Ruining life on Earth

Editor’s note: This column was originally published in 2011.

My first job after college was as a management trainee—a glorified stockboy—at Osco Drug. I was in charge of magazines and the baby section—formula, pacifiers, cotton swabs, disposable diapers, and many items I’ve managed to forget.

Overstock—whatever wouldn’t fit on the assigned shelf—was stored in the basement, many steps and stairs from the sales floor. Most merchandise was ordered and delivered weekly, and after simply duplicating previous orders for a while and running up and down the basement stairs many times a day, I began paying closer attention to stock movement and sales.

I fine-tuned my process until most formula, the biggest seller and pain in the ass in the baby aisle, had little or no overstock. By Friday afternoon when there were only a few cans of the most popular kinds left, the weekly delivery from the warehouse showed up, and the surprisingly heavy cases of baby formula would go straight to the sales floor.

One Friday the district manager asked me why there was so little formula on the shelves. He was alarmed that we were close to running out and warned me about the dangers of not having what a customer expected to find.

I unwisely pointed out that I hadn’t actually run out of anything, which annoyed him. He was afraid of being out of stock, and he thought I ought to be afraid too. I was fired the next month.

Thirty years later I learned that I had stumbled on a widely used quality technique known as just-in-time, where you time deliveries from vendors to minimize inventory and raw materials sitting around waiting for something to happen.

Now I think that anything that facilitates the sale of baby formula is a bad idea, like bigger bombs—it doesn’t matter what or how much cheaper they are or whom one plans to use them on. Bullets and baby formula are bad ideas, even though I still find satisfaction in having discovered a method to make that one little job easier and more efficient. Baby formula is evil; pacifiers, too, probably.

I suppose people trying to do a better job improve the odds of finally ruining life on Earth once and for all, each of us bolstering a global capitalism that extols greed and rewards ruthlessness.

We’re each doing our bit—one more hunk of plastic, one more car trip to the grocery store, one more bagful to the landfill. One more pair of eyeballs on MSNBC or Fox, too, because I think it all counts. If I’m yearning for an iPad, I’m helping create more of them.