Brooks and Nocera

In “The Courage of Small Things” Bobo informs us that a Rwandan genocide survivor’s story reminds us that simple narratives of good and evil, tribulation and triumph rarely capture the way life really is.  In the comments “Paul” from Nevada had this to say:  “Once again I do not get his point. A great story, but one with an unresolved ending. Guess we get Disney moment on Oprah. Flip to Springer for the unhappy endings. Interesting how Brooks always finds the ones who went to Yale. Guess the stories of just being a survivor don’t make the grade.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Good Jobs Strategy:”  Can companies offer both low prices and good jobs? He says a management professor finds they can.  Here’s Bobo:

I thought I knew the basic life story of my friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was 6 — though she didn’t understand it — the genocide began and her world started shrinking. Her father stopped going to work after dark. Her family ate dinner with the lights off.

To escape the mass murder, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away — not toward anything, just away.

They crossed the Akanyaru River (Clemantine thought the dead bodies floating in it were just sleeping) and into Burundi. Living off fruit, all her toenails fell out. She spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. One day, they barely survived a six-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika fleeing into Tanzania. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, were almost perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 2006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, as I knew it then, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives — with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

But Clemantine and Elizabeth Weil just wrote a more detailed version of her story for the online magazine Matter, and the reality is not so neat. For one thing, Clemantine never really reconciled with her family. After the “Oprah” taping they returned to Claire’s apartment. “My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying.” The rest of the family flew back home to Africa the following Monday.

At every stop along the way, the pat narrative of Clemantine’s life is complexified by the gritty, mottled nature of human relationships. The refugee worker who married Claire and fathered her children turned out to be more a burden than a savior. The sisters’ psyches were not unscathed. “Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: She could survive, and maybe enable me to survive, too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”

Clemantine struggled to reconcile her old life with this one. A teacher she had at the Hotchkiss School gave a class a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain on a sinking boat. Do you toss overboard the old passenger or the young one? Clemantine lost it: “Do you want to know what that’s really like? This is an abstract question to you?”

At Yale, she couldn’t understand her own behavior. “Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?”

Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.

When she was a young girl, Clemantine displayed the large courage to endure genocide. In this essay she displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma; the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the tenacity to seek coherence after arbitrary cruelty; the ability to create tenacious bonds that have some give to them, to allow for the mistakes others make; the unwillingness to settle for the simple, fake story; and the capacity to look at life in all its ugly complexity.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

At the Aspen Ideas Festival — an annual summer gabfest that presents all sorts of interesting ideas, from the improbable to the important — one of the big themes this year was jobs. How will America close the skills gap? Where will the good middle-class jobs of the future come from? I heard pleas for infrastructure spending as a job strategy, and creating jobs by unleashing our energy resources. There were speakers who believed that innovation would bring good jobs, and speakers who feared that some of those innovations — in robotics, for instance — would destroy good jobs.

And then there was Zeynep Ton.

A 40-year-old adjunct associate professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., Ton brought one of the most radical, and yet one of the most sensible, ideas to Aspen this year. Her big idea is that companies that provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work, can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.

As Ton explained to me last week in Aspen — and as she has written in a book she published last year titled “The Good Jobs Strategy” — her thesis comes out of research she did early in her academic career on supply chain management in the retail industry, focused especially on inventory management. What she and her fellow researchers discovered is that while most companies were very good at getting products from, say, China to their stores, it was a different story once the merchandise arrived. Sometimes a product stayed in the back room instead of making it to a shelf where a customer could buy it. Or it was in the wrong place. Special in-store promotions weren’t being executed a surprisingly high percentage of the time. She saw this pattern in company after company.

As she took a closer look, Ton says, she realized that the problem was that these companies viewed their employees “as a cost that they tried to minimize.” Workers were not just poorly paid, but poorly trained. They often didn’t know their schedule until the last moment. Morale was low and turnover was high. Customer service was largely nonexistent.

Yet when she asked executives at these companies why they put up with this pattern, she was told that the only way they could guarantee low prices was to operate with employees who were paid as little as possible, because labor was such a big part of their overhead. The problems that resulted were an unavoidable by-product of a low-price business model.

Unconvinced that this was the only approach, Ton decided to search for retail companies — the same kind of companies that needed low prices to succeed — that did things differently. Sure enough, she found some.

The two companies she talks about most frequently in this regard are a Spanish grocery chain called Mercadona and QuikTrip, a Tulsa, Okla.-based chain of convenience store/gas stations that competes with the likes of the 7-Eleven chain.

What first struck her about Mercadona is that the annual turnover was an almost unheard-of 4 percent. Why do employees stay? “They get decent salaries, four weeks of training that costs the company $5,000, stable schedules … and the opportunity to thrive in front of their customers every day,” Ton said in a speech she forwarded to me. The grocery business is low margin, where every penny counts. If Mercadona couldn’t keep prices low with this strategy, it would have abandoned it long ago.

QuikTrip, an $11 billion company with 722 stores, is a prime example of what Ton means by “human-centered operations strategies.” Paying employees middle-class wages allows the company to get the most out of them. Employees are cross-trained so they can do different jobs. They can solve problems by themselves. They make merchandising decisions for their own stores. The ultimate result of the higher wages QuikTrip pays is that costs everywhere else in the operation go down. At QuikTrip, says Ton, products don’t remain in the back room, and in-store promotions always take place, as they’re supposed to.

Ton’s interest in the good jobs strategy is more than academic now; she has become a proselytizer, trying to spread the word that every company would be better served by this approach. “The assumed trade-off between low prices and good jobs is a fallacy,” she says. As we worry about where middle-class jobs are going to come from, Ton’s is a message that needs to be heard not just in Aspen but all across America.

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