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Managing by the Numbers

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

If you manage by the numbers, there is a temptation to lie about those numbers, based on the need to get stock price ever higher. At Enron, “15 percent a year or better earnings growth” was the mantra. Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, observes how the belief that “stock price is all that matters” has been hardwired into the corporate psyche. It dictates not only how people judge the worth of their company but also how they feel about themselves and the work that they are doing. And, over time, it has clouded judgments about what is acceptable corporate behavior. 1

Managing by Numbers: The Sears Auto Center Story

If winning is the most important thing in your life, then you must be prepared to do anything to win.

—Michael Josephson

Most people want to be winners or associate with winners. As humans, our desire to associate with those who have status provides plenty of incentive to glorify winners and ignore losers. But if an individual, a team, or a company does whatever it takes to win, then all other values are thrown out in the goal to win at all costs. The desire of some people within Sears & Roebuck Company’s auto repair division to win by gaining higher profits resulted in the situation portrayed here.

Sears Roebuck & Company has been a fixture in American retailing throughout the twentieth century. At one time, people in rural America could order virtually anything (including a house) from Sears. Not without some accuracy, the company billed itself as “the place where Americans shop.” But in 1992, Sears was charged by California authorities with gross and deliberate fraud in many of its auto centers.

The authorities were alerted by a 50 percent increase in consumer complaints over a three-year period. New Jersey’s division of consumer affairs also investigated Sears Auto Centers and found that all six visited by investigators had recommended unnecessary repairs. California’s department of consumer affairs found that Sears had systematically overcharged by an average of $223 for repairs and routinely billed for work that was not done. Sears Auto Centers were the largest providers of auto repair services in the state.

The scam was a variant on the old bait-and-switch routine. Customers received coupons in the mail inviting them to take advantage of hefty discounts on brake jobs. When customers came in to redeem their coupons, sales staffers would convince them to authorize additional repairs. As a management tool, Sears had also established quotas for each of their sales representatives to meet.

Ultimately, California got Sears to settle a large number of lawsuits against it by threatening to revoke Sears’ auto repair license. Sears agreed to distribute $50 coupons to nearly a million customers nationwide who had obtained certain services between August 1, 1990, and January 31, 1992. Sears also agreed to pay $3.5 million to cover the costs of various government investigations and to contribute $1.5 million annually to conduct auto mechanic training programs. It also agreed to abandon its repair service quotas. The entire settlement cost Sears $30 million. Sears Auto Center sales also dropped about 15 to 20 percent after news of the scandal broke.

Note that in boosting sales by performing unnecessary services, Sears suffered very bad publicity. Losses were incalculable. The short-term gains were easy to measure; long-term consequences seldom are. The case illustrates a number of important lessons:

  • People generally choose short-term gains over potential long-term losses.
  • People often justify the harm to others as being minimal or “necessary” to achieve the desired sales quota or financial goal.
  • In working as a group, we often form an “us versus them” mentality. In the Sears case, it is likely that Sears “insiders” looked at customers as “outsiders,” effectively treating them (in Kantian terms) as means rather than ends in themselves. In short, outsiders were used for the benefit of insiders.
  • The long-term losses to Sears are difficult to quantify, while the short-term gains were easy to measure and (at least for a brief while) quite satisfying financially.
  • Sears’ ongoing rip-offs were possible only because individual consumers lacked the relevant information about the service being offered. This lack of information is a market failure, since many consumers were demanding more of Sears Auto Center services than they would have (and at a higher price) if relevant information had been available to them earlier. Sears, like other sellers of goods and services, took advantage of a market system, which, in its ideal form, would not permit such information distortions.
  • People in the organization probably thought that the actions they took were necessary.

Noting this last point, we can assume that these key people were motivated by maximizing profits and had lost sight of other goals for the organization.

The emphasis on doing whatever is necessary to win is entirely understandable, but it is not ethical. The temptation will always exist—for individuals, companies, and nations—to dominate or to win and to write the history of their actions in a way that justifies or overlooks the harm that has been done. In a way, this fits with the notion that “might makes right,” or that power is the ultimate measure of right and wrong.