Sunday Notes: Multi-million-dollar game of telephone

by | Sep 30, 2018 | Sunday Notes | 0 comments

In board rooms, war rooms, and locker rooms everywhere, a common problem exists. Leadership conceives of a plan, and then communicates the plan down through various levels of management until it ultimately reaches the people – the boots on the ground – who have the responsibility to execute the plan. In the best of worlds, the plan makes it from the leaders to the boots unfiltered.

We rarely live in the best of worlds.

As we learn from the childhood game of telephone, with each transmission of a message, differences begin to appear. An interpretation is incorporated. An agenda gets tacked on. A critical phrase or word disappears. But most often (and most tragically), the meaning is lost in translation.

Ford trucks entered the 2017 model-year on a high note. With the Ford F-150 as the best-selling truck of the previous four decades, the Ford F-Series line also enjoyed historic worldwide sales, making the brand more valuable than both Coca-Cola and Nike.

In 2015, for the thirteenth-generation of the F-150, Ford switched from steel to aluminum for the majority of the body (the firewall and frame remained steel). The change allowed Ford to shave 750 pounds of weight from the vehicle, increasing fuel mileage and reducing noise. The change, along with other design alterations for the thirteenth-generation specs, met with positive reviews from customers and critics.

Given the success of the thirteenth-generation F-150, Ford rolled similar changes into the 2017 models, christening it the fourth-generation of the Super Duty line of F-Series trucks. A high-strength aluminum replaced the steel in the body and truck bed. Using a portion of the weight saved by the switch to aluminum, Ford beefed up the frame and drivetrain with bigger axles and larger drive shafts. The interior cabin was completely redesigned to match the F-150 cab. Ford also incorporated exterior cosmetic changes to set the fourth-generation Super Duty apart from a curbside view.

Lastly, Ford piled on the optional extras for the 2017 line. Multiple cameras, enhanced tow packages, rear seat HVAC systems and more. In fact, there were so many additional options that the fourth-generation Super Duty would be the first Ford F-Series where the price tag could reach in excess of $100,000.

All of these elements combined to create the most significant change in the Ford Super Duty from one year to the next since Ford segmented the line from its parent F-Series back in 1999. With so much on the line, Ford created an entirely new marketing program, the Ford Super Duty Drive Event to launch the redesigned truck publicly.

The first car I owned was a cherry-apple red Fiat Spider. I think it was a 1974 or ’75, but I don’t remember with any certainty. What I do remember with certainty is that I owned it for less than 24 hours and I only drove it once. My dad bought it for me and once my mom saw it (they were bitterly divorced), she lost her mind and put her foot down.

A week later I bought the first car I actually drove. A Renault 5GTL. Never heard of it, you say? That’s because it was quickly renamed Le Car for the U.S market. Aerodynamically, if the Fiat Spider resembled a blade, my 5GTL performed like a brick on wheels. A brick that leaked oil.

My leaky French brick survived for a few years before it was replaced by a series of cars priced and performing such that I was guaranteed to be the last driver to sit behind the wheel. As I got older, exited the music business, and finally started making money, my vehicles became more respectable. Several even had other people purchase them for more than scrap after I finished driving them.

Even as I ascended the economic ladder and had the ability to afford nicer vehicles, I shied away from buying a new vehicle. A lifetime of my dad’s lectures regarding the amount of money people lit on fire the minute they drove a new car off the lot rang in my head like the bells of Edgar Allan Poe.

In 2013, a good friend convinced me that purchasing a new diesel truck in Texas was a sound investment, and not a cash bonfire. After a little bit of research, in March of that year, I purchased the first new vehicle of my life – the 2013 Ford F-250 Super Duty Crew Cab. The biggest vehicle I’d ever driven, I sat high above the traffic and noticed that other cars on the road tended to give me a little more room and deference than they did during my days behind the wheel of my little French brick.

Every inch of that truck was beautiful to behold. It had a black and tan exterior and interior. The engine was powerful, but the ride was smooth. With all of that in mind, I decided to christen the truck Louis, after Louis Armstrong.

Prior to the purchase of Louis, my wife’s vehicle had been the main family vehicle, but the crew cab option of the Super Duty made for a roomy and comfortable interior, and the family overwhelmingly wanted to take the truck any time all five us traveled together. Our traditional family vehicle had been officially replaced by something with a Power Stroke Turbo Diesel V-8 engine designed to haul skid steers, mini-excavators, and other yellow-colored heavy equipment. He no longer admits to it, but I swear one morning I caught my oldest son hugging the truck.

A famous example of losing the meaning in translation dates back to the Civil War and General George McClellan’s leadership of the Union Army. On multiple occasions, orders would be issued from Lincoln’s War Cabinet, and sometimes even Lincoln himself. But repeatedly McClellan would creatively interpret the orders, pursue his own agenda instead of the orders, or sometimes even ignore the orders completely.

