Between The Lines

The stories behind this issue's stories.

Grounds for Rejection

"Is someone wearing perfume?" Beth Ann Caspersen, the director of quality control at fair-trade company Equal Exchange, casts a steely look in my direction, interrupting the silent ritual unfolding in the room ("Trade Secrets," page 98). It isn't long before she has her culprit: an employee standing in the corner, sucking on a breath mint.

Cupping -- the subtle art of testing coffee beans for flavor defects -- is a near-religious affair. As Caspersen ushers the employee out the door, two of her coworkers circle a custom-made round table, sniffing, sipping, and spitting coffee from some two dozen samples. Kaleidoscopic posters of coffee beans and aroma perception guides decorate the walls. Grinders, sizing trays, and moisture analyzers crowd the counters. If a mad scientist set up a shrine to the coffee bean, it would look like this.

Caspersen occasionally raises her head from the table and jots a note on her clipboard. "Size, moisture, color -- we double-check everything," she says. "And flavor characteristics, naturally. One bad cup in six, and we reject [the whole sample]." Caspersen isn't kidding: 10% to 15% of the coffee that Equal Exchange gets from suppliers is sent back. Even one partially unripe bean can taint a sample. "It will taste sort of like rotten fruit," says Caspersen. High standards? Sure. But she isn't apologizing. "This is my life: consistency, consistency, consistency." And subtleties.

Addressing the table before her, she inhales deeply from one of the steaming samples and lets out a satisfied sigh. "Ahh, much better! That mint was driving me nuts." Lucas Conley

Credit Checks

It seemed simple enough: In keeping with my longstanding interest in the inconspicuous man behind the curtain, as opposed to the flashy Wizard of Oz, I'd pen a new column called "Unsung Heroes" (page 35). Each installment would honor a behind-the-scenes innovator -- the brand manager who helped raise a product's profile, say, or the designer who created a clever new package.

What my editor, Keith H. Hammonds, and I didn't count on, however, was the extent to which teamwork has become the watchword of contemporary business culture. Time after time, company spokespeople have told me, "Oh, there's no one person behind that -- it was a team effort," or, "We'd rather not have you focus on one person. After all, we all work together here." In one instance, I finally got through to the engineer responsible for a particularly interesting wrinkle in a project only to have him tell me, "Please don't write about me -- the people I work with might resent it."

I realize that many ideas evolve incrementally, and I suppose it's nice that so many folks are willing to share the recognition for what they do. But if you've had a eureka moment, why not take credit for it? Then again, my opinion may be shaped by my working in journalism, where I have the fun of seeing my name attached to everything I write. Paul Lukas

Stress Test

The stark minimalism inside Dell's corporate headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, is striking: acres of bland cube farms, with nary a piece of artwork in sight. ("Living in Dell Time," page 86). It's as if every employee is focused on a single goal: Meet maximum demand with minimum cost. The pace is hard-driving, intense, and heart-poundingly stressful.

You'd think Ray Archer, who honchos Dell's production facilities in Austin and Nashville, would be primed for Dell time. The former coo of the Defense Logistics Agency led a global force of 28,000 people, who ran the military's supply chain and handled more than 1 million orders per day. But even 38 years in the Navy didn't prepare Archer for Dell's demanding culture. "On my last interview before joining Dell, [supply chief] Dick Hunter said they'd expect me to ramp up fast," he recalls. "Even then, Dick predicted that after four or five months, I'd hit the wall."

Less than six months into the job, Archer was tapped to help lead Dell through the nightmare of the West Coast dockworkers' lockout. He survived that test, but this year, he must improve production at the Austin plant by 30%. "It's a hell of a challenge, but we'll do it. If we don't, you'll be talking to someone else next year." Bill Breen

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