Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Post-9/11 Thinking...

is turning out to be 1991 thinking. Or 1962 thinking. Or is it indeed thinking at all?

One further irony Robert J. Elisberg fails to mention: W's major in college was History. He's doomed himself to being persecuted by history. But this time he wont be able to escape the persecution by leaving college.


Robert J. ElisbergTue Nov 21, 1:16 PM ET

For five years, ever since, oh, 9/12/2001, the President and his minions have lambasted Democrats - indeed anyone who didn't agree with him - for having "Pre-9/11 Thinking."

And now, after burying the nation in a disastrous war of epic proportions with no way out, we finally see the result of the vaunted Republican "Post-9/11 Thinking" on how to resolve the quagmire:

Republicans await the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group - headed by James Baker. Former Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan.

Republicans have brought back from Purgatory a new Senate Minority Whip - Trent Lott. Former disgraced Majority Leader during Clinton Administration.

Republicans have nominated as new Secretary of Defense - Robert Gates. Former CIA director under George HW Bush. That's the first George Bush.

And throughout this entire debacle, the White House has been advised by - Henry Kissinger. Former Secretary of State to Richard Nixon. Who oversaw the ending of the earlier war debacle of Vietnam. Back for the sequel.

Also being asked to help to figure a way out of Iraq are, of course - Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Former Secretaries of Defense to that first George Bush and Gerald Ford.

And while waiting for the Iraq Study Group recommendations, it's worth noting that this bipartisan committee includes Lawrence Eagleburger (former Secretary of State to George HW Bush, 41), and Edwin Meese (former Attorney General to Ronald Reagan).

None of this is to suggest that Republicans should be dealing only with people whose sole experience in public life starts five years ago. It's merely to observe that the holier-than-thou puffery against "Pre-9/11 Thinking" is but one more boondoggle the Republican Administration has been foisting on the American public with problematic results.

None of this is to suggest, either, that any of these hoped-for saviors will, in fact, help the Republicans out of this quicksand they created. After all, for many of these experts their expertise for problem-solving lies more on the side of building Rubik's Cubes rather than figuring out how to get the colors lined up properly.

Maybe they will finally come up with a solution. It's the fondest wish of a nation. It's just that you know you're in an uphill battle when those in charge not only didn't learn the lessons of Vietnam, but are trying to finally win it, 35 years later.

Henry Kissinger has been advising the President! No wonder Mr. Bush thinks the lesson of Vietnam is "We'll succeed unless we quit."

For all those willing to dismiss Mr. Bush's National Guard exploits as the mere transgressions of youth, this is what comes of spending your college years getting drunk, having your father get you a plush deferment, presumably going AWOL and then claiming you're a War President.

Skipping class, having substance abuse problems and acting irresponsibly are indeed transgressions of youth. And if you're going to end up managing a Burger King, or even running Harken Oil, that's okay. But to have to cram on basic History 101 before leading a nation into war just doesn't cut it.

Given that Mr. Bush went to especially-great lengths to avoid Vietnam, you'd think he'd understand first-hand the really big lesson of not getting involved in the war in the first place.

The truth is that when George Bush tosses off such advice as "the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately" - you wish more that it wasn't only Vietnam he'd learned the lessons of, but Iraq, as well. Because no one who had the slightest grasp of Iraq - which has had warring between the Sunnis and Shiites for at least 600 years - would ever have though this was a place where things would happen "immediately." Where the mission would be accomplished within a week of shocking and awing anyone. Where we would be met with flowers and candy simply by wandering down Main Street after deposing their leader.

Then again, anyone who supposes that the only thinking worth considering is that which came after September 11, 2001, is someone who would never been expected to understand the lessons of history, let alone care about them.

And now, for all the Republican belittlement of "Pre-9/11 Thinking," the people who are struggling to help the President are those from the very heart of the pre-9/11 world. Ah, the ironies of life.

Stay the Course. "We'll succeed unless we quit." And so, we now know this grand Post-9/11 Thinking is nothing more than Henry Kissinger still trying to win Vietnam.

