Of Mice and Management: Unexpected Costs That Eat into Value and Time

By Paula DiPerna

The “check gas cap” indicator lit up on the dashboard of my car, all of a sudden.  I retightened it, and the indicator light went off.  But, then next morning, another warning:  this time it said,” Check engine.”  What was going on?

I had a tight schedule ahead and had not planned my time to include car problems.  I looked in the manual to decode the indicator warnings.  But though the manual proposed many possible causes, it proposed no clear-cut answer, other than, “Check with your service provider.” In other words, the handbook told me what I already knew:  see a mechanic. Cut to the chase.

I was reminded of all the roundabout management meetings we attend where we entertain opinions often from so-called stakeholders who have no directly relevant expertise. Often, after much discussion of possibilities for the sake of inclusiveness, we still have to boil down the proceedings to the universal truths of management: stay with the fundamentals, use common sense, don’t over think a problem, and only take advice from people who know what they are talking about.

… I took my car to the mechanic, whose protocol told him to first run sophisticated computer error message scans to see what was wrong. But he got no clear answer from the many options presented. At last he popped open the hood–and voila! The culprit was clear. Mice. During an especially long period of cold weather, a mouse had set up a cozy nest in my engine, lined with fuzzy blue threads from a fabric I had left on a seat.  And food? The mice had been nibbling at the hoses of the emissions control system, causing minute leaks that triggered the “check engine” messages.

We lose a lot of valuable time in speculation, when in our gut we all know that the best manager is the one with a clear-cut view, based on experience, who has the courage to be definitive.

US$ 200 or so later, I drove away, with new hoses, and the mechanic offered high level advice on how to keep the mice out of the car. According to him, the best answer was hot sauce. He suggested I buy a jar of the spiciest hot sauce I could find, put it in a spray bottle, and coat the new hoses with the spicy mist. “Mice do not like spicy food,” said the mechanic, “No mouse will ever nibble your hoses again,” he predicted.

But before I could buy that sauce, after just a few miles of driving, the warning lights came on again on the dashboard. Back to the garage for more computer scans. Again, no answer. So, again, back to fundamentals. Take a further actual look. This time, the mechanic looked deep into the engine and there, sure enough, more mouse evidence. The nibbling had cut into the neck of the gas tank, and the neck alone could not be replaced. I would have to buy a whole new gas tank. Another US$ 300, making the mice caper a US$ 500 unexpected cost.

All of this is laughable, except the joke was on my checkbook.

Of course, a parable emerges. Our fully computerized autos can flood us with sophisticated sensor devices, but, a simple “Black swan” event, such as a mouse in the engine, can flummox the system.

When I think of value chains and cost overruns, I’m reminded that often we cannot outguess the ordinary.

Engines are nothing more than the physical manifestation of ideas–they have to work in real life. So it is with management. We lose a lot of valuable time in speculation, when in our gut we all know that the best manager is the one with a clear-cut view, based on experience, who has the courage to be definitive without being arbitrary. The best manager is the one who can simplify even the most complex challenge into doable, comprehensible remedies.

Next time I’m tempted to give a complicated answer to a simple question, I’ll remember the mice nest. That nest was costly and reminds me that the most elegant answer is often just a matter of taking a good look at the basics. And the answer may not be, at all, in the manual. My mechanic invented the only answer that worked.  He even did me the extra service of buying that bottle of hot sauce and super coating all the new hoses and the tank.  I drove away with my hot sauce engine, smiling at the idea that now I was counting on a bottle of hot sauce that cost US$ 4 to protect me from another unpredictable US$ 500 down the drain. BM