Tag Archives: Economics

Managing Our Way to Economic Success

From Managing Our Way to Economic Success, Two Untapped Resources by William G. Hunter, my father. Written in 1986, but still plenty relevant. We have made some good progress, but there is much more to do: we have barely started adopting these ideas systemically.

there are two enormously valuable untapped resources in many companies: potential information and employee creativity. The two are connected. One of the best ways to generate potential information to turn it into kinetic information that can produce tangible results is to train all employees in some of the simple, effective ways to do this. Rely on their desire to do a good job, to contribute, to be recognized, to be a real part of the organization. They want to be treated like responsible human beings, not like unthinking automatons.

W. Edwards Deming has illustrated one of the troubles with U.S. industry in terms of making toast. He says, “Let’s play American industry. I’ll burn. You scrape.” Use of statistical tools, however, allows you to reduce waste, scrap, rework, and machine downtime. It costs just as much to make defective products as it does to make good products. Eliminate defects and other things that cause inefficiencies, and you reduce costs, increase quality, and raise productivity. Note that quality and productivity are not trade-offs. They increase together.

Potential information surrounds all industrial processes. Statistical techniques, many of which are simple yet powerful, are tools that employees can use to tap and exploit this potential information so that increasingly higher levels of productivity, quality, and innovation can be attained. Engaging the brains as well as the brawn of employees in this way improves morale and participation…and profits.

What is called for is constant, never-ending improvement of all processes in the organization. What management needs, too, is constant, never-ending improvement of ideas.

Related: William Hunter, articles and booksInvest in New Management Methods Not a Failing CompanyThe Importance of Management ImprovementStatistics for Experimenters

Frugal Innovation

First break all the rules

The device is a masterpiece of simplification. The multiple buttons on conventional ECGs have been reduced to just four. The bulky printer has been replaced by one of those tiny gadgets used in portable ticket machines. The whole thing is small enough to fit into a small backpack and can run on batteries as well as on the mains. This miracle of compression sells for $800, instead of $2,000 for a conventional ECG

Frugal products need to be tough and easy to use. Nokia’s cheapest mobile handsets come equipped with flashlights (because of frequent power cuts), multiple phone books (because they often have several different users), rubberised key pads and menus in several different languages. Frugal does not mean second-rate.

The article goes on to talk about several methods for how to profit from reducing costs which seem misguided. Frugal innovation is about thinking about meeting the needs of huge numbers of customers that can’t afford conventional solutions. By talking a new look at the situation and attempting to find solutions with significant price constraints new markets can be opened. Often this requires thinking similar to disruptive innovation (products that serve a similar need but less completely than current options).

It also requires the engineering principles of appropriate technology. I highlight this thinking in my Curious Cat Engineering blog and find it very worthwhile. For organizations that have a true mission to serve some purpose using such thinking allows a greatly expanded potential market in which to make a difference in the world.

There is a great quote from Jeff Bezos that captures one reason why organizations so often fail to address frugal innovation: “There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less.” Many organizations are focused on trying to charge more, not less. Another problem is that decision makers often have no life experience with cheap solutions – this doesn’t prevent frugal innovation but it does make them less likely to see the need and to decide to solve those customer needs.

Related: Appropriate ManagementManaging InnovationProcess Improvement and Innovation

Manufacturing in the USA, and Why Organizations Often Don’t

Manufacturing in the USA continues to do well. But it could do better. There are reasons manufacturing that could be located in the USA is not. And addressing those can increase USA manufacturing. Some reasons are sensible, based on the existing economics and realities of comparative advantage. Some reasons are just flawed thinking, such as the “spreadsheet management” taught at many business schools that Deming and lean thinkers can understand the flawed thinking that leads to outsourcing.

Typical wall street thinking (also driven by “spreadsheet management think” rather than an actual understanding of value stream of a potential investment) also hampers raising investment capital for USA manufacturing. The broken USA health care system also is a big problem driving up costs of doing business in the USA enormously.

Fighting for ‘made in the USA’

Safer and longer-lasting than conventional lithium-ion car batteries, the 52-year old MIT professor’s invention packs 600 cells into a case the size of an airplane carry-on bag. His technology has transformed the batteries used in many cordless power tools. So why are Chiang and his company, A123 Systems, having trouble moving to full-scale commercial production and creating thousands of new American jobs with his better mousetrap?

