Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 8
THE UNIT SYSTEM.
Galveston, Texas, May 27, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—We were talking of the unit system of organization. There is little that is new about the system. Like many useful things in this world, it is mainly an adaptation of some very old principles and practices. From one viewpoint it is a rational extension of the simple principles of train dispatching. The standard code does not attempt to supply the place of judgment in a train dispatcher. It does not tell him when to put out a meet or a wait order. When his judgment dictates the necessity for any particular action, the standard code comes into play by prescribing forms, by imposing checks and safeguards, by simplifying methods, and by unifying practices. This gives greater opportunity for initiative and originality on the part of the dispatcher by making routine the detailed portion of the process. He has more time to think.
Because the unit system leaves so much to the thinking capacity of the men below, some people have found it difficult to understand. Many codes of organization attempt to cover in advance all the various cases that may come up. The unit system enunciates principles and prescribes methods, but leaves independence of action to the man on the ground. He is for the time being the judge as to what principle to apply. When men are carefully trained their first impulse is to do the right thing. This impulse has been dwarfed and deadened on many railroads by artificial restraints which make a man doubtful of his authority. The unit system reverses some old presumptions and puts the burden of doubt upon him who questions the official authority.
We have to take human nature as we find it, not as we think it should be. The master mechanic or the division engineer is riding on the rear of a train, at the company’s expense, and tells a young flagman that the latter did not go back far enough. If the flagman does not tell the official to go to h——, the trainmaster probably will. The trainmaster says, “This is my department, you have interfered with my man.” That is the old feudal conception. He is not my man but the company’s for service, and his own for individuality and citizenship. Let the master mechanic or the division engineer of many years’ service report the flagman whose tenure may have been very brief. Human nature is such that the trainmaster, stung by an implied reflection, constitutes himself attorney for the defense. The papers grind through the baskets of the chief clerks. By and by, when everybody concerned has forgotten the incident, the papers come back with assurances of distinguished consideration and politely intimate that the case was not quite as bad as represented. The old official, in a measure discredited, soon stops concerning himself with flagmen. The management, the stockholders, and the public lose just so much possible protection through increased supervision. The salary and the expense account of the traveling official go on just the same.
On the Harriman Lines the master mechanic, like the division engineer, has the rank, title, and authority of assistant superintendent. Mind you, it is not assistant superintendent in charge of thus and so, but just assistant superintendent. An attempt to define duties in a circular of appointment might imply that all the responsibilities not enumerated would be necessarily excluded. So the assistant superintendent quietly speaks to the young flagman, who profits by the instruction, and the incident is closed without recourse to the typewriter. For the technical brief to the Supreme Court there is substituted the rough and ready but surer justice of the police magistrate. The employe still has the right to appeal just as he had before, but seldom or never does he exercise it. There are, of course, intelligent limitations to all authority. The mechanical assistant, or the maintenance assistant should not, for example, order the flagman to buy a new uniform. Common sense and courtesy have proved effectual safeguards against abuse of authority.
The underlying principle that responsibility breeds conservatism in action has operated to prevent those unseemly clashes of authority which many predicted. The good sense of the superintendents has served as an effectual balance wheel to maintain smooth running. The unit system does not deny or dispute the necessity for specialized talent for technical activities. It insists, however, that increased supervision of the countless phases of operation can be gained by utilizing all the official talent available. In many cases such increased supervision is a by-product. The maintenance assistant is inspecting track. The train stops. He cannot resume track inspection until the train starts. Meantime, he may be able to find time to see if the conductor receives his orders promptly, if the dispatcher uses good judgment, if the station forces are alert, if the public are being well handled, if the news butcher has his wares over several needed seats in the smoking car. He may even go to the head end and tell the eagle eye how the black smoke indicates that the fire boy could save his own back and the company’s good money by less liberal use of the shovel. Anything very technical requiring the presence of specialists for all these things? Of course, if a special problem develops, such as a badly adjusted draft, it may be necessary later to get the more expert attention of a mechanical assistant. Often, however, before this stage is reached there can be rendered much economical first aid to injured operating expenses. This increased supervision, be it much or little, is clear gain for the company. It means more effort for the official, but that is what he is paid for. It is usually better in zero weather to have the old master mechanic and the old traveling engineer as assistant superintendents riding different trains on the road than to have them sitting in a comfortable office writing letters to each other about engines that failed last week or last month.
