The Story of Chicken

Her name really wasn’t Chicken; it was Gai, which means chicken in Thai.  Thai women have given names as long as your arm, often difficult to pronounce, so most end up with one-syllable nicknames, such as Lek which means small, Dang, which is red, or We, Oi, or Kung. Kung means shrimp. I don’t know what We or Oi means.

The Story of Chicken was told to me by my brother a long time ago over a period of a few months. I never met Chicken. I wish I had, but I have met many other good people with the same determination in life.  My brother met her on a plane from Bangkok to San Francisco.  Her plan was to get a high school education in the United States, a strange goal for a woman in her early 30’s.  Bob became friends with her, and helped her in California, and over time, learned her story.

I have to fill in a few parts of the story I barely remember, but I remember the important bits.  I told the story the first time at the Wentworth Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire to a friend who told me his son was getting an undergraduate degree in business administration.  I suggested a month with Chicken would be time better spent.

Chicken knows business. She is an expert. I think she could teach at either Stanford or Harvard MBA program. She started life being poor; not poor like an American, but desperately poor. Like a few other people I have met, Chicken came to make an early commitment to work her way out of poverty, and to never be poor again.  She wanted to live a life free of economic terror.  Chicken knew the harshness of poverty. She knew hunger and starvation, dirt and filth.  She also knew the kindness of strangers.

Chicken was orphaned at a young age. Before she was ten, her mother and father were killed in a motorbike accident in Bangkok.  If you have been to Bangkok, you would wonder why more bikers aren’t killed. IMG_2292Chicken became a street urchin, a dirty ragamuffin, the kind you see with ratty hair, no shoes, filthy clothes and fingernails.  Some have fear in their eyes, some a determined passion.

Chicken, like many of these children, made her way buying trinkets,  candy and gum and selling to people stuck in Bangkok’s massive traffic jams, knocking on the windows with tourist’s in taxi’s, pleading with those in open tuk-tuks as they clutch tightly to their purses. Chicken knew at an early age the importance of buying and selling. She learned that nothing happens until something is sold, a lesson most Americans never experience.  Whereas Americans want someone to give them a job to lift them out of poverty, Chicken learned to work for  herself to get out.

A stranger, a woman, took pity on Chicken when she was a street child, and took her to live with her in a house of ill repute. Her savior was a prostitute, like Mary Magdalen.  I pass gentle judgment on such a woman.  I am not up on the bible, but I have wondered why Mary Magdalen had a last name, while most bible characters have only a first, possibly followed by the place they were from.  I don’t know much about Mary’s life, other than her profession, and that Christ forgave her. Was she a mother?  Did her husband say, “I divorce you” three times, casting her to the street?  Was the life of a harlot safer than one of wife to a man who abused and beat her? Did he die, was he killed, leaving her with no recourse to feeding her children?  Did Mary Magdalene have no family to turn to for help?

I was with my son in Bangkok one night, also years ago, at a sidewalk café when a young Thai woman walked by holding the hand of a man who would have been about the age of her grandfather.  He was Caucasian, wearing brown wingtip shoes, short pants, black socks from which stuck an ugly pair of skinny legs, fish-belly white.  It was late, and it was clear what was happening.  I asked my young son what he thought of her.

“That’s disgusting.”

Then I asked, if his mother would ever do anything like that. He got angry, and responded with a harsh, “NO.” Of course not.

“You might be surprised what she would do if it were the last resort to feeding you. Don’t judge harshly.  She might have children to feed. Maybe she picked that guy because he is old and harmless.  Maybe she can get him to pay a bit more if she is kind to him.”

For several years, Chicken worked in a bar where women of negotiable virtue plied their trade, in exchange for a place to live, and food. When deemed old enough, she took on that life as well.

After a year or two, it seemed as if she had found a way out. A man in his early 50’s fell madly in love with Chicken, promised to save her, marry her, and take her away to the Promised Land somewhere in Arizona. I suppose the other girls were happy for her. Chicken married, got her Green Card and a U.S. passport, and was on her way to a new life! Chicken’s life of ease, however, was short lived, as her savior severely abused and beat her, as she struggled to find her way in a new and strange culture.  Somehow, she escaped, gathering enough money to buy a ticket back to Pat Pong in Bangkok, where she resumed her former occupation, keeping herself just barely out of the grim reach of poverty, but free from her abuser.

Chicken had seen a better life, and wanted it, but on her own terms.  She promised herself that she would make her way out of poverty, out of this life, and never be poor again.  Chicken was determined, saving every Thai baht she could.  She spent only enough to get by, living a frugal life.  She was a hard bargainer for her wares.  She had no apartment, and slept where she could, but she was clean and pretty.

There are a lot of poor people like Chicken, but you can’t tell by looking.  They might be poor, but they know the dignity of cleanliness and work; people who pull up their pants, get to it with a smile, living life on life’s terms, without anger or rage.

I have seen such people in the factories around the world where I have worked, among other places, China, India, and Mexico; especially Mexico.

People like Chicken know that you can’t look to the government to save you. They know that every government does two things well: take your money and kill people.  A few more can keep order, and build roads and bridges, but few can even do that well.

