Part 33: Not Even Wrong

Hello and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.

It occurred to me today that I came away from my day job feeling good about things. I’ve done a lot of work to help a lot of people over the last few days, and have received suitably welcome feedback as a result. Feeling good about my day job is not something I have been able to enjoy all through what passes for my “career”. Many of you reading this will know that up until 2016, I had spent almost thirty years in retail management, at one of the UK’s largest and, allegedly, most prestigious companies. It was, for the most part, a living hell.

I’m going to use an experience from my time in retail management to shed some light on an autism issue, today. So, this will be a digression, but a digression with a purpose, if you will stick with me.

The phrase, Not even wrong, is widely believed to have been coined by brilliant scientist Wolfgang Pauli, who was commenting on a student’s faulty conclusions. The phrase is usually taken to mean that someone has not only failed to draw a correct conclusion from evidence, but they have completely misunderstood the underlying evidence; they are so far away from being right, that they’re not even wrong.

During my time as a department manager with the large retail company, I was, like my peers, regularly moved from department to department, and from store to store, as part of a badly-conceived program of keeping managers fresh, and ostensibly aiding their development. By the time I moved to what became my last store in the company, I already knew I would be leaving. I’d had enough of the awful culture there, and in addition, I was suffering from what I now know to be autistic burnout. This was before I knew I was autistic, so I was just aware I felt awful, and that I needed to get out of the company. But while I was there, I still wanted to do the best job I could.

I was given a new department to look after – it was a department I had managed before in a couple of stores some years earlier: Service Counters. This meant I had responsibility for the Deli, the hot food counter, the fresh pizza counter, the fresh meat / butchers counter, and the fresh fish counter. I was not overly pleased to be given this role. The counters in this particular store were, to be honest, on their arse. The sales had fallen through the floor, the losses were high and getting worse, and the display standards were an embarrassment to the store. It was a shame, because the staff on there were all really good – it wasn’t their fault things had gone so wrong; it was poor management. I’d had a track record of turning around struggling departments, and I usually relished the challenge, but as I’ve said, I was burned out, and my stress and anxiety levels were at an all-time high. I also knew that Service Counters was probably the hardest department in any store to turn around, and it would be a ballache. Having said that, I absolutely knew I could do it. Not only did I know I could do it, but I could exactly predict every step of the journey. This confidence was partly down to experience, and partly down to what I now understand as the degree of focused analysis I can bring to bear when I’m in the (autistic) zone. I told my store manager in advance how I would achieve the results, how long it would take, and what teething problems he could expect along the way. In particular, I made it clear that for my first two to three weeks of changing things, he could expect financial losses to increase further, but then gradually come back down, and after six to eight weeks, the losses would be under budget, sales would have increased significantly, and mystery shopper ratings would be good. It would then take a few more weeks of fine-tuning to get every last detail ticking over perfectly. He said he was fine with that; he could take the initially high losses if it was part of my plan for long-term progress and success. Boom, I was off and running.

Retail is about profit. Big retailers, and in particular, their senior management, will talk a lot about branding, ethics, the “journey”, customer satisfaction, quality, and shareholder confidence, but what they really want is profit. Never lose sight of that. Profit is achieved by high turnover and low costs. Some costs are seen as necessary – staff wages, paying the electricity bill, and so on. Other costs are the type that, in theory, you can manage to minimum levels; for example, wastage and shrinkage. As a department manager, you’re targeted on a bunch of metrics, most of which are directly financial; sales, wastage, shrinkage, and others that are more or less indirectly financial; product availability, customer satisfaction, and so on. It’s interesting how these targets fit together, and the way managers talk about them and approach them. Let’s have a look.

