Continuous Improvement programs and why they fail

The best-running manufacturing plant I ever worked in (and I’ve worked in a lot of ‘em) used no Continuous Improvement (CI) methodologies.

No Lean, no Six Sigma, no TPM, no TPS, no TQS, none of it (at least none in any programmatic way – though I don’t think you can run a manufacturing plant without some activity that one of those programs now claims as its own).

The worst-running plant I ever worked in also used no CI methodologies.

They were the same plant. It was a General Mills cereal plant in Georgia, the smallest one in the Big G division at the time. When I first walked in the door, I was there to help start up the plant’s “new” packaging lines, which had been cobbled together from the old, obsolete cast-off and remnant machines from other plants that had either shut down or gotten actual new equipment. So it ran really, really poorly, at least to start with. (To be fair, the processing side, which had already been in operation making bulk product for several years, ran well. It was the packaging side that was the Achilles heel, because we were new to the game with crappy equipment.)

Over the next five years my team and I quickly and steadily improved those lines, and they went from having the lowest packaging reliability results in the company to the highest. At no time did we employ any of the CI programs that have become de rigueur now.

And I tell you this emphatically: If we had, I’m positive that we would have failed to get the results we did – and we became the lowest-cost producer in the Big G network.

Why? Because far too often, well-intentioned improvement programs get in the way of actual improvement.

Here are a few key areas where many of the CI programs I’ve seen have gone wrong, any one of which almost certainly would have derailed us:

Processes instead of people

At a leadership training event I attended recently (and greatly enjoyed), Barry-Wehmiller trainer David Vander Molen expressed this very criticism of Lean Six Sigma: it’s about machines, and the people who deliver results for us aren’t machines. It really hit home for me, because he put into words what I’ve seen and experienced dozens of times over in failed CI implementations. You can only make lasting improvements by engaging the people who run the systems, and really understanding their struggles and needs – then bringing the required resources to bear to solve their problems, and prioritizing the specific improvements they need rather than what a prepackaged tool tells you to do. Too many CI implementations are hammers seeing only nails, and they force the people to conform to the processes. But as Barry-Wehmiller’s CEO Bob Chapman put it in his book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, “Lean has become all about numbers, about waste elimination. Does anybody really believe that team members are inspired by the concept of waste elimination?”

At my cereal plant, our system improvements were driven by our technicians on the floor. Before we ever replaced or upgraded a single piece of our aged cereal packaging equipment, we invested in training and development for our people, and made numerous visits to our sister plants that were running better than us to see and learn from how they did things, so we knew what we were aiming for – then we made a people-centered, people-driven plan to get there. It’s not that we never had missteps along the way – but when we did, we adjusted our plan, keeping the focus and ownership with our people – and continued to move forward.

A friend of mine from the flagship plant of a Fortune 500 company, where they’ve been pushing CI programs for 20 years and loudly proclaiming their success, shared with me last week that his plant is “re-launching” its core CI effort – basically pushing the reset button on the exact same process that they now acknowledge has failed. Again, that it – because this is the 3rd or 4th re-launch of that same program at that same site! Forgive the indelicacy, but surely you’ve heard the old adage about polishing a turd…

Bureaucracy instead of results

I was once offered a job at a corporate headquarters as a CI consultant in a central process improvement group. The role specifically served another corporate department that already had its own internal staff of CI consultants!

I’ve long wondered why executives fail to question the existence of whole departments of Black Belts or Subject Matter Experts. The simple question of whether that overhead is paying for itself seems somehow off-limits when it comes to CI. There seems to me to be a herd mentality “easy button” effect at work here – after all, if all the big guys are doing CI, it’s gotta be good, right? But these costs should be scrutinized like every other line on the P&L to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Beyond the money measures, care needs to be taken in how your CI experts behave. If they’re rudely telling long-time plant veterans how to do their jobs based solely on a cookie-cutter process they learned in some stuffy hotel conference room or corporate training center, the work will fail. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen many times. An effective CI expert realizes that the real experts are the people running the equipment and making the product – and the rest of us either serve them, or else we’re the waste we want to eliminate.

