Monday, April 29, 2013

The Changing World...

Mad Men is an award winning television show about a Madison Avenue advertising firm set in the 1960's.

It chronicles the lives of the several characters who are employed by the firm including partners, creative directors, account representatives, as well as the multitude of administrative support such as secretaries, copy writers, artists and accounting types.

The show fascinates me not only for the human drama, but because it accurately and visually describes life in the 1960's both personally and professionally.

It's incredibly hard for me to imagine conducting modern business without personal computers (desk tops and/or portables), mobile (and now smart) phones, e-mail, search engines, spreadsheets, Skype, and/or electronic documents.

These modern conveniences have allowed an explosion in personal productivity, virtually eliminating the need for the army of support personnel previously employed at most businesses.

It also has depersonalized, in many ways, the way we now conduct business.

It no longer makes economic sense to spend time face-to-face with customers and suppliers. Electronic communication is virtually free and highly efficient in being able to reach a mass audience.

Personal relationships have taken a back burner position as we try to find more ways to squeeze more and more time out of our days and nights.

This new reality was brought to my immediate attention several times these last few days.

This week I'm traveling in Asia visiting customers and suppliers.

One of the first things I've noticed on this trip is the shrinking population of employees at many of the factories that I've visited.

This seems especially true on the assembly lines, where I've noticed that many of the functions that were once done by hand are now being performed by robotic automation.

When I inquired about these changes, I was told by the factory managers that the decision to go to automated assembly was being driven by two main factors:
  1. While there is a fixed cost typically associated with factory automation, those costs have been significantly decreased over the last several years as there are now more and more manufacturers of industrial automation equipment.

    One just needs to purchase the machinery, set it up and feed it raw material (okay... granted there are a few more steps than that... but this is essentially what happens).

    Whereas before it might have taken 100 workers to complete 1,000 finished parts per day... it now only takes perhaps 5 workers.

    The savings of not requiring an additional 95 workers quickly helps to pay for the cost, set-up and maintenance of the machinery. This is especially true when you consider the quickly rising salaries, mandatory benefit costs, training, and additional factory floor space to set up a production line.

    Automated machinery can be run continuously for hours... without the need for coffee and meal breaks.
  2. The second major benefit of using factory automation is that the product quality can be tightly controlled.

    What I saw on this trip, was that there were more factory personnel associated with quality control and testing, than in actual production.

    At one time, there was an adage that said that you never wanted to purchase a car made on a Monday (due to perhaps the lingering effects of weekend reveling)... or on a Friday (due to perhaps the anticipation of weekend reveling).

    This same thought process could be extended to many different other industries. Anytime there is a human element added to construction and assembly of equipment (especially in a monotonous assembly line), there is a possibility for human error.
The most immediate thought that entered into my head as I was heading back to my hotel, was now that the cost of labor was quickly being removed from the cost of goods (or at least marginalized), production in low-cost labor countries was no longer economically essential for businesses to compete.

It would be just as easy to set up a fully automated line in the U.S. as it would be in China (or any other low-cost labor provider).

The cost drivers now have become the transportation of raw materials to the factory and finished goods to the markets.

The typical factory assembly line worker of the early 21st century has now become somewhat synonymous with the secretarial pools of the 1960's. Technology has effectively killed off the millions of jobs previously needed to perform manual labor functions.

So where will all of these displaced workers go?

One thought is that the abundance of manual laborers will now find employment in the service industries.

If they do, their employers might want to take a lesson in customer service from of all people... the Chinese government...

Now when I think of one of the most joyless positions ever created it is that of the customs and immigration officer.

Now picture in your mind for a moment, a customs and immigration officer, in full military dress regalia complete with campaign ribbons, sitting behind a sterile governmental desk in communist China as you disembark from a plane and attempt to enter the country.

You hand him your passport and immigration form.  He looks up at you, smiles, and asks you how you're doing this morning in fairly decent English...

You're now somewhat taken aback thinking that perhaps this is a trick question used to expose smugglers and/or felons on the lam.

Looking back at him, fake a smile and respond, "I'm doing fine... thank you".