You’d expect the main driver in a profit-making business to be sales. If you’re gonna make profit, you have to sell stuff, right? But sourcing product to sell is as much an art as a science, and it’s far from being a perfect process. Ordering, delivery, and replenishment systems throw up a lot of variables, and that’s before you get to volatile trade, weather impact, and competitor activity. What this means is your sales never quite match demand. You can sell out, which results in lost sales opportunities, and you can not sell enough which, in the food industry, means you throw product away – wastage. This is not good. It’s almost impossible to get the balance exactly right, so some flexibility is built into your targets. You’re not expected to have 100% availability of all your products all the time; you’d end up throwing away too much. And you’re not expected to have zero wastage; having good product availability in a volatile trading environment means you will always end up wasting something. So, you might, for example, have a 96.5% target for product availability. But the wastage target is where things get really interesting…

Senior management will always try to persuade department managers, who are at the sharp end of the business, to see wastage in cash terms. But here’s the thing: the target is set as a percentage of sales, not as an independent cash target. The exact % rate varies by department, depending on the characteristics of what you’re selling. On a department that sells non-food products with no expiry date, the % will be close to zero. On a department selling short-life fresh foods, like Service Counters, the % could be in double figures. With a % target, this means the more you sell, the more cash you’re allowed to lose in wastage. This can lead to some odd situations. For example, I’ve managed departments with sales so high that my allowed losses were in the thousands of pounds per week.

The relationship between product availability, sales and wastage is simple: The more product you have (availability) the more you can sell (up to your demand level), but the more money you are likely to lose in wastage, too. The less product you have, the less wastage risk, but also the less money from sales. It is that basic, like ABC.

One department I managed, in one of the leading stores in Sheffield, did so well for a while that the losses were far, far inside the %, even though I was throwing away hundreds and hundreds of pounds of spoiled and out of date product every week. A particularly nasty store manager told me off in a regional meeting because of all that cash wastage. I pointed out I was well within my % budget. He countered that as my department was doing so well, he thought I should be able to get the losses down even further, and so help out the regional figures. I told him, truthfully, that the only way I could get my total cash losses down further would be to have less stock, which would detrimentally impact both availability and sales. And this guy’s response was: If that’s what it takes, do it. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that would have been a huge mistake. The less you sell, the less you can afford to lose, right? I might have had less cash loss if I ordered less stock, but it’s a slippery slope, and my % performance would have suffered. Why would that store manager have instructed me to take such a colossally stupid action? Two reasons: 1. No matter how much senior management advocated for sales and profit, they knew they would always suffer the most criticism from their bosses for wastage. Healthy sales were just expected – but losses were a sin, and regarded as a sign of incompetence, even though the relationship between sales, product availability and losses was as obvious as ABC. 2. On this occasion, the manager was a “regional lead” for wastage, so he had to make sure he was driving down wastage, whatever the repercussions, otherwise he would look like a fool. (To be fair, this particular store manager was a fool. He was sacked a few months after the meeting in which he criticised me.) But this focus on keeping cash wastage down by reducing level of stock (which flew directly in the face of driving sales) was ingrained into the company at all levels. Everyone said you had to drive sales, but when push came to shove, everyone was cutting back to reduce wastage. And this brings me to what happened in my last store, running the Service Counters.

The previous manager on the Service Counters had driven the department into the ground, and left it in tatters. She had been driven by loss management, and had adhered to a well-known, and supposedly tried and trusted method: Every week, she would look at the previous week’s sales and wastage figures for her department, going through the reports line by line, and finding the three worst-performing sections for wastage. In each section, she’d find the individual products that reported the worst wastage figures, and either cut back the future orders on those products, or delete the products altogether. She had also instructed the staff to only display certain products on Fridays and Saturdays, when more customers were in the store, meaning some short-life products were in the warehouse, slowly going out of date, for days on end. The net result was an accelerating deterioration in product availability for customers, and counters that looked empty most of the time. Which drove customers away. Which meant sales plummeted further. Which meant more product thrown away. Which meant higher wastage figures. Which meant product availability being further reduced… and so the vicious circle went.