At my aforementioned cereal plant, other than some corporate packaging engineers who worked our start-up, the good folks at our fellow plants, and some vendor technicians who worked with us on training and troubleshooting, we pretty much helped ourselves and paid our own way. I’ve seen other efforts where CI expertise also paid for itself, when the activities were correctly targeted and the experts served the people doing the real work.

Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork

What’s with all the audits and documents and checklists and reports and such in the CI world? I’ve seen whole centralized databases built just to house forms that were filled out for every single CI activity, and then filed and never looked at again. When you’re burning more energy on the paperwork or presentations than on the actual improvement efforts, you’ve got it wrong.

We had no CI-driven forms or documentation in my cereal plant. We tried stuff the team thought would make us better, and when it improved our teamwork or our reliability or our finances, we kept doing it. If it didn’t, we stopped.

Too many tools at once, for too little benefit

Take a look at the many charts of CI tools here. The sheer numbers and names of the dozens of tools are just staggering. Now, I know that individually, many of these tools have value. But collectively, they’re a freaking nightmare. Too many CI programs are exhaustive lists of tools pushed out as an end in themselves. I remember a particular VP from my past not fondly at all – he tried to boost his career by mandating the launch of a chock-a-block CI program that looked like many of the busier lists at the link above, to be completed in just a few years. It was a giant, costly, exhausting, demoralizing flop. If you haven’t seen that kind of approach in action, you’ll be surprised how quickly people get “tool fatigue” and lose interest in the whole shebang – or even worse, get a permanent “bad taste in the mouth” about all such improvement efforts.

Any tool – the literal kind or the figurative kind – is useful only if it’s what’s needed for the job at hand.

Specialized language that leaves people behind

Take another look at the tool list. “Kano Analysis.” “SIPOC Map.” “RACI and Quad Charts.” “Gantt Charting.” “Pareto Analysis.” “Kappa Studies.” “Takt Time Analysis.” “Kaizen Events.” (I could go on for a long while yet, but…) Now put yourself in the shoes of a production line employee. These are not stupid people – some of the best and smartest people I’ve ever worked with worked on the factory floor. They are also not people who are into ridiculous corporate jargon. Yet we go in and throw around “Gemba” and “Kanban” and “Poka-Yoke” and wonder why they look at us like we’re idiots. Here’s a hint: it’s because we are when we speak and behave this way. Our #1 job as leaders is to engage with people in a way to make them feel comfortable, not to make us feel smarter than everyone else. This is my primary complaint about many CI programs: they seem designed to turn us all into that freshly-graduated engineer who thinks the whole world but him is stupid. (And trust me, I know – I was that engineer lots of years ago.) For the love of all that’s holy, let’s get rid of the obscure terminology and start using basic tools and measures that everybody can understand easily. That’s exactly what we did in my favorite cereal plant, and the results speak for themselves.

In conclusion…

I’m certainly not pushing to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. There are plenty of elements in all the various CI methodologies that have real merit when used appropriately. But unless you begin with your people, engaging with them one-on-one to respectfully encourage them to identify problems and help come up with solutions, and rewarding them for their efforts, you will fail. As many CI launches have shown, you will also likely wind up not eliminating waste, but adding to it with the money you throw out on the failed efforts (oftentimes over and over again). Here’s a good test: if your programs aren’t sustained by the people they’re supposed to be helping without you forcing them, they’re worthless and wasteful. (Look for my coming article on the best 5S project ever for an excellent example of sustained improvement.)

My worst plant became my best plant because we started with a great team and a great work system, and focused on making them better and better with the right training, engagement, empowerment and rewards. I’ll never forget one of my packaging technicians, Eric Morgan, who personally designed a retrofit for our aged cereal baggers to convert them to servomotor drive. I helped him get the money, the detailed engineering design work, and the parts and downtime he needed to make the conversion. We wound up with baggers that were better than new – better, in fact, than the servo-driven baggers the manufacturer of our machines was selling at the time. No CI program would have driven that – Eric did, because he was inspired and confident and he wanted to make things better. And he surely did.

