Inter-View


We’re eating lunch—me, Finn, and Trish. Finn’s got a bowl of mac’n’cheese. Trish is eating a meatloaf sandwich. I made a turkey wrap, and I was using a salad fork to poke and eat Kalamata olives off my plate. Finn’s been holding his bowl up to his face and trying to lick out the last dozen pieces of tubular macaroni. He’s got “cheese” all over his face.

A fork.

“Not like that, Finn,” says his mother. “Eat like your father.”

“With my fork? Eat with my fork?”

“Yes, with your fork. Don’t lick your bowl; use your fork or spoon please,” his mother said.

“Do you like your sandwich, dad?”

“Yes, I do, Finn; it’s very tasty!”

Turkey wrap with California veggies.

“But whyyy?” he asked, trailing off the y.

“Because it’s got turkey in it, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“And it has delicious vegetables in it, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because they’re from California, that’s why.”

San Joaquin Valley crops.

“But whyyy?”

“Because California gets a lot of sun, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because it’s on the west coast, and the jet stream blows the clouds past California so it’s always sunny, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

A view of the Earth from 36,000 nautical miles away...the San Joaquin Valley can be easily identified.

“Because the world spins on its own axis in the opposite direction and its movement creates the jet stream, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because the earth is revolving around the sun and is being pulled toward the sun by gravity, that’s why.”

“But whyyy?”

“Because of the Big Bang, that’s why.

“So you like that sandwich, dad?”

Big Bang schematic.

“Yes, Finn, I like it.”

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© 2009 John Dila

ting-ting-ting …

The remarkably understated tinkling of Christmas-candle-chimes triggers powerful memories of Christmas past if you had one of the candle-mobiles in your home when you were growing up. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this.

“When we were children, the chimes were irresistible,” my friend Paul (an experienced product manager) told me: “The fascination of the open flame; the magical phenomena of angels slowly starting to move and then picking up speed until they struck the bells. Every Christmas, without knowing it, we were schooled in the laws of physics—Convection, aerodynamics, and centrifugal force converged in this elegant tiny tin invention.”

Yet while Paul and I—and hundreds of thousands of other Baby-Boomers and their children—lit the chimes at the end of last year, a trench-war was being waged around the commoditization of the very angels that tinkled in our Holiday living rooms.

Like the children who remember them from the ‘70s, the Christmas-candle-chimes industry matured and lost its innocence.

Now, with only a few players left and time on patents run out, prices and quality are plummeting—like Lucifer—a Morning Star burned out and falling to Earth.

No-one’s going public in the Christmas-candle-chimes industry this year.

Things have gotten so bad, as we’ll see, that one can imagine a Christmas Day not long from now when no new chimes tinkle.

In fact, the industry competition is extreme around quality and price, and not, for example, around today’s typical app-driven differentiation—no third bell, no improved angels, and no louder ting-ting’ing in this market.

One firm tried to differentiate its product by including a “Party-Chimes” kit at no additional charge—three horses and a clown which you could use instead of the angels for secular celebrations. The strategy was to catch the off-Christmas sales and bolt ahead of the competition in market share.

But judging from the lack of equine availability anywhere online today, the horses went the way of the Dodo.

Nay, Christmas-candle-chimes were perfected decades ago, and trademarked and patented—Angel Chimes™—the Kleenex® tissues of their industry, in pieces by various and sundry inventors spanning Europe and America as far back as the early twentieth century.

Their appeal to this day remains firmly rooted in archetypal elegance and steeped in legendary Scandinavian tradition.

For that reason, the Christmas-candle-chimes industry is all very doggy-dog, as they say.

For example, the most famous Swedish manufacturer—the original patent owner of Angel Chimes™—Andersson & Boberg (they sell the ones that come in the classic circa 1972 brown box featuring a blond Swedish girl in pig-tails lighting the Chimes with a wooden matchstick) quietly shuttered its operations at the end of last year (2009).

Historically, Andersson & Boberg made their original, highest-quality Chimes in Gefle, Sweden (on the Baltic Sea, across the way from the Gulf of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and all those wintry places).

But Globalization—Gefle’s personal Grinch—finally found the sleepy little northern town, and alit on Andersson & Boberg’s operations. The firm finally buckled under all that weight, and it made the tough decision to close forever because it could no longer compete on price with Chinese knock-offs, whose quality is “remarkably good…for the price,” according to a major U.S.-based online seller, Harlan Jacobsen.

Jacobsen’s been selling the Chimes (starting with the Swedish ones and adding quality Chinese offerings later, when the Swedish patents ran out) to Americans since the early ‘70s.

