4 min read

The Need To Know Never Goes Away

Companies are striving for the same end-to-end view that my father wanted
At this time of year, my dad, who would have turned 85 this week, would be asking, "But where does the coal go?" We'd be on our family vacations on Lake Erie, and as a lover of ships, he'd closely observe the comings and goings of the big freighters that moved iron ore, coal, coke, and other materials east and west across the Great Lakes. He'd explain to me why certain ships rode heavy (low in the water and very slow) or light (high in the water and very fast), and what materials were in the ones coming from the west, where they came from, and what part they played in making steel--and, in turn, what was carried in the bowels of these giant ships, some of them 1,000 feet long, coming from the east.

One of those cargoes from the east was coal, and the coal-bearing freighters--also called ore boats or lakers--would always pull in and unload at the harbor three miles east of us. But the one piece of this overall shipping and transfer and delivery and supply puzzle that Dad couldn't quite figure out was what happened to the coal after it was unloaded at the harbor in Conneaut, Ohio.

Oh, he knew what its ultimate fate would be and the role it would play in making steel or other products, but he couldn't figure out--he couldn't actually see--the physical steps involved with the movement of that coal inside the harbor, and that really bugged him. He and I would try to find secluded roads leading into the back of this enormous industrial harbor so we could see where the coal went, but we'd always be caught short by fences bearing grim warnings. We tried hiking in from the far shore, hacking our way through thick woods while I asked him about his adventures in the Navy in World War II, but always the fence--Lord, that was a long fence--would stop us.

So eight years ago this week, I took my fellow seeker on a surprise outing. We parked at the little airport in Erie, Pa., where I'd chartered a private plane. For the next couple of hours, the pilot flew us all over Lake Erie, swooping down over the decks of some of the freighters as they made their way across the lake and circling a few times over the Conneaut harbor.

I'll never forget the sight or sound of my dad triumphantly laughing and slapping his knee as he looked out the window at the massive expanse of the harbor that we'd never been able to see from the ground as he said, "Now I see where the coal goes!" We had to go a half-mile up in the air to get the perspective we needed, but we got it: He saw the railroad shunt that moved the coal from the ships to huge machines that transferred it to a massive web of railroad cars that linked up with rail lines heading south and thence all over the country. I suspect at some level he always knew this is what went on, but he had to see it; he had to really know; he had to be able to tangibly put into place that last piece of the puzzle that ran across thousands of miles of water and rail lines and touched hundreds of industries.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because companies of all sorts seem to be striving for the same kind of complete, end-to-end view of their businesses, from their farthest-flung suppliers through their partners to their customers and even out to their customers' customers. The need to know--to really know and to have end-to-end vision--is becoming increasingly vital in this business world that moves and changes so rapidly.

Thanks for indulging me in this mostly personal tale of end-to-end vision. I'd like to close by adding that several weeks after our plane ride, my dad died quite unexpectedly. But before he left us, he got to see where the coal went.

The original version of this column misstated Nortel Networks' financial performance. The company's net loss of $19.4 billion was due to the write-down of intangible assets and other charges.

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