Once upon a time a traveling engineer talked through a telegraphone to a dispatcher. The latter requested the former to have the freight train pull into clear to let another train by. The conductor was not in sight. He was probably in the caboose making out some of those imaginary reports about which grievance committees tell us and which are most in evidence during investigations of head-end collisions. So, this member of the ancient and honorable order of attorneys for the brotherhood told the brakemen where to head in. Whereupon with much professional profanity the trainmen declined, saying that no traveling engineer could tell them what to do. The superintendent took the brakemen out of service. They got back only on request of the traveling engineer to whom they apologized. While authority was vindicated, an undesirable situation had been developed. No matter how emphatic the vindication may be, it is as bad for discipline to have authority questioned as for a woman to have her virtue impugned. Since then the unit system on that division has made the traveling engineer an assistant superintendent, and the question of authority does not arise.
Out in that part of the country a fast train was pulling out of a terminal. The trainmaster was out on the road. His clerk signed the trainmaster’s name to a message, telling the old passenger conductor to make a stop to deliver what to the clerk was an important letter, ran down and handed both to the conductor. The latter demurred, saying that under his running orders the stop would make him miss a meeting point. The clerk insisted and when the conductor disregarded the message the latter was taken out of service. This was done on the old feudal theory that the trainmaster’s name and position must be respected. By the same reasoning a bank teller should honor a check on which he knows the signature is forged. Since then the unit system on that division requires everyone to do business in his own name. Employes obey the instructions of men shown by name on the time card, and are not at the mercy of clerks. The old trainmaster’s name is more respected because it is signed only by himself and is not cheapened by use by Tom, Dick and Harry. (Anvil chorus: “Such things couldn’t happen on our road.” Perhaps not, but they do just the same, in a greater or less degree.)
When a conductor reports for train orders he has a right to know that a competent dispatcher is on duty. He cannot dictate, however, what particular dispatcher shall work the trick and give him his orders. The unit system carries this same principle to correspondence and reports. It denies the right of the employe to dictate what official shall handle a certain letter or report, under normal conditions. The report is addressed impersonally “Assistant Superintendent,” and the office decides what official is most available. As a matter of common sense the expert in that line will be utilized. In his absence, however, his feudal representative, a clerk, will not act for him. The clerk may prepare the papers, but final action can be taken only by an official. Highly technical problems are sent to the absent official on the road or await his return. Each assistant may issue instructions, in his own name, to such subordinates on his own pay roll as roadmasters under the maintenance assistant, foremen under the mechanical assistant, yardmasters under the transportation assistant, etc., etc. Before these instructions leave the office, they should pass, like all correspondence, over the desk of the senior assistant (chief of staff) for his information and for the prevention of possible conflict and confusion. Here, again, is a principle of train dispatching. All orders concerning the running of trains go over the dispatcher’s table. Should there not be a similar check imposed on official instructions and information imparted to hundreds of delicate, sensitive, human machines, made in the image of God?
Why are not communications and reports addressed “Superintendent?” Because there would be an implied obligation for the superintendent to act. This obligation cannot be admitted under normal conditions. Therefore, to be honest and straightforward, the address is “Assistant Superintendent.” Under this system the employe knows that some assistant will see his communication, not the clerk of somebody else. If the employe desires a particular official to see his communication, he makes it personal by prefixing that official’s name.
Any employe can address the superintendent by name for the same good reason that the humblest citizen can appear in his own behalf in any court in the land. Though the court is open, neither the citizen nor his attorney can normally dictate what judge shall hear his case. Authority is abstract and impersonal. The court exists if the judge is dead. The exercise of authority is concrete and highly personal. The court is silent until the judge speaks. Conversely, the superintendent as the head of the unit may address any employe direct without going through the assistant on whose payroll the employe is carried. Common sense and the personal equation of the officials concerned indicate how far this elastic feature can be carried. Courtesy requires prompt notification of the assistant concerned. Officials have superiors, and to attempt to convey the idea that each is a feudal chief, when in reality he is not, can result only in self-deception. The practice of each division superintendent reissuing verbatim in his own name instruction circulars from the office of the superintendent of transportation is misleading and ridiculous.