That’s the power of people over process.


If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

Ebenezer Scrooge on leadership

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Before we get too far down the road past the recent wonderful Christmas season, I want to share the new spirit (no pun intended) I drew from my annual revisiting of Dickens’s Christmas classic.

(As an aside, I remember seeing a caustic quote long ago about how foolish it is ever to re-read a book. While I didn’t make time to re-read A Christmas Carol this season, my wife and I have a favorite movie version we watch every year. Whether reading or watching, as you mature you see and learn different things each time. As Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”) (I did, however, make time to re-read Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift – the basis for the most successful box-office bomb ever, It’s a Wonderful Life.)

I’ve written extensively about my deep appreciation for the message from Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia in their book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. When I read it a few months ago, it struck me as something entirely new and refreshing after my many years in the often crass and abusive business world.

And yet, as I watched George C. Scott’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge for the umpteenth time, I realized that Chapman and Sisodia’s message dates back all the way to 1843, when Dickens’s tale was first published. There it was when the ghost of Jacob Marley spat out the lines at the start of this column. And there it was, too, when Scrooge – after his conversion through the “no pain, no gain” mercies of the spirits – joyously doubled his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit’s salary, promised him help for his crippled son, and urged him to build up the fire in their freezing office.

Of course, the basis of the message goes back much, much further, another 1,800 years and then some: in the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) of the King of Kings whose birth we just celebrated, and in His native religion’s teachings from the Torah (love your neighbor as yourself). Those of you with other faiths, you will find a version in yours too.

At some point, many of us forgot these basic principles. For some, it was part of our on-the-job training that they just don’t apply in the world of business. Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia have done great good in reminding us that, yes, these rules are indeed still in effect, even for us as business leaders – and in presenting them in a way that shows how they benefit both our people and our business.

And as Charles Dickens taught us through Ebenezer Scrooge, so long as we’re alive it’s never too late to change our ways.


If you like what you’ve read here (or even if not!), let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail at Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

©2018 James M. Vinoski. All rights reserved.

Winning performance: it’s the preparation, stupid

Yesterday I read this wonderful recap of the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game in Green Bay, in which the Packers beat the Cowboys with a touchdown in the closing moments of an NFL Championship Game played in temperatures even colder than we’ve had this week.

This passage, a remembrance by Packers right guard Jerry Kramer, really struck me:

It’s really an amazing thing, that final drive. We had not had much success before that. Something turned on inside of us and all of a sudden everybody is doing their job and we’re moving down the field. I’ve wondered for years how to define and explain that. I use the analogy of the lady lifting a car off her baby. It’s impossible. It can’t happen. But something happens in her body and her mind. She has to lift that car to save her baby and somehow she does it.

It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago about the 1984 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey game. In it, writing about the US victory, I said their win was impossible, too:

A year or two ago I watched a replay of the whole game. What I took away is that, logically, there is no way on earth the US team could have won that game. They were outskated, outmaneuvered, and generally outclassed by the Soviets, who were an obviously better team. But it was the pros from the USSR who were the ones outscored in the end.

My take on it was that the difference was “heart” – the will to win. I still think that’s a good perspective.

Even so, reading about the differences between the Packers and Cowboys teams of 1967 gave me another perspective. In one of Kramer’s other observations in the article, he says:

I don’t think it was the field. It was their mistakes that made the difference. They were a damned good team but they were an inexperienced team playing an experienced team.

In 1967, the Packers had been a winning team for several years. The Cowboys were just beginning to become one. Even if the skills of the teams were evenly matched, there was a stark difference in experience, to Kramer’s point – basic experience in flawless execution, plus experience with the field conditions, where Green Bay had a tremendous advantage.