He looks up at you... comparing your picture to that of your passport... smiles again and then politely asks you how long you're planning to stay in China.

You respond, "Umm... just 24 hours".

He hands you back your passport and tells you to enjoy your stay in China.

As you get ready to leave you notice a box sitting on his desk with 4 buttons now blinking. 

You look down at the box and at the 4 button choices...

- Red - Poor Customer Service
- Red - Checking Time Too Long
- Green - Satisfied
- Green - Greatly Satisfied

You select "Green - Great Satisfied"... not because you're afraid that pushing a red button will cause you to be sent off to a Chinese prison somewhere in the Gobi Desert... but rather because you are indeed "Greatly Satisfied" with the customer service that you've just received.

Can you even remotely imagine having a box like this installed at a government office in the United States?... say at perhaps the DMV... or maybe as you're exiting a TSA airport checkpoint?

Why would the government be interested in how its employees are treating its customers... you know... the taxpayers?

Unfortunately, the unions would NEVER agree to anything like this...

It would never happen... PERIOD!

In fact, I would go so far as to say that providing immediate customer service, like this box offers, would never exist even in the most progressive, customer service centric retail outlets - think Nordstrom's or The Container Store...

...but you can only imagine how the service sector might improve...

Attain a 98% approval rating... and you get a daily bonus...
Good for the employee... an opportunity to make more money...

Good for the business... happy customers come back and spend more money...

Good for the customer... receiving better service makes for a better shopping experience...

I've been racking my brain to try and figure out a method that our customers can provide us with some simple, immediate, and anonymous feedback for us...

If anyone knows of a good solution... I'd love to talk with you...

The 1970's brought a revolution to the modern office through advances in technology... the 1990's the revolution occurred in manufacturing through outsourcing...

...perhaps now is the time to think about revolutionizing the service sector and bringing back the personalization of fantastic customer service (just without the 3-martini lunch)...

Then maybe we can go from being Mad Men to happy customers...    

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse, where we encourage your feedback... because it can only help us to perform better in the future.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told...

I believe that creativity begins at a very young age.

Children who are exposed to art, music, theater, and creative writing early on in life tend to be more creative when they become adults.

In most academic curriculums, imagination and creativity have been replaced with facts, reasoning, and controlled processes.

Whereas math, science, and cognitive reasoning give us powerful tools, creativity allows us to think outside the box and apply those analytical tools to solve complex real-world problems.

I still believe, however, that kids need to be kids.

They need to be silly. They need to play dress-up, build things with blocks of wood, paint with their fingers, and belt out songs at the top of their lungs.

Although my children are now young adults in their twenties, they speak fondly of a creative game that we used to play when we found ourselves among a large crowd of people.

We didn’t really have an official name for our little game... but it could have been called "who’s that?"
One of us would choose a random person in the crowd and another would then create a fictitious biography about the person we had just chosen.

While at a crowded shopping mall, my daughter might point to a 40-something blonde woman and say "Her!"

A typical story might go like this:

"That lady is from Texas where she and her sister were raised by her grandparents because their parents died in an auto accident when they were young. She had always hoped to be an airline pilot because she wanted to travel and see the world, but she found that she was afraid of small rooms so a cockpit was out of the question.

She ended up joining the army and was sent to several bases around the world fulfilling her life-time dream of seeing the world. She eventually got married to a man she met while stationed in Germany. He was a computer engineer and the couple eventually found themselves in Silicon Valley.

This weekend they are on vacation in San Diego but she forgot to pack a bathing suit so she is at the mall to purchase one... "

... and then it will be someone else’s turn...

We ended up playing our game for about an hour or so... and then went on to something else...

As it so happens, I was having dinner with my daughter last week in Los Angeles where she now lives. We spent the time reminiscing when the subject of our "who’s that" game arose.

