Saturday, March 28, 2015

Paid in full with a glass of milk

Many stories and anecdotes float on the internet.  They are read and forwarded to relatives and friends.  Some of them are true accounts.  Some others are partly true and some of them are totally false.  Their reliability ignored, they often make good reading.  If we go behind them a bit deeply and verify their authenticity, many new dimensions unfold.

I have received a story from three different sources over the last few months.  It is something like this......

A poor boy was selling goods from door to door to earn for paying his school fees. One day when he was moving from house to house, he felt very hungry.  He had only one dime (a ten cent coin; one tenth of a Dollar) left in his pocket.  He decided to ask for a meal at the next house.  A lovely young woman opened the door.  He could not ask for a meal and instead asked for a drink of water.  The woman looked at him, thought he was hungry and went inside the kitchen.  She brought a large glass of milk.  He drank it slowly and then asked, "How much do I pay?".  "You do not owe anything.  My mother has taught me never to accept anything in return of kindness", she replied.  He thanked the pretty woman and left.  

Many years later the woman became critically ill.  The local doctors were baffled about the reasons for her illness and suggested that she be admitted to the big hospital in the city so that she could receive treatment from specialists.  A specialist visited her and attended to her over the next few months.  She recovered from her illness.  She was all along more worried about something else than her ailment. She was afraid of the fat bill she had to meet at the time of her discharge from the hospital.  She was scared when she asked for the bill on the day of discharge.  The bill was brought to her and she was advised that the bill was already paid.  The bill was signed by the attending specialist Doctor after the the words, "Paid in full with a glass of milk".

Johns Hopkins was an entrepreneur and earned substantially through his hard work. While working with his uncle in his grocery business in Baltimore, he is said to have fallen in love with his uncle's daughter Elizabeth.  In those days marriage of first cousins was not acceptable in Quakers families, a group to which he belonged.  Hence both Johns and Elizabeth never married in their life.  He used his vast wealth for the welfare of orphans, students and healthcare.  He died on christmas eve in 1873 as a childless bachelor.  He bequeathed a vast fortune of 7 million US Dollars to Philanthropy.  It was the biggest donation to charity at that time.  Many institutions with his name came up through this corpus left behind him. Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland are the major ones among them.

Four prominent doctors, known as "The Big Four", are credited with being the founder Professors of the Johns Hopkins University and Medical College.  They are Dr William Osler (Medicine), Dr William Halsted (Surgery), Dr William Welch (Pathology) and Dr Howard Atwood Kelly (Gynecology).  Dr Howard Kelly is hailed as the man who developed Gynecology as a specialized field in medicine.  He did pioneering research in "women only" medical problems and developed new surgical approach to cure such diseases.  He developed "Cystoscope", an instrument that has mirrors like a telescope or microscope and used in treatment of urinary tract related issues.  He is also credited as being the first for use of Radium in treatment of cancer.  He has left his indelible mark in the field of medicine.

The story of "Paid in full with a glass of milk" relates to Dr Howard Kelly.  It is said that there is a reference to this incident in his biography written by Audrey Davis.  But the details are different.  Instead of being a poor student selling goods from house to house, Kelly was from a relatively wealthy background and received generous pocket money from his family.  On one of his walking trips in Northern Pennsylvania, he stopped by a farm house for a glass of drinking water, but the young girl offered him a glass of milk.  When she was admitted to the hospital decades later, it was for no such thing as unknown serious disease.  But it is true that the doctor recognized the woman as the young girl who gave him the glass of milk several years ago.  It is also true that he paid off the bill with those famous words, "Paid in full with a glass of milk".  Over a period of time the anecdote has added additional features and grown in excitement and interest!

Paying the "Milk Girl's Bill" was not an isolated instance.  Dr Kelly is said to have treated three out of four of his patients without charges, but charging the rich patients with a fat fee. That was his way of subsidizing the poor patients.  We know of many such doctors who charge high from patients capable of paying more and treating poor patients free or with nominal fee.  May their tribe increase.

