Astounding Science Fiction, April 1958
collected in —
Revolt in space
The novelet "Revolt" by Christopher Anvil is a little comic-disaster favorite of mine. This science-fiction story illustrates not just spectacular mismanagement in interstellar space, but that rah-rah subspecies of mismanagement termed interservice rivalry.
John W. Campbell printed a number of Anvil's satires on management in Astounding Science Fiction (later retitled Analog). "Revolt" is a hilarious fable of how easily managers, in their drive toward efficiency coupled with an all-too-natural urge to surpass a rival department, may torpedo the whole endeavor. Of course, in interstellar space as well as sometimes more locally, the unintended consequences potentially are deadly.
Is there any systematic method for cutting away such bad management practices? One of the most challenging is that of W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993). Deming is the American management consultant who redesigned Japan's system of industrial organization after World War II. The Japanese managers were doubtful but the stunning defeat and destruction of their old ways made them willing to listen. It took another generation or so before American companies also saw the writing on the wall, and began honoring this prophet in his native land. Ford Motor Company was a major early adopter in America of Deming's theories.
There are plenty of slickenslides down which managers can plunge eagerly. Deming explains how allegedly common-sense, unchallengeable measures such as exhortations and slogans to meet quotas are in fact generally counter-productive. After-process inspections are not the route to quality. Deming's famous Red Bead Experiment is a biting example of process failure due to managerial failure to understand the process.
Suboptimization is a divisive, internally destructive failure of an organization's self-understanding, as Deming points out. One department's or division's attempt to optimize its own procedures and outputs, is in fact suboptimization of the enterprise as a whole. Take a common tool such as a pliers — Anvil's example — and let one branch swell itself up like a hypertrophied crab-claw, and soon your pliers ceases to work at all.
The two divisions in "Revolt" are the Space Force, responsible for physical safety in interstellar regions; and Planetary Development, responsible for exploitation of planetary resources out on the spatial frontier. Our viewpoint character is Colonel Matthew Crandall of the Space Force. His force is in orbit around the uninhabitable but resource-rich heavy-gravity planet Cygnes VI, where a major Planetary Development operation is about to get underway.
Planetary Development's big and expensive project is rife with exhortations, slogans, and quotas. Interservice rivalry, long simmering, boils over when Crandall uses Space Navy authority to override Plantary Development's plans to send all units of a new, extravagantly high-tech industrial spacesuit down onto the planet to ram through their mining quotas. Everything soon escalates beyond anyone's predictions, with the Space Navy having to threaten force, causing virtual interdepartmental warfare in orbit at Cygnes VI and political fireworks back home on Earth.
There's a neat technical problem. Does it have a technical solution? Additionally, is there a managerial solution to the suboptimization disaster of interservice rivalry gone mad? Anvil has fun with the details along the way, and wraps it up neatly.