Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What I Learned from Football (Seriously)

Another year is behind us, and for many, it's time for resolutions (which means my gym will be really crowded and annoying for the next six weeks or so). While I don't go for the normal resolution game, it is a good time to reflect on the year, review successes and failures, and plan for the year ahead.

Reflecting on failures is always difficult. It's so important to review failures so we can learn from them. It's equally important to let them go and move on (more important?).

It's in American Football that I really understand letting go. How does a quarterback throw an interception, and then the next set of downs, play like a champion? How about those field-goal kickers? It's so amazing that a person could have a terrible experience, and then rebound in a matter of minutes.

I admit, I'm not so good at rebounding. I like to punish myself. I expect high performance from myself, and when I don't deliver, I'm not very forgiving. During the next year, I'm going to think more like a football player. When I screw up, and I know I will (I'll still act surprised), I'm going to dust myself off and figure out what went wrong. During the next set of downs, I'll execute a hard-fought drive to score.

Happy New Year Everyone!! My wish for each of you is to learn from your mistakes, and learn how to forgive yourself. Xian Nian Kuai Le.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

China's Indifference to Quality

This piece from the online San Fransisco Chronicle just caught my eye, "Cars, bad air, slipshod quality trouble China." In general, the tone of the article is negative, but unfortunately, I have to agree with most of it, in particular:

"Last, and perhaps most dispiriting, China remains a nation with an
astonishing indifference to quality - a problem that's hardly improved since I first went there in 1994."

I wish it weren't so, but for many industries, it's true. There have been only the smallest changes in general attitude about quality. One of my oldest clients was just complaining to me about the difficulties with finding vendors that seem to care, especially in his industry.

Should you consider China for sourcing opportunities? Of course, but do it in a systematic way. I've written numerous posts about developing a process, and managing your supply chain. I won't repeat them here, but if you plan to source product in China, the rules have NOT changed. You must be vigilant, and you must have a systematic way to run your sourcing projects which includes proper vendor and quality oversight.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

China's Plug-In Hybrid!

BYD Auto in ShenZhen is now selling the world's first mass-produced plug-in hybrid. Read more about it here. The quality remains to be seen, but kudos to BYD for beating GM and even Toyota to the market. I posted about this before on October 14.

For some more EV fun, and a look at a very cool American-made, fully-electric car (unfortunately no longer made), check out these earlier posts (here, and here) on the Corbin Sparrow. My friend owns this one. It's nice to drive, and certainly attracts attention!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Getting to 'No'

I just came across a blog piece by Bill Conerly entitled "The End of Chinese Quality Products?" Bill speculates that in addition to increasing costs in China, we may also be seeing a general decline in the quality of products from China. He refers to some general posts from my friends at the China Law Blog, I believe this one is likely one he's referring to.

While I don't agree that we will see a general decline, I do believe that economic pressures may cause your suppliers to seek new ways to reduce cost. The result will certainly be a change in your product, and maybe a change that causes the product to fall outside your specification limits. This is a good time to review your practices in general. Do you have supplier agreements in place? Are you managing your supply chain?

Now, more than ever, it's important to understand getting to "no." I've stated before that "yes" in China means only "I hear you." You'll be delighted to hear that you'll almost never hear the word "no." Suppliers will often agree to your target price (please keep in mind that I'm usually dealing with smaller suppliers), and try to figure out how to meet it later, often with disastrous results. You need to understand your cost structure before entering into negotiations. If the price you are offered is lower than you think practical, you'd better dig into the details to make sure the product meets specification.

In these hard economic times, it's more important than ever to get to "no," if that's really the answer. If your supplier can no longer meet your required cost, it's possible that they will seek to reduce cost without informing you. Now's a good time to reach out to them and see what you can do together to keep your supply of product stable and in specification.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Craft Beer in China!

After living in Ningbo for over a year, in craft-beer poverty, I was walking down the aisle of the Metro Grocery store, and saw a young female clerk with a case of Samual Adams Boston Lager. She thought she was under attack as I rushed her inquiring as to where I could find more. For the next several months, I enjoyed my "Sammies," but then Metro stopped carrying them. Perhaps I was the only person in Ningbo drinking them! (Those of you in ShangHai and Beijing, I know, have a huge variety of beer to choose from. Enjoy it, and please do ask your friends living in smaller cities if you can bring them some when you visit!).

All is not lost, according to this piece. China may see a craft-beer craze after all!!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is American?

As the US auto industry collapses, I've heard an increasing number of calls to local radio stations claiming that to drive a foreign auto is anti-American. Some callers even claim that not buying American is treasonous! Is there even a hint of truth to these claims?

If you limit your understanding of America to a set of lines on a map, then maybe so. If you believe that the actions of government and large corporations are to be left unquestioned, then again, maybe you have a claim.

