Saturday, April 7, 2012

I went to Asia and saw kids in factories...

...and it's not what you think.

I recently returned from LGO's annual international plant trek, and this year we went to Asia, China and Japan to be specific.  It was really cool to see manufacturing in these two countries in particular, especially because of everything that I've read and learned about China's seemingly ever-growing industrial power and Japan's ability to manufacture some of the highest quality products in the world.  In China, we visited a couple of LGO partner companies, Nike and Cisco, as well as one of Cisco's suppliers, Jabil.  The facilities and operations were impressive (especially at Jabil), and it was really eye-opening to see the scale at which manufacturing is done in China and the economic growth that is occurring in Shanghai - there seemed to be as many cranes constructing new buildings in the skyline as there were existing structures!

Japan was also impressive, though in a different way.  We were able to visit Sony and Nissan, both of which were interesting in their own right.  At Sony they showed us some of the things they are doing to simplify and improve their products, as well as one of their Blu-Ray player assembly lines.  While one of our professor's told us their manufacturing was "average" for Japan, it was probably the best balanced assembly cell I have ever seen.  While Sony has had some problems over the past few years, it isn't because they don't know how to put together their products efficiently.  Nissan was nothing short of incredible.  I've seen a number or U.S. automakers, and worked at one of Caterpillar's engine facilities, so I was really excited to see how this type of manufacturing was done in Japan - being the epitome of quality manufacturing that it is.  The facility was quite old, and you could tell that it had been modified and updated with the progression of time.  However, the facility was very clean, the updates all seemed to work well with the existing line, and there was not evidence of "band-aid"-like fixes that I have seen in many assembly lines.  As well, there was a lot of automation in the factory, but it was automation that made sense.  Rather than having a lot of sexy robots or automatic assembly tooling (which was mostly manual), there were a lot of AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) that  did the majority of material handling.  Not only did this free up human hands to do more of the value-added work, but the robots were purely functional (read "kind of ugly and not very showy"), and they did their job very well.  Finally, the Q&A for our tour was handled by two fairly young HR reps, which would typically make for a more "Q" and little "A" session, but they could answer all our questions!  And they didn't avoid any of them! (which is typically they case when you ask a company a non-flattering question).  It was impressive that even the folks in HR understood the company's mission and strategy enough to answer the detailed questions that our class would put forward, and that they didn't shy away.

Finally, to the kids in factories.  At Nissan, one of the first things I noticed was that there were little kids drawings hanging up along the tour route.  The drawings were of things like the new Nissan Leaf, the GT-R, the assembly line, or kids ideas for what might make a cool car - I think one was a bubble and another had octagonal wheels.  This was really cool, because it showed the Japanese dedication to manufacturing.  Sure, kids everywhere draw cars, but in Japan, kids go to the factory on a field trip, and get to see engineering and manufacturing first-hand!  I have never seen anything like this in the U.S., where factories are big, dirty, scary, dangerous places and no place for children (insert frowny-face and "keep-out" sign here).  However, it's no wonder the Japanese are so good at manufacturing, because it is what kids want grow up to do!  While you couldn't take pictures to maintain privacy, the factory was an inviting place that was well-maintained and clean, and they had figured out a way to have kids visit and be a part of the community.  Contrast that to the U.S., where kids want to be doctors in lawyers, and while these are great professions (I have an attorney, an endodontist, and a pharmacist in my family), it means we're really good at lawsuits and hypochondria.  The takeaway for me?  If we are serious about revitalizing U.S. manufacturing, one of the things we need to ensure is that it is a cool thing to do, and one of the ways to do that will be to figure out how to get kids into factories.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


One of the cool things about LGO - MIT in general really - is all the cool stuff that's going on around here.  Every time I have a few minutes to wander around I never fail to find something new - from a nautical museum to a model of an asteroid field and just about anything in between.  As well, you are surrounded by a lot of brilliant people in the greater MIT community, doing research on all kinds of interesting topics.  For example, a friend of mine is a PhD student in the Aero/Astro program, and for his master's project he's working on variable pitch quadrotor helicopters... which he can fly upside down.  The other day I went and visited him at his lab and saw what he was working on in-person - it was awesome.  A video of his work is below - it reminds me of a cross between a villain from a sci-fi movie and Barry Sanders.

