Sunday, October 30, 2005

Ni Hao, America!

According a recent article in Inc. magazine there are now more people in China learning to speak English than there are people in the United States who speak English. I don’t have any data to support my theory, but I suspect that the percentage of people in the United States who are learning to speak Chinese is miniscule in comparison.

We Americans have always been a self-centered bunch, unwilling to learn other languages or cultures. How many Americans speak Japanese despite the Japanese “invasion” of the 1980s? Despite huge numbers of Spanish-speaking Hispanics living in the United States, few Americans learn to speak Spanish. Even many second-generation Hispanics don’t learn Spanish, and many are encouraged by their families to speak only English.

Anyone who has traveled much outside of the United States has heard our global neighbors complain about our arrogance and unwillingness to learn other languages or understand other cultures. Despite the world’s disdain for our inward-looking focus, other nations have tolerated our behavior because there wasn’t much else they could do. And English has become the default language for the global economy (much to the consternation of the French).

However, the times are quickly changing, and if we don’t begin to change our attitudes about our place in the global economy, we will continue to lose market share and political clout to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and others.

All this geopolitical talk may seem out of place in a magazine focused on quality professionals. But our readers deal with these issues daily: inspecting incoming parts from foreign suppliers or subsidiaries, competing with companies from other nations that can produce higher quality parts and lower prices, communicating with an increasingly diverse workforce, and more.

I’m not suggesting that everyone take a Berlitz course in Mandarin Chinese. But I do think that everyone in every industry in this country needs to dial back the anti-China, anti-Japan, anti-if-it-ain’t-made-here paranoia and begin to look our organizations’ roles in the global economy, not just the local one.

If I am buying parts from a supplier in Cleveland, I expect them to be built to my specifications. If am selling parts to a company in Phoenix, I am expected to speak the language of my customer and deliver goods that meet his or her specifications. The same is true if we’re buying or selling in Shanghai, Tokyo or Berlin.

The quality world is full of great concepts like listening to the voice of the customer. It’s also largely based on a premise that quality is defined as conformance to requirements. So isn’t time we began listening to the voice of the customers no matter where in the world they are and met their requirements no matter the language?

In addition, we are responsible for some of the outsourcing. We are, in effect, handing business to companies in other countries. For example, call centers in India.

Joe De Feo, president of the Juran Institute, made an interesting observation at the recent Outlook on Quality Systems conference. “People are worried about call centers in India,” he said. “India isn’t the problem. We are outsourcing our cost of poor quality to India and other nations because we can’t prevent the problems that cause customers to call the centers.” This isn’t an outsourcing issue; it’s a quality problem.

China scares the hell out of most people, and rightly so. The cheap labor pool is nearly inexhaustible, the government is determine is to make China an economic superpower and it’s a place few Americans know much about or understand.

Having traveled in China, I can tell you that the Chinese people are warm, friendly, hard-working and intelligent. They are eager to be part of the world economy, and they deserve it. I think they can be tremendous allies. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to shutter the doors of U.S. manufacturers. But to keep those doors open, we’d better start working to understand the Chinese (and to improve the quality of the goods and services we provide).

Frankly, in some cases, sending jobs to China might make the most sense for some companies and industries. In the 1970s and 1980s it seemed as if Japan would destroy us. Our entire electronics manufacturing industry virtually disappeared, moving to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico and elsewhere. We survived that. We also survived the huge influx of Japanese automobiles into North America. Not only did the consumer benefit, but many of the Japanese cars on the road today are built in North America by well-paid Americans with good benefits.

Expect to see similar shifts because of China. It might be painful in the short-term, but we will adapt and survive if we can learn to understand our competitors and work with them.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on America’s place in the global economy and China, in particular. Also, let me know how your job as a quality professional is being affected by the global economy. I’ll try to respond to and share as many of these comments as possible.

Friday, October 07, 2005

All Aboard!

My office is located just down the street from the Amtrak station and about 50 yards from the tracks. This means that I get to hear the charming rumble of trains pass by several times a day. I also get to hear the not-so-charming blare of the trains' horns, but after a while you tend to tune such things out.

I recently had to work in the office on a Saturday. As usual, the Amtrak train stopped at the Chico station around 10 a.m. I heard the rumble of the train and the clanging of bells at the street crossing and looked up to see the train stopped across the street from my office. The train is usually stopped for about five to 10 minutes while it picks up and/or drops off passengers. I didn't think much of it, and I was pretty engrossed in my project.

I kept hearing a rumble and the crossing bells ringing, though. A lot of trains going through town today, I thought. I looked out the window about an hour later and discovered that it was the same train, diesel engines humming away and crossing bells clanging. About an hour after that, I left the office to meet my wife and son for lunch. The train was still there.

During lunch I mentioned that the Amtrak train had been stopped for about two hours across the street. "Those poor passengers," my wife said. "They must be anxious to be on their way."

When I got back to my office, the train was still there, diesel engines rumbling and the crossing guard bells still clanging. I cranked up my iPod and got back to work.

About two hours later, I got up to take a break and saw that the train was still there, engines still running. This is ridiculous, I thought.

As it turned out, the train sat on the tracks for more than six hours, blocking the street, engines running and, of course, bells clanging. By the way, the passengers weren't allowed to disembark.

The train didn't really bother me. I wasn't stuck on it, and it wasn't blocking my way. But I kept thinking of those giant engines burning through hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel while the train was stopped. As we all know, diesel fuel isn't exactly cheap these days.

I never did learn why the train sat there for six hours. I don't pretend to know the economics of train travel, but I do know that running the diesel engines on two locomotives for six hours, even at idle, is ridiculously expensive when the train isn't moving. I also know that Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government (i.e., taxpayers like you and me). The inefficiency was maddening.

And while I'm on the subject of massive inefficiency, two more airlines filed for bankruptcy this month, Delta and Northwest. Just as Continental, America West, United and U.S. Airways have done in bankruptcy before, Delta and Northwest will undoubtedly use the process to wring huge pay cuts from their work forces. What will this accomplish? It will level the playing field between the legacy carriers (American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and U.S. Airways) and the discounters (AirTran, ATA, Frontier, JetBlue, Midwest Express, Southwest and Spirit). Big deal. How will all these airlines compete once they can't lower their labor costs any more? The answer is that they won't be able to. The problem isn't high labor costs; it's poor quality and overcapacity. Have the airlines figured out what they'll do once they all have the same labor costs?

Unfortunately, the transportation system in this country is the picture of inefficiency. Our national passenger rail system, Amtrak, is a joke. It's become the very essence of failed bureaucracy. Our airlines (at least the legacy carriers) are so out of touch with the reality of the flying public as to be downright insulting to their customers. They treat their employees like overpaid inconveniences, who in turn treat their passengers like cattle. And the government rushes in to bail the airlines out at the first sign of trouble.

Inefficiency and waste breed poor quality, and poor quality results in dissatisfied customers, which means bankruptcy (and not the kind you recover from). Remember Pan Am? Braniff? Eastern? These airlines had abysmal quality and poor management. They're no longer around, and for good reason.

The U.S. government needs to cut Amtrak off. Let it become self-sufficient. It will either fail or become stronger. If it fails, perhaps another, more efficient private rail system will take its place. The government also needs to stay out of the airline business. Don't bail out the next airline that fails. The system needs to remove capacity. It may be tough on the employees, but they will find work with another airline or with a new start-up.

Private enterprise works. Quality matters. Sometimes you just have to get out of their way and let them work.