In the end, when it comes to the lessons of history, the most famous lesson of all is from George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Welcome back from Vietnam, Mr. President. We wish.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Losing to Bin Laden

Who would have thought that the best way to lose the fight against a bunch of radical fundamentalist, women's rights reducing, gay-killing, religion-as-government extremists would be to attack them with a bunch of fundamentalist, women's reproductive-rights eliminating, gay-marriage denying, religion-in-politics religions zealots?

Who knew?

Whether to Send More Troops to Iraq

The constantly-asked question is, "Should we send more troops to Iraq?"

A less-often asked question is, "Is there any Way that more troops could solve the problems of Iraq?"

The unasked question is, "Could our current leadership see that Way and if so, could they follow it?"

All signs point to "No."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Only If We Quit

Bush recently said that we can lose in Iraq only if we quit. Then how do we win?
Not at this rate:

The New York Times

November 19, 2006
A Captain’s Journey From Hope to Just Getting Her Unit Home
By KIRK SEMPLE

BAGHDAD, Nov. 18 — Capt. Stephanie A. Bagley and the military police company she commands arrived in Iraq in December 2005 brimming with optimism about taking on one of the most urgent tasks in Iraq: building a new police force.

Now, as the 21st Military Police Company approaches the end of a deployment marked by small victories and enormous disappointments, Captain Bagley is focused on a more modest goal.

“I just want to get everyone home,” she said. In the past several weeks, Captain Bagley, 30, barred her troops from foot patrols in the most violent neighborhoods and eliminated all nonessential travel. “I’m just not willing to lose another soldier,” she said.

The local police force in her region, as in much of Iraq, remains undertrained, poorly equipped and unable to stand up to the rigors of this conflict. It offers little resistance to the relentless Sunni Arab-led insurgency and has at least partly come under the sway of wily Shiite militias. Casualties are high, morale is low and many police officers do not show up for work.

Captain Bagley, a West Point graduate and the daughter and granddaughter of military policemen, said she has come to realize just how little she and her unit knew when they arrived, and just how much was stacked against their success.

The company’s challenges crystallized in a moment late last month during a routine assignment. Some of her soldiers had gone to the Baya Local Police Station, one of 18 local stations in the troubled southern outskirts of Baghdad where her unit has worked this year. They were picking up a contingent of Iraqi policemen for a daily patrol of Dora, an especially violent neighborhood here in the capital.

On these patrols, the Americans, swaddled in Kevlar from head to hips, travel in Humvees and other armored vehicles. The Iraqis, wearing only bulletproof vests, ride in soft-skinned pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s, the only vehicles they have.

The Iraqi policemen begged the Americans not to make them go out. They peeled off their clothes to reveal shrapnel scars from past attacks. They tugged the armored plates from their Kevlar vests and told the Americans they were faulty. They said they had no fuel for their vehicles. They disappeared on indefinite errands elsewhere in the compound. They said they would not patrol if it meant passing a trash pile, a common hiding place for bombs.

The Iraqis eventually gave up and climbed into two S.U.V.’s with shattered windshields and missing side windows, and the joint patrol moved out. One Iraqi officer draped his Kevlar vest from the window of his car door for lateral protection. During a lunch break, the officers tried to sneak away in their cars.

Later in the day, back at her command center on a military base in southern Baghdad, Captain Bagley said the pleading and excuses were common. But she did not blame the Iraqis. They are soft targets for the insurgency, and scores of officers have been wounded or killed in her area during the past year. The police stations’ motor pools are so crowded with ravaged vehicles that they could be taken for salvage yards.

“I’d never want to go out in an Iraqi police truck,” the captain said. “But we still have to convince them. We’ve been given a job to train them.” But she also points out that her orders were to help train and equip a local force to deal with common crime, like theft and murder, not teach infantry skills to wage a counterinsurgency campaign.

Captain Bagley has spent most of her days this year shuttling from station to station, checking on her soldiers and meeting with the Iraqi commanders to discuss their problems over potent, sugary tea. Fresh-faced and fit, her long hair knotted under her helmet and a pistol strapped to her thigh, she has moved through this loud and overwhelmingly male world with a calm, understated authority that the Iraqi commanders have come to depend on.