Research like this is going on all around you, and it's simply a matter fo finding what interests you and exploring.  Of course, the focus of our engineering curriculum and internships in LGO makes our thesis research somewhat different than that of our pure engineering counterparts.  Ours is generally (but not exclusively) focused on projects that will have immediate operational impact for a partner company, while students like my friend might be using technology in ways that haven't yet been explored, where any potential real-world benefit isn't yet known.  Still, even though our research is focused on different things, it's a lot of fun to explore the cool things that are going on throughout the MIT campus, and it makes it an awesome place to be.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Leadership in the Military

I shook the hand of a Medal of Honor recipient today.  Needless to say, not an every day experience – and one I won’t soon forget.  His name is Tom Kelley, and he came to speak at a class I was enrolled in titled “Leadership Lessons Learned in the Military”.  The course was organized by a fellow LGO/former submarine officer/good friend of mine and took place over the past three days during IAP (independent activities period) here at Sloan.  IAP lasts for the month of January, and many students use this time to go on vacation, or to take part in various treks that are available, and a multitude of short courses are offered on-campus by most departments as well.  I’ve been using it to spend time with family, work on my thesis, and to take this class – which I’m glad I did as it will probably be a part of my MBA experience that will really stick with me.
This course was offered through Sloan and is sponsored by one of our great ethics professors, Leigh Hafrey.  While Professor Hafrey is a fantastic teacher that challenges you to think critically and solidify how you feel about everything that can’t typically be defined by an equation – like power, authority, leadership and influence, he really didn’t drive the course.  Instead, it was put together and facilitated by a few of the veterans in our MBA class.  It was a great opportunity to learn from them about how their military careers affected their lives and how they act as leaders.  I’m writing this post in an attempt to capture my impressions on leadership from the past few days, and maybe someone else will also find it useful.

Day 1
We spoke about the different ranks in the military, and what it takes to achieve them.  I hadn’t really understood that there were two paths in the military, that of the enlisted soldiers and that of the officers, and the lowest ranking officer will always outrank the highest ranking enlisted, even though said officer will be a 22-year old kid fresh out of college or one of the military academies, and said enlisted soldier will probably have a 20+ year career in the military under their belt.  This isn’t to say that the enlisted soldier is a low-ranking contributor, in fact it’s quite the opposite – to be where they are they have to have proven their capability to lead soldiers and accomplish objectives, and are often technical experts at what they do.  They typically have great rapport with their people, and in the class were often referred to as the “backbone” of the military.  When you hear the terms “Gunny”, “Chief”, or “Sergeant First Class” on T.V., these are the people they’re talking about.  They are also referred to as “Non-Commissioned Officers” or “NCOs” which causes some confusion, but they are enlisted soldiers that report up to officers.
Once we had an understanding of what all these ranks meant, we had the opportunity to hear from two Army drill sergeants talk about how they get new recruits literally fresh off the bus and begin to incorporate them into the Army – it doesn’t sound like fun.  Corporate onboarding would be a lot different if it entailed pushups ad-nauseum, some amount of sleep deprivation, and big scary guys yelling at you from the moment you entered the door.  We then had the chance to talk with three senior NCOs, who were able to give us their perspective on what it’s like to lead when you’re the person with all the experience and some young kid with a college degree outranks you.  They said that these young officers were generally most successful when they were humble and allowed themselves to be trained.  I think this is really applicable to young college and MBA grads in general.  It’s really easy to think that just because you have a fresh degree from a top-notch institution then you will always know best and so people should listen to you.  However, from my experience that just isn’t the case.  A college degree is only a manifestation that you know how to think, and it also helps to open a lot of doors.  However, the people on the ground that have earned their spot through experience have all kinds of valuable knowledge.  This knowledge needs to be used both for the success of the person and the success of the organization, and if a young leader can swallow their pride, ask for help and training to be able to utilize the abilities of these people, then it will help everyone in the end.