Late in 1862, shortly before McClellan was removed from command, Lincoln grew so exasperated at the difference between the orders issued in Washington and what was carried out in the field that he corrected Illinois Secretary of State Ozias Hatch during an exchange about the Union Army. Lincoln pointed to the troops one morning as they began to assemble and asked Hatch what he saw.

“This is the Army of the Potomac.”

“No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.”

Less than a month after his conversation with Hatch, the President’s patience for McClellan’s failure to execute at an end, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command.

With a diesel truck in Texas, you can almost calculate an exact date for the perfect time to trade-in or sell in order to maximize the truck’s value. After a little more than three years of driving Louis, I estimated that sometime between August and November of 2016 would be the right time to trade in my truck for something new.

On the morning of April 21st, 2016, I received an email from Ford announcing the official start to the “Drive the Future of Tough Tour.” Full details about the 29-city cross-country tour and the chance to be among the first to test drive the truck were available on the website. There were also loads of videos, photos, and information about Ford’s redesigned truck. Lastly, Ford promised to have interactive exhibits showcasing the newest bells and whistles added to the truck at the event.

Living in “Truck Country” comes with its advantages and my closest major city, San Antonio, would be the second stop on the tour, from August 19th – 21st at the Texas Trophy Hunters Extravaganza. I registered and found myself growing excited about a potential second ever new vehicle purchase.

A week before the event, I received an email from “Lisa,” one of the tour managers for Ford. It included details about the event along with some important reminders:

Here are some important reminders:

  • Please remember to bring your driver’s license
  • Feel free to bring guests with you
  • Review the confirmation email you’ve received for our tour activation hours and other venue related info

We’ll try to spend as much time with you as possible. Because this program is very popular, the actual drive time may only be 5 to 10 minutes. But there are other interactive displays and often opportunities to drive additional Super Duty trucks.

We want you to have a great time so please let me know if there is anything I can do to make your first experience with the All-New 2017 Super Duty® as special as can be.

I’m excited for you to be one of the first to experience the Toughest, Smartest, Most Capable Super Duty. Ever. We look forward to meeting you!

See you soon,

Tour Manager

Lisa’s email address was “,” so I didn’t expect to meet any Lisa, but my enthusiasm for the event did not suffer.

My wife, youngest son, and myself arrived at the event on Saturday, August 20th. The Super Duty Drive pavilion was up front and easy to find. That would be the end of anything easy concerning the experience.

Though I had pre-registered, I was handed an iPad and forced to register again. When I asked about it, I received a version of “because I said so.” Specifically, “this is for something different and you have to complete it in order to participate.”

There were separate lines depending on whether you wanted to drive a diesel or gasoline engine. Paperwork completed, they moved us into the appropriate line (diesel) and we waited. All things considered the wait wasn’t terrible and soon we were being escorted to the truck.

The trouble started when, as we walked to the truck, our tour guide climbed into the passenger seat of the vehicle.

“I’d really like for my wife to sit in the passenger seat, if that’s ok.”

“Sorry, I have to sit here.”

“The couple who just got out of the truck were both in the front seat.”

“I don’t know what to tell you about that. All I can tell you is that I need to sit in the front.”

My wife and son climbed in the back seat, I got in the driver’s seat and as I shifted the transmission from “park” to “drive” our tour guide informed me that we had 5 minutes max, so I might as well just pull to the end of the parking lot, turn around, and come back.

“I’ve been waiting four months for this and you’re saying I have 5 minutes? That I can take one spin around the parking lot?”

“Look, I’ve got a lot of people to get through this thing today, ok?”

I wanted to test the turn radius. She said we didn’t have time. I wanted to put the truck in reverse to test the new backup cameras. She said we didn’t have time (I did that one anyway). I was tempted to tell her I wanted to test the passenger-side airbag deployment. I didn’t have time.

To be fair, “Lisa” did indicate in the email that the actual drive time may only be 5 to 10 minutes, but our tour guide was on a mission to get it done in 4. Despite my best efforts, she succeeded.

Disappointed in the experience, we walked back to my 2013 Ford Super Duty. As we slowly approached Louis, the truck I had loved for the past three years wasn’t quite as beautiful to me. The little dings and dents that I’d overlooked thousands of times were now all I could see. The exterior paint had somehow dulled from the time we had parked.

It had been a 45-minute drive from our house to attend a 4-minute event. Wanting to get a little more out of our excursion, my wife asked, “where should we go now?” My mouth answered before my brain had a chance to process the question.

“We’re driving straight to the Cadillac dealership.”

