Saturday, February 28, 2009

General Motors -- the Family Weighs In

Grandpa Gordon Harry pioneered the camshaft driven fuel pump when he was a young engineer with General Motors.

My post on GM corporate culture brought in feed back from my parents, my uncle, and my brother. Everyone heard (or lived) the stories in slightly different ways. From my dad, in Lockport, New York, once home of GM's Harrison Radiator division:
Based on my limited observations of the Harrison operations here in Lockport I think that there were three (actually four, including the union) sub cultures interacting within the company - which I suspect was pretty typical of all US auto companies.

There was top management which operated in it's ivory tower isolated from the 'dirty work' of the manufacturing operation.

Manufacturing was led by tough, bull headed guys (no women in that culture!) who worked on the assumption that the union workers were dumb, weren't to be trusted and had to be 'kept in line.' Pure old 'Theory X' management style - I think, you do!

This assumption created and reinforced the Union labor philosophy that management couldn't be trusted and you only did what you were told to do and had to do. You avoided all work you could get away with.

The manufacturing and union culture somehow, over time, created a high level of mistrust and tension was always high - especially when contract negotiation time was approaching. In effect the two parties create a win-lose interaction that turned into a lose-lose situation. The focus was always on trying to get something from the other party. Cooperation and collaboration were the last thing on their minds - they were more like enemies fighting in the same theater of battle day after day.

And then there was the design group - like Gord and Alfred. They were a very different culture - technically focused and, to a large extent, they remained aloof from the rest of the operation as much as they could. Of course, they interacted with the other three groups because what they designed had to be manufactured but when friction occurred, I imagine that they stepped back and 'let them sort it out.'

Concerning Gord, did you know that he had 28 patents? I don't know what the others were - probably more mundane, technical items that were integrated into 'stuff' that made cars better. I do recall him talking about work he did on early catalytic converters before he retired. Perhaps you Uncle Bryan knows more about all this.

I was always impressed with the fact that Alfred spent his whole career on spark plugs - plain old spark plugs! But then I thought about how spark plugs had to change as combustion engines change from low to high compression, from relatively cool running engines to ones that ran at very high temperatures. And he also worked on jet engines - unheard of during his first couple of decades of work. And, I recall, he worked on the ignition systems that detonated the early atomic bombs. Quite a wide range of applications!
From my brother, the small business consultant here in Michigan:
I recall Grandpa Gord discussing an early version of cruise control, although I'm not sure if that was one of the patents. The GM he described was bureaucratic and immense, yet there was room within the design sector for expansive "what if" kind of thinking, both with innovative part development and car aesthetics.

That was now 45 plus years ago. Who knows what happened with that GM design culture. Grandpa Gord thought the accountants were running the show in the 80's, basing new model "introductions" more on their ability to maintain older die-hard American customers (i.e. Buick) than adapting to changing customer demands (i.e. fuel efficiency).

Brook Yates' book from the early 1980's "The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry" refers to the "The Grosse Pointe Myopians." discussing in detail the way American automotive upper management grew "arrogant, lost touch with its markets, and failed to respond to changing public needs and tastes, technology, and energy and environmental concerns".

Our economy today is obviously more knowledge based. Unfortunately (I think)the days of someone with a high school education, working at an auto plant, earning $50,000-60,000 are over. It's amazing to me how that this sense of entitlement still exists within the auto unions. Not what one would think of as "entrepreneurial".
From my uncle Bryan, Gord's son, long time resident of Hawaii, recently retired from the US Department of Interior:
As a kid I always regarded Dad as hugely creative, and given pretty much free license by GM to go wherever he thought. Cruise control type things were something dreamed up out of the air. The fuel pump kinds were, however, innovative solutions to vexing problems.

I don't think the tension between the 'accountants,' the 'engineers,' and the 'stylists' that Dad crabbed about was any 'root in the trail' for GM.

In my view, the Darwinian seed was planted in the labor relations' conflicts
during and shortly after World War II. Recall, wages were frozen during and
shortly after the war. But labor strife and the competition for labor was
intense. GM leadership coped by giving its employees huge other benefits--work rules and health care, and pensions--that skirted the wage freezes and were championed as the model for all industry. And they are still grandfathered in! Because of GM's success at that time, Dad was really more concerned that the company was so dominant that Gov't was likely to break it apart using antitrust laws. And too--recall that Dad really had an analog--not a digital--mind and outlook. Maybe GM did too.