In 1984, it was a different story. The USSR had huge advantages over the US in both playing experience and skills. But US Coach Herb Brooks foresaw those advantages (hence my use of his quote, “Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone”) and, to offset them, made sure his team was far and away the best-conditioned one on the ice. At the end of the game, the Soviets were unable to muster the reserves for the efforts it would have taken to wrest the lead away from the Americans.

I believe the will to win made a difference in both these historic games. And I believe, too, that preparation was a key element in both.

So how do you prepare? How do you get ready to win your “championship game” – be it in relationships, in health, in wealth, or in work?

Want to reinvigorate US manufacturing? Make it suck less

The chattering classes are all atwitter over the decline in US manufacturing jobs. And rightly so; the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector is a social problem, a fiscal problem, and even a national security problem.

Now, there are a whole lot of factors that have contributed to the decline in US manufacturing employment, so there are also many different ways to go about fixing things. I’m not going to begin to delve into all of them – that’s a book, not an article.

One key way to start fixing manufacturing in our country, though, is to make the work more appealing to current and potential employees, thereby making domestic manufacturing more appealing to entrepreneurs and investors who can help turn the tide of job loss.

There are a whole lot of factors that come into play here, too. But to mention a few glaring ones, I’ll start with working conditions. Manufacturing oftentimes involves miserably hot or cold work areas, awful odors, safety and health hazards, and hard physical labor. While it’s not financially feasible to make every job completely comfortable, doing what we can to mitigate the unpleasant aspects of the work will help us attract new workers and make our existing ones happier and more productive. That can be anything from modifying the workplace or the job itself to simply offering more or longer breaks from the most difficult jobs. Rotating jobs can often help.

Related to that one is work schedule. I’ve personally concluded that the twelve hour shift schedule commonly used in manufacturing (and in medicine and other industries too) is simply inhumane. You can’t work that schedule and have proper time for the rest of life. We in manufacturing should commit to eliminating it. Equally, overtime can be problematic; it’s a financial boon to the workers and therefore often desirable to them, but it can quickly become a difficulty for both finances and retention, and a detriment to employee health and well-being. Within reason, overtime is not a problem. But when it doesn’t allow for proper rest and recuperation, it’s dangerous and destructive. I don’t believe anybody should ever be scheduled for more than sixty hours in a week, and weeks with work hours approaching that should be the exception, not the rule. Indeed, we should take a hard look at what the time demands are for family, fitness and health, and allow that kind of time out of work, every week, for every employee as a matter of course. (I agree with leadership consultant Amir Ghannad that we leaders should take affirmative steps to support the health and well-being of our workers. As an aside along those same lines, I believe that, given the reality of the opiod epidemic, the current zero-tolerance drug policies of so many employers are destructive and unsustainable. The manufacturing industry should work on a uniform approach to treatment and rehabilitation for current and potential employees.)

In my many years of experience, I find that leadership and worker treatment are often substandard in the manufacturing world. For too long, managers were selected by seniority rather than ability, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Also, manager behavior has often seemingly been aimed at a Darwinian culling of the weak, rather than a proper caring for workers. I recently finished (and loved) Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and Raj Sisodia. The title is self-explanatory, and should be the ideal for all leaders, especially in manufacturing where the work itself is often so trying.

One aspect of worker treatment I’ve come to loathe since I finished the book is the disparity in how we treat “professional” workers and wage employees. The descriptions themselves are telling: are my machine operators and maintenance mechanics not professionals, or are they less professional than my shift supervisors and warehouse manager? Why does one group have to punch a time clock while the other employees come and go as they please? Why do we routinely demonstrate distrust of the workers closest to the core jobs we do? I wanted to cheer out loud when I read Chapman describe how he ordering all his time clocks removed, and walls and cages around spare parts storage areas torn down. That is how we should treat everybody, and those kinds of changes will make manufacturing jobs much more inviting. As Chapman experienced, treating people with dignity also makes them more loyal and more productive. But most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.

