8. Routines? My Job, Fractals and Algorithms

I love my job, she said. Nothing is Routine. Every day is completely new.

Except it isn’t. What normally is true about a job that is full of surprises is that the person doing it has developed routines for dealing with the unexpected. So while every day is completely new, or while the harried manager experiences putting out fires all day long, in fact they both have ways of organizing their approaches to new problems or fires that they habitually use to get their problems solved and their fires under control. I guarantee it.

We all do.

We just do our jobs, which usually means following the routines that we have been instructed to carry out based on a skill that we have developed and mixed with the personal traits we bring to the performance (or in other words, doing what we were hired to do and adding our personal styles).

How I Experienced Corporate Routines

I keep thinking back to my first job in a multinational corporation. Over one summer vacation in college, I landed a job with Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. It was in a logging camp in the woods near Mt. St.  Helens, Washington – this was before the volcano erupted. There the company was logging a timber stand and building its own road further into the forest.

We were on the swing shift; we took over at 4:00 each afternoon from the day shift, and we kept at it till midnight, when we got into a timber cruiser – what in those days they called a ‘crummy truck’ – and returned to logging camp to sleep, eat prodigious meals, and prepare to head back out the next afternoon.

As the new guy and a college boy, I was assigned to the least skilled task, which was on the rock crusher. My job was to operate the loader hole under the hopper. When a dump truck came in to haul a load of gravel out to the construction site, I would fill it by pulling on a rod attached to the opener at the bottom of the hopper and letting the gravel flow into the truck bed.

Once I donned my hard hat each afternoon, I had three responsibilities, each laid out in a routine:

(1) when a dump truck came in, to open the hopper and load the truck full of gravel (but not too full lest it spill rocks on the way to the dump site at the end of the new road),

(2) if no trucks came for a while and the hopper filled up, to signal to the operator of the crusher to stop the machinery; that was to prevent an overflow, to keep rocks from falling down and hitting me and others in the head, and

(3) when each loaded truck headed out, to record the load and its time out.

There was a fourth routine to be invoked in case the hopper plugged up with mud; that was to poke a steel rod up into it from the bottom and loosen the mud till the gravel flowed freely – without getting hit by a rock. I was instructed in this arcane knowledge by the foreman, a kindly and capable man who looked out for me and the rest of the crew and kept the whole show running.

You could call the routine I was given, inasmuch as I was the only person performing it, an assignment that became like a personal habit. But really it was my job. You would call it a habit only because that sequence of tasks was my individual routine, my one-person assignment. Social scientists seek to distinguish among levels of analysis – individual, group, or organization, and this was individual. But we’ll get to that later.

Compounding the Routines in One Corner of the Woods

Obviously I was not alone out there under the lights in the woods. First in line from me there was the crusher operator, an ex-con from Chehalis whom I knew only as ‘Apeshit’ – until the day we went into town together to date some girls and, in passing, I was going to meet his mother. As we drove into town I had to ask him his real name, which he revealed was ‘Sonny.’ (When I met his mother, in fact, I passed the test: I remembered to call him by his real name on cue, and she smiled broadly at her son who now was bringing home college boys.)

So, aside from our rare encounters with local girls, Sonny and I were tied together by the twin routines of crushing rocks into gravel and pouring the gravel into the trucks. His personal routine started when the local truck bearing a load of big rocks from the quarry drove up the ramp to the crusher that would turn boulders into gravel. When Sonny had guided the truck into place, the driver would pull the control handle, tilt his bed up, and dump his load into the top of the crusher.

Sonny would then jump into the operator’s seat, start the crusher and begin making the gravel that cascaded into the top of the hopper – always on the lookout for my signal to stop when the hopper was full. When he stopped that crusher, I remember vividly, the silence would seem to explode outward into the night and forest, and in that sudden silence he would step out onto the ladder that led up to the operator’s cab and shout his favorite obscenity into the suddenly quiet, black night. (No, I’m not going to quote it here.)

Beyond the crusher was the quarry. There the man upon whom all our lives depended – known as the powder monkey – and his helper drilled holes into the cliff face, loaded them carefully with dynamite, capped the dynamite sticks when the charge was ready, and following a carefully rehearsed protocol to make sure everyone was safely away from the area, blew the face off the cliff to create several truck loads of rock.

Then he would sit down to plan out his next blast before he and the powder monkey’s helper (the other college boy on the show) went back to place the hydraulic drills against the cliff face and start drilling again. The powder monkey’s routines were complex as well as arcane, encompassing the knowledge of where to set his charge, how much dynamite to use, and the safety requirements, upon which all our lives depended. Following them to the letter was the only way to guarantee that no one suffered grievous wounds. Both his skill and his devotion to discipline were valued and honored by every person on the job. His was a set of stringent routines.

Between him and the truck that hauled the rocks to the crusher was the most skilled man there, the shovel operator. He sat proudly in his cab pulling levers, manipulating a giant wheel and rotating the cab, simultaneously raising or lowering the shovel on the end of its long and extendable arm, and opening and closing its giant mouth to pick a load and place it in the truck bed. His coordinated movements, which he had practiced for so long that he didn’t have to think about them, would remind you of a helicopter pilot or a ballerina in a brilliant performance.  His routines were practiced and precise, and he could place just the right load in a 9-yard dump truck bed from a scattered pile of boulders in minutes.