Whatever may be the additions and modifications, the story of paying the bill with a full glass of milk is really interesting and noteworthy.  This also provides us an opportunity to thank people like Johns Hopkins and Dr Howard Atwood Kelly for their service to humanity.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Competent, Incompetent and Super-Competent

Online dictionary defines "Competent" as having "suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience etc. for some purpose or properly qualified". It also mentions that these (skill, knowledge or experience etc.) are adequate, but not exceptional. Anyone who is not having these qualities to the desired level is "Incompetent".  By extension, anyone having these qualities in more than adequate levels or to an exceptional degree will naturally be "super-competent". In any organization, at any given time, the workforce available for its functions comprise of all these three groups; competent, incompetent and super-competent. Most of the work is carried on by the competent segment.  Of course, the incompetent also do contribute for carrying on the work and, more importantly, sharing the salary bill.

Occupational incompetencies are visible everywhere.  Despite giving clear instructions, the end result is often against what was desired.  Frustration sets in when such instances are seen.  Dr Laurence J Peter did pioneering work in the area of study of organizations and came out with his principle called "Peter's Principle".  Raymond Hull obtained the voluminous research papers from Dr peter and they together published the result of the studies in the form of a book titled "The Peter Principle".  The book which was first published in the year 1968, has sold several million copies and is popular both for its humorous view of hierarchies as well as serious research work on management and education.  All management personnel and HR practitioners would do well to read the book.  It would either improve their efficiency or relieve their boredom by enabling them to laugh at their own systems, or both.

Dr Peter through his study of many leading organizations in diverse fields such as education institutions, military, manufacturing industries and service outlets concludes that "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence".  Thus, in many organizations, most of the positions are occupied by incompetent people.  They reached these levels because they were found to be competent at the previous level.  They are now unable to move to the next level because they are found incompetent here.  There is no system of demoting them to the previous level where they can be competent; they cannot be promoted because they are now incompetent!

Dr Peter explains this catch-22 situation with many examples.  A competent teacher is approved for promotion as assistant principal.  As a teacher he was responsible for teaching students.  As an assistant principal he has to deal with adults, a group of teachers.  The skills required at this level are different than those required at the previous level.  If he is found competent at that level, he will be promoted as the Principal.  As a principal he has to deal with outsiders like school board members, parental groups and community leaders. If he fails at this level, he is incompetent as a principal and will not be considered for promotion as a superintendent, the next higher level.  He continues to work as an incompetent principal because he cannot go back as a competent teacher or assistant principal.

One may feel that there are many exceptions to this rule.  We know of many incompetent persons being promoted to the next level.  This may be for various reasons; compulsion to fill the next post from among the available pool or the danger of one not promoted quitting the organization and joining the competitor.  If the promotion was due to constraints of compulsion of selecting from the available pool, it is only a pseudo-promotion. If it is the fear of the rejected joining the competitors and the damage he can do because he knows sufficient inside information, then it is not a true promotion, but only kicking upstairs!  In either of these situations, the person is only moving from a level of incompetence to a higher level of incompetence.  There could be one more reason for such promotion of the incompetent employees.  It may be because the promoting authority has himself reached his level of incompetence and cannot decide on the competency of his subordinates!  Such promotions serve another important purpose; it keeps employee morale high.  "If X himself can be promoted, I should definitely stand a chance", feel the others and thus get motivated. 

Some of the examples given by Dr Peter are indeed revealing.  A Chairman of a company was in a dilemma while choosing his CEO when the present incumbent retired.  Two candidates were in the radar and the junior of the two was the right one to fill the position. The  Chairman was afraid that the bypassed senior may quit and join the competitor.  He was with the company long enough and his joining the competitor would certainly damage the company due his knowledge of all the trade secrets. The CEO overcame this problem by promoting both of them.  The senior was personally called and told that his knowledge and long service was invaluable to the company and it deserved to be recorded for posterity.  He was given a separate office, suitable staff and sufficient funds and advised to write the history of the company from its very beginning.  He was indeed very happy and went on with his mission.  The junior actually ran the company now.  At the end of two years, the senior came up with beautiful volumes of the history of the company. The books were released on his retirement day and they are kept in the company's main office.  Of course, nobody read them, but the CEOs purpose was served.