All instructions from general officers, including the general manager, should come to employes through the superintendent’s office, not only to respect the integrity of the organization unit, but to preserve a history of the transaction in the authorized office of record—to get all the runs, including the general manager’s special, on the right train sheet as it were. Whoever acts, whether the superintendent himself or an assistant, has at hand in one office of record full information for his guidance. You understand that the superintendent is boss. He may see any or all communications from employes as he thinks fit. Where previously he instructed his chief clerk what to bring to him personally, such instruction he now gives to his chief of staff. An employe who addressed “Assistant Superintendent” may receive a reply signed by the superintendent himself. This is an honest record, not a subterfuge. Some assistant, the chief of staff, has handled the paper as well as the superintendent himself. To the subordinate the superintendent is normally an incidental representative of authority entitled to the greater respect to be given his higher rank. To the general offices, and to co-ordinate units, the superintendent is an essential head of a component unit who must not be ignored. Therefore, since there is an implied obligation for the superintendent to answer superior authority himself, all communications from superior and co-ordinate authority are addressed impersonally, “Superintendent.” A railway is so extensive that the superintendent should spend at least half the time out on his division. In his absence the chief of staff is allowed to communicate with the general offices and other divisions in his own name, but “for the superintendent.” The superintendent may answer from the road himself, but in any case the general offices know who has really taken action. Going down on the division any assistant may sign, subject to review by the chief of staff. Going up to higher authority only the superintendent or his chief of staff may sign. The rights of the individual assistants are preserved by permitting any one to go on record to the general offices when he so desires. He writes his letter, addresses it “Assistant Superintendent,” and takes it to either the superintendent or chief of staff and requests that it be forwarded. In this exceptional case a letter of transmittal is written setting forth the views of the superintendent. A cat may look at a king. A meritorious idea should not be throttled because it does not happen to appeal to the next superior.
When a division official on any road rides a train, he does not first thing try to tell the conductor what meeting points should be made. He usually says, “Let me see your orders,” which is in effect asking the conductor what the dispatcher has said must be done. Protected by this vital information the official may then venture some suggestions. In the preliminary lecture explaining the unwritten laws of the unit system the new assistant superintendents are cautioned to apply the same principle. They are not to see how much trouble they can make, but how little. If the transportation assistant, for example, pulls up to a water tank at 7:20 a. m. and sees the section men just going to work, he does not jump on the foreman for being late, but quietly asks, “What are your working hours? What time does the roadmaster tell you to begin work?” The moral effect of the presence of an alert, observing official, armed with sufficient authority, becomes an asset of value to the stockholders. We have not enough officials to ride every train and cover every point. The more open, intelligent supervision we can get from each official the better should be the operation. Of course, if the officials were not experienced railway men a condition of nagging and raw-hiding might result which would prove fatal. What the unit system does is to try to make potential the latent knowledge and ability which every official possesses in a greater or less degree. The old over-specialized system denies that this stored-up reserve exists to any practicable extent.
The fact that the title of assistant superintendent is uniform tends to bring out the real individuality of the different assistants. Each has to have his name on the door of his private office. As we hear less and less of “my department” and more and more of “this division” the references to “the trainmaster,” “the master mechanic,” etc., etc., give way to “Mr. A.,” “Mr. B.,” etc. The assistant superintendents have definite seniority, and when two or more come together under circumstances rendering it necessary, as at a wreck, the senior present takes charge and becomes responsible. Remember that rank and authority can be conferred by seniority in grade as well as by grade itself.
The scriptural warning that no man can serve two masters is still applicable. In our case the master is the corporation, represented at different times by various individuals clothed with authority. The conductor runs his train under the laws of the land, the policy of the president, the rules of the general manager, the bulletins of the superintendent, the assignment of an assistant superintendent, the orders of a dispatcher. He collects tickets and fares as directed by the general passenger agent and reports on forms prescribed by the auditor. The lower we go in the scale the fewer the superiors with whose instructions the employe comes in direct contact. The trackman knows authority only as its exercise is personified by his section foreman until the paymaster tells him to wipe off his feet before entering to receive his check. Therefore, put out a slow flag against too fast running over such low joints as “one boss,” “complete responsibility” “divided authority,” etc., etc., until you feel certain just what speed they will stand.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.