She told me that she still remembers the game and all that it taught her.  She told me that the game had three distinct learning elements for her... all of which have some significance in her life today. 
  • The game taught her to be creative - Today one of her professions is writing (she is actually an actress in Hollywood... but she also is a freelance writer to help pay the bills). In playing our game, one had to be quick to create connected ideas in order to narrate a cohesive fictional story about a non-fictional person standing in front of us.
  • The game taught her the power of observation. In order to develop a credible story, one had to be able to look at a person and deduce a life history strictly from a brief observation. So many of us are totally lost in our thoughts, that we rarely pay attention to the details that surround us.
  • The most powerful lesson that she learned was that everybody has a history and a story to be told (although our stories were fictional).
One of my favorite movie scenes is from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. In the scene, Woody Allen’s character is experiencing a flashback moment where he is sitting in what appears to be his second grade class.  

The teacher of the class tells Woody Allen’s character that he’ll amount to nothing when he grows up... after which he poses the question "I wonder what actually happened to my other classmates"... one by one, the 6-year old children announce to the audience where they were in their lives 20 years later...

The short scene is actually quite powerful...

When we’re 6-years old... where do we think that we’ll be at 25-years old?... an astronaut?... a ballerina?... a baseball player... a fireman?... a jet pilot?... to most of us at 6-years old... 25 was an eternity away (well... it WAS more than 3 ½ lifetimes for us at that time in our lives)... to a 6-year old everything is possible and limitless...

This is the springtime of our lives. This is a time of growth.

By the time we reach our 25th birthday our perspective changes.

Even though we can look at the end buffet of opportunities in front of us... we realize that our plates can only hold so much so we must make difficult choices...

At 25, we are now in the summer of our lives. It is a time of abundance and limitless choices...

As we get older, we begin to start choosing. We choose where we live... we choose our careers... we choose spouses... we decide to start families...

Summer is a time of hard work and limited resources with more and more demands for our time and money.

Sometimes we make good choices... other times not so good. And although it may not be easy, we ultimately learn that we can turn to a new page and make a fresh start if necessary.

Sometime around our 50th birthday, our paradigm begins to shift once again.

We are now entering into the autumn of our lives. This is a time where we can enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Our children have grown up so we now have more time and resources. Our attentions now turn from our children and careers to other things in life such as loving relationships... good health... giving back to the community and to those less fortunate.

It also begins a time when we start to understand that life is finite and that certain windows of opportunities are beginning to close. We rush to do those things that we have long dreamed of doing before the winter sets in...

The winter of our lives eventually comes and with it comes the culmination of a life well-lived.

Knowingly or unknowingly, we all leave this earth with a footprint... a legacy... a memory.
Our stories are real and span an entire lifetime...

Regardless of what point we are in our lives... we are stilling writing chapters...

What kind of story do you hope to write?

Will it be the greatest story ever told?

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse, where we hope to read and understand your story one day...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Our Common Enemy...

In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive. - Lee Iacocca

A few months back I was visiting my friend Danny.

Danny was an old friend from high school in the Bay Area, who created and built a software development company and then sold it for several million dollars to IBM.

At the ripe old age of 46, Danny no longer needed to work to earn a living.

So what does a relatively young Silicon Valley millionaire do with his new-found time?

He of course, decides to become a high school teacher and part-time wrestling coach at a disadvantaged inner-city high school...

The kids in my friend’s wrestling program are typically from working-class homes, many times with single parent families with not a lot of emphasis placed on educational pursuits.

He’s been coaching the team now for five years and has taken a perennial loser to being a real contender in his league.

I happened to be in the Bay Area on business so I decided to stop by one of Danny’s practices to see if I could lend a hand as they prepared for the upcoming league tournament.

As it so happened, on the day I came to visit to help out, the kids were in a particularly tense and foul mood. Several fist fights broke out that day as tempers rose among the wrestlers.

After two such incidences, Danny blew his whistle and gathered his team.

I wholly expected him to read his kids the "riot act", scolding them for their petty acts, and their childish behavior... especially before such an important tournament.

Rather what I heard was something completely unexpected.

Instead of reprimanding the kids, he applauded them for their passion. He told the kids that he wished that he had 10 more wrestlers who cared so much that they would fight to keep their space on the team.

