One of my first jobs in American industry was on the west coast for the appliance controls division of a large corporation headquartered in Minneapolis. I worked in a laboratory as a test engineer with a lot of young, mostly single guys like me. In the beginning the job was fast-paced, but mellow as we bottom-of-the-totem-pole lab rats ran every electro-mechanical evaluation imaginable on: 1) production hardware, 2) design engineering improvements, and 3) competitive products. After work we’d zip down to The Bank Club for beer and shuffleboard or take in a Dodgers or Lakers game. We also joined industrial basketball and fast-pitch softball leagues. Life was good. On weekends I rode a surfboard and played volleyball on the sand at Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach. Drinking beer, Ripple (instant headache), and chasing girls were other activities on my agenda. Then a new director of engineering came to town from Minnesota. He had a vision when he was director of marketing of two new products to capture additional share from our competitors who were thought of as slobbering cavemen. As a typical CYA move, the corporate big cheeses put him in charge of the project; the idea being if it failed, he’d catch the flak and have to fall on his sword. Much later in my career, with a different company, I was given the same “opportunity”. (I wrote a book about it.) |
Immediately upon his arrival major changes were mandated for the engineering department, including the test lab. In order to meet an artificial marketing deadline, a tight schedule was imposed. Prototypes were designed, fabricated in the model shop, and sent to the lab for evaluation. The schedule ALWAYS assumed all tests would be successful. Some reality, huh? Since the design engineers usually took longer to design their products—you cannot schedule scientific breakthroughs—and the model shop took a bit longer to fabricate; the test time was severely truncated. That didn’t matter. The schedule was inviolate. Here’s the deal: After the marketing campaign launch date was determined all else was subordinated to it. In other words, if it took a month to complete a certain test, say, because of life cycle requirements, and there was only a week left in the schedule because of other delays—tough. Design and test engineers worked 24/7, were called in from vacations, and expected to be on deck over holidays. It was miserable, but that was the reality of that era. Family emergencies didn’t matter. It became a badge of honor to see how sick one could become and report to work.
Other than the madness described above, the company actually had many good processes and systems to assure profitability. There were also a few non-negotiable edicts, as follows: 1) If you let a potential new hire or a vendor cool his heels in the lobby for more than ten minutes, you were terminated; 2) If you committed to a deadline, and if in jeopardy, didn’t inform the affected party and negotiate a new date, you were terminated; 3) If you did not come within 10-percent (either way) on your annual budget, you received disciplinary action up to and including discharge. There were no hurt feelings and/or wimping-out allowed. There was no crying in business. You either did your job as you accepted it or you were set free—PERIOD. Small wonder many managers and engineers constantly chewed Rolaids to control stomach acid.
The veteran industrialists in Japan, the ones who on advice from W. E. Deming and J. R. Juran, made the Land of the Rising Sun an economic power, were of similar mindset as my former company. But when they turned control of their profitable and booming companies over to successors they discovered a new paradigm started to creep in; a mindset that preferred country club living and social events over nose-to-the-grindstone 12-hour days. They predicted these new managers and employees would lose their edge and international advantage, and derisively dubbed them “the new human race”. After decades in American industry, and in doing business in the USA today, I understand of what they spoke.
When I moved on to other firms, I discovered what I learned in my formative years about the three main business processes—order acquisition, order fulfillment, and product development—qualified me as a near freaking genius to my new employers. Each had the same basic decrees about new hires and vendors as earlier described, but with less harsh penalties—mostly whining. During that era the USA lost market share and some whole businesses to Japanese competition. The steel and electronics industries were virtually wiped out, and the automotive industry put in jeopardy. It seemed our arrogant caveat emptor attitude leading to planned obsolescence and shoddy quality wasn’t playing well. From the 1940s (when European and Asian industry was in shambles) through the 1980s USA ruled the industrial world, but it was market leadership by default. We had no competition! It was like a football team with a 45-game winning streak; all by forfeit.
In 1982 Peters and Waterman wrote IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE, which showed US industry the way of its error. The book became a best seller and US firms, led by companies like Xerox, jumped on board with the idea that meeting the customers’ needs, desires, and expectations, and providing top-notch quality of products and services was the road to recovery. It seemed we learned our lesson before it was too late. Not quite.
You see, manufacturing creates wealth by converting a raw material thereby adding value, which is the ONLY activity that creates wealth. All other goings-on are simply paper activities that pass that wealth around. Therefore, American business “geniuses” decided all firms should be run by accountants and get out of the manufacturing sector, and into the so-called service industry. How is that working out? I passed a steel plant in Baltimore that once employed 10,000 people. Those jobs are gone forever. Ditto for oil tool plants in Southern California; 6,000 jobs gone. Drive through Detroit, Kokomo, Anderson, et. al., and you’ll discover plant after plant closed for good. When I received my undergraduate degree I had a choice of twelve jobs. Today a graduate pays through the nose for schooling, and finds 250 other graduates standing beside him competing for the same ONE job. But, what-the-hell, we don’t need manufacturing in America. Not much.
