Saturday 24 March 2012

Bad management

Managers are strong complements to workers; with bad managers, everyone's productivity goes down the toilet.

Eli Dourado reckons the cost of managerial complements makes a case for zero marginal product workers: the worker might be producing more value than he's taking home in pay, but not enough to cover the cost of the manager that lets the worker produce positive-value products. Read the whole excellent post.

And we can see this when the managerial complement goes awry. Case in point: Mexico
Mexico City’s Buena Vista Walmart is the first super-market I’ve ever seen paralised by a trolley-jam. It is not more busy than any other large city supermarket, and not understaffed. No: the reason it takes ten minutes to walk from one side of the store to the other every single night is because they have no baskets—only large trolleys. To my sample of Mexican Walmarts, this is unique; most Mexican Walmarts have trolleys and baskets. And so the error must have been made by the managers of that particular outlet. Of course, this is only a small example of inept management in Mexico, but it’s sadly representative—labour productivity in Mexico is about a third of that in the US. If Mexico were as well managed as the US, it would be as rich.
This all raises a few questions: why are managers in Mexico (and the developing world in general) so terrible? why are those in the US so good? and how much of the difference is able to be affected by policy?
James Savage chalks it up to Mexico's caste system, nepotism / seniorism, and an awful school system. If your first worry is about hiring somebody who won't steal from you, you'll weight connections over competence. But again, read the whole post and despair at the morass of interlocked problems that reinforce each other and make solutions difficult. Foreign firms coming in and bringing with them stronger demand for competence has to be part of the solution, but the Walmart example suggests it might take a while.

Air Canada provides a different problem. Here's Josh Gans, lamenting just how awful Air Canada is compared to what he's been used to in Australia. Where Virgin in Oz had in-flight face painting for the kids at the back of the plane - effectively in-flight child entertainment far away from the parents - Air Canada seemed determined to make sure his family of 5 were separated throughout the plane. Josh very nicely explains the obvious points about just how terrible it is for all fliers that Air Canada made it impossible for him to sit beside his kids; it would be surprising if Air Canada's gains in forcing families to book through the Air Canada system outweighed the losses they get from ruining everybody else's flight.
The less sinister explanation is that Air Canada have a very poorly executed booking and flight reservation system. Someone, somewhere forgot about families and deep in the code there is no way for Air Canada to sort out the mess. My bias is on incompetent planning rather than evil attempts at price discrimination in these matters.
This is observationally equivalent to my hypothesis, formed about a decade ago and now potentially out of date: a too-large proportion of Air Canada staff actively hate the passengers.

I don't think Josh's explanation is sufficient; Air Canada could always choose to release third-party booked seat allocations more than 24 hours ahead of flights. And my "they hate the passengers" explanation is not only more plausible than that it's profit maximizing to impose potentially massive costs on full-fare paying flyers to keep price-sensitive families from using aggregators, it's also parsimonious, explaining much of the overall Air Canada experience.

Again, like James's Mexico problem, we've got a set of interlocking issues: this time around union rules, seniority, effective domestic monopolies, and government bailout backstops making for soft budget constraints. But this one seems easier to unravel. Canada could unilaterally allow cabotage on its routes instead of waiting for a bilateral agreement with the States. Let Virgin America run intra-Canada flights, drive Air Canada into bankruptcy, sell off the planes to new entrants, and start over with new management that doesn't hate passengers.

I'll continue to be very happy with Air New Zealand (regardless of changes to its AirPoints upgrades system), and even more happy with Emirates on the Trans-Tasman.


  1. Eric, you dont need to look any further than academia. How many good managers can you identify? The system is saturated with incompetent managers and rent seekers.

    It is difficult to soar with the eagles when you are managed by turkeys.

    Hristos D.

    1. Hi Hristos!

      In a ship becalmed at sea where the sailors are currently drawing straws to see who will be first eaten, application to the captain and officers of the ship is best left as an exercise for the reader.

      In other words, I'm sure that your critiques apply very strongly at places other than Canterbury.

  2. Hi Eric. Universities are an interesting case study. "Normally" it is managers that complain about worker productivity and proficiency. With universities its the other way around. Academics (the workers) almost universally complain about poor management proficiency and low productivity. I am sure that it would make a nice study, though perhaps someone probably has produced such a study?

    Makes me wonder how productive we would be if we did away with whole layers of university managers.

    We want to work but the bosses get in the way.

    Hristos D.

    1. When I was in grad school, the go-to models on academia's IO had us as worker-managed firms where Faculty had effective control rights. I don't think that applies anywhere any longer, and it's not a change for the better.

      Potted history that's likely not far off:

      1. Start as faculty-managed enterprises
      2. Admin is burdensome for faculty, so offload bits to professional administrators to free ourselves up for teaching and research
      3. New admin class creates exponentially more administration that needs to be done, faculty lose control and are left doing as much admin as ever.

    2. Eric, I recall some models that referred to unis as "quasi-labour-managed firms". Part of the spectrum from a pure worker coop to a pure dictatorial firm.

      Not sure that your point 1 is all that historically apt, at least globally. e.g. I doubt that it applies to more than 2 (of the 38) Oz unis. Your point 2 in your list can/should be extended to include failed academics who give up on teaching/research and search for an admin role - the "admin intensive" option. It seems to be a popular option. Point 3 seems (sadly) spot on.

      Hristos D