Another executive was confronted with a similar situation.  He promoted both the competitors.  The senior incompetent  person was made "Chief Co-ordinator" and all departments were advised to send a copy of their letters and reports to the chief co-ordinator.  The junior ran the show while the senior believed that he was doing lot of important work. He was submerged in the flood of papers and information and was very busy to create any trouble. Others did not worry about him except that one copy of all letters and reports were continued to be sent to him.

Dr Samuel Peter brings out many other wonderful management terms like Pull and Push, creative incompetence and Peter's Inversion.  Pull and Push are well-known practices to earn promotions.  Perter's Inverts are those who invert means and ends relationship. "Never stand when you can sit; never walk when you can ride; never push when you can pull", he suggests. 

Dr Peter concludes his study with a delightful warning:  Organizations expect their employees to be competent, but routinely tolerate the incompetent.  It is only the super-competent that they do not like.  It is because the super-competent are a rare breed and therefore they are a threat to hierarchy.  The golden rule is that "hierarchy should be preserved at all costs".
Peter's principle should be read by all competent and incompetent people.  It comforts the incompetent by assuring them that they are not alone, but in fact belong to the majority.  It encourages the competent that they are the ones who are running the show.  Since all of us belong to one of these two categories, it is relevant to all of us.  In case one does not know to which category he belongs, it would help him to make up his mind about his own classification.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Do You Follow These Tenets, King Bharata?

Corporate espionage is being discussed in the media relentlessly.  So is the quality of members of cabinets and senior bureaucrats of the governments at different levels. Cabinet ministers are known for speaking out of turn on issues not related to them.  Their life styles and habits keep raising controversies. Distribution of work among the government servants is becoming a major issue. Ambassadors are said to be not up to the mark.  Armed forces and their requirements are being debated endlessly. Welfare of soldiers and officers of the forces is a big question mark. That public finances are in a big mess is not at all disputed. The only issue for arguments and counter-arguments is who is responsible for it.  The civil society is almost vertically divided about the reasons for atrocities on women.  Some hold that the women themselves are responsible for their suffering.  That appears true as well.  If there are no women in the society, there won't be any atrocities on them!  Decision making has become a forgotten art. The list can go on and on.

Was this the state of affairs in our country all the time?  Are there no principles or guidelines as to how these issues are to be resolved?  Were these concerns ever brought to focus in ancient India? What were the theories and practices used by our forefathers?  It is indeed worth dwelling on these issues.


Rama has moved to the forest to start his fourteen years of "Aranyavasa".  His wife Seethe and one of the brothers, Lakshmana, have followed him.  They are living in the woods and leading the life of hermits.  Lakshmana climbs on a tree for fetching some fruits. He finds that an army is marching in the direction of their hut. He runs to his elder brother, Rama.  "It appears that Bharata is coming with an army here. Permit me to fight them.  With your grace, I will kill that entire army", he says.  Rama smiles at him.  "There is no need for any heroics, Lakshmana. You do not know your brother.  I know my brother.  Wait patiently", says Rama.  As the army nears the hut, its leader runs to Rama and falls at his feet.

Rama identifies the person at his feet with some difficulty.  It is Bharata alright, but not the way he ought to be.  He is not dressed like the king of Ayodhya.  He is just like his own mirror image (except the body color).  He has matted locks, dressed in bark robes and lying on the floor with folded hands.  Aadikavi Valmeeki says that he was like the Sun who has lost his brightness when the end of time (yugaanta) nears. Rama is moved by his appearance and approach.  He lifts Bharata and takes him in his lap, as he used to do when they both were little boys.

