. Then why not let each conductor make his own train rules, and each station agent keep his own kind of accounts?
A. Because confusion would result.
Q. Is it not a fact that on most American railroads six or eight clerks are signing the name or initials of the superintendent of transportation?
A. I don’t know; very likely.
Q. Does not a similar condition exist in a smaller degree in most railway offices.
A. Yes, sir, that is the system.
Q. Then who are running the offices, the officials or the clerks?
A. I always supposed the officials. You see we could not afford so many officials.
Q. Has it ever occurred to you that by having more officials you might get along with fewer clerks?
A. No, sir.
Q. Who sign for the train orders on your road?
A. Our conductors.
Q. Have not conductors and operators been discharged for signing each other’s names?
A. Yes, sir. We must maintain discipline. If the train orders are not respected, accidents will result.
Q. Then you have one policy for one class of employes, and allow your officials and clerks to be a law unto themselves?
A. Not exactly. As I said before we cannot afford so many officials.
Q. Whose initials are signed to your train orders?
A. The superintendent’s.
A. Because it has always been that way on our road. It makes the order stronger.
Q. If initials make an order stronger, why not sign yours, or the president’s, or God Almighty’s?
A. That would be ridiculous.
Q. Then it is not ridiculous to sign the superintendent’s initials when he is at home in bed?
A. No, that is different. We wish to emphasize the fact that the superintendent is in charge of the division.
Q. Then why not put the superintendent’s photograph on all the orders? Would that strengthen him with the men?
A. No, of course not.
Q. You have been talking about the superintendent; is he the same as the superintendent of motive power?
A. No, you do not quite understand. The superintendent has charge of a division and the superintendent of motive power, like the superintendent of transportation, has charge of a department.
Q. Then the word superintendent doesn’t always mean the same thing?
A. No, sir, but no confusion results. You see, the heads of departments are general officers, while the superintendent is a division officer.
Q. Which superintendent?
A. The division superintendent.
Q. Is it not a fact that on some roads there is a question as to which has authority in certain matters, the division superintendent or the superintendent of motive power?
A. I believe so, but we do not have any such trouble.
Q. (Producing copies of letters furnished by discharged office employe.) Does not this correspondence indicate a heated difference of opinion between your superintendent of motive power and a division superintendent which had to be settled by you?
A. Oh, yes; I recall, I had forgotten that. That will not happen again.
Q. What guaranty have you against similar friction?
A. I have that all straightened out. Everybody is lined up and understands that I insist upon harmony with a big H.
Q. To prevent confusion and, therefore, to save money why not make titles sufficiently distinctive in rank to prevent conflict of authority?
A. We have not thought it necessary. I do not go as much on titles as some people. The old-fashioned way is good enough for me. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Q. How, then, if you ordered roses for a funeral, would you guard against the corpse being handed lemons?
A. By sending a note or a card.
Q. Signed by your chief clerk?
A. No, sir.
Q. Do you think it is honest to have your chief clerk signing your name while you are away at this hearing?
A. There is no intent to deceive.
Q. Do you not unconsciously try to convey the idea that you are in one place when you are really in another, or that you are acting when it is really an entirely different man who is taking action?
A. Perhaps so. I had never looked at it in that way. It is a generally recognized custom.
Q. You do not seem to regard the office part as very important, as you permit a lot of clerks to take final action all day long.
A. The office is not as important as the road. I try to give the most attention to the important matters on the road.
Q. You feel that by doing so the office will in a large measure take care of itself?
A. That is it exactly.
Q. Do you not think that most railway administrative offices have grown too large to take care of themselves?
A. You see, we keep in close touch with our offices on a railroad, because when away we have a telegraph or telephone wire at our command.
Q. What good does a wire do you if you are tied up in a hearing or a conference for two or three hours at a time?
A. I fear that I have not made clear to you just how valuable a man I have trained into a chief clerk.
Q. I fear that you have not. You seem to believe the old system is all right. Do you think the last word has been said or that your road has hit upon the best system?
A. The last word on these important subjects will never be said, but we have been getting along very well.
I shall not continue further in this letter the catechismal method, lest you accuse me of forgetting that you long ago graduated from the kindergarten. So you did; but when in doubt get back to early methods. After reading recently an article on scientific management, I had to recall my catechism to feel certain that handling pig iron is not the chief end of man. We all, you and I included, sometimes show up smaller than we really are, because we seem to think only in the narrow terms of the things to which we are closest. It once fell to the lot of a young official to escort over his road some of its directors, bankers from New York. Being an enthusiast for his section of country, being an operating man with an instinct for developing traffic, he talked of progress, of the economic and social welfare of the people. When he spoke of sugar planting, or of cotton growing, of blooded stock and dairy yield, the bankers asked, “How much does it cost to raise an acre?” or “What percentage of profit do they make?” He returned from the trip feeling that money must be their god, that his directors could think only in terms of dollars and cents. It dampened his ardor for a time. Then he was so fortunate as to ride for a few days with some of the really big modern bankers. He found himself listening with open mouth to their expression of practical sociological truths. He marveled at their recognition of the human element, and he understood better why the board sometimes turned down his recommendations. His only lament was that he could not see more of them. There, my boy, is the great misfortune, there is a problem to be solved. There is too much Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. The directors seem too far away. It is a step forward that the overlords of transportation are bankers who have won their way rather than hereditary descendants of once reigning families. Some method must be evolved to make for more elastic control. Annual inspection trips will not overcome that rigidity in administration at which the public chafes and from which it seeks relief in drastic laws. An interesting and hopeful phase of present development is the election to directorates of trained railway executives like L. F. Loree and H. I. Miller. The professionally equipped railway director is a desirable evolution. Supply always follows demand, and the broad solution will be a composite made up of many elements of progress which perhaps have not yet unfolded themselves to any of us.
It is a great game, this transportation business. The more you study it, however, the more you discover that it is amenable to the same underlying principles on which rest the great and small activities of the human race. Like all professions, it has its distinct technique. Like all professions, it suffers from the inborn tendency of human nature to segregate itself behind an exaggerated class consciousness. “We are a little different,” or “You do not quite understand our peculiar local conditions,” are the arguments with which ultra-conservatism has opposed progress in all ages, are the obstacles which make so interesting all real contests for principle.
I make no apologies for taking you in this letter from the witness stand of the west to the financial chancelleries of the east. When both the banker director and the general manager learn that signatures on letters andorders must be as sacred as when signed to bank checks, we shall be winning back a little of that old-time sense of personal responsibility which is so needed for improving composite efficiency today. What better epitaph could any man desire than this, “He helped to teach corporations to remember that lasting composite strength comes only from intelligent recognition of individual manhood?”
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.