So fast forward to now. I think GM cars are very good. Excellent in fact. But GM can't pay out the labor benefits--work rules and health care, and pensions--when their sales are not only way down, but at best they now are only 20% of the total today's market share rather than 70% like the yesterdays. Around here each Chevy carries about $1500 / car 'employee other benefits costs' in its price tag. A Honda carries maybe $50 to $100.

In my sense--I hope the accountants prevail. They are saying that unless GM sheds these other benefits--work rules and health care, and pensions--to be comparable with the Toyotas and Hondas, the old company seems doomed.

So, I'm hanging on to my Chevy-- unless Michigan labor relents, it'll soon be a 'collectors item' (and still running great).
Here in the rust belt, the cost of employee benefits, and retiree benefits, in old news, weighing down budgets in the public and private sectors. Still, I think that building something that people want to buy would do a lot for the US auto industry...

Friday, February 20, 2009

GM Culture

I have been over at The Truth About Cars, reading the first three installments of Dr. Rob Kleinbaum's analysis of General Motor's corporate culture. I have touched on this subject in my a piece about Grandpa Gord, and of course it was impossible to watch even a little bit of the Big Three's performance before Congress without asking "Who the heck do these people think they are?"

Part two of Dr. Kleinbaum's series gives us a clue:
In progressive societies, merit is central to advancement but in static ones it is family and connections. On this point, GM probably gets mixed to negative reviews. The sense is that one must be part of the club to advance, which usually means the right degree from the right school, the right path, and knowing the top guys, who are your mentors. Twenty years ago, GM would have been completely in the static dimension on this attribute, but there has been substantial progress in reaching out to groups that had been excluded in the past and advancing them on their merits.

Unfortunately, this has been much truer for GM’s operations outside of North America and Western Europe than for these two core regions. In North America, the tradition is to pick high IQ people with the right background at an early age and then to rotate them through a series of “developmental” assignments. The consequence is that the people who rise to the very top are very smart with broad experience, but they are almost never people who have truly accomplished anything; who have built something from scratch or grown a business from small to large or turned around a losing operation into a profitable one.
Progressive cultures are secular, with limited influence of religious culture and a high degree of tolerance of heterodoxy and dissent. GM scores fairly low on this attribute. There is little tolerance of strong dissent from the prevailing opinion, although there is substantial subversion and passive-aggressive resistance. In discussions about setting direction, much more attention is given to wondering what the senior leadership will think than to figuring out the right path and trying to make it happen. The very senior people are often spoken of in tones of reverence and are seldom debated in any meaningful way.
That first congressional hearing was funny, in a sad sort of way. It was clear that Wagoner, especially, could not quite get his head around the idea that there were people who would actually question his pronouncements and challenge him to support his conclusions with anything more than the sound of his own voice.

This stuff is not just a spectator sport here in Michigan. Last night I spoke with our township supervisor. His business is in auto parts manufacturing; he had just come back from a meeting in Grand Rapids where he had announced a 15% pay cut to all of his salaried employees. Here in northern Michigan we see parts manufacturers laying off or shutting their doors almost weekly. Our tourism business is highly dependent on the automakers as well.

In Detroit a few weeks ago, I stayed at the Renaissance Center, home of GM headquarters. Amusing myself between meetings, I took a tour of the ground floor, which was set up as a museum/showroom for all of GM's cars. Seeing them all at once was weird. They were all so large and clunky, too big for my garage. They all looked the same to my untrained eye. Bored, I started looking at the window stickers, trying to find a vehicle or two that got MPG similar to my 1996 Corolla. When I finally found a car I would consider driving, I glanced inside the driver's window. The steering wheel was cranked to the right, exposing the bottom of the center plate. The center plate had been indifferently installed so that the wiring for the horn and the airbag and everything else was just sitting out there for all the world to see. It was a sight that stays with me, the moment when the Emperor had no clothes.

