One Soviet's offensive. Fresh from Red Square he landed in US red tape; now he's fighting his way out
Boston — TO Lev Landa, America was going to be the land of efficiency, a place where the customer's needs came first. Then he encountered his first credit card.
Mr. Landa had had his fill of bureaucracy in his native Russia. As a young psychologist in the early 1950s, he delivered a paper on how music stirs the emotions, only to find himself ensnared in an official crackdown on ``formalist'' music not geared to the masses.
Much later, it took all his wiles to get his son out of the country to join his American wife. On the eve of arms talks between the Soviet Union and the United States, Landa patriotically informed Communist Party officials that his daughter-in-law was bent on embarrassing them by demonstrating in Red Square. To avert trouble, the officials issued the visa.
In America, Landa thought, he would be free not only from such intrigues, but also from the petty nuisances that are part of Soviet economic life.
``In a capitalist system, people think about efficiency,'' he says. ``So I presumed they would think about designing forms efficiently, not wasting time for themselves and their customers.''
Then came the credit-card contract. And a Blue Cross claim form. He tried to decide what kind of CD to buy at the bank. And whether his insurance should be ``term'' or ``life.''
Such experiences left him totally flummoxed. ``I didn't understand a ... thing,'' he says, of the bank's explanation of the different CDs. ``There are not many forms in Soviet life. ... I was overwhelmed here.''
More, he was horrified at the waste. ``It costs billions,'' Landa exclaims, of the confusion these forms engender.
So while Landa has built a consulting business helping major corporations such as Xerox train its employees, his dream is to mount a consumer offensive to make American business talk plain English.
He talks about enlisting Ralph Nader. ``Only a movement will get them to do something about it,'' he says.
With his richly accented baritone and penetrating gaze, Lev Landa could have stepped out of ``The Brothers Karamazov.'' He greets a visitor like a long-lost brother from the Ukraine.
When he left the Soviet Union, he was one of that nation's leading professors of learning theory. It all began, he says, in his days as a bewildered seventh-grade geometry student. The teacher ``communicated the results of her thinking, not how she arrived'' at those results.
Later, barred from the universities as a result of the formalist-music flap, he ended up teaching math at a provincial high school. There, he found that teaching methods were totally out of sync with the actual thought process required to solve a mathematics problem.
``I had to figure out how to penetrate unobservable processes'' and convey these to students, Landa recalls.
Using his own materials, he improved the test scores of geometry students dramatically. He called his approach ``algorithmic'' - that is, based on the sequence of steps that occur intuitively in the mind of the ``expert performer.'' In effect, Landa was reducing this informed intuition to a flow chart that a novice could follow.
When his exile ended, he wrote a book with the imposing title, ``Algorithmization in Learning.'' Soviet teachers responded as to a revelation. ``It was a sheer miracle that I got hold of your monograph,'' wrote one S.Bruev, from Krym.
Many professorships later, Landa arrived in the US in 1977. He wasted no time in dubbing his methods ``Landamatics,'' establishing a company by that name, and becoming a consultant to the business world. ``I saw endless opportunities,'' Landa says.
One of those opportunities was the complexity of Western tax systems, something Soviet citizens are spared. While working for the Dutch government, he had reduced that country's tax form from 3,199 to 1,182 words and helped cut the error rate from about 50 percent to less than 10 percent. (He's still waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to call.)
Landa has helped insurance companies train the people who answer questions on their company's 800 number, translating the Byzantine complexities of insurance policies into simple flow charts that anyone can grasp.
In the fad-a-minute world of corporate consulting, Landa is still relatively obscure. But he's been written up in Fortune and Business Week. And those who know his work speak highly of him. ``He had an enormous impact,'' says Kathryn Pflumm, until recently a training specialist at Morgan Guaranty Trust.
Landa is convinced that his approach can be applied to virtually any human activity, from figure skating (he worked with the coach of the Soviet team) to foreign languages and history. What we call the ``creative process,'' he says, is ``very often well structured, but people are unaware of it.''
Some may consider such views mechanistic. But they probably won't complain when Landa unleashes his algorithms on the turgid forms and instructions that bedevil daily life.
Landa is not a man who suffers ambiguity gladly. He combines an immigrant's befuddlement with a foreign culture with a logician's passion for precise answers. Once he visited five electronics stores trying to get an explanation of a particular calculator. None could. One store let him make a copy of the instruction manual. It was no help, either.
``I spent hours and hours,'' he recalls. ``I called a rep of the company and [even] he couldn't explain.''
Recently, Landa gave a one-day seminar for the vice-president of a company that manufactures sophisticated telephone equipment. This company wastes more than $2 million a year on service calls, he says, because its instruction booklets are incomprehensible. After sending a service rep 2,000 miles or more, Landa says, ``it turns out that because the customer didn't understand the instructions, he didn't push a button.''
His first credit card, he remembers, came with legalese on what to do in case of a billing error. His quest for an explanation took him all the way to the legal department of the Chase Manhatten Bank, where a lawyer assured him, ``We don't have any trouble explaining things to customers.''
``But we customers have trouble understanding the things you explain to us,'' he replied.
A branch clerk told him she spent two to three hours a day explaining incomprehensible forms like that. By Landa's calculation, that costs the bank more than $20 million a year.
Landa finds that companies are more open to training employees to provide better explanations than they are to making forms comprehensible in the first place.
So these days, in his office in an old apartment building in the Queens section of New York, Landa keeps a bulging file of violations of consumer understanding. Mortgage application forms, VCR instructions, assembly instructions for metal shelves - they're all here, with margin notes scribbled in alternating Russian and English, in mounting paroxysms of pique. He has even critiqued a map describing how to get to Queens College.
To this Soviet 'emigr'e, more than consumer convenience is involved. Complexity and obfuscation ``make customers unable to make free decisions,'' he says. ``Formally they are free. In essence they are not free.''