Friday, April 2, 2010

My personal Zen moment interviewing.......

I was going to write concerning the dire need for a comprehensive energy policy, and with Obama's concession to the Republican forces this week, am motivated to do so more than ever.

But I want to take an experience I had this week, bring one back from the past, and blend it into the thread of thought regarding our economy and quality jobs.

I worked in industry, specifically, manufacturing, and made a fair bit of money doing it. I left a job of which I was extremely fond because despite the wonderful work, my boss was abusive. After nine years, I found a suitable replacement and only lasted three years there, because much the same irresponsibility occurred as in the other small companies where I worked.

Due for a change, I visited a friend who was a former school board colleague to see what he thought I should do. He was working Human Resources in the School System we both served. I noticed on the wall a poster for a $1000 signing bonus for anyone who could teach in the field of Industry Technology. Since I had a degree in that field I mentioned it to him. Within a few hours, I had interviewed for a teaching position in our newest High School, and found out the very next day I could have the job if I wanted. In parallel, through I was asked to interview for a job consulting with a company who had a position 70 miles away in Lynchburg, VA. In the consulting world this is gravy since travel was minimal and the pay extremely good.

So, given I had two job offers, a high-class problem looking back at it, what would I do? The consulting job paid more than three times the teaching job. I hated consulting so even the disparity was not the final decision factor. What finally drove my decision was this: I worked in industry for over 25 years, I had put forth several ideas for the curriculum, I had some training experience but was offered only the entry level salary as a first year teacher. Because I didn't fit the mold of a veteran "shop" teacher, I could get no credit for what I could bring to the table.

Fast forward to this week. I decided to apply to Home Depot to see if my multiple skills in the trades, wiring, plumbing, construction, etc. could be applied to helping others find the right tool, part, or material to do their project. It could be fun. Make a little money as well.

I applied on line through a series of questions and attitude tests to see if I had the proper mindset for retail. A call followed with a offer of an interview. I arrived early and scoped out the store to see the state of the department they mentioned in which I might work. I went to the office and met the Operations Manager who would conduct the interview.

We were about to launch into a structured interview, one that takes 45 minutes or so,when I asked if she had looked at the answers I provided on line. She told me they did not share this information with her. I asked a series of leading questions relating to pay, advancement, and reporting structure. Then I politely terminated the interview and left. She informed me there was no provision to start someone above their entry level salary, and the next monetary review was in 12 months. What they were offering was less then my step-daughter was offered with no experience at a well-known electronics retailer. One also should note this was a part-time position with no benefits (or benefits cost!). My Zen studies guided me through the emotions to a rapid calm.

Both these experiences have in common that the employer, rather than consider paying for quality employees, would do things by the book. Easier to deal with turnover than create quality well-paid positions.

Our economy is now significantly driven by the retail industry. The jobs generally pay poorly. They require no previous skills and if they are done right can be challenging (that is, dealing with the public). What I was offered would have netted me as little as $100/week. This is because between having my pay would have been taxed on top of my wife's, and the cost (plus time) of even the modest commute required.

My experience is not isolated. Several family members have suffered this route. We can not believe that this economy, based so much on this industry (if you can call it that)can be healthy, when the jobs are poorly paid, add no significant incentive for quality personnel, or add no real value. I am heartened each and every time I find a quality product made in this country, particularly when it is competitively priced. I recently bought some hard cases for use on my motorcycle and was thrilled at the quality, price and that they were made in the US.

I am not a raving protectionist, suggesting we cut off foreign imports to harbor poorly run industries. What I am suggesting is that we take the time to look at the long view. Make investment in industry that creates quality jobs. Pay people a living wage. Train them to add more value. Anything else is a losing proposition.

When I take on the energy issue, we will find one of the places to make that investment.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Again, not so Zen

I decided to tackle discussing something that I have been pondering for awhile, and as my customary proviso I am stating that this probably isn't a new idea. It deals with the economy, and why we are in for a long period of adjustment. In previous installments I commented on the state of manufacturing in this country. That we must embrace bringing it back, at the same time recognizing the total cost of products produced and sold.

Something beyond over speculation in real estate, bank irresponsibility and a service based economy with it fits and starts has caused the stall we are seeing. What has held the stock market at bay for 10 years. Sane indicators on the stock market, using traditional measures, indicate the market is at a proper level. Take for instance GE, the first stock to be put in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It is trading at about $17 with earnings per share at a price/earnings multiplier of 16.