The first few questions asked by Rama are general and towards the welfare of the family. "How is our father, King Dashartha?  This is not the time that you should leave him behind in Ayodhya and come to see me.  How are my three mothers? How is Guru Suyagna, son of the great sage Vasishta?  Are you treating your archery teacher Sudhanva with respect? Are you holding your elders, aged teachers, doctors and other scholars with reverence?", Rama asks.

All the questions that follow and the queries that are made appear to have been written to answer each one of the questions that are raised above with reference to the happenings in our country today.

  • Quality of Ministers: Are you keeping learned people, who are not easily lured by temptations as ministers?  Are they knowledgeable in interpreting their internal sentiments through external gestures? Remember, one wise man is better than a thousand stupid fools in a cabinet.  One efficient minister alone can bring greater prosperity for the King (than any number of others).  Are these ministers capable of standing up to the King in support of the ordinary subjects if the innocent subjects are harassed?
  • Council of Ministers: A King's victories stem from a concealed counsel of ministers, those who can hide their thoughts within themselves.  Are these ministers incorruptible and of total integrity?

  • Personal habits:  Are you not falling a prey to excessive sleep? Are you not eating good and delicious dishes alone, but sharing them with trusted friends?  

  • Maintaining secrecy:  Are you ensuring that others are not able to find the details of the discussions you have with your ministers, through their enquiries or other strategies?  Are other Kings able to know your plans only after they implemented?

  • Bureaucrats:  Are you assigning superior work to servants capable of doing superior work?  Is mediocre work given to mediocre ones and inferior one to inferiors in capacity to perform?  Servants should neither come too close to the master nor they should run away at his sight.
  • Economy and finances: Are you implementing plans with maximum benefit, but minimum costs?  Are you properly managing food grains, money in treasury, weapons, artisans and archers?  Do you have arrangement for abundant income but minimum expenditure?
  • Dispensing justice:  Does your administration and ministers dispense justice without fear or favor?  Remember, tears falling from the eyes of those who are falsely accused destroy the King.  
  • Ambassadors and spies:  Are you appointing only knowledgeable men, wise and endowed with presence of mind and those who know how to speak to a point? Are you appointing teams of spies, those who do not know each other?
  • Army and Defense:  Is your Army Chief cheerful, wise, valiant, courageous, well behaved and beloved by his subordinates?  Are your soldiers strong, skilled in warfare, tried and tested?  Are you honoring the courageous soldiers and respecting them?  Are you paying them properly and without delay?  When there is delay in payments, servants become corruptible and it is a great misfortune that can befall a King. Are you increasing the number of elephants and horses in the army? Also, remember not to think lightly of the enemies.
  • Agriculture and animals:  Are you taking proper care and maintenance of the farmers and cattle-rearers?  Are the cattle treated without cruelty?  Are the agricultural lands well tilled and water stored properly in tanks?
  • Women Protection:  Are you protecting women in your kingdom? Are there social festivities? Are you appearing before the people each day in the morning on the Highway? (Are you accessible to them?)
  • Decision making:  Are you discussing important issues with three or four ministers collectively?  Later on, are you discussing secretly with each of them?  Are you contemplating on the issues of the state in the latter part of the night (early mornings) and then coming to a decision? 


All the above issues directly answer the problems that our society faces today.  It is to be remembered that Rama had never been a King at this stage.  He was still of tender age, may be around 20 years.  He was not even second-in-command (Yuvaraja). Dasharatha's first attempt to make him The King brought in the step-mother Kaikeyee and all hell broke loose.  He then moved to the forest followed by his wife and one of the brothers.  Whatever knowledge he had was acquired by learning at the feet of his Gurus as well as observing his father's style of ruling the kingdom.  Bharata also had the same advantages or disadvantages.  All these questions posed here are Adikavi Valmeeki's way of communicating with the world as to how a King should act, behave and rule.

There are many such gems in our ancient literature and valuable works of other parts of the world as well. Unfortunately, our teaching in "General Management" or "Political Science" starts with the theories of 17th or 18th century scholars. They are called the fathers of management and we too believe it.