He went on... continually building them up and telling all the reasons that they had to be proud of their accomplishments... but their common goal of a league championship was still in front of them. 

He then abruptly changed the subject and began talking about some of the other schools that they would be facing in the upcoming tournament.

He told them that those schools had kids who were privileged, wealthy and had lots of resources... including equipment... coaching... and new mats...

The focus was no longer on his kids and the program... US... the focus was now on working harder than ever to defeat a common enemy... THEM.

Coach told his team that although they wrestled as individuals, they were still a part of a team.  There was only one way to defeat their common enemy... they had to work together to get faster, stronger and better... their fate was in their own hands... they could come together and win as a team or continue to stand alone and lose as an individual.

After practice, Danny and I had a moment to talk over dinner.

"I was really impressed with your little speech to the kids this afternoon", I told him.

"Well it’s not like I haven’t given that same speech a hundred times before", he calmly said.

"I’m confused", I said wondering, "it appeared as though those kids were listening to the speech for the very first time".

"No... not to my kids... to my employees", he said with a grin.

"Software engineers are prima donnas... and they were constantly bickering back and forth amongst themselves... one day I realized that I needed to focus the company’s energies on an outside enemy".

"That’s when I came up with the idea and the speech", he said nonchalantly.

"At first, I told our design team that it was us against world... but that was too vague... I knew that if I really wanted our company to get focused... I needed to create a villain... a foe... a windmill in the mist."

"For us... that was the "evil" Microsoft... "

"We were David against the great Goliath... we were Rocky against Apollo Creed... we were George Washington braving the winter in Valley Forge only to defeat the much stronger British securing an American victory in its war of independence..."

"Our people worked every day with a common goal... to defeat Microsoft... and in the end we won."

I was thoroughly impressed.

Danny looked at me bewildered, "I didn’t actually come up with the idea... it’s been around for centuries... it’s the epic tale of good versus evil... "

I thought about it for a few minutes... he was right... the premise has been around since the beginning of time.

Great leaders became great because they were there to righteously lead us against some evil or peril... it’s us against them...

For God and country... we fight to the end...

As I thought more about the idea... I now began to consider what it was like to be the favorite rather than the underdog...

For years, Apple used Microsoft (a popular villain)... it was Mac against PC...

Then as Apple grew... their focus turned to the greedy record companies (iPod, iTunes)... and then the big phone companies (Motorola and Samsung)...

With the loss of their visionary, Steve Jobs, there no longer appears to be any common enemy for Apple to galvanize itself against.

It’s no longer Apple "sticking it to the man"...

Apple, in essence, has become "the man"... 
We like to see ourselves in the role of the underdog for two reasons: 
  1. People want to root for the underdog... and we want people in our corners cheering us on.
  2. Expectations are lower. If you’re the small guy, no one really expects you to succeed ... so if you lose it’s no big deal... on the other hand if you are the favorite and end up losing... then you’re an underachiever.
All great leaders know how to motivate people to do their best. They understand that a united team is much stronger than the individuals comprising the organization (the sum is greater than the parts).

They know that any great team needs a common goal... a common enemy... and/or a common cause in which to fight for...

Who is your organization’s common enemy?

What are your team’s shared goals?

What is it that you’re all willing to fight for?

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse, where we stand united to bring you high-quality innovative products and an outstanding customer experience...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Profile in Courage...

We all seem to have a friend like my friend David.

David has a great job in the financial sector.  He is an extremely hard worker... he has a beautiful home which is tastefully furnished and well-manicured. He drives a late-model European luxury car and his wife Laura drives a new SUV.

David loves to surround himself with friends, often hosting parties and get-togethers for any apparent occasion. He is generous to a fault with this time and money.

Unfortunately, David is also one of those people that many of us never want to associate with in that he is the consummate pessimist.

According to him... nothing in his life is ever good...

He complains frequently about everything that is seemingly wrong with the world (at least in his eyes).

He lives his life in constant fear of getting sick... losing his job... his wife Laura finding someone else and divorcing him... his children not getting into the right schools... and what other people think of him.