Day 2
            We had an “optional” PT (physical training) session with the guys from the MIT ROTC at 0700.  The training was actually a lot of fun; we got in formation, did military exercises – naturally a number of pushups – and ran around shouting military cadences.  They went really light on us, but it was cool to get a glimpse of what that aspect of military life is like.  I said it was optional because it technically was, but the day before they broke the class into squads, named squad leaders, and gave the squad leaders the order to have 100% attendance at PT.  I ended up as our squad leader, and while I began to get some commitments to come, I was killed in action as a part of the exercise.  Not surprisingly then, my squad did not have 100% attendance.  The key takeaway for me here was that of accountability.  Once we got back in the classroom, they put all of the squad leaders in the front of the room and asked us what our attendance was, and why our people weren’t there.  Most of us didn’t have a very good answer.  Sure I had gotten killed, but I still could have done more.  We probably hadn’t taken the exercise serious enough, and hadn’t held ourselves accountable how we should have.  However, this really made me think about accountability in life in general.  It’s too easy to just send an email and then think we’ve done our job, when really that email doesn’t mean anything.  I could go on for a while about this, but this simple illustration of accountability was powerful for me, and while I feel like I am on the whole an accountable person, I recognize there is room for improvement and incorporating it more into my life has become a goal of mine.
            Next up, we had two panels, one with Junior Officers and one with Senior Officers.  The theme of humility came up again, and the Junior Officers reiterated the point that the NCOs had made – it’s important to learn from the enlisted folks that have a lot of experience.  However, they also stressed the importance of making decisions and owning them, because at the end of the day that’s your job.  The Senior Officers were also quite impressive – we had representation from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.  It was as though we had four Vice Presidents from four large companies with us in the same room to speak about leadership.  One of my key takeaways from this was the importance of knowing your people.  While this had been stressed throughout the course, it really hit home for me here.  In order to lead people have to want to follow you, and the way you earn that is by showing them that you know and care about them.  As well, it was interesting to think about how it goes both ways – you need to know the people below you so that they trust what you say, but you also need to know the people above you so that you trust what they say.  Otherwise, you won’t really be able to own their orders, vision, or objective that they give to you, and in the end you will become ineffective.

Day 3
            Today.  It was really cool.  We did a lot of reflection on what we had talked about so far, wrapped up the course, and listened to both the Deputy Under-Secretary of the Army and of course Mr. Kelley.  It was interesting to hear him speak, and to hear him talk about fear.  He said that while of course he was afraid for his physical well-being, what drove him to his heroic actions (if you didn’t check the link above, while protecting his troops on a damaged boat, he put himself in a necessary but very exposed position, and continued to command his troops to get the out of danger after having been struck in the head by the shrapnel from an RPG, which cost him his eye) was more the fear of letting his men down.  In essence, as their commander he felt accountable to them and their safety, and that had become such a part of him that it overcame his fear.  When we had a break for lunch I approached him to shake his hand, thank him for coming and for his service like I’m sure thousands have done since he received the award.  It probably wasn’t a big deal for him, but for me it was very impressive to be able to shake hands with someone who had been ready and able to perform under the most duress imaginable in a way that saved the lives of his mean and is admired by a grateful nation.

As I’ve been reflecting of this course, I think my main takeaway is that leadership is really simple – it’s all about people and it’s all about accountability.  While we come up with all kind of frameworks, theories, and mantras for leadership, it’s probably just that simple, and maybe everything else we talk about when discussing leadership is just fluff.

Monday, November 28, 2011

An Interesting Article

A friend shared this article with me about a talk Clayton Christensen gave, "How the Pursuit of Profits Kills Innovation and the U.S. Economy".

I couldn't agree more.  With all of the analysis done about companies trying to break them down into ratios so that they can be compared apples-apples for investment strategies, the core competencies of a company - what makes it great and allows it to generate value for consumers - are essentially forgotten.  As a result, in order to make the market happy every quarter, companies focus on short term profits, selling off the parts of their business that don't have as high margins or are more capital intensive.  While this looks good on paper, the qualitative benefits of those functions (the ability to innovate and own your process) are lost, dooming the practitioner to long-term existence in mediocrity.