The government’s sclerotic supply chain — clogged by bureaucracy, corruption and lack of money — has failed to provide the stations with the necessary tools of policing, from office supplies to weapons, uniforms and police cruisers. “Even something as simple as a pen, they have to get it for us,” said Maj. Muhammad Hassan Aboud, the commander of the Belat Al Shuwayda station in southern Baghdad, pointing to Captain Bagley. “If we lose them, we’re pretty much going nowhere.”

The captain said, “We’re holding their hands so much now.” If the Americans were not involved, she said, some senior commanders would not have the fortitude to confront the militias. “A lot of times I’m just the motivator,” she said. “I’m motivated because I’m going home soon. But what motivates them?”

Days earlier, she recalled, a death squad had killed the family of another of her station commanders. “Yet,” she continued, a tinge of exasperation in her voice, “you’re given the mission to motivate these guys to protect Iraqi citizens.”

At the beginning of her deployment, she hoped that by the end of the year the police would be able to respond to calls from any neighborhood without American help. But after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine in February incited a surge in sectarian violence, she decided that goal was unrealistic.

She decided to focus on developing the top officers, particularly the station commanders. “We realized that if we didn’t have a strong leader, the station won’t work,” she said.

But the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force, has frequently changed commanders, often citing reasons of incompetence or death threats, sometimes offering no explanation at all. The Rashid station has had eight chiefs since it opened in late April. Absentee rates there have soared as high as 75 percent, though the rate had dropped to 25 percent by late last month, in large part because the latest chief was docking the pay of absent officers.

Over the course of the year, as sectarianism spread in the police force, Captain Bagley saw Shiite policemen balk at orders from Sunni shift commanders and Shiite station chiefs clash with their Sunni deputies.

She has also had to confront the creep of militia influence, as militia loyalists within the force used their leverage to avoid punishment or intimidate senior leadership. She intervened after a deputy station commander told her that his commander was being pressured by the militia of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to free several captured militiamen. The men remained in jail.

The job of inspiring her Iraqi and American charges alike has become increasingly difficult as the violence has escalated in Baghdad in recent months.

As part of the American military’s push to wrest control of the capital’s streets from insurgents and militias, she was ordered to move some of her soldiers out of the police stations and into the streets of Dora to conduct daily patrols. Following an effort by American and Iraqi troops to seal off and clear that neighborhood, violence there has risen sharply, and attacks on her joint patrols have become frequent.

On Oct. 2, her soldiers were accompanying Iraqi police officers on a patrol through the Dora marketplace when a sniper shot and killed Sgt. Joseph Walter Perry, a 23-year-old turret gunner from San Diego. He was one of at least eight American soldiers killed in Iraq that day. Numerous soldiers from Captain Bagley’s company had been wounded over the year; in April, a bomb destroyed a Humvee and tore off the driver’s left leg. But Sergeant Perry’s death was the company’s first here and it devastated Captain Bagley.

“People from other units will say, ‘You’ve only lost one?’ ” she said, her face tensing in indignation. “Only? We haven’t had it so bad as others, but I can’t minimize Perry’s death.” She paused. “I’m the one who sends them into the market.”

After the death, Captain Bagley started counting the days to the end of the tour and her company’s return to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. She found herself lying awake at night, thinking about how to keep her company alive amid a worsening war. She started micromanaging her soldiers’ movements. She tried to relax in the evenings by hanging out with her lieutenants or reading paperbacks that she describes as “trashy.” But the relief was always fleeting. “I’m in no-sleep mode,” she said.

As the death toll among American troops has risen in Baghdad, and the security plan has faltered, Captain Bagley’s soldiers say they have tried to resist the urge to question the larger American enterprise here, whether it was right or wrong to come to Iraq in the first place, whether and when American troops should leave. They are here to do a job, they say, and are duty-bound to complete it.

But Captain Bagley has asked herself those questions “all the time,” she said. She ponders whether it has all been worth her soldier’s leg or her soldier’s life. She wonders what the American command will do to turn things around.

