Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 9
STANDARDIZING OFFICE FILES.
Chicago, June 3, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—It has doubtless occurred to you how worthless as evidence are many of the office files. How can any one tell a year afterward whether the general manager or the superintendent ever saw the telegram on which his name is typewritten? On most roads any one of a half dozen or a dozen people may have dictated the message. How much better, as under the unit system, to have every man doing business in his own name! He can then supplement the written record with much more intelligent recollection of events related to the transaction. We dictate the most important telegrams, which pass unquestioned, without an autograph signature. This is common sense and just as it should be. When an unimportant letter is written somebody has to get out a pen and sign some name or other. How inconsistent! Why not, for certain kinds of correspondence, let the stenographer typewrite the name of the dictating or signing official, and then authenticate with the office dating stamp or a private seal mark? The office dating stamp should be kept under lock and key in official custody in order that it may be used for authentication, like the seal of a notary public. To save the labor of constant signing I predict that some time we may go back to individual personal seals carried on a finger ring or a watch fob. That is the way they authenticated documents at a time when the gentry felt themselves above learning to read and write.
If you have occasion to dictate a message over the telephone from your house at midnight, do not let the operator imitate your autograph signature, but have him print your name with a pen, pencil or typewriter. Also, take good care to have such messages sent to you afterward for you to check. Your time is valuable, but it cannot be put to better use for the company than in insuring the integrity of your individual transactions. It may be that no record whatever is necessary. With all our craze for accumulating files we do not record many telephone conversations. You must be the judge as to whether a record for your office is necessary, and in such exceptional cases state your wishes at the time. The farther down the employe the more zealous is he to escape possible censure by preserving unnecessary information. What we need is one complete record of a transaction rather than so many partial records. Many of the telegrams sent from a superintendent’s office should, after sending, go to the main file room for consolidation with related papers under a subjective classification. It is more logical to file certain classes of messages by days in date order. For example, messages relating to train movements should usually be filed in date order since they are supplementary to the train sheets of that particular day, and the date would be the determining factor in tracing the transaction afterward. These two distinct classes of messages should be filed, the one under a subjective classification, the other under a serial classification. The good, old-fashioned way of rolling together all the messages of the day and cording them in a pile on the top shelf was all right in the day of wood-burners, but falls short in this day of higher pressures. Remember, too, that the telegraph office is a part of the same establishment. Wherefore, make a carbon copy of every telegram that is going down the hall to be transmitted.
If you wish to get real busy and cultivate patience, try to introduce a uniform filing system in all the offices on the road. Every fellow will tell you that the system in his office is best. The acid test is: “Will your system fit the president’s office?” and the stereotyped reply is, “You see we are very different. Our local conditions are peculiar.” So it falls out that when the agent writes his superintendent about office furniture, for example, the agent, if it is a big station, gives the subject a file number. The superintendent gives it a second number. If perchance the general superintendent, the purchasing agent, the general storekeeper, the general manager, and the president should happen to get hold of the papers, each office would affix a different number. You might have on the same railroad as many as seven different file numbers for the same subject. Remember that all filing systems are arbitrary. Whether you designate office furniture as seven, eleven, twenty-three, or forty-four, it rests in the breast of somebody to say what that designation shall be. It is like numbering trains, cars and locomotives, we take some arbitrary basis from which we build up a logical classification. Formerly, trains, cars and locomotives were given serial numbers in the order of creation. So were letters in an office. Now the proposition is too big and we assign series of numbers for classifications which are more or less self-suggesting. Any number of men have tried to work out a filing system based on the Interstate Commerce Commission classification of accounts. Any number of men have soon encountered limiting conditions which seem to preclude a satisfactory solution.
If you had time, I do not doubt your ability to work out the best kind of a filing system, but you have not the time. If you had lived before George Stephenson you might have invented the locomotive, but George beat us all to it. If you had time you could work out a table of logarithms, or a table of trigonometric functions. Life is so short that it is better to use the tables that other people have prepared. By the same token, if I were you, I would save my company money by adopting Williams’ Railroad Classification. It is an expansive, but not expensive, decimal system suitable for everybody from the station agent to the president. Among the roads that have taken it seriously are the Baltimore & Ohio, the Delaware & Hudson, the Pennsylvania, and the Harriman Lines, not such a puny lot. Others say of it as of the unit system of organization: “We are watching its development with much interest.” In either case, if the stockholders and directors are complacent, you and I have no kick coming as to the number of years over which this inactive watchfulness may extend.