The beauty of all the above is that we can do it for ourselves. It doesn’t take an act of Congress or a change in direction at the EPA or OSHA. Every one of us in a leadership position in manufacturing, right now, can begin making the jobs our most important workers perform more appealing – and therefore make our industry more appealing to customers and investors alike.

Andrew Jackson Higgins, industrialist and war hero

Photo by Robert F. Sargent, US Coast Guard

It’s one of the most iconic images from WWII. Usually it’s used to highlight the impossibly courageous men shown storming Omaha Beach during D-Day, and quite appropriately so.

This article, though, focuses instead on the boat, and its inventor and manufacturer, Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Who’s ever heard of Andrew J. Higgins? Pretty much nobody now, other than antique boat aficionados and die-hard WWII buffs.

And yet without him, we may well have lost that crucial conflict. None other than President (and former Supreme Allied Commander) Dwight D. Eisenhower called Higgins, “the man who won the war for us.”

Higgins was simply a builder of small boats. But first he was a failed logger. Prior to the war, he moved from his native Nebraska to Louisiana to harvest hardwoods in the swamps. Once there, he quickly realized he needed a good way to get to them. So he enrolled in a boat-building correspondence course, then developed his own shallow draft boat with a protected propeller and a “spoonbill” bow, and enough power to beach and extract itself. The boat worked great, but the logging business didn’t, and eventually went bankrupt. However, in the meanwhile Higgins had built up a parallel operation to build his swamp boats, and this became his focus. Thus was born Higgins Industries.

He thought his boat might have some military use and pitched it to the US Navy. Despite some fits and starts in the 1920s and 1930s, that effort never went anywhere.

But the Marine Corps had taken notice and had a very different approach:

The ramp boat was typical. In China, the Japanese had been using ramp boats along the coast and up the shallow creeks for years. We did not possess a single boat of this type. Yet, without it, the Marines never could have landed on a Japanese island and the Army would have been crippled in Europe. To get the boat, we went straight to the builder, Andrew Higgins, discussed plans with him and he built the ramp boat while the Bureau of Ships was still dazed by the temerity of the suggestion. (Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines)

Higgins’s LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) became a cornerstone of the Marines’ Pacific island-hopping campaign that turned the tide against the Japanese. Along the way it also became a key tool in the serial invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France that helped win the war against Germany, and of course became famous in that invasion of all invasions, Operation Overlord.

Back in the Pacific, another key element in defeating Japan was disrupting the supplies of men and materiel to the chains of distant islands Japan had conquered. That effort took submarines, battleships and cruisers, yes – but also relied heavily on the tiny PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat made famous by President John F. Kennedy. Higgins was a key designer and builder for these boats too, putting his own money into getting the thing right:

Higgins Industries had considerable difficulty translating the Sparkman and Stephens design into a satisfactory boat. PT 5 was eventually placed in service on March 17, 1941, but its performance was disappointing. The original PT 6 was never placed in service. It was sold to Finland in 1940. On his own initiative and with his own capital, Andrew Jackson Higgins decided to build a modified version. When it was delivered in February 1941, it was a Higgins design rather than a modified Sparkman and Stephens, and was accepted enthusiastically by operating personnel, many of whom considered it superior to any previous type, including the Scott-Paine. (At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr.)

US Navy photo

When all was said and done, Higgins Industries would produce the largest number of PT boats of any manufacturer.

The PT boats would also provide a template for Higgins Industries after the war they helped the Allies win was over. Higgins formed Higgins, Inc., to make a variety of handcrafted wooden boats for the personal watercraft market. His company not only made great boats, but was ahead of its time as an employer, hiring racial minorities, the elderly, and the disabled, and paying all equally.

Andrew Jackson Higgins died in 1952. His company continued to sell watercraft under various owners until 1975. Only about 200 remain, and are highly prized by collectors.