Loyalty to the armed services is in her blood. Her father served in Vietnam, her grandfather in World War II. She grew up on military bases in the United States and Germany. Her sister is an Army nurse. She has served three other deployments since 1999, and, partly as a result, has two divorces behind her.

Her phone calls with her father sometimes touch on the faltering course of the war. “He asks, ‘Why the heck doesn’t it calm down?’ ” she said. She is at a loss to explain why.

Her discouragement is plain, but she keeps her deepest thoughts private, in part because she wants to protect her soldiers from doubt at this most critical time in their lives. She knows that their job is difficult enough without the suggestion that their sacrifices may have been in vain. “You can’t pass it along to your soldiers,” she said. “You can’t question it. It would lead to the destruction of the company. You got to keep it together.”

The company has done everything it could to help rebuild Iraq, she said, but now they want to go home. “It’s been a very frustrating year,” she said. “We all want to get out of here.”

The Function of Commisions

Michael Kinsley give some very useful insight into the Baker (and all other) Commisions. Interesting reading:

Michael Kinsley at Slate

Ordinarily, a commission like this has two possible purposes: action or inaction. Sometimes a problem is referred to a prestigious commission so that the commission can recommend what everybody knows must be done but nobody who must run for election has the nerve to propose. The commission can ram this policy down the politicians' allegedly unwilling throats. If it is bipartisan—and what fun is a commission that isn't bipartisan?—the commission also protects both parties against a stab in the back by the other.

...
On the other hand, sometimes a problem is referred to a commission simply to get it off the table. Action is widely perceived as necessary, and the creation of a commission can be made to look like action.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Support for the Windows As Monopoly Argument

Faultline at The Register provides an interesting observation on Microsoft's monopoly of PC operating systems.

That idea is nothing new of course, but Samsung's SPH-P9000 device - running Windows but looking very little like a traditional PC-oriented PDA - highlights the key issue: will the PC's mobile successor be a Windows device in a new form factor, or an entirely new beast owing a greater debt to the cellphone?

For Microsoft, the answer is critical, since Windows is still not a natural fit for a mobile platform that has no PC heritage. Its future success lies not in religiously promoting the PC/PDA model of device - especially in consumer markets, where expectations of user interfaces and functionality are changing rapidly and are not dictated by Wintel - but in making Windows as adaptable as possible to devices of all descriptions, rather than tying itself to PC-style functionality or the Intel roadmap.


Microsoft argues that its OS runs on 95% of the worlds PCs because Microsoft provides superior product, service and "innovation".

Others argue that their 95% market dominance its due more to monopoly (or "heritage") than "innovation".

Faultline poses an interesting question: "If MS is so good, why hasn't it been able to translate its Windows success into a successful OS for mobile devices?"

Surely mobile devices present a completely different physical interface (small screen, limited keyboard/processor, etc.) than does the PC. The market also has not standardized on any one (or many, for that matter) interface(s). Arguably though, there was no standard interface (no interface at all, actually) for the PC before Microsoft was contracted by IBM to create one.

So far MS has concentrated less on creating a good mobile OS and more on shoehorning its current desktop OSs into mobile devices. An effort that has so far failed.

In any case, Microsoft is failing to "recreate the miracle" of Windows on the mobile platform. That seems to support the argument that Microsoft's OS success was due less to good design and execution than it was luck. Either that, or their design and execution isn't what it used to be.

Business: The Problem with Making the Numbers

Jeff Matthews is Not Making This Up

Jeff nails a business concept that I've always had problems with, but could never put my finger on describing: Management by Numbers.


I’ve walked stores with Bernie Marcus, and it’s an experience.

If you don’t know who Bernie Marcus is, he’s one of the two geniuses (the other being Arthur Blank) who invented The Home Depot.

Bernie was a whirlwind: loud, brash, and eager to help any potential customer who walked in the door, even if it meant turning his back on whatever number of Wall Street's Finest were getting the store tour at that moment.

Just to help the guy find what he was looking for.