So why the stagnation in growth compared to the 1980's through 2000? I believe it was caused by reaching saturation of two income households. If you look at data about traditional households (defined by married couple, one income earner, children) the percentage fell from 24% of households, to a 7% and has held for several years. This was over a period from 1970 to 1995. In addition, in households without children over this same period, two income households remained relatively stable. This indicated that as a second income entered into the "traditional" household it feed unprecedented growth, because it was mostly discretionary money. Money above and beyond needed for the basics of housing, food, clothing, a car. The data would also suggest that it may have fed inflation in the late 70's as oil and other natural resources were taxed to support this expanding economy (as well as the instability in the Middle East). Productivity gains made in the early 80's through the emergence of computer technology into a basically service economy and stabilization of the markets in oil calmed inflation following a tightening of credit by the fed.

What am I getting at with all this analysis? That now we have reached saturation of the two income households, we are likely to return to the lower rates of growth (or perhaps less due to lack of a manufacturing based economy)that preceded the 1980's.

I think the expectation for return on the stock markets the reflect the economy are going to have to be adjusted. In addition, I will continue to beat the drum for investment back into a manufacturing based economy. There are data that suggests that follow-on spending from manufacturing far exceeds that which is caused by a service economy. Data also suggest that jobs pay better in manufacturing. I have argued that it acts as a flywheel damping the spin up and down of a service-based economy. We are seeing the disappearance of the middle class due to all these factors.

I have also beat the drum for another action that needs to be taken. It transcends the health care issue, terrorism, and all that is heard and seen on the news. I will take that on next time. But here is a preview in one word: Energy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Zen and the Art of Listening

Listening is something about which I know nothing and everything. I know when people aren't listening to me (children being the prime example). But I am not sensitive enough when listening to others.

I learned something about listening today. A friend, for whom I have great respect, began to talk about golf. Anyone who knows me, knows my opinion about golf. I do not relate to the game, and have characterized it as akin to observing thin film on a surface curing. (The act of applying this thin film is another activity I rarely enjoy performing.)

To appreciate my friend's company on the outing we were taking, I reminded myself to be in the moment. To apply quality to this moment, and really listen to what he had to say. After I commented that I do not "get" golf, he said that he, too, did not in the beginning. As we discussed the game, I visualized the aspects of the challenge, and how one has to apply mental discipline to the sport. To keep your head down, listen for the sound of the club impacting the ball and only then follow the ball's trajectory.

I gained a new insight into the game by this listening exercise. Not just being polite, but hearing with open ears and open mind.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case for God, speaks about Socrates. She says that he believed "that without the spirited interchange of a human encounter written knowledge is static". He developed dialetic to "expose false beliefs and elicit truth". One gets the sense he used this interchange to know people as well, through listening as well as his interrogative method.

I think, in this country especially, we have completely lost the art of listening. It is evidenced by the divisiveness and lack of true dialog. As I read about our country's leaders trying to tackle issues, frequently compromise is used as a dirty word. As if listening to another's ideas and perhaps incorporating them into a solution is being criminal. Ironically, Socrates was not one for compromise. Facing trial and execution, Athenian authorities wanted him to simply leave but his steadfast refusal led to his demise. And perhaps, this was not a time for compromise.

The Zen path is helping me to listen. It is not itself one of the eight noble truths that Buddhism teaches. But it is definitely incorporated into right understanding and right mindfulness. The world is facing challenges unknown to us before; limited resources, exploding population, aging population, irreversible environmental damage. And on top of these, we face the random act of violence mother nature provides, such as earthquakes, with no provocation from humankind. Certainly if I can experience a moment appreciating the fine aspects of golf, through genuine listening, we all can take the time to start talking more productively about our problems. And come up with solutions. It takes opening our ears and opening our minds.

But don't expect me on the links too soon, there are motorcycles to ride.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Zen, Visualization, Patience and Getting Older

The earliest I realized that the brain communicates side to side is about 50 years ago when my brother's girlfriend taught me the song San Francisco Bay Blues. It had a short guitar break that I just couldn't play. Long after she left that evening I continued to try and play the riff. I finally quit, figuring tomorrow was another day. In the morning, I picked up the guitar and I could play it easily. Sometime during the night my right and left brain exchanged the physical and logical knowledge to perform the part. Perhaps this is Zen when you are sleeping.

Years later, I had become a credible mechanic, going from what had been driven by finances, to a do-it-yourself necessity to insure quality maintenance. I would sit on my stool in the basement, pondering the job at hand, in a trance-like state. My wife stopped one afternoon and commented about this to me. She told me that she had for a long time wondered why I would be sitting avoiding the work. After many years of observing this she came to the conclusion that I was going over the job in my head before doing it, working out the kinks. I was applying what elite athletes call "visualization". I realize now that this trance-like state was very much like Zen, completely putting your mind into the moment to utilize all you mental resources to effect a successful outcome.

