My Rude Awakening

By: Perry S. Marshall

In college, the hangout for engineering students was on campus, just outside the engineering library. The place was open 24/7 and I spent many a long night grinding through homework assignments with my fellow enginerds.

A frequent topic of conversation was how rich we were all going to be, riding around like kings in our Corvettes with posh $45,000 salaries.

And how the football players and business administration majors would someday regret not becoming engineers like us, because we engineers were destined to be the Titans of the Universe.

We all knew that engineers are the ones who design new products, and without new products, the very earth we live upon would cease to rotate on its axis.

Building Better Mousetraps

Fast forward to February 1993: I’ve just graduated, and I’m a brand new Acoustical Engineer at Jensen in Chicago, designing OEM speakers for Honda, Mazda and Chrysler. And I’m still believing that if we can only make better mousetraps and better speakers, the world’s problems will be solved.

And if only those low-rent assembly workers in our Lumberton, North Carolina factory would follow simple instructions, all our quality problems would go away.

Then I get to go on the company’s inaugural 1-week “Manufacturing Boot Camp.” That’s the trip where us ivory tower engineers from Chicago learn all about how they put those speakers together in daily production in North Carolina.

It was a humbling experience to discover that the factory workers knew far more about assembling speakers than I did – especially at a rate of one operation every 3 ½ seconds. My esoteric “lab queen” designs were poorly suited for assembly, and my ignorance would directly lead to rejects on the line if it was not corrected.

My “Rude Awakening” was the discovery that engineering, design ideals, quality and objective results were rarely the real problem in that company. The real problems at work were always political – fiefdoms, territory wars, lack of communication, inflated egos and cover-your-*** maneuvers. The real problems always had to do with fear, greed and perception, not factual matters or ideals.

The Battle for Better Glue

The same day I was hired, a Chemical Engineer started work, a talented guy named Haresh Kapadia. His job was to reduce the 27 adhesives being used in production (read: nightmare of specific dispensing, curing and OSHA details for every kind of glue) down to 4 or 5.

Haresh was not only technically astute, but politically astute as well. Which was a good thing, because this particular assignment put him right in the crossfire of a major political battle. The department that had introduced these 27 adhesives in the first place had mistakes to cover up, and his effort was met with stiff resistance every step of the way.

Haresh was forced to ruthlessly, systematically prove his work every step of the way with mountains of statistical proof, Taguchi methods and rigorous testing. But he didn’t mind.

He knew he was right and he knew he would win in the end, once he proved the bottom line. He would present his results to top management, and one by one by one, he whittled that nasty adhesives list to 20 and 15 and 10, and ultimately just five. A drastic simplification of a complex problem.

Way to go, Haresh.

Firing The Engineers

In May on a flight from Chicago to San Jose, on my right was a graduate level engineering student who was vying for a position at Lockheed Martin. Clearly she was a sharp, well-educated gal. On my left sat an engineer who actually worked at Lockheed Martin We were discussing Lockheed’s cutbacks in technical staff, and the fact that the sales department was still intact.

She thought this was pure foolishness. Neither of them thought that the sales people were doing a good job, and without a product in the first place, there would be nothing for those salesmen to sell. I decided to have a little fun with this.

“Doesn’t matter. Besides, even if you don’t have a product, you can always go to China and buy one,” I said.

She did not seem pleased to hear this. So I continued.

“Good marketing can sell a non-existent product, but bad marketing can’t sell free gold. That’s why they’re getting rid of engineers, because if they get rid of the sales people, the engineers still won’t have any customers to make a product for.”

She didn’t like this, either. However, she’s still in graduate school, which for the most part is just a socially acceptable place for perfectly intelligent people to exist in isolation from reality and live on interest-free loans.

Is she in for a rude awakening? Probably – after all, she lives in Silicon Valley, home of the $300,000 handyman special and the not-so-hot tech economy. In San Jose, entry-level engineers make fifty-five grand and live with their parents so they can keep up with the rent. Reminds me a joke I heard when I was there:

Q: Have you heard what the latest status symbol is in Silicon Valley?

A: A Job.

I’m sure she’ll find one. And I’m sure it will be very real.

Dropping Food From Airplanes

I just finished a fascinating book by Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun. It’s stories and travelogues from a news correspondent who worked throughout the dark continent of Africa for 30+ years.

There are many, many things to learn from this book. One of the many points made with painstaking clarity is the simple fact that the world’s hunger problem is not agricultural, it’s political. There’s plenty of food to go around, but too many people who don’t want it to get there.

When a country is ruled by warlord terrorists who take each meal from destitute women and children at gunpoint, then dropping food from airplanes simply means there’s more food to steal.

Along similar lines: my wife Laura was actually in Africa in May. She spent a week in Mozambique: an impoverished country, torn by civil war and strewn with landmines. Her rude awakening there: the problems and poverty are profoundly difficult, and nobody’s going to solve them by dropping food from airplanes.

It’s going to take hands-on assistance from outsiders who care enough to live there and intense dedication from locals, teaching sanitation, medical care, farming, education, spiritual principles and long-term commitment. 1-week mission trips are fine, but it takes years of work to solve real problems from the bottom up.

Perception is not truly reality. But another one of the rude awakenings I’ve had along the way is this: Perception is the only reality that we have to work with right now. It’s the reality that you have to deal with when people are involved.

Oftentimes we’re so caught up in the “should be” world that we can’t see the “is” world. The “should be” world is the way things are supposed to be. The “is” world is the way things actually are. On the surface, the ideal world of mathematical formulas and ideals seems easier to work with; we perceive it to be “cleaner.” But ultimately, if you actually want to manufacture speakers, sell engineered products or cure famine, reality is much easier. Reality is what it is. It’s the only thing we really have to work with.

And in the end we discover that rude awakenings are not so rude after all. They’re kind, after we’ve finally woken up.

"Originally appeared in Manufacturing Automation magazine, (C)2002 CLB Media, Canada"