By the Number

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The manager wants a number – just one number that will tell in an arithmetic snapshot how far along the manufacturing process is and how well it is going. So, the expediter wants that number, that single number which supposedly represents the current state of a complex manufacturing process. Don’t give me details. Don’t trouble my mind and complicate my report with a variety of factors which, understood, make the single number so absurd as to be laughable. Just give me the number. The almighty number that makes me sound as though I have control of the process and all the knowledge I need to make decisions. Never mind that those decisions may damage people’s lives as well as mislead and possibly mess up in expensive ways the very manufacturing process I am supposed to be managing or expediting. Just give me the number that gives me control without knowledge or insight.

You’ve got to be kidding! He wants all of this reduced to one number? It will tell him exactly nothing. And we have to waste our time generating that number, trying to make it at least approximate something real that he won’t understand anyway so he can then use the number we give him each week to judge everybody’s work without even knowing what it is they do? What an ignoramus!

Numbers are so wonderful. They can be plotted and displayed prettily in meetings to give the appearance of factual truth. Don’t say that plotting meaningless numbers yields meaningless graphs. Those graphs are proof. Proof of what? Proof of my authority and control over processes I don’t begin to comprehend and don’t care to. Proof of my power over people’s lives. With the numbers and charts, I become a grownup He-Man: “I have the power!” That my underlings know I and my knowledge are really as cartoon-ish as the cartoon He-Man is something I work hard not to realize and will never admit. That they must still try to make the process work somehow despite my incompetent management is the truth they know but dare not speak except in whispers and curses to each other.

If the one-number to give me power and control is a sham in manufacturing, imagine how absurd it becomes in education. The complexities of design and production are nothing compared with those of leading young humans to the state of being educated enough to keep learning, growing, inventing, and benefiting society throughout their lives. And if authoritarian mismanagement can spoil a manufactured product, think of how damaging it can be to children. And it is.

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