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Remembering the Somat Machine

Last night I dreamed about the Somat machine, something I hadn't thought about it in quite a while. In the early 1970s, I worked in a large downtown office building for the plastic department of a Fortune 500 company. I frequently received plastic samples from our laboratory. When I had finished evaluating the samples, I usually threw them away. One morning I got a call from someone who said, "We want you to stop throwing that plastic stuff in your wastebasket. The Somat machine can't digest it and it gets clogged up. So cut it out."

My first question was, of course, "What the hell is a Somat machine?" I found out that it was a special machine that took paper trash and mixed it with water and chemicals and turned it into a slushy pulp.

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My company had installed this machine in the basement of the building and they had a big tanker truck show up every day to haul away the pulp, which they sold to a paper company. The company bought the Somat because they thought it would save them money - instead of paying to have trash hauled away, they would pulp it and sell it. This was quite a progressive concept in the early '70s; recycling was not a very big deal in those days.

My second question was, "How did someone track me down as the person throwing plastic in the trash?" In a nine-story office building with thousands of wastebaskets, this was a formidable task. The answer was the Somat Police.

How did a company get from a simple cost-saving device to a bureaucracy with its own police force? The answer is one little step at a time. When the company purchased the machine they needed someone to operate it, so they hired an individual I'll call Somatman. Somatman fell in love with the machine and wanted to become more knowledgeable, so he asked the company to pay for his membership in The Somat Society (TSS). The company agreed. Then Somatman wanted to attend TSS technical conferences. The company agreed to that, too. These conferences were always held in far-away places, like Geneva, Hong Kong and Cairo. So Somatman spent a lot of time flying between continents in the first-class section of airplanes, thinking up ways to build his Somat Empire. At that time, it was company policy that employees could travel first-class on overseas flights. Since somebody had to run the machine while Somatman was away, he hired an assistant whom I'll call Little Somat.

Somatman wrote technical papers on the performance of the Somat machine. One was to be delivered in Rio de Janeiro and Somatman wanted visuals for his presentation, so he had slides shot by the company photographer. The Marketing Division had to hire outside photographers for two new pieces of sales literature because the company photographer was too busy shooting interesting angles of the Somat machine. After the technical papers were delivered, Somatman had reprints made by the company's in-house print shop to give to his friends, colleagues, and fellow TSS members. Meanwhile the Finance Division had to have the third quarter stockholders report printed outside because the company print shop was too busy to run it.

Somatman decided the Somat machine was a great public relations device, so he had Little Somat give free tours to citizen groups, social organizations, and schoolchildren. They cordoned off the area with velvet ropes and brass poles, had the Somat room painted and decorated and ordered souvenirs in the shape of a little Somat machine that were molded out of indigestible plastic and imprinted with the company logo. Of course, they couldn't actually run the machine while tours were being given – it was too noisy and the chemicals smelled. So they now had a hard time keeping up with the waste paper generated by the company. Somatman and Little Somat never ran the machine themselves because they were too busy traveling and giving tours. They hired others to actually do the work. They also hired a consultant who studied the process and recommended they purchase a second Somat machine to increase their capacity.

Somatman was delighted and took the consultant's report and had fancy graphs and charts made by the graphics department to make a presentation to management. Management approved the second Somat machine purchase, although at the same meeting they turned down a request for a pelletizing extruder needed to increase manufacturing capacity for their fastest-selling product. It was probably because the presentation graphs weren't very good. The head of the Manufacturing Division tried to get the graphics department to make some charts but they said they were all booked up. He had to do them himself and they looked pretty lame next to Somatman's nice charts.

The Somat consultant also recommended that security procedures should be tightened around the two Somat machines since they were dealing with valuable documents containing company-confidential information. A security force was established. In order to differentiate them from regular corporate security they were given different uniforms with special ecru (pulp-colored) berets and shoulder braids. Since no terrorist groups seemed to be interested in the Somat machines, the Somat Police spent most of their time looking spiffy for tour groups, checking wastebaskets, tracking down offenders who placed improper trash in their receptacles, and intimidating them.

Do you think this sort of thing could only happen at a big company? Well, think again! When I was running my wholesale business in the ‘80s, I offered free delivery to small customers. I'd call prospects on Tuesday and get orders, load up the company van with goods on Tuesday evening, and start delivering early Wednesday morning. I'd finish by noon, pick up merchandise that was needed for my shop in the afternoon, and drive back to the shop. It was very efficient. Part of the deal with the free delivery was I'd personally pick up checks from my customers on the spot. No invoicing, no collection problems. Many of these people were very small businesses with shaky credit.

Then I got busy and delegated the phoning to one person and the delivery to someone else and forgot about it until later that year when my delivery guy had an accident and the van was damaged to the tune of $600. How much product did he deliver that day? Only $400! Holy cow! I used to deliver $2,500 in one morning. Well, at least I got the checks. What's this - only $200? "Well, two of them said they didn't have their checkbook handy." Yes, and they were my worst-paying customers, too.

I realized I had my own version of the Somat Empire in my small company. The reason that I had started my free delivery service in the first place was to efficiently and economically serve a batch of small accounts. We repaired the van and stopped making deliveries. We began shipping only by common carrier and paid the freight if the order exceeded $500. Guess what? A lot of my small customers got together and pooled their orders to get the freight paid. My slow-pay customers got their shipments COD and I kept their business, too. Everything worked out OK. My company got out of the delivery business because we weren't good at it anymore - and it was no longer meeting our needs.

How about you? Do you have the equivalent of a Somat machine in your business? Something that started out with the best of intentions but turned into a monster? If so, make some changes. Simplify your business life. Stick to doing what you do best.

As for me, I still think about the Somat machine now and then. Whenever I travel to a large city and see some big tanker truck tying up downtown traffic during rush hour, I always wonder if it's hauling pulp from someone's Somat Empire. (posted 7/22/10)

---- More of my business advice can be found here. ----

Author's note: This story is a compilation of numerous events in my life at one big company. There was no single individual known as Somatman, but there were many Somatmen in this big company traveling to meaningless conferences at resorts. They'd hire Little Somats to do their grunt-work while they were off having a good time. Their staff may not have had uniforms, but they had squads of syncophants whose sole job was to intimidate people in other departments with meaningless tripe.

I saw many instances where important work was underfunded so money could be siphoned off for someone's unprofitable and silly pet project. I witnessed many programs that began with good intentions deterioriate and become unstoppable monsters that had outlived their usefulness.

And I really did get calls from the Somat Department complaining about plastic samples in my wastebasket. Yes, Virginia, there is a Somat machine.

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