A Facet of Late-State Capitalist Failure: Operational Breakage

A Facet of Late-State Capitalist Failure: Operational Breakage 1

Your humble blogger has mixed feeling about using personal shaggy dog stories to illustrate potential widespread issues. Today, we’ll discuss symptoms of operational failures across various entities. I’m holding back the worst, where I spent nine hours and 35 minutes (which I taped) trying to get a big brand financial institution to do something which it had maintained could be accomplished online in 15 minutes, for a later post.

One reason for presenting these examples is they don’t quite fit into the crapification model (although readers may beg to differ). So one reason for bringing up this topic with readers is not only getting more examples of this syndrome, but also comping upCrapification is typically the result of trying to extract more profit from a product or service at the expense of quality, safety and/or durability. Examples are legion, including:

– The Boeing 737 Max fiasco

– Underinvestment in maintenance producing large-scale harm via dangerous accidents or service failure, such as fires caused by antique PG&E equipment, the massive power outage last year in Texas (and recent warnings that bad snowstorms/cold temps this winter could produce a repeat), the Pittsburg bridge collapse

– Planned obsolescence, the bane of tech users, and more and more are being sucked into having hardware and software dictate product life than is necessary or desirable for users. Peak word processing was WordPerfect circa 1994. The NeXT’s Improv (a Lotus product) ran rings around Excel. And don’t get me started on IoT. What happens when the provider of XYZ system goes out of business and your locks or heating system gets bricked? What about the inclusion of way more chip-enabled features than are necessary in everything from washing machines to cars, leading to more costly service calls and faster product death due to key components often not available after ten years? One example is the phaseout of the 3G network affecting some car models from 2010 to even as recent as 2021 models. Admittedly, the affected systems are not critical to driving the car, but their not being updated would presumably hurt resale value. Most automakers are offering upgrades but some are curiously indifferent. From CNBC:


According to Lexus, all models produced by the Toyota-owned luxury brand between 2010 and 2017 will be affected by the 3G shutdown, along with GX models from 2018. The shutdown for those cars’ connected services will come on October 31, 2022, at which point features like automatic collision notification and enhanced roadside assistance will stop working permanently.

So far, Toyota and Lexus haven’t announced any plans to offer software or hardware upgrades.

By contrast, I can still get parts for a 2003 Buick.

– Deliberately reducing product quality to force consumers into much faster replacements. How about Craftsman tools? Clothes, even high end ones now made with thinner fabrics and shoddier tailoring? Even simple devices like sponge mops now have online reviews that complain of them breaking during assembly or the first few uses, sponges falling apart, and replacement sponges not being installable due to screws not working with sponges sold as replacements.

By contrast, the sort of failings I am encountering now have the feel of institutional “I don’t give a fuck.” It’s not as if they are setting out to save time (which of course = more profit) by being indifferent. It’s just that too many organizations (or key units) don’t care about the message they send about their service quality by putting customers through unnecessary grief. If you are on the receiving end, the experience is like Sisyphus trying to push his rock to the top of the hill, or being a rat who has been trained that one push of lever produces a piece of corn finding that repeatedly pushing the lever does nothing, and there’s no other way to get the corn.

Some examples:

New York State. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has to provide a written consent before a New York corporation can be dissolved. The printed consent form describes the next steps: Send the consent form to the Secretary of State with a completed form TR-960 and a check for $60 to a Secretary of State address.

But there is no Form TR-960. And when you go to the Secretary of State website, and put in “consent to dissolution of a corporation” you get over 400 matches, and the first ten don’t have the needed form. This forces a call to the Secretary of State to get a live human to help navigate the site to locate the form.

It is also harder than it ought to be to find the corporation lookup on the New York Secretary of State site, leading one to wonder if the terrible search function and misleading instructions are actually a covert full employment program for customer service staffers.

Numerous health care providers. It is a condition of existence for any medical provider who has not opted out of the insurance regime to be able to document their charges and show diagnosis and procedure codes for each (or if getting labs or imaging from free-standing providers, just the procedure codes).

For a host of complicated reasons (like getting prices at least as good as the insurer’s best negotiated rates) I pay for most medical services and get reimbursed. I make clear I need the same sort of info they routinely provide to insurers as a condition of paying at the time of service, which they ought to be doing everything to encourage.

Mind you, this isn’t life or death. It’s just money. But our health care system is optimized for billing, not patient care. Nevertheless, the results are bimodal: either the provider prints a receipt right on the spot with the needed information, or it is a major tooth-pulling exercise to get them to deliver it. Too often, they instead deliver a “patient statement” which lacks procedure codes and adequate information about the billing individual/institution (license or provide # or EIN).

In one case, I had to march in person to the office of the MD and get his assistant to call the imaging empire to send the needed records. Even that didn’t work, but she did give me the name and phone number of the person who was supposedly handling it. It was my call to her (which was my fifth attempt to get the forms I needed) that worked.

Birmingham Water Works. The sewer and water bill for the house is still in the name of my father, who died in 2006. This might be tolerable except his and my mother’s bank was acquired and so the account number for the autopay will change and I need to update that.

If you call the number printed on the bill to change the payment method, the person who tiredly answers the phone says they haven’t provided that service since 2018 and they’ve repeatedly requested that Birmingham Water Works update its statements. If you call the number the “no longer doing it” person provides, they want my dead father’s SSN. Fortunately some of his records are still around so I can probably find it…but for payment water service? To a physical address?

Search engines. As the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur.

Overpromising on shipments. Mind you, I buy very little and so do not order much online. But I’ve been on the receiving end of a surprisingly high number of delivery failures, such as a Midtown Manhattan vendor trying 2x to send a small package to a colleague in Washington Heights….and having the vendor insist it had arrived, when both times it was actually “out for delivery” for >two weeks. A small Fedex delivery was first falsely reported as having gotten here when it hadn’t, and it was finally delivered, ten days after the initial bogus report, and left at the curb, which is a very steep and long walk downhill from the unused front door, where it sat astonishingly untouched for three days. I have four other examples in the last seven months I will spare you.

I understand that delivery staffers are overworked and abused. That’s why I make efforts to use them sparingly. But here the fault (save for dumping the parcel which had been left for days on the truck at the curb) was not primarily that of the driver but of the company for misrepresenting the status of the shipment, when in this world of everything bar coded and scanned, that should not be possible.

Mind you I have more examples, but they would take more ‘splaining to convey.

One could treat this sort of thing as Covid related. All across the board, operations hollowed out their service staff and also had many if not all working from home, which makes it harder to assure quality (no call center supervisor able to keep her ear on a lot of conversations and sense who might be getting off the rails often enough to need more help). And they also just cut support levels, found they could get away with it, and decided to stick with the new normal because they could. But if you look at my examples above, only the delivery service one is arguably Covid-related, the rest are long-standing.

Now it could well be that these low level but seemingly widespread failures are symptomatic of a revolt, or perhaps mere withdrawal of engagement, by mid level workers. Why tell the bosses what needs to be fixed when they don’t want to hear it? Why try to make an organization better if it makes clear that it doesn’t care that much about keeping you or serving customers well? Or more fundamentally, why regard customers’ time as important if management doesn’t value your time?

Perhaps I am off base in regarding this sort of service erosion as an institutional pathology, and welcome confirmation or disagreement.

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