He often goes on fad diets because he thinks that he weighs too much... but in reality... he nearly lives at the gym and has a sculptured body that Brad Pitt would envy...  

In the eyes of most people, David is living the dream... but in reality he is absolutely miserable and frankly no one wants to listen to his gripes and complaints about his apparent horrible life.

Despite their successes... some people can never seem to find happiness.

Doing what it takes to achieve personal success and happiness requires more than just discipline; it also takes a great deal of courage.

Despite what many people think, courage is not the opposite of fear.  In each of us, a certain degree of fear or insecurity is present at one time or another.

There are literally hundreds of different known fears and phobias... fear of failing... the fear of success... the fear of the known (clowns, dogs, heights, germs, etc.) and the fear of the unknown (dying, losing what they have, or what other people think)... fear of being in front of an audience...

If we dig a little deeper, we’ll find out that most of our fears can be summarized as "the fear of something that we cannot control" or the fear of being helpless and victimized.

Fear can be a good thing. Rational fear prevents us from normally putting ourselves into harm’s way or taking undue risks.

Some fears, however, are irrational. These are fears with an enormously high probability that they will never happen (the fear that the earth will collide with an asteroid for instance).

We are told that today’s world is fraught with uncertainty, so our fears are indeed warranted...

However in reality... the world today is no less uncertain than it was 50, 100, 200 or 500 years ago and in many instances, the world is actually safer and more predictable than it has ever been throughout time.

Live spans (and the quality of life) have been elongated due to advances in medicine, availability of preventive and emergency care, and predictive lifestyle changes (such as the link between smoking and heart disease and cancer).

Even with the recent blip in the economy, our relative wealth exceeds that of any other time in history. Our stores are filled to the rafters with food, clothing and other modern conveniences.

As a whole, less people are dying each day from starvation, disease, wars, and natural disasters. We are truly living in a moment of history that is better than any other time in our past.

Despite all of the evidence, our fears can paralyze us from acting or living a rich and fulfilling life.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear but rather more about moving forward despite the fear.

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago, wrote that "A truly courageous person is not someone who never feels fear, but rather fears the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason".

A courageous person doesn’t fear things that are beyond their control... they are not afraid of the unknown or what might happen to them... they do not feel helpless or unable to act... they don’t dream up "what if" scenarios that prevent them from even trying...

Courageous people do not hide in the past... longing for the so-called glory days that supposedly once were. They don’t cast blame or shift responsibilities onto others for their misfortunes or bad decisions.

Courageous people do not rue their bad luck and spend time feeling sorry for themselves.

Courageous people do not believe that their success, happiness and salvation will come from some magical or mythical event in the future. Their knight in shining armor will someday arrive and save them from whatever perils they might face in life...

The truly courageous person is someone who believes in a core set of principles and ideals to help guide them in their life... they are unafraid of what others think of them and instead think independently and formulate their own ideas and opinions... courageous people do not try to keep others down but rather tries their best at lifting others up by leading, teaching, and encouraging them.

The truly courageous person takes control of their own life... makes their own decisions... and acts under their own accord...

The courageous person doesn’t waste valuable resources in the attempt to make appearances and false impressions but rather project their real self, complete with vulnerabilities, insecurities and flaws.

Courageous people know that they don’t have all the answers and never pretend that they are all-knowing... they aren’t afraid to solicit the counsel of others and do not fear others with opposing views and/or opinions...

Courageous people work hard every day to prepare themselves for success... both in the present and in the future... they don’t fear the success of others and share their knowledge and resources to help others in need...

Courageous people never judge others but are content in living their own lives... they don’t attempt to force others to adopt their lifestyle or beliefs... they are autonomous and try to lead by example rather than by coercion or intimidation.

Being courageous isn’t about taking the easiest path... it’s about living your life according to principles and discipline...

Being courageous gives us permission to be happy with our successes and to freely share our success with others without guilt or worry.

People like my friend David may have found success through fear (the fear of not having enough or perhaps the fear of failure)...

... but he has yet to find the courage to truly enjoy his life.

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse, where we hope that you always live the life that you desire and that you find happiness along the way...