Despite the promise of Chiang’s batteries, many on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley were incredulous when he and other leaders at A123 asked for capital to build factories in America — Asia, yes, but Michigan, why would you want to?

Even more daunting, nearly all of the world’s battery manufacturing industry is in Asia, where plants can be built faster and supplies and equipment are much easier to get than in the United States. These days, it’s hard to find Americans who even know how to build a battery factory.

That’s why A123 had to give in and build its first plants in China, where the company could move into production quickly to show auto industry customers that it could deliver on future contracts.

“Without question, we would rather have done it all in the U.S.,” said Chiang, who left Taiwan as a 6-year-old with his family, earned degrees at MIT and has been a materials science professor there since the mid-1980s. “I’m an American citizen. We’re an American company. It’s an American-born technology.”

Despite the obstacles, A123 and a few other advanced battery producers are building plants in Michigan and other states, thanks to massive government support that has offset Wall Street’s skepticism and should help domestic producers narrow cost disadvantages with Asian rivals.

A123 is getting $250 million in aid from the Obama administration’s stimulus program as well as tax incentives from Michigan. Its first U.S. plant opens in June in an abandoned brick building near Detroit that once made VHS tapes for Disney.

A123 has five plants in China, coincidentally located in Chiang’s father’s hometown of Changzhou, about two hours’ drive west of Shanghai. Bart Riley, an A123 co-founder and chief technology officer, figured it took about nine months to get a Chinese factory up and running, one-third the time typical for the U.S.

The quicker launch helped A123 make a name for itself through Black & Decker, which in early 2006 began putting A123 batteries in its DeWalt power tools.

Since then, A123 has been supplying batteries and battery systems for New York City buses built by Daimler, among other customers, and the company has agreements to develop products for Chrysler, Navistar and American green-car maker Fisker Automotive.

By the end of next year, A123 expects to have two plants in Michigan employing 400 people, with plans to go up to 2,000 workers able to produce about 30,000 battery systems a year. The company’s sales reached $91 million last year, and it has about 1,700 employees, two-thirds in Asia.

The success of science and engineering university based research is still a huge advantage to the USA. Though other countries have seen the value in this and have invested in building their own capacity. The economic value of such is increased many fold by manufacturing the innovations created in your country.

Related: Manufacturing and the EconomyEconomic Strength Through Technology LeadershipRhode Island ManufacturingBig Failed Three, Meet the Successful EightToyota in the US Economy

Net Neutrality, Policy, Economics and Intelligent Engineering

I believe net neutrality should be championed to prevent decay of the usability of the internet. It seems to me internet connectivity is a natural monopoly that economic theory says should be a regulated monopoly. Smart countries have invested in providing much better internet connectivity that the USA has at much lower prices. Now in the USA we have companies that seek to control internet connectivity and then use that monopolistic control to favor higher margin efforts. So force those that have resources available on the internet to pay or the ISP threatens to degrade the connectivity to their resources.

chart showing internet connectivity speed (USA 18th)

The investment in equipment and fiber that allows internet connectivity has to be paid for. If those regulated ISPs wanted to set bandwidth use pricing that is fine with me. If we decided it is best to have one low price say $30 a month for access at a similar perforance of 10 other countries (Japan, Germany, South Korea, Canada, United Kingdom…) and then charge extra for individuals those that use more than some amount fine. But I think it should not be tied to whether you use service that haven’t paid the ISP money to be favored. The USA is currently 18th and slowed down, while others continue to speed up.

The 2008 ITIF Broadband Rankings show the USA in 15th place, out of 30 OECD countries, for broadband adoption, speed and price. In 2001 the USA was in 4th place.

If ISPs don’t want to be in the business they should be in – providing internet connectivity. Fine, get out of that business and go into the business they want to be in. But don’t try to take control of a natural monopoly and then use that control to extort money from those that rely on the natural monopoly.

Google accused of YouTube ‘free ride’

Some of Europe’s leading telecoms groups are squaring up for a fight with Google over what they claim is the free ride enjoyed by the technology company’s YouTube video-sharing service. Telefónica, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom all said Google should start paying them for carrying bandwidth-hungry content such as YouTube video over their networks.