Bernie seemed to know every sales associate who ever walked the floor—and for good reason, because he'd hired them and trained them. And it was within the sales associates that he'd also imparted his passion for helping the customer so well that it made his company what it became: a place where people who don’t necessarily know how to use a hammer could come in and get help and advice so that they could actually install a door or fix a faucet or add a deck—meanwhile spending oodles of dollars in the process.

Not for nothing the motto was “You Can Do It, We Can Help.”

Now, it is ancient history to point out that the Home Depot under Bernie and Art developed growing pains, and that the founders stepped aside for a new breed of operations-based management under ex-GE big Bob Nardelli.

And it is old news that today's customers may have less free time and be less inclined to do it themselves, and are, therefore, more apt to want somebody to do-it-for-me, requiring an updating to the original Home Depot motto.

And in any event it may soon be ancient history to talk about the Home Depot as a public company, what with rumors sweeping Wall Street that Sears Holding’s Eddie Lampert has been looking at adding Home Depot to his real-estate rich retailing empire, plus all the private equity money desperate to buy anything with cash flow, which Home Depot has in spades.

But it is, nonetheless, worth keeping up with how Home Depot has been doing under the Nardelli regime, and if this week’s earnings call proves anything, it proves that Nardelli is masterful at spinning his story to Wall Street’s Finest.

He begins right away, in his opening remarks:

Thanks, Diane. In August, we predicted that the third quarter was going to be soft, and it was actually more challenging than we anticipated. We felt the impact of the U.S. retail home improvement market slowing significantly.

Note how Nardelli manages to paint himself and his company as both prescient (“we predicted”) and a victim (“we felt the impact…”). This is masterful spin-doctoring: it’s as if nothing bad happening at Home Depot is the fault of management.

But that’s not the whopper.

The whopper comes in the very next sentence:

However, during the quarter, we did stay on strategy by accelerating our investment in our core retail business and growing our supply businesses.

Right now I’ll bet there’s a would-be customer—I’m one myself, so I know how this works—trying to figure out which size floodlight to buy for his stupid kitchen ceiling lights, who is walking around the cement floor of a huge cavernous Home Depot looking for anybody wearing an orange apron with a “You Can Do It, We Can Help” button that isn't already being trailed through the store by four or five desperate fellow potential-customers with hollow eyes looking like those émigrés in “Casablanca” following around somebody who has their visa papers.

And I seriously doubt that would-be customer is thinking,

“Well, I may not be able to find somebody in an orange apron who can help me figure out which size floodlight to buy for my stupid kitchen ceiling because apparently this is a store run by self-service checkout robots, but at least they’re staying on strategy.”

Yet even Nardelli could not spin away the fact that staying “on strategy” didn’t prevent Home Depot from earning less money this year than last:

In the third quarter, consolidated sales were $23 billion. That is up 11% from last year, and our diluted earnings per share were $0.73. That is up 1%, while consolidated net income earnings were $1.5 billion, down 3%.

Now, it is a fact that Bob Nardelli runs a company called The Home Depot.

And it is a fact that the home-building industry has, of late, smacked head-first into a brick wall after several years of increasingly testosterone-charged home-building CEOs telling doubters on Wall Street that, like the Internet skeptics of the late 1990s, “you just don’t get it” when it came to understanding why the Housing Bubble wasn’t a Bubble.

And it is a fact that recent results at vendors such as Masco (faucets and kitchen cabinets) and Mohawk (carpets and tiles) demonstrate the difficulty facing anybody selling anything that goes into one of those D.H. Horton or Toll Brothers or Ryland spec homes now sitting empty out in the scorching Las Vegas desert (sales brochure slogan: “It’s the desert so why would you need a yard?”).

So the fact that numbers at The Home Depot are a bit light is not reason alone to pick nits with the sort of spin-doctoring conference call you’d expect from a guy who very nearly made it to the top of one of America’s most ferociously management-by-numbers companies, GE.

