07 October 2006

On to business

Now if one may change the subject a bit. This is part one of what I expect will be several. This is an issue that is important for reasons that will be addressed.

One of the things that I do for a living is in the area of manufacturing engineering. I've worn a lot of hats and carried a number of titles in the career.

Over the last 20-odd years in this line of endeavor, I've been through just about every sort of buzzword improvement program that has made its appearance in the New section of the business section of the bookstore of your choice. I've served on committees - usually concealed as ''Cross-Functional Task Teams'' or ''Quality Circles'' or even, Heaven help us, ''SPC Groups'' or any of a number of other terms with the word ''team'' to hide the fact that they are committees. I've received and distributed wagonloads of hats, shirts, coffee mugs, pens, notepads, and just about every other 'tchotchke' imaginable. In many of these ''great leaps forward'', the shirts and coffee mugs were the only lasting sign of the whole blasted thing. Oh, and the promotions and honors for the people who were clever enough to push the thing while avoiding the blame for the failure to produce. I still have memories of a certain now-vanished division of General Motors where the person pushing the management fad du jour arranged himself a promotion to 'Director of Excellence', and handed out wallet-sized 'Excellence' cards with slogans one was to memorize and chant like Mao's Red Guards. The division, as I said, no longer exists, and any improvements gained were largely illusory.

I've said all this to provide some background. I am sure that most of these efforts have been well-intentioned. I am sure, since I've been there, that many who get involved really do want to make things better, to gain the improvements, to remedy the issues that most thoughtful people can see, to do the right things.

So why are so many working so hard to such little result, if indeed that is the case? And what thing or things needs to happen to put the train back on the tracks?

First of all, I want to talk about some of the methods and tools that have been employed. Most of them have some good features. Almost all of them have some unintended consequences, some negative. And some of them work in some situations and not in others.

We need to recognize the Japanese influence. Starting in the late 1970's to early 1980's or so, and particularly in the of automotive area, the competition from the Japanese makers was overwhelming. Being adaptive if not particularly creative, some of the Bright Young Men in the automotive arena determined to copy what the Japanese were doing, or at least as much of it as they could fathom, and install it wholesale into the American factory. Things were to the point that if the Japanese did it, it was worthwhile, and if they didn't then it was counterproductive. I really did hear people, some highly placed, say almost exactly those words. Remember when everyone was expected to have a copy of ''A Book of Five Rings'' and to go about spouting the lessons that an author put into the mouth of a long-dead Japanese swordsman? This was supposed to provide insights into business processes, somehow.

This is not to trash the reputation of people like Shigeo Shingo, Genichi Taguchi and others like Deming. Some of it was very good and the approach has been immensely valuable.

But that does not mean that everything that they did or said, or that the practices of the Japanese manufacturers is immune to improvement or even to criticism. Who among us has not seen silliness like the adoption of unisex uniforms for all employees at all levels, and justified because ''the Japanese do it so we should too''?

The fact is that the Japanese approach works well in Japan, in Japanese culture, Japanese financial structures, etc., and doesn't necessarily translate well to American equivalents. Not to mention that some of their financial machinations would result in lengthy prison terms if attempted in the U.S. By the way, by most measures the Japanese economy has been in a deep recession for a decade or so. This is something to emulate?

In any event, the efforts have largely been in vain. Some of the organizations I once saw heavily involved in these exercises either are in bankruptcy (Delphi), no longer exist at all, have been bought out by the slash-and-burn predators, have moved their battered remnants to Mexico, or have simply outsourced everything to China. Net benefits have been very limited.

Now, much of what I have said already would get me banned from certain polite discussions, and saying what I have already said has not been helpful to the career. Yet most people in the business know these things, and will even admit to them privately. Not publicly - the pressure of groupthink is too strong.

It will get worse.

02 October 2006

They're here!!!!

Last evening was tense. My beloved, my one true love in this world, called yesterday afternoon to say ''We're on our way right now''. I sat in tension waiting out the minutes ..... OK, so I did spend a couple minutes straightening up the mess in the hotel room. She finally made it off the I-85 around 8:30 last night, we met, dropped the car at my office overnight, took the cats to a place already arranged, and then went to the hotel. They were an incredibly wonderful sight. God has been very good to me and my family is an important part of those blessings.

She spent much of the day on the nuts and bolts of the relocation - meeting the electrician doing some finish work, arranging a new telephone number, arranging for the electricity to go on, etc. She is wonderful and I couldn't go on without her.

Now I feel more complete than I have felt in more than six weeks.