I reviewed the whole range and availability on the counters, and asked the staff what they thought they could sell if given the freedom to do so. We went for it. The meat and fish counters suddenly had full displays. Customers coming in at lunchtime and after finishing their own jobs could buy hot chickens and pies instead of seeing an empty counter. And we started making fresh pizzas to a well-worked-out plan, and encouraging customers to try them. For the first time since the pizza counter had been installed in that store, it became profitable, and wastage dropped into budget. On the meat and fish counters, as I expected, the wastage initially rocketed – this was because customers had gotten used to avoiding them. It took a couple of weeks for word to get around that we had good counters again. But once it did, the sales started to snowball, and although cash wastage was high, the % measure was dropping nicely. After eight weeks, the turnaround in sales was stunning. Customer confidence in the counters had been restored. The pizza counter in particular was an amazing success story. Wastage on the deli, hot food and pizzas was well under control. On the meat and fish counters, the wastage % had not quite dropped in line, but it was very close, clearly trending in the right direction, and it was only a matter of time. As a total department, the wastage figures were within budget.

Then, I was invited to attend a regional wastage meeting. The foolish regional lead I mentioned earlier had already left the business at this point, and some new figurehead I’d never met before was driving the issue. In the meeting, I found my wastage figures being harshly criticised. I pointed out that I was currently within budget on a week-to-week basis. The figurehead argued that while I was within budget on the top line, drilling down showed the meat and fish counters wastage was too high. I pointed out they were trending down, and I was accused of wishful thinking. I was also criticised for the historical wastage that had occurred before I’d even took over the department. When I pointed out I’d not been on the department for that long, the criticism switched to the high wastage in my first two weeks, when I was trying to lure customers back to the counters. When I explained how that was a necessary hit as part of a plan which had been agreed with my boss, I was effectively accused of lying (my boss wasn’t at the meeting to confirm my position). When I pointed out that the counters were now reporting the best sales ever in this store, I was told that I couldn’t just push sales willy-nilly while forgetting about wastage. The figurehead pushing this utter nonsense at me was, of course, being mostly targeted on regional wastage performance. He didn’t give a crap about sales, or the big picture. So even though I had pushed the sales on this department to their best-ever performance, and even though my over-all wastage was within budget, I was getting bollocked. The figurehead told me I had to cut back on the range of products on the meat and fish counters, to get their wastage under control, and to report back the action I’d taken. I did as I was told. The upshot was that the cash amount of wastage on meat and fish dropped, but so did sales, which moved the % performance further into a fail position. All forward progress on those two counters halted.

If I remember correctly, this was just weeks before I handed in my notice, and quit. I was confronting so much stupidity, ignorance, narcissism, and selfishness from senior management that I couldn’t bear it any more. The company was large, well-known, and on the face of it, successful, making huge profit annually. But that didn’t tell the whole story. For the previous 20 years, the company had lurched from one crisis to another, with constant rumours of take-overs, and even liquidation. Assets had been sold off. There had been redundancies. There had been store closures. Customers had drifted away. The company had lost both identity and direction. And this was all largely due to inept senior management; like the idiots who slavishly tried to reduce wastage by selling less. These idiots “followed the data”, and made “business decisions” that were progressively undermining their own company, and thus their own jobs. They looked at data like this:

More products = more wastage

Whereas they should have looked at it like this:

More products, carefully managed = increased sales = wastage is not a problem

In other words, these idiots thought the very products they were trying to sell were the root of the problem! And the mad thing is, if you pointed out the correct way of looking at it, virtually all of the idiots would have verbally agreed with you – it was stating the obvious, after all – but would then still carry on making the same flawed decisions. I saw nearly thirty years of it. It’s not just that these people look at the data and come to the wrong conclusions; they don’t even understand how the data fits together, or how it relates to the real world; they are not even wrong!

What does this all have to do with autism, though?

I’m glad you asked. Clearly, the retail idiots were engaging in flawed logic. Indeed, the notion that products cause wastage is skirting very close to cause-correlation confusion. But this stupidity is not limited to food retailing – it’s just that food retailing is something I can talk about from a position of experience in order to make a point. Flawed logic from neurotypicals is something affecting autistic people on a daily basis.

