Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

I don't talk much about my job here. It's not very interesting, and irrelevant to the subject matter here, so there's usually not much to say. I just spend the day pushing mouse in my humble capacity as a fluke on a leech on a rat in the sewer of global finance and then go home at night and try to forget all about it.

Recently, however, life and reading have collided.

I work for a big multi-national company with probably tens of thousands of staff scattered all over the world and a big name within its field. In recent months, we have been undergoing internal reorganisation, in part due to external pressures in the wake of the credit crunch, but also as an attempt to rationalise and rearrange the business into more efficient units. It's a company that's grown through acquisitions over the last few years, and so now an attempt is being made to harmonise the product line and utilise the various skills efficiently.

The pressure to get the re-organisation right is only matched  by the formidably complex business of uniting a global organisation. There needs to be consistent vocabulary to help us understand processes and guide the change from top to bottom, to provide maximum synergistic efficiency and, not surprisingly, there is a whole theoretical framework that supports these types of corporate transformation.

A decision has been taken at the highest level to pursue a theoretical business process management system called Six Sigma and roll it out across the firm. At the heart of it is the sort of common sense stuff you might have heard in other, similar project management courses – understand the process, keep track of errors and look for patterns – with the addition of a kind of statistical approach that strives to deduce acceptable and unacceptable levels of error and target problem errors.

Apparently, senior management in New York have all been through Six Sigma BPM training – some of them are now green belts, able to pass on the wisdom to the lower echelons – and now it's being introduced in Europe. To make sure the message gets through, we're all being trained to think about our daily toil in this way, so that we can assemble “process maps” – flow charts, essentially – that describe what we do.
There's a whole pile of literature on this stuff, and the guy running the courses could quote studies undertaken at various well-known companies (General Motors, Commercial Union, Xerox, the usual suspects) demonstrating dramatically improved delivery speeds, customer satisfaction and, of course, an enhanced bottom line, thanks to adoption of the Six Sigma process. The goal is to have your business process attain Six Sigma status – a statistical measure of deviation from the process goal – at which point one reaches a kind of workers paradise, I'm assuming, where each contributes according to their abilities and each is rewarded according to their needs.

It's pushed with a kind of missionary zeal: the transcendental language – Six Sigma! – and barrage of impenetrable power point diagrams and exotic jargon have the whiff of a scientologist's revival meeting. I don't think the ideas are bad ones, but I just don't have much faith in achieving the results they expect, either because I am a cynic or perhaps due to an excess of engrams.

I read the first section of Red Plenty in the lunch break of my first day training in the new regime: in this section, a young Leonid Kantorovich – a Soviet economist who would later win the Nobel Prize – has a sudden insight into the operation of a plywood factory. In a flash of inspiration he sees each machine as an equation, an abstract operation that takes input and delivers output. He sees how he could describe this in a purely mathematical way that would, when calculated back into the non-abstract world of manufactured wood, provide gradual but steady improvement in the factory's production.

Well, it all sounded terribly familiar.

Grand schemes are a real human weakness. We can't look at a landscape without thinking up ways to build houses on it, we can't look at a river without thinking how to bridge it. We can't help but see form in piles of stone – a house, a road, a bank. We can't help but abstract – I'll give you this much money for that much effort. We can't help but think of ways to improve things, and speculate about a paradise that awaits when the work is done. For a few thousand years it looked like various types of religion might do the job, but after the renaissance, materialism and rationalism seemed to offer a better chance for an earthly paradise than the much-delayed arrival of the apocalypse.

By the end of the nineteenth century, new forms of technology offered a chance for a world of peace and plenty. Marx described a post-industrial idyll where a man would “fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and write criticism in the evening, without for all that being a fisherman, hunter or critic”. He believed that the industrial infrastructure that had come into being over the last century or so would now be suffient to offer a good life to all if everyone could just cooperate bit more (to paraphrase Marxist economic theory somewhat).

Marx wasn't the only one hard at work on this type of utopian politics. The same kinds of rationalist and scientific theories led to all kinds of inventive ideas, from theospophy and Kibbo Kift to the fascism of 1930s Europe. At the same time as this type of millenarian thinking developed, a fiction of this type of imagining began to emerge. SF and Communism were born more or less at the same time – Marx in London, Jules Verne in France – and both had their apogee in the middle of the 20th century. The Golden Age of SF is close to the age of revolution – about 1920 to the end of World War two.

The commentary surrounding this book claims it for science fiction – a claim that Francis does nothing to dispute – and a cover quote from Ken McLeod says, “It's like a science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson or Ursula Le Guin, set in the Soviet Sixties.” Red Plenty does look a lot like a science fiction novel. It utilises the novum in the form of Soviet economic theory and then traces how it plays out against the backdrop of real human beings rather than the rational actors beloved of economists everywhere.