I don't know that these measures should be eliminated, but they shouldn't be allowed to overtake the organization.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

LGO Baby!

Early morning.  Very early morning, and Tiffany was going into labor. Realizing there was some regularity to her contractions, we began to wonder if baby Logan was going to arrive before class, and I opened up the stopwatch app on my phone.  Like clockwork, every two minutes or so she had a one-minute contraction, about 60 of which were dutifully timed by a husband unable to think of anything else helpful to do.  Being a man of action, watching Tiffany do all of the work through labor and delivery makes me feel incredibly pathetic.  To try to be useful I gave her encouragement and whatever emotional support I’m capable of giving (not what I would consider my greatest strength, but Tiffany says she loves me anyway), and did the only measurable thing I could think of to help – timed contractions with my stopwatch.

After much anticipation and thinking we would need to head to the hospital at any second, they stopped.  Saying it was discouraging to go back to bed at 5 am to get some rest is an understatement, but I had to go to class if we weren’t at the hospital, and soon-to-be big sister would wake up around 7 wanting to play.

As the day progressed, Tiffany continued having irregular contractions, and I anxiously went to class with my phone on silent, expecting any second that my phone would vibrate and I would have to run the mile between the business school campus and our apartment in record time. I made it through Business Law without a phone call, though only partly able to concentrate on how people get sued for stealing trade secrets when they leave a company and start up a new business.  Key lesson learned: stealing the Coca-Cola recipe = a very large lawsuit.  It lacks the nuances of the actual basis of law, but I think it will work in a pinch. After class I ran back to our place to check up on the family – still no baby.  However, our apartment was scheduled to get the heating repaired that day, so Tiffany was hanging out at a friend’s place while the workers finished up.  Luckily I had a long enough break to get our place put back together after the workers left, and then it was back to campus for a trading-room simulation for Finance with my phone at the ready.  During the exercise, we traded imaginary stocks to see how the market behaves to determine stock prices.  Key lesson learned – there’s a lot more to making money in the stock market than guessing when a stock will go up or down, and the market (everyone that buys and sells stock) is really smart.

Still no baby.

Back home, we were hoping that our lost sleep in the morning wasn’t all for naught, and waiting for Tiffany’s mom to arrive from California, and it started.  I pulled out my phone, opened the stopwatch app, and began anew my contribution to the process.  Tiffany bent over the couch and began her concentrated breathing.  These contractions were stronger than those in the morning but didn’t come quite as quickly.  She wanted to labor at home as much as she could (the hospital really isn’t that comfortable), but we called the hospital to let them know that we would probably be arriving that evening.  Realizing I was measuring and recording something, and no longer groggy from the early morning, my primal instincts to track, monitor, and improve a process kicked in.  A control chart seemed appropriate, so I switched from jotting down times on a notecard to recording them in Excel.  Giving the urgency of the adrenalin-fueled situation, identifying proper upper and lower bounds for contraction times wasn’t very realistic, but I was at least able to track the labor process in real-time, and visually see any changes or patterns.  The chart below is what Tiffany was going through.  Plotted are contraction duration, the break after each contraction, and the total of the two.  The y-axis is the time in seconds, and the x-axis represents each sequential contraction.  For some people labor is most vivid when seen and lived through in person, but for others, the following chart will be even more enlightening.

As you can see, the contractions (blue line) were fairly consistent up until about number 16, where things began to get more intense.  Once the lines for “Duration” and “Break” crossed, I knew it was time for action.  This was an obvious visual cue that it was time to get to the hospital, and data collection has never been so exciting in the history of man.  As well, it was fortunate that we had the charts so that I knew what to do, because at this point Tiffany was too focused on breathing and not having a baby in the living room to be able to answer me when I asked, “is it time to go to the hospital?”

Tiffany’s mom had arrived a while earlier, and was returning from the playground with Kayla as we passed her on the stairs and told her we were on our way to increase the size of our family by 33%.  It took one contraction on the stairs and one on the sidewalk to get to the car, but we were on our way.