Article sources:

Coral and Brass: A Life Fighting With the Marines, Holland M. Smith and Percy Finch, ©1949 Charles Scribner’s Sons, ©2017 Motte Publishing

At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy, Captain Robert J. Bulkley, Jr., ©1962, 2017 Naval History Division


You! Start treating people better right now!

As I’ve increasingly published my thoughts about the proper way, the moral way, to treat the people we’re privileged to lead, I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon among some of those who agree with me.

They’re waiting for someone else to do something about it. Look at the comments to this LinkedIn post by Caroline Fairchild, for example. Good people, people interested in making a change and improving the business world, are waiting for capitalism to change, or corporations to change, or this or that or the other thing to change.

They shouldn’t be.

Capitalism isn’t going to change, because we didn’t design it in the first place. It’s spontaneous order – an economic system based on many things, including the rule of law and our monetary system and relatively free trade, but most of all on the aggregation of millions of people making thousands of decisions each, every single day. We couldn’t “fix it” if we tried (though we can sure screw it up without trying). Besides, it can’t and won’t fix our moral failings. And treating people poorly is indeed a moral failing.

Corporations might change, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. There are too many people with too many agendas involved, lots of them honorable and some of them not, to think we can wait until a CEO or a Board of Directors charts a new course before we act to fix our corner of the business world.

The way to make things better is for you to begin acting, starting right now.

I’m just finishing up Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. I love this book and its message. (But please, in subsequent printings, can a kindly editor go in and remove three of every four of its authors’ uses of the word “journey?” I thank you.) This passage near the end caught my eye:

Embark on your journey now. You don’t need a memo from the almighty wizards of corporate to tell you that it’s OK to do the right thing. A spreadsheet can’t show you how to treat people. No executive order is required to allow you to pause each day to have a thoughtful conversation with someone in your organization. Listen to them. Show them that what they do and who they are matters. You – and everyone else in your organization – already have everything within yourselves to start living the universal truth that everybody matters.

That’s exactly right. The whole list of improvements you want to see around you may not be entirely in your power to bring about, but that’s no excuse for not getting started, today, on the ones you can.

Do away with all the time clocks

I’m halfway through Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. It’s affirmed something I’ve felt for a long, long time: that most business leaders are doing it all wrong.

This passage hit me like a ton of bricks:

I remember a conversation I had with Ron Campbell, a veteran machine tester who had just returned from spending three months in Puerto Rico installing equipment for our Hayssen Flexible Systems division. He had a lot to say.

“First of all,” Ron asked, “if I tell you the truth, will I still have a job tomorrow?”

I replied, “If you have any trouble about what you say today, give me a call.” Believing that I was sincere and truly wanted to know how he felt, Ron opened up.

“Well, I see you have the word ‘trust’ near the top of this document,” he began. “However, it seems like you trust me a lot more when you can’t see me than when I’m right here. While I was in Puerto Rico, I was kind of an ambassador of the company, with an expense account and lots of freedom to do my job. I did the work and came back. I walked into the plant Monday morning the same time as a lady who works in accounting. She turned left to go into the office and I went straight ahead into the plant. Just like that, everything changed. All my freedom just slipped away. Suddenly there was all this suspicion and control. It felt like someone had their thumb on me all the time. I had to punch in at a time clock when I walked in, when I left for lunch and got back, and when I left to go home. If the lady in accounting wanted to call home to see if her kids made it to school, she could just pick up the phone and call; I had to wait until I had a break and then use a pay phone. If I have a doctor’s appointment, I have to get my supervisor to sign off on my card and I get docked for the time; she just goes to her appointment. I had to wait for the break bell to get a cup of coffee or even to use the bathroom. I walk in the same door with engineers, accountants, and other people who work in the office. Why is it that when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we are treated completely differently? You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me. If you really believe in these Guiding Principles of Leadership, why would you trust me when I was in Puerto Rico and not trust me when I am here?”

Chapman had his team remove every time clock, everywhere in his whole company, the very next day.

There’s much, much more to the book than this, but it really distills the message to the essence. Just about every company claims to put people first. Just about none of them do.

