Monday, April 24, 2017

Mid-Month Thoughts

I saw a story in the national news about a young woman who saved herself from doom as a lost motorist. Looking for a shortcut into the Grand Canyons, she followed her GPS into a large cattle ranch, and ran short of gasoline. Her Girl Scout skills got her out of this predicament, when a police helicopter spotted her stone sign. Reliance on technology without perspective- can be dangerous. 

Still going in and out of Dubai and am grateful to have gotten the important sites out of the way- the Burj Khalifah- the world’s tallest building. I had some questions, like why the global investors are supporting tremendous, speculative growth and construction in Dubai; changing a regional city into a global power. I found an answer: what is happening in Dubai is not unprecedented: New York and Chicago boomed a century ago, on the backs of immigrants.  I try to identify a lively American neighborhood- or Westerner town- in each of the big cities I spend time in. They have some of the comforts of familiarity and the fusion of two cultures. Something like the Chinatowns in American cities. Now Dubai is interesting to me because Western tastes, and expats, are so profuse throughout the city-state.

432 Park Avenue in New York City was recently completed with 104 residences. It’s remarkable since the condo building has the height of the World Trade Center, and the controversially bland exterior was apparently inspired by an art deco wastebasket. But, the views from inside are fantastic and the multimillion dollar condo units were bought up by the global elite, making the supertall building a financial success. The building has drawn social criticism for being the pinnacle of ostentatious wealth. Why this building among the hundred tallest skyscrapers in the world? In many cities the tallest buildings are office buildings. While these gaudy towers might be signs of corporate affluence and extravagance, a little bit of the wealth trickles down to support a white-collar middle class workforce, who fill the inner offices and cubicles. Even the most secluded of firms have secretaries. In other places, the tallest buildings are hotels, and size of these hotels require pricing at least some rooms for the upper-middle class masses. When the tallest buildings are luxury residences, it is hardly inspirational, demonstrating the extremes of inequality: the uber-wealthy owners and tenants who are waited on by low-income service sector workers. The middle class are kept outside the doors. In the ideal world, the most iconic buildings would be somewhat more egalitarian. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Dubai, Today

When I got to Dubai, I thought I would be greeted by omniscient prayer calls from minarets, camel taxis, snake-tamers, pipists and belly dancers. This is not an Aladdin fantasy; indeed I had read stories of the Middle East from crewmembers onboard WWII Liberty Ships. In light of U-Boats roaming the North Sea, the Persian Gulf became the preferred route to bring supplies to the Soviet Union. And for decades after the war, the region was a quaint reminder of the past, with kings and the supremacy of religion; yet increasingly important on account of oil. 

Fast forward to the present day. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, is a diversified economy, focusing on international trade. There were no snake charmers greeting me, although the gold souks are reminiscent of fabled Arabian opulence. The working class is Southeast Asia- Indians and Pakistanis- who drive the buses and make the food. Foreigners are welcome, and coming from around the world, they take middle-class jobs and practice their Westernized or Orientalized lifestyles. The local elite are not ashamed to mention that the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was designed by an American firm. If there was a country to describe America’s grim future in the minds of American nationalists, it might be the UAE. Transnational globalists do world trade and go sightseeing in Dubai; there is a strong Islamic influence; a religion shared by the nation’s elite and much of the immigrant working class. And furthermore, foreigners not only ‘take’ working-class jobs, but middle-class ones as well. This fact makes me very interested in how the UAE- and other Persian Gulf States- are able to maintain a good standard of living for their own people. In the US and Southern/Eastern Europe, one primary concern of nationalists is well-paying jobs for born citizens. Yet halfway around the world, there are nations, steeped in Islamic culture, which welcome foreigners, to allow set-asides for things like alcohol and western feminist thought.  

I am familiar with the respect given on military bases to morning colors and evening retreat. Regular business stops, and so does traffic. I was ready to give this regard to prayer call, but by observing the regulars in Dubai, strict observance of the prayer call was not required.  The best prayer call I heard was inside the Dubai Mall, and few heeded its warning, as the ‘globalists’ continued dining and shopping while observant locals made their way to the prayer room.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Discipline of Quality Control

Had I been born 20 years earlier… I wouldn’t have invented the internet, but I might have been a messenger for the message of quality control. Someone defined stupidity as “doing the same thing and expecting different results”, and apparently that is what large companies like the auto makers were doing in the 1980’s. “We’re Number Five”, boasted Buick: This became the title of a chapter in Chuck Colson’s book, “Why America Doesn’t Work”, a book which I have reviewed on this blog. Quality Control, Continuous Improvement, Lean Processes,  Cost-Quality-Schedule; these were terms I learned to breathe in college. Where do these high-minded ideals fit in the real world? Last year I took the CAPM test- Certified Associate of Project Management- to see how my education in “Shipyard Management” measured up to other undergraduate management courses.  I was up to par.

Taylorism, originating in the early 20th century, took autonomy away from workers, with a vision of “slide rule and stopwatch”. In place of craftsmanship, writes Chuck Colson, came a feeling of disassociation between employees and their work. Dr. Deming, who emerged after World War Two, insisted that employee buy-in was essential for successful quality control. The Japanese, whose industries were flattened by war’s end, bought into this idea. The Americans held off.  

Union Carbide or Bethlehem Steel, anyone? On that note, I’ve looked at pictures of the now-abandoned Martin Tower, Bethlehem Steel’s former headquarters in Pennsylvania. After-hours access required employees to state their name, department- and alphanumeric personnel code.  Humble the peons! This is Illustrative of rigid thinking; just one of the factors that allowed the continuously-improving Japanese to eat Bethlehem’s lunch.  The Dilbert cartoon contemporaneously parodies the corporate world’s discovery of quality control.  Beginning in the late 1980’s, Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss comically portrays the implementation of Japanese methods, from implementing sleeping tubes to animal costumes; to training sessions conducted with no clear objective. 

I said in a previous blog post that big business today is a finely tuned machine. Buick went bankrupt; and it seems that today, a low-performing CEO would be sacked rather than be rewarded with a bonus. This perfection cuts both ways for the consumer. Yes, you might get the right product in the mail, but expect no perks.  I recently ordered a book “How Boys and Toys Were Made”, a story about AC Gilbert and the once-famed Erector Set. Two-day shipping became six-day shipping over a holiday weekend- all accurately predicted by the website. I ordered on Thursday and received the book on Wednesday, not a day late nor a day early.  

This “new way of thinking”- employee empowerment for better, quantifiable results- specifics be darned- has been co-opted by the right-to-work movement, which insists that labor unions, working as an intermediary between workers and management, are not compatible with these worker-enabling production and quality methods. My own experience? The Department of Defense is looking into Six Sigma’s Lean Operation system. In addition to being a valuable credential, it would put a formal cap on what we were already doing- predictive maintenance and statistical analysis. It could be received with skepticism by the tradesmen- is it just another management tool that prefers the science of data over the art of skill? Brainwork over brawn? You can now see how employee buy-in matters.