(True story: I was at the Greek diner one morning recently when two GE-ers, who clearly worked together several job assignments ago but hadn’t seen each other in some time, began talking, and I am not making this up:

“So how are things?”
“Good. We made our numbers.”
“Good! You made your numbers?”
“Yep, we made our numbers—how about you?”
“Oh, yeah. We made our numbers.”

It wasn't until then that they got into family, kids and other apparently less important stuff. That is the DNA of the guy in charge of Home Depot.)

And while Home Depot had outgrown its systems and needed serious work behind the scenes to support what Bernie Marcus and Art Blank had created from not much more than a passion for their customer, it is not necessarily the kind of culture that’s going to keep the customers happy.

So it should be no surprise that, unless all the former Home Depot store managers I run into are making up stories about reduced money for staffing labor at stores—what they call “earn hours”—as well as a Sears-like bureaucracy taking over the Atlanta headquarters (which, as far as Marcus and Blank were concerned, took its orders from the stores, not vice-versa), there’s no arguing the Home Depot has changed, for the worse, from a customer-driven operation to a numbers-driven operation.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask anybody who used to shop there. Anybody. I’ll bet we come up with more horror stores than Dell (see “Dell Screws Up a Good Thing” from this site).

Nevertheless, the numbers-agile crew now in charge at Home Depot didn’t get to where they are by not having whatever data could support the upbeat “message” handy in their PowerPoint presentation, and Nardelli did indeed offer up customer satisfaction numbers that seem completely at odds with every anecdote I’ve heard recently:

I want to thank our associates for their hard work and focus on taking care of our customers. Every week, we hear from 250,000 customers through our voice of customer survey. We have seen significant improvements in our survey results. Key customer service attributes, including customer engagement, waiting to check out, find and buy, likelihood to recommend, and associate availability were up over last year and showed sequential improvement this quarter. Overall satisfaction with our company, as measured by scores of 9s and 10s, is up over 2004 and 2005 levels.

Lest anyone think this “voice of customer” might be something he is hearing inside his own head, Nardelli delved into these numbers later in the Q&A with just enough color to make you wonder about how much they reflect reality, or not:

Mark, I think two points, just to be real clear. What we talked about is that overall customer satisfaction, or voice of customer, as we call it, is up across the entire network of stores, and that is the 250,000 customer shopping experiences, that they go online and call and score us on associate availability, ability to find and buy, et cetera. We have seen a sequential improvement month over month in the third quarter for sure, and we would expect the same thing to continue in the fourth quarter. In other words, the customers that are scoring us 9s and 10s.

I may be wrong, but customer surveys—especially online customer surveys—might not be the best way to find the customer who went into a store, couldn’t find anybody to help who wasn't already under siege from four or five other desperate individuals, picked up the wrong-sized floodlights for his stupid kitchen ceiling, spent ten minutes in line because there weren’t enough live human beings at the registers…and then vowed never to come back again.

Still, Nardelli appears to have great faith in management-by-numbers.

Business: The Problem with Making the Numbers

Jeff Matthews is Not Making This Up

Jeff nails a business concept that I've always had problems with, but could never put my finger on describing: Management by Numbers.


I’ve walked stores with Bernie Marcus, and it’s an experience.

If you don’t know who Bernie Marcus is, he’s one of the two geniuses (the other being Arthur Blank) who invented The Home Depot.

Bernie was a whirlwind: loud, brash, and eager to help any potential customer who walked in the door, even if it meant turning his back on whatever number of Wall Street's Finest were getting the store tour at that moment.

Just to help the guy find what he was looking for.

Bernie seemed to know every sales associate who ever walked the floor—and for good reason, because he'd hired them and trained them. And it was within the sales associates that he'd also imparted his passion for helping the customer so well that it made his company what it became: a place where people who don’t necessarily know how to use a hammer could come in and get help and advice so that they could actually install a door or fix a faucet or add a deck—meanwhile spending oodles of dollars in the process.

Not for nothing the motto was “You Can Do It, We Can Help.”

Now, it is ancient history to point out that the Home Depot under Bernie and Art developed growing pains, and that the founders stepped aside for a new breed of operations-based management under ex-GE big Bob Nardelli.

