I saw the future in Roseburg, Oregon on Saturday, and it was not pretty.
Driving to the Portland airport on the way back from a too short vacation on the southern Oregon coast, we stopped for some provisions at a local chain supermarket called Food for Less.
The name sounded promising, though the prices turned out to be unremarkable.
In fact, they should have called the store Slave for Less, because that's where the place really stood out.
Nothing seemed unusual as the cashier began ringing through some of my items. But then she abruptly disappeared. Suddenly she was over at the adjacent cash register, running through items for another customer at that station.
I stood there puzzled but patient, and a couple minutes later she dashed back to the register and began scanning through my remaining items.
"What happened?" I asked. "Did the other cashier go on break and leave the line of customers stranded?"
"There is no other cashier," the harried woman answered. ""I handle both registers."
I looked again at the layout and realized it was a little different from the traditional supermarket setup. There were two conveyor belts for groceries, each with its own cash register, but they were set up side by side, one with the register on the left, one with the register on the right, with an aisle running between them so the cashier could move back and forth unimpeded.
"You mean you're doing two people's jobs?" I asked, incredulous. "I hope you're getting two people's salaries!"
"Hah!" she laughed bitterly. "I wish."
"How do you do it?" I asked her, still trying to recover from my shock.
"I've been doing it for three years," she said. "At first I used to get dizzy, turning back and forth, but I've gotten used to it."
"You need a union," I suggested.
"I guess so," she said with a sigh.
I'm still trying to imagine what twisted executive came up with this revolutionary idea of putting two conveyor belts side by side with only one employee to handle both runs.
Talk about a speed up.
Talk about controlling labor costs.
Sam Walton certainly has nothing on him or her. Even Andrew Carnegie must be tipping his hat from the grave to this genius of motion management.
How long can it be before this idea starts spreading through the economy? Imagine the possibilities!
Workers in Detroit or Tennessee could be putting parts on car bodies two at a time--just place their work stations between two assemblylines, instead of alongside one line.
Construction cranes could be designed with two derricks, so one operator could hoist two loads at the same time.
Nor does this kind of innovation have to be limited to blue-collar activities.
Nurses could cover two floors instead of just one. Just set up a dedicated elevator at nursing stations so that they could easily hop from the surgery floor to the ob-gyn floor and back without long detours down the hallway.
Teachers could do double-duty, too. Just let them work out curricula that would allow them to give students a task to work on, and then run across the hall to another classroom, where they could make the same assignment, then run back across the hall to answer questions, etc., etc. Bingo! You've eliminated half your faculty salary costs (a videocam in each room, with a monitor in the opposite room, would allow the teacher to keep an eye on students in the room without a teacher).
Is this a great country or what?
For the rest of this column and other stories by Lindorff, please go (at no charge) to This Can't Be Happening! .