The Super Duty Drive Event website now only exists on the Internet Archive, the domain name scavenged by a used car list aggregator. Where you could previously see  high-res video previews of the 2017 Ford Super Duty, a picture of the 1963 Ford E-Series (specifically, an Econoline Surf Van) now resides.

The Ford executives who conceived of the Super Duty Drive Event had their goal in mind and the boots on the ground they hired to execute that plan also had their own goal in mind. I can only guess at the executive goals, but it seems logical that they were hoping to enchant customers with the redesigned truck in order to ultimately sell more trucks. As Ford’s record sales numbers reflect, they’ve achieved that goal, though I suspect it would be more in spite of the Super Duty Drive Event than because of it.

From my firsthand experience, I can tell you the goal of the boots on the ground was to get as many people as possible through the event as quickly as possible. Though I have no direct knowledge of this, it’s reasonable to assume they were compensated based on that very metric. It’s also reasonable to assume that they achieved their goal.

The mission that started with Ford executives as “enchant the customer” became reduced to “run ‘em through” by the time the message made it to the people who actually interacted with those customers.

As a Ford truck owner, and, at the time, a prospective new Ford truck owner, I also had my own goal in mind. My aim was to purchase the highest quality vehicle I could reasonably afford and be treated as a valued customer before, during, and after the sale. Especially after the sale. And if you’re not treated as a valued customer before the sale, what hope do you have afterwards?

In the end, I too achieved my goal.

I now drive a Cadillac.


Let’s see just how well Ford performed in 2017.

TOP 10 BEST-SELLING VEHICLES OF 2017 (with totals)*

  1. Ford F-Series (896,764)
  2. Chevy Silverado (585,864)
  3. Ram Pickup (500,723)
  4. Toyota RAV4 (407,594)
  5. Nissan Rogue (403,465)
  6. Toyota Camry (387,081)
  7. Honda CR-V (377,895)
  8. Honda Civic (377,286)
  9. Toyota Corolla (329,196)
  10. Honda Accord (322,655)

Pretty damn well, as it turns out. Looking at this list, it would be fair to say that it’s a good thing for American auto-makers that trucks are so popular.

* Source: Car & Driver Magazine

This Week’s Recap:

Monday: Outrage Outsourced. I choose to let the rest of the internet be furious on my behalf.

Tuesday: Email Can Wait. If I haven’t checked my email until 10:30am, it probably means I had a very productive morning.

Wednesday: Another $7 System. How to build a highly visual and modular database for only $7.

Thursday: Chasing Chickens. I don’t mind chasing chickens once, but I’d rather not spend all day doing it.

Friday: Bridge of Death. Answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye see

Saturday: Magic Wand Lesson. One lesson from one expert. Who and what would it be?

The Weekly Struggle:

Senselessness seemed to be everywhere this week. I saw it personally (we had a car window busted out and two empty purses stolen), and I saw it professionally. I witnessed it privately and publicly. I viewed it first-hand and also watched as friends struggled with the effects of senselessness. The toughest part was to watch as people I know are rational the majority of the time reacted to senselessness with senselessness of their own.

Best Thing I Saw This Week:

I mentioned in my very first Sunday Notes column that my family has been watching News Radio. We finished Season 4 on Tuesday night, which led to watching episode 1 of Season 5: “Bill Moves On.” It was heartbreaking.

Actor Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife between seasons 4 and 5 of the NBC sitcom and the writers and cast paid tribute to Hartman in the very moving and raw season 5 premiere. The episode was filmed in front of a live studio audience and every breakdown caught by the cameras was real.

Unbeknownst to us, this week marked the 20th anniversary of the first airing of that episode. Brett White of revisited the episode in an article posted one week ago. He captures the significance of the episode as a fan of the show, and also its place in television history.

My 13-year-old son dreams of becoming a comedic actor someday. While watching the memorial episode was emotional for our family, sharing Hartman’s brilliant work with him over the past few weeks has been a joy. Though he was born seven years after Hartman’s murder, my son became a big fan as we watched and I feel some degree of solace knowing that Hartman’s work lives on with a new generation.

Best Thing I Heard All Week:

Gunhild Carling at the Austin Cabaret Theatre.

Carling is uniquely talented. That term gets thrown around a lot so let me qualify it in this case by explaining that she’s a Swedish lead bagpipe jazz musician. How’s that for unique? Carling is much more than this though, and is. During her Thursday night performance, along with the bagpipes, Carling also sang, danced, and played the trumpet, trombone, recorder, harmonica, piano, and upright bass.

Known as the Swedish Queen of Swing, Carling has grown her following in the U.S. thanks to her standout performances with Postmodern Jukebox. We were lucky to catch her so close to home.


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.

Henry Ford

Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.

Abraham Lincoln

End Credits:

My wonderful wife once again created this week’s title card, using a Norman Rockwell image.

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