And it is old news that today's customers may have less free time and be less inclined to do it themselves, and are, therefore, more apt to want somebody to do-it-for-me, requiring an updating to the original Home Depot motto.

And in any event it may soon be ancient history to talk about the Home Depot as a public company, what with rumors sweeping Wall Street that Sears Holding’s Eddie Lampert has been looking at adding Home Depot to his real-estate rich retailing empire, plus all the private equity money desperate to buy anything with cash flow, which Home Depot has in spades.

But it is, nonetheless, worth keeping up with how Home Depot has been doing under the Nardelli regime, and if this week’s earnings call proves anything, it proves that Nardelli is masterful at spinning his story to Wall Street’s Finest.

He begins right away, in his opening remarks:

Thanks, Diane. In August, we predicted that the third quarter was going to be soft, and it was actually more challenging than we anticipated. We felt the impact of the U.S. retail home improvement market slowing significantly.

Note how Nardelli manages to paint himself and his company as both prescient (“we predicted”) and a victim (“we felt the impact…”). This is masterful spin-doctoring: it’s as if nothing bad happening at Home Depot is the fault of management.

But that’s not the whopper.

The whopper comes in the very next sentence:

However, during the quarter, we did stay on strategy by accelerating our investment in our core retail business and growing our supply businesses.

Right now I’ll bet there’s a would-be customer—I’m one myself, so I know how this works—trying to figure out which size floodlight to buy for his stupid kitchen ceiling lights, who is walking around the cement floor of a huge cavernous Home Depot looking for anybody wearing an orange apron with a “You Can Do It, We Can Help” button that isn't already being trailed through the store by four or five desperate fellow potential-customers with hollow eyes looking like those émigrés in “Casablanca” following around somebody who has their visa papers.

And I seriously doubt that would-be customer is thinking,

“Well, I may not be able to find somebody in an orange apron who can help me figure out which size floodlight to buy for my stupid kitchen ceiling because apparently this is a store run by self-service checkout robots, but at least they’re staying on strategy.”

Yet even Nardelli could not spin away the fact that staying “on strategy” didn’t prevent Home Depot from earning less money this year than last:

In the third quarter, consolidated sales were $23 billion. That is up 11% from last year, and our diluted earnings per share were $0.73. That is up 1%, while consolidated net income earnings were $1.5 billion, down 3%.

Now, it is a fact that Bob Nardelli runs a company called The Home Depot.

And it is a fact that the home-building industry has, of late, smacked head-first into a brick wall after several years of increasingly testosterone-charged home-building CEOs telling doubters on Wall Street that, like the Internet skeptics of the late 1990s, “you just don’t get it” when it came to understanding why the Housing Bubble wasn’t a Bubble.

And it is a fact that recent results at vendors such as Masco (faucets and kitchen cabinets) and Mohawk (carpets and tiles) demonstrate the difficulty facing anybody selling anything that goes into one of those D.H. Horton or Toll Brothers or Ryland spec homes now sitting empty out in the scorching Las Vegas desert (sales brochure slogan: “It’s the desert so why would you need a yard?”).

So the fact that numbers at The Home Depot are a bit light is not reason alone to pick nits with the sort of spin-doctoring conference call you’d expect from a guy who very nearly made it to the top of one of America’s most ferociously management-by-numbers companies, GE.

(True story: I was at the Greek diner one morning recently when two GE-ers, who clearly worked together several job assignments ago but hadn’t seen each other in some time, began talking, and I am not making this up:

“So how are things?”
“Good. We made our numbers.”
“Good! You made your numbers?”
“Yep, we made our numbers—how about you?”
“Oh, yeah. We made our numbers.”

It wasn't until then that they got into family, kids and other apparently less important stuff. That is the DNA of the guy in charge of Home Depot.)

And while Home Depot had outgrown its systems and needed serious work behind the scenes to support what Bernie Marcus and Art Blank had created from not much more than a passion for their customer, it is not necessarily the kind of culture that’s going to keep the customers happy.