Read the book. We seriously need to fix how we treat our colleagues, especially those we lead, no matter what job they do. Chapman and Sisodia and Barry-Wehmiller have much to teach us in that regard.

If you can’t spare the reading time, at least read this article.

Spend your time on what’s important to you, and ignore the jerks

Caroline Fairchild, Senior News Editor at LinkedIn, shared this article by her friend Dan Lyons about the burgeoning culture of overwork in Silicon Valley, with her own questions for her readers about workplace expectations and hours worked.

It struck me as cognitive dissonance that in the nerve center of technology, which should be liberating us and giving us more time, there are bosses driving their workers back to subsistence farming workweeks. Plus, the article got me hating on the vocal jerks Mr. Lyons quoted about how amazing they are because they work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never take vacation, and wouldn’t recognize their kids, and everyone else who doesn’t do what they do is a loser, blah blah blah…

I have nothing against people who want to spend every waking moment working – whatever floats your boat. But when you consider yourself superior to me because my values don’t match yours, and try to bully me because of it, then you’re just a jerk. And if you drive the people who work for you to live life by your values and not theirs, then you’re an unethical jerk to boot.

But mostly, the post and the article got me thinking about my career and my work schedules over the years. My career has been entirely in manufacturing, which has always and everywhere carried the “we work long hours” credo. And it’s not like I haven’t done my share – if the plant’s down, and you’re needed, you’re there until the job is done.

But that being said, my normal work routine is regular (sane) hours, weekends off, and taking every single day of vacation I’ve got. Because my personal priorities include family, health and fitness, professional success and outside interests (pretty much in that order), and I make appropriate time for them all. This despite the fact that I’ve had plenty of pressure put on me to work longer hours, or take more business trips, or make more sacrifices for bigger jobs and titles. (But never, ever from my dear wife. She reined me in from that awful path some years ago, and I thank her heartily for it.)

I keep the picture above on my desk. It’s my older son John and me at a Boy Scout camping trip less than a year and a half ago. It was one of my favorite outings, and I had a really great time with John and our friends. But it’s also become a reminder of how little time we have with our kids: in that picture John is still a boy, but this very short while later he’s truly becoming a young man. It’s a stark reminder of what’s important to me, and how if you miss some things, the opportunities are gone forever.

I’ll always count my blessings that I was there to sit at that campfire with John. I can’t think of a single business trip I feel that way about.

Thanks to the unknown trucker who saved my life, and other thoughts after a brush with death

Driving home for lunch yesterday, I had my first real-life experience with a freeway wrong-way driver. Unfortunately, I first saw him a few hundred yards straight in front of me, when the pickup that had been in the left-hand lane ahead of me suddenly swerved into the right-hand lane. The potential killer was barreling toward me at a relative speed of about 150 mph, and I had maybe a few seconds to react.

Also unfortunately, he and I were both in the left-hand lane, and I was next to a tractor-trailer in the right-hand lane. I braked hard, but even while I did so I realized I couldn’t slow down fast enough to get behind the semi.

Yet I still went right. Years ago I read that panicked drivers will swerve right, so you should never try to get around an oncoming car to your left. I’ve thought about that many times since, so maybe that’s why my instinctual reaction was what it was.

But if the trucker next to me hadn’t also moved right – as far right as he could go without crashing – I would not be writing this. Because he went right as I went right. And when I believed I couldn’t go right any more without hitting him, I did it anyway because otherwise I was going to hit the oncoming car, which continued on dead straight.

I couldn’t have missed him by more than an inch, nor could I have missed the left side of the semi by any more than that either. It was so close that when I got home, I inspected my pickup for damage. There was none.

So: thank you, thank you, thank you to that unknown trucker. If it weren’t for the room you made for me I would now be dead.

