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Hewlett-Packard tightens the screws (1973)

Around the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis, energy conservation suddenly became an issue in California. Hewlett-Packard was concerned about their electric bill. So they started a program to save energy.

Most -hp- buildings back then had high ceilings illuminated by fixtures that held eight fluorescent bulbs, each eight feet long. Every division's maintenance staff had various ladders and work platforms for getting up to the ceiling. They came around to take one bulb out of every fixture.

When that was done, they came around and took another bulb out of every fixture.

About the time the fixtures were down to three bulbs each, a lot of people started to complain that they couldn't see what they were doing. So they sent the staff around to make sure there were at least four bulbs in every fixture. The complaining died down because the company had responded.

This is a pattern I have observed many, many times in other contexts. I suspect they actually teach it in management schools: lay off staff until the remaining staff explode from the stress, then hire a thin slice of them back until the screaming dies down.

Is this actually a good idea? Not always, I'd say. Consider the American health care system. Because so much of the health care and pharmaceutical industries revolves around profit, they tend to cut to the bone, and then maybe a little more.

Maybe in normal times this will fly for a while. But what happens when disaster strikes? Have you spent much time in an emergency room lately? Because so many people are uninsured, they can't afford preventive care, then they get really sick and go to the ER. Waiting times in most ERs nowadays, I hear, are pretty long unless you have a severed artery or aren't breathing. And this is pretty much all the time. What if we get a really ugly flu epidemic or a natural disaster? Where is the reserve capacity?

My solution is, of course, typical Progressive cant. Make health care a nonprofit activity. Go to single-payer like all the rest of the civilized nations, which spend half what we do and get better outcomes, like the Canadian healthcare system.

Next: The costs of modularity: the iAPX 432 story
See also: Industrial period I: 1971-1983
Previous: How Hewlett-Packard got into the computer business
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2012/01/15 23:57:23