Piling on to this predictable insanity, the accountants decided managers earned too much money and were too numerous (which was partially true). Therefore, massive downsizing was initiated, and rank amateurs were promoted (beyond their level of competency) for less money and given more responsibility. Obama’s creating of an unprepared, inexperienced automotive czar was a poster child for such activity. The Peter Principle abounds, and the sad thing is that business leaders of today have no knowledge of the Peter Principle and no memory of what happened before the Peters and Waterman book. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. I used to buy steel from Nippon, which was 10 to 20-percent cheaper than American manufactured steel. All the media geniuses of the day said it was because Japan had shiny new equipment and robotics. Having visited Nippon I can tell you that they had ancient equipment purchased from Jones and Lamson after J&L went out of business. The difference was Nippon actually asked the customers what they wanted instead of the J&L take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
The new human race has taken over every sector of American business, at least those in which I still have interface. Let’s say you request a quote from a company for millions of dollars of equipment. First, you’re lucky if a human voice takes the call. When one waits patiently for the options and commercials to play out, you learn the actual person is out of the office, but you are told to leave your number because “your call is very important” (gag)—and will be ignored in the order it was received. After several days the callback doesn’t come so you place the call again. Let’s say you get the salesperson responsible for the equipment you wish to order. Turns out he/she doesn’t know the product and cannot answer your questions (usually price and capacity) until a conferring with the engineers in Germany. You wait a week; no call, so you call the rep again. He/she doesn’t remember you without a bit of prompting, but admits the engineers are still studying the questions, and should be back with answers within the week. When YOU call back a week and a half later, the rep says they can’t answer your questions unless they know exactly what product you intend to produce and the physical and chemical makeup of that product. NOTE: none of the information requested has any bearing on the operation of the machinery.
No one really attempts to sell you, and the impression they project is that you (and all other potential customers) are just a huge pain in the ass; that their jobs would be much easier if you would just go away. In other words, confine your communication to orders only by using our convenient web site. Don’t bug us!!! A close personal friend and professional colleague had this to say, “Unfortunately, the mind numbingly painful truth is that the Information Age has created a generation of the worst communicating professionals in our nation’s history. Connected wirelessly 24/7, and they do not have the basic, common courtesy to reply to anyone for any reason anymore (except to the guys in their fantasy football league). Everyone in the sales and customer services disciplines somehow believe as soon as the company’s website went live their job ended. They still want to collect a paycheck, but baby-oh-baby, ain’t technology grand? Remember the days when cost of sales was a real line item and that companies knew that they had to spend money to make a sale? Please refer to my earlier comment about the day the website went live. Halleluiah!”
A Midwestern company placed an ad for a manager that was inanely specific—like they probably had an internal candidate and placed the ad just to satisfy HR requirements. Companies do this all the time to claim due diligence. A fellow I know was a spot-on fit, plus he had more experience and education than requested, was impeccably groomed, and had superior interpersonal skills. He was granted an interview with the HR and the hiring managers, which went very well; and informed he’d receive a call within the week to set up a second interview. It was hinted an offer of employment would accompany that meeting. After two weeks passed with no callback, he called only to find neither the HR nor hiring managers would take his call. He repeated this effort several more times with the same result. Frustrated at being treated so unprofessionally, he drove to the company and sat in the lobby only to be informed everyone was too busy to see him. It was late morning. He said he’d wait. Just before lunch an HR junior clerk came out and informed him he wasn’t a good fit. She wasn’t sure why.
That’s the new human race, my friends. Those in management will not make the most minor of decisions if there is even a hint of risk, and only then if there is written backup from several sources (and their boss agrees). The last company I worked for had an executive committee, of which I was one, that became famous for taking zero action on the most obvious black and white issues. Frustratingly, we would drive everything into gray for discussion at the next meeting. It was exasperating. We’ve become a nation of limp-wristed wimps. (We mustn’t take any kind of risk so we can’t be blamed if there’s a one-percent chance something could go wrong.) C’mon, America! Grow a pair!
Remember the hiring process described above? That was a kind of exception. No longer does the interview consist of only the HR and hiring managers. Usually the candidate is interviewed by a committee including all of his potential peers and underlings. All it takes for disqualification is for one (count ‘em) person to say, “I don’t know. I’m just not comfortable.” When probed for specifics there are none, only a “feeling”. Our companies are run by and staffed by freaking rubber ducks. The caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) and shoddy quality paradigm of the 1970s has returned and the pop culture “thinkers” of today don’t know the difference. They accept that a flat screen TV might fail in two years. (“What’s the big deal? Just get another one. Duh!”) American companies and customers have no memory of the lessons learned in the 1970s. Like Deming used to say, “How could they know? Who taught them?”
Look at some of the want ads. No longer are firms seeking those who can think, just those that have knowledge of VERY specific hardware and software; people that are like things that can be plugged into a cubicle with no training and left alone. They’re like the old assembly line workers. Check your brain at the door. A colleague mentioned to me that managers and so-called white-collar workers of today are like droids, and are probably destined to either become droids or be replaced by them. I would absolutely hate to be looking for a job today. Sigh…watch the boat sink
By Gene Myers—famous for doing something even if it’s wrong. (Yeah, I’ve be fired a few times.)
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