Our Founding Fathers described a condition to which all men are born and should strive to -- a condition of liberty and self-reliance. The American attitude of rewarding hard-won success, encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, and accepting failure as another tough lesson is what has made us the great nation we are. To reward failure and not demand success is the truly anti-American act.

Several years ago, wanting to buy American, I traded my two imports for American-made cars. The experiment was a disaster. Both cars failed prematurely and catastrophically. They were replaced by Toyotas, one of which was made in the US. I would claim that the truly American thing to do is to buy good value. Reward companies that offer superior product at good prices, and punish those that don't. To be American is to do more than study lines on a map. If all things are equal, then certainly chose the American product, even if it costs a little more. In the case of the automobile industry, I believe the evidence is all too clear. I feel bad for any good people that may lose their jobs as a result of near-criminal mismanagement, but to reward these terrible companies with my money is the real un-American act.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No Chery-Chrysler Deal

This piece from announces the end of negotiations between China's Chery Automotive and Chrysler. I'm disappointed with this news, as I was excited to see what might come of a privately held Chrysler combining forces directly with a Chinese auto maker (despite the fact that I owned Geely stock!).

Note at the end of the article that Ford may be shopping Volvo to Chinese state-owned Changan Automobile Group. Make up your own mind about that one, but it just feels wrong!!

The Tesla Founders Blog recently speculated about the DongFeng Corvette and the Tata Mustang. It seems they were right on the mark.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's Your Leadership Style?

Lately, I'm more interested in writing on topics that are universally applicable, and not related only to China. Please bear with me, and comment if you find it interesting. In addition, as Fortuna would have it, I have recently been offered opportunity in other parts of the world. I'll keep you posted on that as well in later posts.

As I moved into management, I read widely. I also studied my managers, making note of those I thought were effective, and those that I didn't like. I often tried to copy what I read in books, or tried to duplicate the style of one of my managers that I found particularly skilled. As you may imagine, those experiments were not as successful as I had hoped. Why not? The simple answer is that I have my own particular style, and attempting to manage outside of that style just doesn't work. I'm not saying that you can't develop new techniques. You certainly can, but you'll only be truly effective (and happy) if you work to your strengths.

I'm a teacher, and a coach. There have been times when I've had to be hard and discipline or even fire people. I've done so, but it has been hard on me. When I build organizations, I make every effort to populate them with people that will respond to my style. That's not always possible, but as I'm aware of my weaker points, I can compensate, either by myself or by hiring someone who is stronger than I am in certain areas.

What is your management style? Are you a command figure who likes to know every detail? Do you prefer to teach? Understanding your particular style and inclinations will help you build and lead more effective organizations.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Best Interview I Ever Had

I'm a pretty good interviewer. I've built several successful teams over my career, and I've learned pretty well how to quickly separate the BS from reality. In fact, my HR folks used to joke that if an interview went over 10 minutes with me it was likely we were going to make an offer. I attribute most of my interview skills to a gentleman who interviewed me about 10 years ago. This one interview shaped my understanding of the process more than any b-school or management workshop ever could.

Let me set the scene. I'm interviewing for a position with a small R&D company. This company is an amazing example of hiring smart folks and letting them run. I consider it an honor to have worked for them, and I was very interested in getting hired. I was interviewing with the VP of the company, sitting in his office, one wall of which was covered with a large blackboard. After some basic introduction, his first question:

"You and I are scuba divers. We descend to some depth, and now we stop. We're facing each other. I reach out and capture a bubble between my fingers, hold it between us, and let go. What happens?"

We ended up developing some relationships between depth and various other attributes, including velocity. That question allowed him to see my ability to think through problems, tested my basic knowledge of the world (much more essential for an engineer than all the software tools in the world), and allowed him to gauge my presentation and communication skills. In short, in about 20 minutes, he had a really good idea who I was. I aced the interview, was hired, and the VP of the company became one of my closest mentors.

So there you have it -- the basics of my interview technique. I read the resume in advance, of course, but generally don't even look at it during the first half of the interview. Instead, I allow the candidate to tell me about a project he's worked on, and we explore in depth. We work together on the whiteboard to lay out a fairly complex problem and simplify it. It takes about 10 minutes to figure out whether or not they have the ability to reason. If they can think and communicate, the rest can be taught fairly quickly.

With some imagination, you can see how to apply this technique to any class of employee, technical or otherwise. The point is to tease out those essential skills that take more time to develop (in my opinion, too much time, and these skills are essentially part of someone's life experience and personality. Can they even be taught?).

What techniques do you use? Of course, the same techniques apply wherever in the world you are, and in whatever language. Working together on a white board removes much of the language barrier, and sets a comfortable, conversational atmosphere.