I’d like to say there are all sorts of lessons for life or business or whatever from my experience, but there aren’t. As I said, I’ve thought many times about this type of scenario, and what I decided I’d do when I had time to think about it is exactly what I did when I had no time. And in this particular case, it worked. But if the oncoming car had swerved to his left, I would now be dead. (And I’m not even sure where I read what I did about panicked drivers, so it could have been completely bogus information.)

There are so many variables, you simply can’t prepare for every eventuality. Perhaps my many times contemplating such a scenario explains why I didn’t panic, and in fact felt no fear. But on the other hand, there simply wasn’t time. I saw the car, I reacted, and I watched it tear past me. Then I drove the rest of the way home, a little wobbly, in sheer wonder that I was still alive.

And I kissed my wife and my two sons, who just happened to be home from school because a fall heat wave gave them an unscheduled half-day.

What is God trying to tell me?


You must read this book! Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America by Danielle DiMartino Booth

“I dedicate this book to every hardworking American who wakes up in the morning asking themselves what went wrong.”

Danielle DiMartino Booth worked on Wall Street and as a financial columnist at the Dallas Morning News, then worked her way up at the Federal Reserve District Bank in Dallas, eventually advising Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher. Now she’s President of her own economic consultancy and media commentator on all things financial. She is indeed an insider, well-positioned to tell us what’s gone so very wrong in America’s financial system.

And boy, does she tell it. This is no dry recitation of high finance minutiae. It’s a fast-paced look at the events surrounding the 2008 economic meltdown, before and after, along with a character study of each of the big players, both government and corporate. Danielle DiMartino Booth pulls no punches here, God bless her.

When I first received this book (a requested Father’s Day present this year, which made my wife remark how weird I am), I promised my old friend Professor Howie Baetjer (Lecturer at the Department of Economics at Towson University, and author of Free Our Markets: A Citizen’s Guide to Essential Economics – another must-read book) that I’d share my thoughts about it with him. Here’s what I posted as a first-blush opinion for him on LinkedIn:

Howard Baetjer, you asked me to tell you what I thought of Danielle DiMartino Booth‘s book, Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America. I just finished it and it’s marvelous (and infuriating). She doesn’t favor abolishing the Fed as you do – but you’ll find a treasure trove of ammunition for your point of view in her pages.

That ammunition is the very clear evidence Booth presents showing the staggering incompetence (and at times what I’ll call cozy corruption) driving the decisions made by the Federal Open Market Committee. She has nothing good to say about the latest few Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan (about whom I wrote caustically some years ago here), Ben Bernanke, and current incumbent Janet Yellen (who comes off perhaps worst of all in these pages). From Greenspan’s clueless inflation of the housing bubble, to Bernanke’s slavish devotion to Greenspan’s easy money policy and his own unilateral expansion of the Fed’s mandate, to Yellen’s academic obliviousness to the real world, this trio of “leaders” richly deserve all the brickbats they receive in this book. So do most of the other committee members who enabled the years of horrible decision-making, along with the multitudes of analysts supporting them, whose PhDs seemingly blind them to the fact that their “mathy” econometric models are pretty much never right, and oftentimes disastrously wrong.

Booth does a great job educating the reader about the multitude of different organizations, regulations, relations and corporations that drive America’s financial policies. That she does this without boring the reader to tears alone makes this book a gem.

But as I said in my initial thoughts, the book is indeed infuriating. Nobody normal pays any attention to the Fed, which is a shame because the ordinary people to whom Booth dedicated her book have been, and continue to be, robbed blind by the very institution that’s supposed to protect them. Booth shows exactly how, and continues to be a vocal advocate for reforms to get the Fed back to serving the country rather than impoverishing it, and serving the common man rather than the untouchable bureaucrats and fabulously wealthy game-riggers.

Richard Fisher is one of the few who tried to get the Fed back on track during the times Booth covers, and is one of the very few heroes in this otherwise bleak book. He retired two years ago, so the reforms Danielle DiMartino Booth spells out in her closing chapter are all the more critical. Or perhaps my friend Howie Baetjer and his latter-day abolitionists should win out…