This kind of thought experiment has been central to science fiction from the start. Early in the century a lot of the proto-SF was satirical and dystopic – Wells and Huxley both addressed the future with a wary eye, as did E M Forster in The Machine Stops. The American tradition of pulp SF similarly poked around political ideas and perfect societies, in the Golden Age through Heinlein and A E van Vogt and the extraterrestrial transhumanist eschatology of Arthur C Clarke. McLeod is possibly thinking of Le Guin's Hainish novels and Kim Stanely Robsinon's Mars trilogy, but Red Plenty reminded me of the first Foundation book, jumping forward through time from character to character in the came way, using this to describe the history of an idea.

Red Plenty is more satisfying than any science fiction novel, though, because as well as being a gripping story of an idea in action, it's all true. Francis's approach requires some dramatic restitching of events, the occasional bit of invention of recasting here and there to provide the ideal context for how and why things happened, and where it all went wrong, but Red Plenty just reeks of truth and insight.

It seems to me that the cyberneticists, economists, mathematicians and computer scientists that tried to put in place the socialist dream made the same mistake that the defenders of Capitalism continue to make today: they assumed that humans are reasonable beings who will choose the optimum action in each situation. In Capitalism, the lie doesn't matter; in fact, Capitalism depends on people acting in non-optimum ways – exploiting the resulting drift from the mean is one way to get rich if you're in the right place at the right time. Communism, however, relied on its people acting in the general interest rather than their own. Some people see this basic human self-centredness as a structural flaw in Communism: it can never work, because people are not wired in that way.

However, Six Sigma Business Process Management has an answer to this! A quick analysis of Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Customers – or SIPOC – suggests that Communism failed because of its reward system. The structure of Communism rewarded meeting targets, and punished telling the truth if targets were not met. If something goes wrong, it is much better to know early on, and to understand how it happened than it is to let it fester, but the Soviet system encouraged cover-ups and hiding the truth.

That's one of the successes and failures of capitalism, I guess: we have CEOs no longer responsible for their own failures, who can preside over catastrophic events that destroy the environment and nearly bring down nations and walk away richer than than most of can ever dream of. On the other hand, this means they have no motivation to lie to us. They keep their fortunes, and someone else cleans up the mess, but at least we know the mess is there. I mean to say, as horrendous as the BP spill was, it was better to know what was going on and understand the potential effects to to find out about during your 2011 summer holiday in Florida.

It's not perfect, of course, and so we get, um, corrections like we had recently. That's the way these systems go – errors build up and amplify as people find work arounds to their own advantage, and them might wave of feedback crashes over everything and washes away the corrupt elements. The Sigma Six process, of course, has built-in corrective measures, feedback systems to send messages back and forth through the process, to ensure that inputs meet and combine efficiently. It won't ever fall into to disarray – constant revolution is the name of the game! Instead of central government planning, systems of process management compete in the marketplace. If we can out perform our competitors then we will thrive and they will perish – in the words of Comrade Nikita Sergeyivitch, we will bury them! In five years, comrades, we'll all be millionaires, believe me!


  1. Thanks, Patrick.

    Oddly enough as I was writing it I was thinking a lot about the parallels between the Soviet economy and the kind of little planned economy you get inside a capitalist company. One of my private reference points for what the USSR was like to live in was the idea of it as a company from which you never got to go home; a workplace that had engulfed a whole country, in which management-bollocks about increasing productivity followed you inescapably 24 hours a day, but nothing really functioned as advertised. Now and again I thought of Red Plenty becoming a sort of Soviet Dilbert - it's not where the book ended up, but it's definitely in there.

    And now I know what Kibbo Kift is....

  2. My pleasure, Francis. It was even better than I had anticipated, and I just tore through it.

    I'd be curious to know how much of a relationship all these ideas have. Our indoctrination sessions trace it to innovations in the US motor industry that came via Japan, but the similarities were just uncanny.

    However, I do hope that reading and life don't coincide again any time soon, as I am now reading Black Sun by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, about esoteric neo-Nazism. Perhaps once Six Sigma processes are in place, the real objectives will be made clear. I await the memoes with trepidation...

  3. I recommend the 30 Rock episode where Fey and Baldwin go to a Sigma Six convention.

    Also on your point of similarities of ideas, I think all these approaches stretch back to Taylor's time/motion studies in the 19C which created the idea of "scientific management". The wiki article summarises his influence on both sides of the then to be iron curtain. Lenin and Stalin were big fans

    Foyle (Niall)

  4. Yeah, I guess that's where the fundamentals come from, and I think it's also likely that the work of the economists and cyberneticists in the 50s and 60s fed into the Japanese motor industry.

    As Francis points out, these things were all aiming for the same goal whether capitalist or communist, but perhaps the all encompassing nature of the Soviet state made critical examination of processes difficult.

    Incidentally, Francis, if you're listening, I hadn't seen your Red Plenty website before - that's also very cool!

  5. I've now reviewed Francis' earlier work I May Be Some Time on my blog. Red Plenty is still one that I need to pick up some time to read once I've got down my reading list.

  6. Sounds interesting! I really must pick up more of FS's books, as they ALL sound interesting.

    You might also be interested in The Still Point by Amy Sackville. It's a novel with a modern framework, but the sections on a doomed polar expidition are extraordinarily good.

    I still use the "I may be sometime" line for comic effect and it still gets a laugh.


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