I know I am getting old because my conversations with my peers tend to be more and more about our physical afflictions. But I find that growing older has had some advantages. One it has given me is a more patient, quieter mind. My friends, wife, and family might dispute this having been subjected to my rants about religion, education, or politics. But if I judge but the number of snapped off bolts, burnt dinners, or broken pipes from plumbing projects, I can see that I am more mindful in my approach to projects. To focus on the moment rather than rushing ahead to the desired outcome. And the results are better with fewer new words for the young children in the neighborhood to learn.

If I "connect the dots" of these experiences it teaches me that my whole life I have applied Zen-like techniques to challenges I have encountered and they have positively influenced the outcome. From right/left brain transfer to visualization to patience, these Zen moments tell me that I have practiced it all along in some manner. And as I have studied Zen and practiced to be more in the moment, I can do it more easily. Live with quality in the moment, relate with quality in the moment, do better in the moment.

Buddism speaks of the eight fold path as a method to eliminate desire (causing suffering). Some of these speak to right understanding, right concentration, right effort. As I go down the path to Zen, I am seeing we all understand aspects of what the Buddha was saying. And as I get older it becomes easier to put them all together.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Something not so Zen.......

Forbes magazine this week has named my hometown the most miserable place to live in the United States. Cleveland, Ohio.

This came just after I made a point to go visit there to see a long time friend and go to a "reunion" for a club I played in during my high school years.

I miss the place a lot. Sure I am getting old, and looking at just the fonder memories of a rust-belt, smelly, has-been industrial town. Sure, the river burned. It defaulted on bonds. Had riots in the mid-60's. Has not seen a world series since 1954 (which the team lost...).

But I wandered through the art museum, endowed by such industrial giants as the Rockefellers. Saw examples of Rodin, Van Gogh, Renoir, and dozens of other priceless works. Across the street from the Severance Hall, that houses the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best in the world.

I visited an old haunt, my favorite deli, Corky and Lenny's. Half pound corned beef sandwiches to die for. Real bagels. Pickled tomatoes. And when I said to the guy behind the counter, "I can't get here but once or twice a year. I miss it.", he thanked me for coming in.

And when I went to Davis bakery, a real place to get baked goods, and real Jewish rye, I told them the same story. And got the same thank you response.

What the editors of Forbes seem to forget is that people still live there. 450,000 of them. And in the metropolitan area, maybe 1.5 million more. People who live in Mayfield, Euclid, Richmond Heights, or Lakewood. All suburbs and cities in their own right. But when you ask them where they are from, they will say Cleveland.

The clinical, quantitative analysis that Forbes performed may have been factual, but does not pay homage to those who lived there, or give respect to those who still are there. And why should they? Because Cleveland is symbolic of the real strength on which this nation was built. The industries and people that made the city. Steel and automobiles. Thousands of immigrants, mostly from Europe who gave Cleveland its rich multi-ethnic diversity.

And those bad things that happened? The pollution? It was a result of heavy industry and our country's decision that do not account for externalized costs, like waste disposal and other environmental impact. These will be borne by someone else, not the generators. So the steel mills are gone and sadly, the jobs. But happily, the pollution is gone as well.

So Cleveland's woes are not its own. They were given to it by companies that used it up, and spit it out. They took no responsibility for the community. Senior executives in industry that ignored the world competition, and forfeit our future over the desire for short term gain over long term strength. And eroded the middle class and manufacturing.

To fix a place like Cleveland, we need to fix what we are doing about our economy. Manufacturing acts as a flywheel. Its inertia takes the abruptness out of economic cycles. It slows down and speeds up slower than services. It adds more value back into the economy in follow-up spending. It provides better jobs. So we need to endeavor to build back up manufacturing here in the United States. And focus on creating more middle class jobs. Many non-American car manufacturers make their cars here successfully. Honda, Toyota, and now Korean makers Kia and Hyundai. Even my Bavarian favorite BMW.

So, my hometown, once a great industrial city now has as its largest employer the Cleveland Clinic. Essentially one big hospital. What is wrong with this picture?

The "recovery" we are seeing is an illusion. If we go on believing that a services, retail based economy is sustainable, we will become a society of Lords and Serfs once again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Zen and Riding, Cooking and Being

I have been a motorcycle rider since I was 16 years old. The first bike was really a scooter and as I progressed to bigger machines, I got married and had kids. And like so many others, I gave up riding for concern I would be hurt and could not support the family. 20 years later, fresh off a divorce I rediscovered this lost love. For nine years I have been riding again and it always relaxes me and gives me pleasure.