The manifest advantages of a uniform filing classification are the time saved in avoiding duplication of numbers, and the practical familiarity possible to officials and employes of all grades and locations. When a man is promoted or transferred, he does not have to learn a new filing system. Instead of the whole burden of filing being upon a file clerk, everybody can be helping to preserve the integrity and insure the efficiency of the system. It is not necessary to sit up nights and memorize filing numbers. Take the matter seriously, and in a short time you will unconsciously absorb the most important numbers, just as you get trains, cars, and locomotives in your head. Officials frewuently have a disproportionate and exaggerated sense of the value of their own time. They are paid to think from their presumably wider understanding. If the official by one minute’s thought can dictate the file number and later on save several hours of search in the file room, it is his duty to do so. All over the country file clerks tell me their troubles. The burden is, “If you will get the officials to respect the files as much as we respect the officials, it will all be easy.” You know, my boy, that there are a whole lot of things that deserve to be taken just as seriously as we take ourselves. Consider this standard code of train rules again. With all its defects and shortcomings it is a vital force. Because it is standard it gains a respect as a result of lifelong drill and discipline of employes, regardless of changes in location or assignment. Therefore, standardize your files, and interest your officials. Rank imposes obligation, or noblesse oblige, as the French say.
It is a much easier matter to start a new filing system than is generally supposed. Just begin. It is not necessary to renumber the old files. Give new numbers to all the old stuff that comes in, and in a month or two you will probably absorb nearly all that is of current interest. Then store the remainder of the old stuff as a dead file under the old system. Most of the old you will never need, but if you do, as occasion arises, locate under the old system and transfer to the new.
If you are putting up a new office building or re-arranging an old one, try and locate the main file room next to the telegraph office. Or put one over the other so that quick communication can be made by some such device as a chute, dumb waiter, or pneumatic tube. Telegrams received can then be hurried to the file room and related papers attached, when desirable, without taking the valuable time of an official to send to the file room for them. Here is a place for a really rational conservation of official time. The effect of effort should be in proportion to its intelligence and intensity rather than to its amount.
Experts long ago established the fact by time studies, and otherwise, that flat, vertical filing cases are the most efficient and economical. There are a number of satisfactory makes on the market. Like selecting a typewriter, it is largely a matter of personal preferment. The way to beat another man at his own game is first to sit in, play and learn. Gamblers would become extinct if all men lived up to this advice. Most railway officials regard organization as an exception to this precept because, as I said before, nearly every man flatters himself that he is a born organizer. Before you raise the stakes too high in trying to beat another man’s game of organization, better first sit in and play it his way.
Do not be afraid to trust outlying offices, like those of your superintendents, to run their own files. Have them inspected as often as may be necessary to insure uniformity and efficiency. Do not forbid their adding numbers as emergencies arise. Assemble these new subjects periodically, say once in six months, for standardization, and amplify the working numbers if necessary. You must allow for differences in the human equation. Some men are strict constructionists, and some are broader. Some men classify under a few subjects, while others subdivide to a greater degree. You know the old story of the man who was indexing and feared that something might be overlooked. So under the caption, “God,” he put the cross reference, “See Almighty God.” Without a retrospective study of actual performance you cannot well say just how many sub-numbers shall be used in a given office, any more than you can determine in advance how many train orders a certain dispatcher should put out under the standard code. Among the advantages of using a card index for running a file is that by counting the live cards we know the number of subjects in actual use. This is not inconsistent with book numbers, the book then being used as a reference encyclopedia from which subjects are entered on cards as fast as each necessity arises.
Remember that while immutable principles must eventually triumph over local conditions, much depends upon considerate application. The local condition didn’t just happen, but had its origin in some reason, good or bad, perhaps once convincing but now outgrown. Sometimes the reason is so vital as to be a principle in itself. In our beloved Southland there are local conditions of society which do not obtain elsewhere in this country. True Southerners thank God that human slavery has been abolished. They are striving earnestly and successfully to adjust conditions created in the birth pangs of a social revolution. Well managed railroads like the Louisville & Nashville adjust their working policies to these basic conditions. Nearly a decade ago Samuel Spencer, as president, felt that the Southern Railway needed an infusion of new operating blood and a rotation of types, both excellent things in themselves, but, as experience showed, easily overdone and carried to an irrational degree. With native talent at hand for the developing he imported to the proud old civilization of his birth some rough and ready brethren of the western prairies. These earnest men and their followers knew how better than they knew why. They were long on art, but short on science. Demoralization and wrecks, attributed to inadequate facilities, cost the road much public confidence, cost the stockholders hundreds of thousands of dollars, and finally, in an awful tragedy, cost the able president his useful and honored life. Fate accorded to outraged sociology and her smaller sister, organization, terrible and undeserved retribution. For, barring this one mistaken policy, Samuel Spencer was an earnest patriot and a constructive railway statesman. As a youth he served in the Confederate army. Through life devotion to his flag was a passion. As a man and a gentleman his character was unblemished, his integrity was stainless. Peace to his ashes. Success to the Southern. Its great traffic strength, actual and potential, rests on the broad foundations laid by Samuel Spencer. Prosperity to the railroads. By constant search for the lessons of human efficiency to be drawn from such experiences as these, they prove their broad claim to scientific management.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.