I can understand why they would think that way. But isn’t it equally valid to say hey those that pay you for internet connectivity really want to use YouTube. If you need to make more investments in your infrastructure to support your customers use, then do so and raise the prices. I completely disagree with the ISP negotiating what content users can see. But if that were to happen why couldn’t Google instead of paying say, hey your customers really want YouTube – if you don’t pay us we won’t let you deliver it to your customers?

Net Neutrality: This is serious by Tim Berners-Lee

When I invented the Web, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going end in the USA.

Yes, regulation to keep the Internet open is regulation. And mostly, the Internet thrives on lack of regulation. But some basic values have to be preserved. For example, the market system depends on the rule that you can’t photocopy money. Democracy depends on freedom of speech. Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.

Let’s see whether the United States is capable as acting according to its important values, or whether it is, as so many people are saying, run by the misguided short-term interested of large corporations.

I hope that Congress can protect net neutrality, so I can continue to innovate in the internet space. I want to see the explosion of innovations happening out there on the Web, so diverse and so exciting, continue unabated.

Google’s Traffic Is Giant, Which Is Why It Should be Your ISP
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Kiva – Giving Entrepreneurs an Opportunity to Succeed

photo of a Kiva entrepreneur

Tony, a Kiva entrepreneur in Pennsylvania, USA looking to manufacturing specialty cars.

I really like Kiva. Kiva lets you lend small amounts of money to entrepreneurs around the world. My latest loan is to a manufacturing entrepreneur in the USA.

When Tony’s 6’0 6″ body could not fit in the traditional supercars, he built his own in 1990. Tony says, “If one door closes I just look for another opening; I don’t give up.” With much patience and hard work he continues to expand his business and hopes to make it a full-time job. With his ACCION USA microloan he has hired two designers to work with him part-time and has purchased a laptop.

I must admit I wouldn’t take this as an investment. It seems a very risky and doesn’t seem that likely to pan out, to me. But I see my loans through Kiva as a way to give people a chance to pursue their dreams. This loans is probably the one I find less compelling from a business point of view (to me), but I like to provide some loans in the USA so I decided to give Tony a chance.

I do try to select loans that look promising and seem to provide the entrepreneur an opportunity that will help them. By which I mean I love finding loans where, for example, they will buy equipment that will improve their productivity or take on new business. Very often loans are to buy raw materials or supplies, which is also fine but the potential gains are often less than something that improves the efficiency (it seems to me). Often this allows the entrepreneur to buy more and grow their business.

I have made nearly 200 loans now. The top country has been Togo (at 12%). I don’t target Togo but I do pay attention to the loan costs to the entrepreneurs (part of my assessment of the good business case for the loan) and some of the micro finance organizations offer good terms to entrepreneurs. Some of the microfinance organizations are more charitable (they may use donations to fund significant parts of the operating expenses, instead of profits from interest on the loans). Read more details on how Kiva works. It also used to be a bit difficult to find loans I really thought were great. It is getting easier to find more options so my guess is that the top few countries now will see declines in their percentages.

So far I have lent to 37 countries. Cambodia is 2nd at 7.7% of my loans, Viet Nam 3rd at 6.7%, Tanzania 4th at 5.1%, Nicaragua 6th at 5.1% along with Kenya, and Ghana and Boliva are 8th at 4.6%. The United States now makes up 2.6% and Mexico 1.5%. The sectors the loans are categorized in are: Services 25%, Food 18%, Manufacturing 17%, Retail 14%, Agriculture 12% and various others. Though the sector categorizations are pretty weak in my opinion (they seem to be fairly inaccurate – so it gives you an idea but it isn’t exact).

The default rate on my loan portfolio is 2.1% (3 defaults). One was in Kenya where $71.50 out of $75 was paid back and then huge civil unrest took place and it defaulted. The other 2 are from the same microfinance bank in Ecuador that was closed down due to mismanagement. In that instance I lost $87.50 out of $100 lent. 94 loans have been fully paid back and 94 are being paid back now.

I would love it if more Curious Cat readers joined Kiva and helped other entrepreneurs. If you do let me know your Kiva page and I will add you to the Curious Cat Kivans page. Also join the Curious Cats Kiva Lending Team.

Related: 100th Entrepreneur LoanThanksgiving: Micro-financing EntrepreneursUsing Capitalism to Make the World BetterKiva Opens to USA Entrepreneur LoansMicroFinance Currency Risk

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, Fulfillment and Flow

“After a certain basic point, which translates, more or less, to just a few thousand dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well being don’t see to affect how happy people are.”