This can be seen in people who still believe that vaccines cause autism, for example. They point to an increasing number of autistic people over the period of time in which vaccines have become more common, and assume the correlation indicates causation. They choose to completely ignore the fact there is more opportunity to get an autism diagnosis, that more people now pursue diagnosis, and that the diagnostic criteria have expanded, all of which combine to increase the number of people diagnosed. They also roundly ignore the medical evidence of the efficacy of vaccines.

You also see flawed logic in the way people talk about the causes of autism. Medical science has now identified literally hundreds of genes linked to autism, but if you google the causes of autism, you will still find sources saying the causes are genetic and environmental. What does that mean?

When alleged science talks about environmental causes of autism, they’re not talking about global warming. Typically, you will see environmental “causes” such as these listed:

  • Toxins
  • Air pollution
  • Parental diabetes
  • Parental obesity
  • Older parents
  • Medicines taken by the mother in pregnancy, such as anti-depressants
  • Etcetera
  • Oh, and don’t forget the idiots pointing at vaccines.

There are problems with these so-called environmental causes., though – mainly, that they are not proven causes at all. They are actually “risk factors”, which is a little different. What it means is that there is a statistical correlation between these “risk factors” and instances of autism. Correlation should never be assumed to imply causation. (Some people have engaged in a lot of comedy by pointing out odd correlations, such as one wag who pointed out a correlation between the number of movies Nic Cage has starred in, and instances of people drowning by falling into pools.) These supposed causes also fail to take into account any autistic people who do not fall into any of the alleged risk categories. The truth is that, to the best of my knowledge, claims of direct environmental causes of autism have not been scientifically validated. Research continues.

You know, you could correlate things by saying the environment doesn’t cause autism, it causes people, and some of them happen to be autistic. In the same way that stocking products doesn’t cause wastage, it causes sales. Autistic people are not human wastage.

There’s something disturbing about the search for environmental causes of autism (as opposed to accepting naturally occurring genetic differences). It feels like all the alleged environmental causes cited are problems. No one is citing having a particularly healthy mother with an untroubled pregnancy as a cause of autism. No one is citing parents living in a particularly unspoiled rural area as a cause of autism. I’m betting that (A) no one has looked for such positive correlations, and (B) if someone did look hard enough, they would indeed find such statistical correlations. It does seem like researchers go looking for environmental problems to explain autism, and when they find correlations, they cite them. But as the correlation between Nic Cage movies and pool drownings shows, you can find all kinds of correlations when you go looking for them. Statistics are weird. The obsession with citing environmental causes for autism in the absence of hard evidence is part of a wider mindset that persists in trying to depict autistic people as in some way wrong.

But wait. I’m saying that autism is genetic, but what if environmental causes are driving genetic changes? That could be an option, right? Well, that’s a kind of obvious position for those who are pushing the environmental view, but here’s the thing: Genes are subject to random mutation; this is hard, undisputed science, and underpins all evolution of living organisms. So even if you could find a genuine environmental cause of autism, and eliminate it, you would still have naturally occurring autistic people. This must feel like a kick in the teeth to hate groups like Autism Speaks, who would like to see all autistic people eliminated. It looks like the only way they’ll be able to get rid of us all is to get governments to initiate mass genetic testing of unborn children, and enforce abortions of those found to have the relevant genetic identifiers. Which is about as horrifying as eugenics can get.

Or they could just let us live in peace, and stop looking for reasons to call us a problem.

That’s all for this time. Until next week, stay safe, stay proud, stay you.

Why do I write this blog?

When I was first diagnosed as autistic, at the age of 54, I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for newly diagnosed adults.  It’s my aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn.  I will never hide what I do behind a paywall.  If you like what you read and want to chip in, feel free to “buy me a coffee” by clicking the icon below.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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