So it should be no surprise that, unless all the former Home Depot store managers I run into are making up stories about reduced money for staffing labor at stores—what they call “earn hours”—as well as a Sears-like bureaucracy taking over the Atlanta headquarters (which, as far as Marcus and Blank were concerned, took its orders from the stores, not vice-versa), there’s no arguing the Home Depot has changed, for the worse, from a customer-driven operation to a numbers-driven operation.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask anybody who used to shop there. Anybody. I’ll bet we come up with more horror stores than Dell (see “Dell Screws Up a Good Thing” from this site).

Nevertheless, the numbers-agile crew now in charge at Home Depot didn’t get to where they are by not having whatever data could support the upbeat “message” handy in their PowerPoint presentation, and Nardelli did indeed offer up customer satisfaction numbers that seem completely at odds with every anecdote I’ve heard recently:

I want to thank our associates for their hard work and focus on taking care of our customers. Every week, we hear from 250,000 customers through our voice of customer survey. We have seen significant improvements in our survey results. Key customer service attributes, including customer engagement, waiting to check out, find and buy, likelihood to recommend, and associate availability were up over last year and showed sequential improvement this quarter. Overall satisfaction with our company, as measured by scores of 9s and 10s, is up over 2004 and 2005 levels.

Lest anyone think this “voice of customer” might be something he is hearing inside his own head, Nardelli delved into these numbers later in the Q&A with just enough color to make you wonder about how much they reflect reality, or not:

Mark, I think two points, just to be real clear. What we talked about is that overall customer satisfaction, or voice of customer, as we call it, is up across the entire network of stores, and that is the 250,000 customer shopping experiences, that they go online and call and score us on associate availability, ability to find and buy, et cetera. We have seen a sequential improvement month over month in the third quarter for sure, and we would expect the same thing to continue in the fourth quarter. In other words, the customers that are scoring us 9s and 10s.

I may be wrong, but customer surveys—especially online customer surveys—might not be the best way to find the customer who went into a store, couldn’t find anybody to help who wasn't already under siege from four or five other desperate individuals, picked up the wrong-sized floodlights for his stupid kitchen ceiling, spent ten minutes in line because there weren’t enough live human beings at the registers…and then vowed never to come back again.

Still, Nardelli appears to have great faith in management-by-numbers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Calling All Iraq War Supporters

Hurry up!

With the nation voting against the Iraq War in midterm elections, your time to suport the Iraq War is coming to a close.

All you dead-enders that just know in your hearts that the Iraq War is The Right Thing to Do, you're running out of time to prove yourselves right.

So get off your war-mongering duffs and if you haven't already served in the US military (many thanks if you have) slide on down to the recruiter's office and put your ass where your opinions are.

You've so far been willing to put everyone else's lives and prosperity on the line for your delusions, now's the time to put yours on the line. Lord knows the services are not gonna reject you just because you're over 40.

No one wants to hear you belly-ache that it "would have worked if". Now's the time to get your "ifs" over there and show us how its done.

Otherwise, shut up and admit to what many of us have known all along: The Iraq War was the worst. possible. idea. ever.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Prognosticators of the '32 crash: In Slow Motion

Collin Seymour

Midterm 2006: Best Line of the Night

Steven Cobert of the Cobert Report, upon realizing that all wasn't lost for the Republicans after a smashing defeat in the House elections:

"Hey, that's right... the Democrats have only been in office 4 minutes and they've already got us in an unwinnable war!"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kerry Flubbed A Joke

Apparently John Kerry flubbed a joke that was (allegedly) intended to make Bush look bad (not hard to do) but instead -- according to every Republican supporter -- came off sounding like a slight to "the troops".

Republicans have been falling over themselves demanding that Kerry appologize.

Not only is this from the party that condemns "PC" at every turn, but it yet another tired re-hash of the "let's accuse our adversaries of our own faults".

Yes, Kerry is at best "not a good speaker", but any Bush supported poking fun at someone else with public-speaking impediments is laughable.

There's a mid-term election in less than a week, and it's necessary to take attention off the bad news stemming from everywhere and focus on the one piece of good news: a member of the other party flubbed a joke.

Film at eleven.