The speech includes, the first purpose of incorporation at Sony:

To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.

Excellent books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1991. People enter a flow state when they are fully absorbed in activity during which they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction.
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists to politicians and business leaders to poets and artists, the author uses his famous “flow” theory to explain the creative process.

Related: Extrinsic Incentives Kill Creativityposts on psychology Interviews with InnovatorsInnovation StrategyThe Purpose of an OrganizationFlow

Systemic Health Care Failure: Small Business Coverage

There are many significant problems with the medical care system in the USA. It makes sense that a system that costs over 50% more than other countries and has no better outcomes, from all that extra spending, suffers from many failures. Coverage for small business is one of the problems we face now – When Health Insurers Dump Small Companies:

In June testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Potter said insurers “dump small businesses whose employees’ medical claims exceed what insurance underwriters expected. All it takes is one illness or accident among employees at a small business to prompt an insurance company to hike the next year’s premiums so high that the employer has to cut benefits, shop for another carrier, or stop offering coverage altogether – leaving workers uninsured.”

Joy Mosley, COO of Biotest Laboratories, a 77-person medical testing company in Minneapolis, recently got such a “requote” from her insurer, Medica, after an employee was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Medica covered the million-dollar treatment, but then said the large claim warranted $156,000 in additional premiums – a 72% increase.

Not all entrepreneurs are equally vulnerable. About a dozen states prohibit insurers from basing premiums for businesses with 50 or fewer employees on workers’ health status. But in roughly three-fourths of the country, so-called ratings bands allow for considerable flexibility in pricing. In states with loose ratings bands, such as Texas and Nevada, one small company can be charged nearly 70% more than another. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, there are no ratings restrictions. No matter what state you’re in, ratings bands don’t apply to companies with more than 50 employees.

Just from an insurance perspective the companies are not providing what is needed. They are quick to say you can’t have healthy people remain uncovered and wait to buy insurance once for example, “their house is on fire” (they are sick). They are right. Well you also can’t have the insurance company cancel coverage during the fire and have a system that works.
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The Biggest Manufacturing Countries in 2008 with Historical Data

Once again the USA was the leading country in manufacturing for 2008. And once again China grew their manufacturing output amazingly. In a change with recent trends Japan grew output significantly. Of course, the 2009 data is going to show the impact of a very severe worldwide recession.

Chart showing percent of output by top manufacturing countries from 1990 to 2008Chart showing the percentage output of top manufacturing countries from 1990-2008 by Curious Cat Management Blog, Creative Commons Attribution.

The first chart shows the USA’s share of the manufacturing output, of the countries that manufactured over $185 billion in 2008, at 28.1% in 1990, 27.7% in 1995, 32% in 2000, 28% in 2005, 28% in 2006, 26% in 2007 and 24% in 2008. China’s share has grown from 4% in 1990, 6% in 1995, 10% in 2000, 13% in 2005, 14% in 2006, 16% in 2007 to 18% in 2008. Japan’s share has fallen from 22% in 1990 to 14% in 2008. The USA has about 4.5% of the world population, China about 20%. See Curious Cat Investment blog post” Data on the Largest Manufacturing Countries in 2008.

Even with just this data, it is obvious the belief in a decades long steep decline in USA manufacturing is not in evidence. And, in fact the USA’s output has grown substantially over this period. It has just grown more slowly than that of China (as has every other country), and so while output in the USA has grown the percentage with China has shrunk. The percentage of manufacturing output by the USA (excluding output from China) was 29.3% in 1990 and 29.6% in 2008. The second chart shows manufacturing output over time.

charts showing the top manufacturing countries output from 1990-2008Chart showing the output of the top manufacturing countries from 1990-2008 by Curious Cat Management Blog, Creative Commons Attribution.

The 2008 China data is not provided for manufacturing alone (the latest UN Data, for global manufacturing, in billions of current USA dollars). The percentage of manufacturing (to manufacturing, mining and utilities) was 78% for 2005-2007 (I used 78% of the manufacturing, mining and utilities figure provided in the 2008 data). There is a good chance this overstates China manufacturing output in 2008 (due to very high commodity prices in 2008).