Once on the road, we began to navigate the tricky Cambridge traffic.  As you may know, Cambridge existed during the time of the revolution; in fact George Washington’s troops were camped out at the battle of Boston in what is essentially our modern-day backyard.  This is only relevant because it means that roads were set up to handle things like horses and pedestrians, so with the proliferation of the automobile during the 1900’s, the only option for traffic in Cambridge and Boston was to become terrible.  The hospital was only 2 miles away, but traffic levels could be the difference between a leisurely hospital delivery and a historic delivery on the banks of the Charles River.  Luckily we planned the best route before hand, snuck through traffic with Tiffany realizing just how uncomfortable a seatbelt can be during active labor, and arrived at the Hospital a little after 8 pm.

After getting Tiffany set in the room, I ran down to move the car and grab the camera.  The doctor and nurse said we probably had about 20 minutes before they would break her water, and the baby would arrive in under an hour.  When I got back to Labor and Delivery the nurse said, “Okay Dad, her water just broke and the baby’s coming!” 

Me - “Wait, you broke her water without me?!?”

Nurse - “No, it broke on its own!”

In the ensuing minutes, Tiffany demonstrated her heart of a champion, endured a few excruciating contractions, and then pushed baby Logan out in 2 pushes! No epidural, no pain medication whatsoever.  The baby was born at 8:40 pm, and Tiffany was happy to no longer be pregnant.  And to no longer be pushing.  And to have our new baby! She’s amazing!

Logan’s Stats:

Weight – 7 lbs. 5 oz.
Length – 21 inches

Both Tiffany and Logan are doing fantastic recovering from the ordeal.  We should be able to go home tomorrow and begin our lives as a family of four!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Operations Strategy

Now that I'm starting to settle back in, I thought I'd take a moment to discuss one of my favorite classes this semester - Operations Strategy.  It's a case-based class, and so far we've looked at the operations of companies as wide-ranging as Boeing, McDonald's, and Amazon.  That's one of the things I love about the course (and Ops in general) - it doesn't matter if you are building airplanes or hamburgers, you need to effectively identify and execute your operations (read "value-creation") strategy to be successful and grow.

This semester, the course is being taught by two amazing professors: Zeynep Ton (who is one of the best lecturers I've ever had) and Don Rosenfield (the director of the LGO program).  Professor Ton brings a great degree of excitement to the course, and challenges you to really think critically about the case you are discussing to understand the things that companies do well and why they do them.  Don's insight into the operations of these companies is also incredibly valuable, as he literally wrote the book on Operations Strategy.  As well, here's a link to an interesting article he wrote about why Operations management is so important.

In short, the class is awesome.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Back on Campus

After another coast-to-coast drive - Seattle to Boston - I'm back.  The internship went surprisingly fast, but it's exciting to be back on campus.  In a few words, Seattle was rainy, and Amazon was awesome.  It was a great chance for me to apply Operations Management and Supply Chain knowledge I had learned both in class at MIT and in my prior experience to a company and industry that were both quite new to me.  Surprisingly enough, whether you're building engines, shipping textbooks, or optimizing patient flow through and Intensive Care Unit (a classmate's project); the same principles can be applied to improve the process and organization.  It never ceases to amaze me, and I'm sure annoys my wife when I explain how Costco is doing a great job getting customers through checkout when she is more concerned with making sure our 2-year-old doesn't fall out of the shopping cart.

Anyway, now that I'm back it's a busy semester in front of me: classes, recruiting, thesis, and most importantly - Baby #2.  That's right, you heard it here first (unless of course I've told you previously) - we're having a baby boy on or around October 5th!  Needless to say it's going to be an exciting 4 months! I've had to make some adjustments to my course schedule as the reality of how busy it's going to be has set in, but luckily that's fairly easy, and just means my final semester at LGO will probably be a little more full than that of some of my classmates.  As well, the thesis will take up a fair amount of time, but luckily I  feel like I have a pretty good outline and direction moving forward for it.

With everything happening, I'll try to post updates for anyone interested in what the program is like during recruiting, as well as what it's like having a baby during the program.  But now, it's time to prepare a case for Operations Strategy - ITT Automotive: Global Manufacturing Strategy - it should be interesting.