After losing my job, I began a study of Zen to see if it could help cope with depression and "ground" me. I came to the section on meditation. I could not see myself sitting still and quieting my mind. But the book I am using as my guide, Zen Living, talks about walking meditation and eventually achieving that state constantly in your life. While riding in Kentucky on one of my trips late this summer, I was struck by the notion that I do know how to meditate, at least during one activity. For me, riding a motorcycle is Zen. It provides a focused, in-the-moment experience that clears my mind of the dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, fear) life so frequently provides us. I was meditating during my riding by focusing on the ride. It explains another aspect of my riding I could never quite understand. A lot of riders listen to music during the ride, to relieve boredom during long, uninteresting parts. I always found it distracting. And between picking quality rides, and the sheer fun of riding, I never felt the need for music. But more than that, it intruded into the Zen of the moment. The oneness with the ride.

With the coming of the winter of '09-'10 we receive the most snowfall on record. My lovely bikes (I have three) sit in the garage, hooked to the battery charger, like patients on life support. And I am, too, like a patient needing life support. Trying to be a good house husband, I began relieving my working wife of the burden of the house work. I started by cleaning the kitchen. Then doing grocery shopping. Finally, it stuck me! Try cooking.

Having been raised by a mother whose idea of good cooking was roasting a chicken until it was desiccated, I have no role model to emulate. But now being a veteran of watching hundreds of episodes of cooking shows, I am armed with techniques, philosophy and, thanks to the Spanish chef José Andrés, love of the gelatinous mass inside a tomato.

I started in my usual way, amassing ingredients, reading the recipe, rushing into the fray. And the results were.....OK. No culinary disasters. As I gained some confidence, I realized that perhaps some Zen need to be applied. I forced myself to relax and focus on the moment. I watched sauces thicken, onions go from white to translucent, to caramelized. I read internet recipes trying to decide on the right approach from each, as almost none agreed to ingredients. I applied some management techniques to make the dinner arrive at the table all together. Using the critical path method, I determined the longest item, and approximate completion time, and then staggered the other elements back from that so my potatoes would be ready to mash, not too soon before the chicken was done. The cooking become more enjoyable, less stressful and far more successful.

As with my approach to vehicle maintenance, I use the tools I own, not purchasing anything extra unless I am significantly hampered by its lack. This is Zen, also. The tactile feel of the tools, using them creatively, not desiring the latest, greatest gadget (the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is suffering is caused by desire) are part of the creative process of cooking. And with ingredients it is much the same. I have tried to follow recipes to the letter. But where I am lacking an ingredient, I choose the best substitute I can, usually with the help of internet advice. I let go the idea things need to be exactly as written, because tastes, cultures, and availability of items all have contributed to the millions of recipes that exist.

The cooking experience, even more than the motorcycle riding, has contributed to a real sense of being for me. One can share a ride (although one's spouse may not be happy not in control), but it is not a complete experience unless you ride your own ride. Cooking's result is shared, and even the creation can be, as well. Watching others consume the results, good or bad, connects you with others. And that is an important aspect I am trying to achieve.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Zen and Industrial Management Part Deux

Now let's switch gears a moment, and leave Zen ideas and deal with other aspects of these mostly ineffective Quality programs. CEO support is critical, and certainly follow through is vital for program success. But I have made an observation about these efforts to get people to develop habits that improve their life, or work, or the quality of a product. The approach that these "systems" take are too complicated. For example, teaching statistical concepts to apply to processes frequently misses the point where a simpler tool will do. Dr. W. Edwards Deming applied statistical methods in Japan to great success. In the 1950's. In the 80's a major aerospace manufacturer made SPC (Statistical Process Control) a contractual requirement. Set up a whole department to administer it. So, the company I worked for dutifully signed contracts with this requirement from them. And even though there were very few appropriate places for it to be applied (read that: NONE) we attempted to find applications for SPC. And like all other "Quality driven" programs, it too went by the wayside, when it became too expensive and didn't provide adequate benefit.

Let's try something a bit simpler to improve quality. Again, not original, but a simple effective tool overlooked, probably because it isn't jazzy enough. Pareto Analysis. Collect data about something, like customer calls. Categorize these by their nature, such a "poor instruction manual", "awkward on/off switch",etc. On a monthly basis review the data. The category that has the highest incident spawns a team of appropriate individuals to fix the problem. Fix the problem. Do the Pareto analysis again. Fix the highest problem area. Repeat ad infinitum. Eureka! Continuous improvement. Apply it to many business areas. Multi-departmental continuous improvement!

This method was advocated by Joseph M. Juran, in the 1950's in Japan as a part of his focus on managing quality. Note the decade again. And note where it was applied. And, oh, by the way? I don't think he held a black belt (see any article on "Six Sigma" for an explanation).