He sells the “Chinese Chimes” online for about $8 (including postage and handling). They’re more expensive if you actually go to a retail store and buy them off the shelf (for obvious reasons)—except if you luck out and get a set for $2 at Walgreens or some other big-box. But they’ll be knock-offs, you can be sure.

The Swedish product cost about $15.95 (including postage and handling) last year. “They were a very hard sell at roughly two-times the price as the very good Chinese substitute,” Jacobsen told me.

The Swedes—being Swedes—were unwilling to compromise quality, so they shut down their historic operations forever. They were simply unable to keep costs down given the relatively high value placed on labor in their country.

That’s where the story would have ended if the Swede’s were not competitive.

But it turns out they are, and Andersson & Boberg packed up and sold its equipment and Angel Chime trademark (the brand) to a firm in Turkey, which is setting up manufacturing operations it hopes will produce quality at least on par with the Chinese substitute product, in time for Yuletide 2010.

Since they couldn’t beat ‘em, Andersson & Boberg decided to join ‘em—‘em being the globally-distributed workforce that now influences our collective economies, trade policies, and immigration policies.

Jacobsen—a wholesale customer (not an end-consumer like Paul and I) from Sioux Falls, South Dakota—says he will carry the new Turkish-made Swedish product if, and only if, its quality is at least as good as—you guessed it—the Chinese version he stocks and sells to his bargain-hunting American customers.

Harlan Jacobsen notes there are at least three Chinese manufacturers and three corresponding levels of quality. “The bad ones,” Jacobsen reports, “are not worth the weight of the tin they’re made with.”

And he’s right. The cheap versions most likely do not incorporate the patented (and more expensive-to-manufacture) glass-bearing-pin (or similar technology) required in order to reduce the friction enough so the turbine spins freely and the angels can ting the bells smoothly and continuously year after year.

His best guess is the new Turkish product will run about $9.95—still a good 20% above the Chinese version Jacobsen carries.

So, not only was Andersson & Boberg competitive for a long time, they’ve gracefully exited the angel scene and aspire to breathe new life into their brand posthumously: They are betting the new Turkish operations can manufacture Angel Chimes™ at least as well as the Chinese (a tall order), and at a competitive price, while carrying their brand name forward into future Yuletide memories.

The Swedes even traveled to Istanbul to share all the manufacturing intelligence (aka, tricks of the trade) they’d garnered from decades of experience as the global leader of angel production and sales (this is known as “knowledge transfer” in organizational development- and learning-speak).

“Only people who had them growing up and brought them out every Christmas as a kid remember them fondly,” Jacobsen muses about the ritual of the chimes and their spell.

If the Swedes are right, our children may be able to buy Angel Chimes™—the one we all grew up with, whose box features the pretty Swedish blond girl—for decades to come.

On the other hand, if they are wrong, Andersson & Boberg will watch helplessly as their fallen angels succumb to cheaper, unoriginal, tawdry knock-offs made with pins that rust over time, grinding their angelic tinkling vision to an untimely halt.

One man’s misfortune might be another’s opportunity, though. Vintage Christmas-candle-chimes are likely to go through the roof either way. At the time of writing, for example, there were several sets on auction at eBay valued at more than four-times the going retail rate.

Happy New Year, 2010!

© John Dila & Paul Dyck 2009

You can purchase the Chinese and Turkish-Swedish (if they live up to expectations) Christmas-candle-chimes from Harlan Jacobsen online: http://angelchimes.com/

In business parlance, an espoused value is a belief the company consciously and publically asserts. A real value is a belief that actually plays out inside the organization’s culture despite what the company asserts.

Does a firm need to wield fear in order to produce quality products and services? Does fear produce a superior work environment? Is fear an acceptable value at a firm?

Absolutely not, and you should seriously question any firm where fear is evident in any more than a healthy measure. Even if it’s at a respected, famous company. What’s a healthy measure? Listen to your gut–it knows.

Not only that, there is compelling evidence indicating the “the military legacy and the way of repeating an analytical approach to management in a pyramidal structure” is anachronistic, according to Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazil’s $1B firm, Semco. Successful firms in our time must be flatter and with all the fear squeezed out.

Here’s how fear played out for someone I know:

I worked at an enterprise search company in Silicon Valley. In my first interview with the hiring manager (a lunch meeting), he asked if I’d ever fired anyone. I had. Then he explained how there were a few things that must be done right away when I came onboard, and he asked if I knew what he meant and if that would be a problem. He was a VP, and his question scared me a little. “Of course,” he said, “you will make your own assessment beforehand but, well, you know what I’m saying.”