I had another vision last week, a vision of what it would take to save the GM, and to save Michigan's manufacturing sector. What if they stopped thinking of themselves as a car company and started thinking of themselves as the consumer energy solution company? There's a lot of talk about plug in hybrids. what if GM made a plug in hybrid car that was designed to be charged with GM brand wind generators and GM brand photovoltaics? What if there were GM charging stations at work and a GM motorbike, charging from the same GM home system, for short trips? What if your GM charging system or plug in hybrid could also function as emergency power in case of a blackout? What if.......

Then I woke up. I saw the restructuring plan that they just showed to Congress. As Dr. Kleinbaum put it:
GM’s current response seems to reflect its fundamental beliefs about the way the world works and it’s almost identical to what it has been doing for the last 30 years: cut “structural costs,” wait for future products to bring salvation, and count on cash from the other regions (and, now, the government) to help prop things up in the meantime. But they effect no truly fundamental changes in the business, its structure or the people running it (as they are clearly the best and brightest, know how to manage things in a serious way, and have a sound plan).

The proposed changes are touted as “profound” and “fundamental” but are really the minimum change from status quo the company believes it can get away with. There is a profound reluctance to make hard decisions that would cause short term pain but would lead to fixing the problem in the long run; instead there is a continual compromise of action that leads to “too little, too late” but defers immediate catastrophe. This is reflected in every aspect of the enterprise, from decisions on manufacturing, which never bring capacity into line with market realities, to people, where almost no one is ever fired for poor performance. This has not worked before and it is difficult to believe it will work now.
Part four will be published tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Guerilla Knitting


Kathy at Thistledown Yarn keeps asking me if I've been to downtown Suttons Bay lately. I finally went over there today to pick up some books that I ordered from Peter Makin at Brillian Books. That's when I found what Peter referred to as "The Guerilla Knitting" on all of the power poles. Peter says that they all appeared the night of the Superbowl.

Right now I'm reading Loiuse Erdrich's The Game of Silence, the second of the Omakayas stories.
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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Anna and Rose

This was in 2005, back when Anna and Rose were still hanging out together. Anna would wake up everyday and figure out what to do with Rose. Rose was good at hide and seek, or at sitting with a treat on her nose until Anna told her to eat it. She would wear dresses, or wait at the bottom of a tree while Anna climbed. Anna tried to get her to ride on the sled or in the wagon. Rose politely refused.

When Anna was born, Rose was just over a year old, still puppy silly, and I told her that she needed to grow up and become responsible so she could help me raise this kid. Rose always barked at anyone passing by, so I felt safe letting the two of them play out in the fenced yard. Anna learned to be responsible about closing the gate to keep Rose in. Later she learned to go out and find Rose when she ran away.

Now Rose is old and can barely make it up the porch steps, much less play. She is blind and deaf; to get her to go anywhere we have to put our hands on her and point her in the right direction. She can't hear the back door open or even a knock on the door. Her digestive system is problematic; she is flatulent and sometimes poops involuntarily. I know that she won't be with us much longer but I hope she sees another spring.
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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Ice Report

Seems like reporting on ice all is I do anymore. I've had a big uptick in blog traffic from folks looking to know how much of the Great Lakes are iced over, so I've posted a new graphic and will let you all click here to stay updated. Lake Michigan is cold. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, there may be ice as far as you can see. Suttons Bay is frozen over at the foot of M-204, but I haven't seen any fishermen out there yet.

Last night the temperature was below zero at dawn and it didn't move out of the single digits despite the clear sunny morning. The good result of a nearly frozen Lake Michigan is the end of lake effect snow that comes from dreary lake effect clouds. The days are brighter, sunnier, and longer.

I'm doing another sort of ice reporting as well. The people in the condo next to my parents' place left their heat down too low when they left town and the pies froze, burst, and then leaked unattended for quite some time. It had been cold enough that the leak wasn't discovered until a contractor turned the heat up in the place below and melted the ice upstairs. What a mess! As it turns out my parents' place is pretty much OK but the neighbor's place must be completely gutted and rebuilt. Paying a cottage care service to keep an eye on things is a small expense in comparison.