Role and Team – and Social Science

So here we have a team of workers, typical in one essential way of workers in many industries, and that way was that each one contributed his skills in a routine or habit that interacted with the routines of the others, a pattern that was noted 100 years ago by the American pragmatist, George Herbert Mead,1 Mead used the example of a baseball team with 9 players, each of them at a given position with special responsibilities and skills, from pitcher to center field, all  interacting in a greater pattern, a single combined team routine made up of the contributions of each member – like Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

On the road crew the same principle was at work: each of us performed a specific set of actions at the right time in response to the actions of the person before and after him in the chain. And each trusted that the one before him and the one after him in the chain to do his job right and to hand the rocks or information over prepared for him to take the next step. That combination made a second-order routine – a routine of routines.

And Compounding the Compounded

This gang working out there in the woods each night was part of a larger set of combinations of routines that made up the logging show in that neck of the woods on that slope of Mt. St. Helens. Beyond us in those woods was the main site where loggers were cutting trees, bucking them to the loading site, loading the massive trucks, and hauling them out to the mill.

And beyond them were the timber cruisers who surveyed the forest and determined where and which trees to cut, the manager and staff of the entire tree farm who planned harvest rates and monitored the health of the forest (until Mt. St. Helens took it all out with one giant blast some 25 years later), the teams who replanted the clear cuts, the cooks who bought and cooked the prodigious amounts of food all these people consumed at four meals a day, and the camp maintenance crews who took care of the cabins and amenities, such as they were.

All these groups meshed their 2nd order routines to make up a set of third-order routine for operating the entire network, and with those interacting routines they managed to grow, maintain, harvest and replant over decades an entire tree farm so large that they never even bought license plates for the log trucks: despite driving thousands of miles a year, those trucks never left Weyerhaeuser property to drive on public roads.

And beyond them in fourth, fifth, and more layers of routines were the people in the sawmill headquarters in Longview who received and processed our logs and planned future operations, meshing third-order routines in a fourth level, plus the people at higher levels who recorded the board feet of the trees cut, bought and repaired  the trucks and heavy equipment, tracked the markets, took orders from buyers, counted the logs into the mill, ran and repaired the dry kilns, saws, conveyors, and planes in the mill, loaded trucks for shipment of lumber, tracked inventory and deliveries, and all the other details required to run a lumber production.

How Far Does it Go?

At this point I would not dare to specify how many layers of routines that coordinated sub-routines I am describing.  That was just one region in a local forest that was completely owned by the company.  Beyond that, Weyerhaeuser was logging timber and running sawmills in several areas of Oregon and Washington on their own land and national forests –  and on beyond, in other countries from Indonesia to Brazil they were logging vast quantities of timber.

And above them all stood the corporate headquarters in Tacoma that coordinated all these interacting routines of routines, piled on one another in uncounted layers – the departmental routines of legal, financial, accounting, marketing, internal communications, research and development, human resources, and all the other executive functions that tied together the routines of the whole corporation and pumped money, like blood in the body, to every cell in every organ out there.

What Do These All Add Up To?

So now I am alluding to a number of layers of routines beyond my calculation, then and now, and the whole description is getting messy. But I hope two things are obvious.

First, what we have here is a hierarchy of interlocking routines guiding and tracking and supporting the routines of the segments under them, uncounted layers of routines above and below other linked or subordinate routines, all more or less coordinated and striving to keep the company, or at least their corner of it, going every day around the world.

And second, that the structure they formed resembled a pattern that in physical systems we call fractals. The routine at each layer resembles the layers above and below it in structure – that is, in its constituent parts.

Fractals and Algorithms

Each routine reveals a pattern for which I want to use the term algorithm. Loosely speaking, an algorithm begins when a trigger condition is met, one that shows up in the description of the operation as ‘when’ or ‘if.’ That trigger condition requires a succeeding sequence of acts. That is, it requires an agent, whether an individual, a group, a department, or a division of the organization, to perform a more or less fixed set of steps: A, B, C,.. etc. Of course it admits to variations – e.g., “If/when step B yields result 1, then perform variation 1 of step C, if not, then perform C variation 2 or even 3 –  and then continue to step D or switch paths and begin E or F.”

Notice that in describing my own job on the crusher, each of the three responsibilities started with ‘When X happened…’ and continued with the steps I would then perform. That formula, “If/when… Perform Sequence A, B. C…,” is the fractal that is common to every level of routines all the way from the work gang to the CEO.

I’ll begin discussing the importance of routines in my next entry. You can imagine where I am heading with this. What chance has the man in the grey flannel suit or the prison guard – or for that matter, the truck driver, or even the vice president of operations –  to make things better by trying to change a pattern of interactions performed by hundreds or even thousands of people, a combination of routines that is so complex that no one person can be aware of them all, and all of them based on stacks of algorithms, the form of information that constitutes the universal pattern of action in life forms?

I joke thatif I had known I was part of such a complex information/organizational pattern when I headed into the woods, I might have been awestruck. As it was, I was just fascinated by the way the whole team out there in the woods on the swing shift, making gravel for a road, working together into the night, formed a culture, and built mutual respect for one another by performing what I later discovered were algorithms.

By the way, I never saw either the road we were building or the actual logging operation.

  1. G. H. Mead (1934) Mind, Self, and Society. Ed. by Charles W. Morris, University of Chicago Press.)

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