My gut told me there was something wrong but my head translated it for me: This is a senior VP at a very successful company. You’re applying for a director role, and he’s talking to you like a director. Say, Yes!

Once I came onboard there was a honeymoon period. My boss paraded me around the firm–even up to the Canadian offices–and spoke highly of my background, experience, and skills. I met other smart people, some of whom he had hired. I thought my boss was charming, well-spoken, and respected.

Then I experienced his staff meetings. Behind the closed conference room door, my boss was brutal with his staff, singling out an individual each time and relentlessly questioning him or her in front of the others, and using circular arguments to make his points. Everyone was too afraid to contradict him, and the flogging went on until the victim sat mute or agreed they had not lived up to their commitments or his expectations.

At first, my head told me the people he berated deserved it–they hadn’t worked hard enough or hadn’t been transparent enough. Then one day, the honeymoon was over, and he raked me over the coals in front of everyone. I was shocked and humiliated because until then he’d sung my praises and I believed I was doing a good job.

My confidence was shaken and–probably due to my inexperience as a manager–I was scared. All the time.

I rebounded a little by working harder and longer. And just as I suspected, my hard work and long hours paid off. For a time, my boss focused his wrath on other directors. Then it was my turn again. The cycle went on and on. One of my colleagues–a senior manager– had a bobble-head on this desk–a generic-looking manager bobble-head, and when you waved your hand in front of him he said, “Yes sir!” It became our self-deprecating effigy symbolizing what our boss looked for in his employees, and what we’d become.

My head was wrong, my gut was right. The senior VP was terminated two years later, and the company was carved up and sold in pieces a year after that. But not before I, and several of my colleagues, quit the firm. I still vividly remember the relief I felt when I made the decision. I was shocked, but not surprised by how many emails I received from peers saying they were thinking of leaving, too.

Fear can play out in a myriad of ways, and on as many levels within a firm. One way you can detect it is by asking yourself how you feel where you are.

Earlier this year, I interviewed two mid-level executives at a well-known Silicon Valley firm (the company is a world leader in designing and manufacturing consumer electronic devices). I asked the executives if they felt stress in their jobs and at the company. Through this questioning, a common theme emerged, even though the individuals worked in different parts of the company:

Fear. A lot of it.

One manager said, I have “fear all the time. Fear to get it done. Like a monkey on your back. 24/7 I  am thinking about work. I go to sleep talking about work, and I wake up talking about work. I’m putting in 80 or 85 hours.”

The other said: “I think there is a fear…that comes from the top down that guides people…a fear of getting destroyed in a meeting, getting fired…”

You might wonder, If they were good at their jobs why would they have fear? Or, How bad could the fear really be? Or, Maybe those employees are insecure–maybe they have a complex.

These aren’t the right questions. When you—or someone you know—feels fear, it is very likely real and there are traceable causes. Running away is not the only answer for employees, and it should not be an acceptable response by a leader or manager, whose employees look to her for leadership.

Semler has radical ideas about managing a firm in today’s environment. With a 2% employee turnover rate at Semco over the past 25 years, his strategies and implementations are worth looking at.

Here are a few points he makes in his presentation at MIT’s Innovative Leader Series in 2005:

  • Most business plans are wishful thinking
  • Growth is overrated for companies
  • Admit what you don’t know
  • Make meetings voluntary
  • Do nothing sometimes
  • We need democratic workplaces
  • Balance your life

Fear is not gone from the American company. Far from it. But the writing is on the wall. Now—in this time of deep global recession, when firms must do everything possible to stay alive—is a good time to take a few minutes to think about what’s going on where you work.

If you’re a manager, now’s a good time to look in the mirror. It’s a good time to squeeze out the fear if it’s there. Ask for help if you don’t know how.

Company’s that tolerate fear will lose their best people and customers sooner or later.

Give it a listen. Please send comments if this strikes a chord.

http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/308/

JD

© 2009 John Dila

…And it works!

I interviewed Tony Hsieh’s head of business dev and marketing (Aaron Magness) in early 2009 about communication strategy at Zappos.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with him in which he explains how Zappos uses social media to create a tight bond between the company and the customer, through an aspect of its culture.

Aaron says the trust that forms between real customers and real employees–which is a key part of their customer service–generates phenomenal repeat business.

Ironically, a non-marketing strategy is their strategy!

Enjoy: http://ia311038.us.archive.org/3/items/InterviewWithMagness/zappos-magness.mp3

© 2009 John Dila