Hopefully these charts provide some evidence of what is really going on with global manufacturing and counteracts the hype, to some extent. Global economic data is not perfect. These figures are an attempt to capture the economic reality in the world but they are not a perfect proxy. This data is shown in 2008 USA dollars which is good in the sense that it shows all countries in the same light and we can compare the 1995 USA figure to 2005 without worrying about inflation. However foreign exchange fluctuations over time can show a country, for example, having a decline in manufacturing output in some year when in fact the output increased (just the decline against the USA dollar that year results in the data showing a decrease – which is accurate when measured in terms of USA dollars).

If the dollar declines substantially between when the 2008 data was calculated and the 2009 data is calculated that will give result in the data showing a substantial increase in those countries that had a currency strengthen against the USA dollar. At this time the Chinese Renminbi has not strengthened while most other currencies have – the Chinese government is retaining a peg to a specific exchange rate.

Korea (1.8% in 1990, 3% in 2008), Mexico (1.7% to 2.6%) and India (1.4% to 2.5%) were the only countries to increase their percentage of manufacturing output (other than China, of course, which grew from 3.9% to 18.5%).

Related: posts on manufacturingGlobal Manufacturing Data 2007Global Manufacturing Employment Data – 1979 to 2007Top 10 Manufacturing Countries 2006Top 10 Manufacturing Countries 2005lean manufacturing resources

Eric Schmidt on Google in 2010 and the Economy

CEO Eric Schmidt Reveals ‘Centerpiece’ Of Google’s 2010 Strategy, speaking at the White House jobs summit.

Google is definitely hiring. “We’re hiring a couple thousand people over the next year,” he said.

And looking at the White House summit he said, “The basic message today is that with small business – which is the primary source of jobs – we need to figure out the loan problem. The banks aren’t really lending to them and anything that the government can do to accelerate that, needs to happen right now.”

“Cloud computing is the centerpiece of our strategy. It’s a new model. You basically put all your information on servers and you have fast networks and lots of different kinds of personal computers and mobile phones that can use the applications… it’s a powerful model and it’s where the industry is going. It is the centerpiece of our 2010 strategy.”

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster today said in a note, that by 2016, 78% of Google’s revenue will still be from search. Schmidt agreed.

“My guess is that advertising and search ads will be the lion’s share of our business for quite a long time,” he said. “The reason is, it’s such a large part of our business and it continues to grow quite well.”

I continue to own Google and have it in my 12 stocks for 10 years portfolio.

Related: Google Exceeded Planned Spending on PersonnelEric Schmidt on Management at GoogleMeeting Like GoogleGoogle Should Stay True to Their Management Practices

Lean Inventories Do Not Excuse Failing to Deliver

Low inventory levels do not mean failing to have products available for customers. Now, if you manufacturing in huge batches and can’t respond to customer feedback then it might mean failure to predict customer demand does mean failure to deliver. But lean thinking has shown how to avoid this problem. People need to adopt lean manufacturing practices and gain the benefits of low inventory levels without the costs of failing to deliver what customers want.

Sorry Santa, We’re Out of Stock

The “it” gifts this year could swiftly vanish from store shelves, as retailers, with nightmares of Christmas 2008 markdowns dancing in their heads, have slashed inventories to some of the leanest levels in recent memory.

Retailers themselves are battle-scarred by last year’s fourth-quarter fiasco. Following the financial meltdown of September 2008 and amid the most severe economic crisis since The Great Depression, consumers retrenched.

That’s when stores hit the markdown panic button, slashing prices upwards of 75 percent. The result was the worst holiday selling season since 1970, according to The International Council of Shopping Centers.

But although leaner inventory levels should drive profit margin gains this holiday, “retailers might not have enough inventory to fully satisfy demand,” said Citigroup retail analyst Deborah Weinswig, in a research note. It is a risk they are willing to take.

“They would rather lose a sale than take the markdowns they had last year,” said Goldman Sachs analyst Adrianne Shapira.

The retailers need to design their systems with lean thinking in mind (not lean – as in cut expenses without thought). And they need to work with suppliers using lean manufacturing principles.

Related: Be Thankful for Lean ThinkingGuess What? Manufacturing in the USA is a Good IdeaTesco: Lean ProvisionZara Thrives by Ignoring Conventional WisdomOperational Excellencelean manufacturing articles