Our Hoop Housing Neighbors on NPR

Mature greens in Jon and Jenny's hoop house, mid April of 2005. I think this was the first year they ran the hoop house.

I never look at this picture without wishing for an excuse to post it to the blog again. Tonight I got my wish. As I hopped into the car and headed off to the planning commission meeting, I heard a familiar voice on NPR. Jon Watts and Jenny Tutlis of Meadowlark Farm, just up the road, were featured in a piece on season-extending farming in the frozen North. For years Jon and Jenny have been our faithful neighbors, the ones who trade chicken chores so we can leave town now and then, the parents of Anna's friend Ella, and Liz's much loved employers last and next summer.

You can hear the whole interview or read the transcript by clicking here.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Dirt on Kids

Two new articles about parenting came out yesterday, verifying my suspicions about workaholic parents and dirt. The first, from England, details a study that looks at childhood well-being. The headline, Selfish adults 'damage childhood' pretty much says it all:
The aggressive pursuit of personal success by adults is now the greatest threat to British children, a major independent report on childhood says. It calls for a sea-change in social attitudes and policies to counter the damage done to children by society. Family break-up, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and income inequality are mentioned as big contributing factors.
The report itself is not likely to be popular, as it points out the detrimental effects that divorce, two working parents, and too much competition in education have on kids. The report's recommendations are interesting:
  • a civil birth ceremony conducted by a registrar in which parents publicly accept the responsibilities of parenthood

  • free parenting classes available around the time of birth

  • free psychological and family support if relationships struggle

  • rules making it easier for parents to stay at home to rear their children

  • abolishing sats tests and league tables in English schools

  • a ban on all advertising aimed at the under 12s and no TV commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed

  • stopping building on any open space where children play

  • a high-quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people
I'm not sure about that last one. I think the high quality play environment ought to be in one's backyard with a parent watching out, but not too close.

This brings us to the second article, sent to me yesterday by Liz. I'm sure she was thinking of the low cost play space she and Shelagh enjoyed when they were young. We had a sandy bank in the yard, and if they begged Dad, he would bring over a shovel and loosen the sand to make a pile to play in and a hole to excavate. The "dirt pile" was a major draw in our yard; kids would get a glimpse of the dirt pile from the back seat and they were all over it, down on their knees and getting dirty before anyone could say no. Often there was a dog or a chicken helping to dig, that's how the they came up with the summer "Chicken Circus" in which chickens would ride on bike handle bars and "fly" though hula-hoops.

I'm sure some readers are clucking to themselves at the unsanitaryness of all this. The article Liz sent, Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You is provocative, but it might gross you out:
Ask mothers why babies are constantly picking things up from the floor or ground and putting them in their mouths, and chances are they’ll say that it’s instinctive — that that’s how babies explore the world. But why the mouth, when sight, hearing, touch and even scent are far better at identifying things?

When my young sons were exploring the streets of Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but wonder how good crushed rock or dried dog droppings could taste when delicious mashed potatoes were routinely rejected.

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species. And, indeed, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you.......

.....“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”

One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”

He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
I must admit that it's kind of fun to hear the "ultraclean environment" moms getting scolded for once. They should give up some cleaning and volunteer a little more.

The idea that being infected with intestinal worms conveys an immunity to disease is really new:
Immunologists now recognize a four-point response system of helper T cells: Th 1, Th 2, Th 17 and regulatory T cells. Th 1 inhibits Th 2 and Th 17; Th 2 inhibits Th 1 and Th 17; and regulatory T cells inhibit all three, Dr. Elliott said.

“A lot of inflammatory diseases — multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and asthma — are due to the activity of Th 17,” he explained. “If you infect mice with worms, Th 17 drops dramatically, and the activity of regulatory T cells is augmented.”

In answer to the question, “Are we too clean?” Dr. Elliott said: “Dirtiness comes with a price. But cleanliness comes with a price, too. We’re not proposing a return to the germ-filled environment of the 1850s. But if we properly understand how organisms in the environment protect us, maybe we can give a vaccine or mimic their effects with some innocuous stimulus.”
In the end, we weren't going to keep all of those germs out of the baby's mouth, anyway. It's nice to know that letting them out of the car seat and into the dirt was what they really needed all along.