Chicken continued to save, and soon had enough to buy a 7-11 convenience store in Bangkok.  Now she had employees, and inventory to buy and track. Chicken was no stranger to commerce, no fool who was easy to cheat. Chicken knew the fundamentals of business and what she didn’t know, being smart, clever and determined, could figure out fast.  She had learned to do quick calculations in her head.  Her reading might have been poor, but her math wasn’t. Chicken was an entrepreneur, now with two occupations; working all day at the store and half the night at the oldest profession. Soon, she had enough to buy a second store. Chicken didn’t have a degree, but she could be a professor.

Chicken continued to save and work, but she felt something was missing in her life. She wanted to go to high school. That’s when she did something that to this day, I don’t understand. She sold her two stores, got on a plane to San Francisco, where she sat next to my brother. They became friends.  He even took her to visit my parents, neither ever knowing the full Story of Chicken.

Chicken got her wish.  She somehow went to school, then back to Thailand.   Now she owns and runs a fleet of taxi cabs and lives in a nice house away from Nana Plaza. She had two children by an Australian man. Last I knew, he was still living with her. No, she didn’t marry him.  She doesn’t love or trust men enough to marry one. But she loves her children.

If you ever go to Bangkok and need a ride, let me know. I will get the number of her taxi company. Be prepared to pay full price. Chicken gives discounts to no one. She didn’t learn that in business school.


I am Not a Gay Man

I was having coffee with a couple of close friends a month or so ago.  I forget the context, but one, a very close friend, said, “I am not a gay man.  I am a man who is gay.”

I thought about it at the time, and have been thinking even more about it lately. I think there is an important message in what he said.  I want to know how I am like someone, no matter their culture, race, or what they do for a living.  What do we share?  What can we talk about?  If we can find how we are alike, then we can talk about how we see things, and why we see them as we do. As Congressman Trey Gowdy asked, does unity matter more than diversity? Truth more than freedom?  I seek truth and unity.  I value liberty.

Now, I have known this man for a long time. I admire him.  He has done many things with his life that I wish I had done. He is a good friend to many people, where I am not.  He was born in New Hampshire, went to undergraduate and graduate school in New Hampshire.  He left, as his career demanded, lived in a few places, then returned to his home. He has a home, whereas I don’t. He does important work now for free.  He is with the same partner, and has been for longer than I managed to stay married. I envy his stability in life which I have not found.

We have many things in common and only a few that make us different. I have seen him as a man who is gay, not a gay man for many years. Since he said it over coffee, I have thought more about it.

When I was a boy, there was a girl who lived across the street who looked more like Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger.  C could play the guitar better than Jim, Joe or Bill, and made it a career.  I knew C was different.  I was looking at C’s web site recently.  Why, I have no idea. C’s name was spelled different. I thought it was an error. But I read the blog, and C had undergone a sex change. Well, not really. C is and has been, a man. I knew, in my little boyish mind, that C was more like me than any of the girls. C was one of the guys, and could play better than any of rest of them. If I can put it in a crude way, C was a man without a penis.  And I don’t care that he doesn’t.

Now, this has very little to do with sexual preferences.  It has to do with things I have in common with others, which is the basis for any relationship. It has to do with unity.

I am in Southeast Asia now.  I don’t carry my phone.  I use a real camera when I want a picture, but mostly I like to see and write about what moves me. To me, words are better than a picture; at least, they make a picture more powerful. I am avoiding the constant electronic interruptions in life.  I don’t need to have NEWS FLASH after NEWS FLASH, especially now.  I like life. I am a lucky man.  News flashes impinge on my ability to find common ground with others who are very much like me.

There was a blog post I read yesterday that moved me,  Make it Stop  by Jon Carrol.  It was beautifully written by a man I can find common ground with. I can also find things he wrote that I don’t agree with. So what? He expresses the sadness and insanity of the death spiral we, as Americans, find ourselves wrapped in. He talked about stupid people talking about stupid things.  I hope he would pass positive judgement on what I am writing.

Just as I see a man who is gay, I wish to see a man who is black, not an African-American.  I wish to see a man who is from Mexico, not a Mexican.  I wish to see a man who is Muslim, not a Muslim. I am not interested in an African-American President, but a President who is an American man who has an African father.

I watched a video on You Tube yesterday, a speech by Trey Gowdy.  It also moved me, and I hope to be a better man for it.  Congressman Gowdy said that if you want to persuade a person to see things your way, do it without insulting him. He said that a good relationship can only survive in the absence of insults.  Today’s social media is based on insults. I do it.  I have reposted insults to Hillary Clinton.  I insulted my ex-wife, thinking I was smart and witty, and said I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.  I am good at insults.

I write this because I was moved to do so by a man who is gay, Jonathon Carroll, and Congressman Trey Gowdy.  Contrast that with the constant barrage of insults in the news and social media, with Facebook leading the way.  They only make me angry. They insult me if I disagree, and I insult those with whom I do not agree.  Its easy. Just copy and post.

From now on, I am going to do my best to seek common ground, to find unity, IMG_2266especially with those who share my American heritage.

If you post or repost insults, even if it is about Trump or Clinton, I will message you, telling you that I am going to ban your posts. If I violate my own intentions, feel free to call me on it.

I will try to persuade others to see the world as I do, a beautiful place for those who seek liberty and freedom from government.  I will avoid those who run for office based on a campaign of insults. I won’t be voting for a Democrat or a Republican in 2016. I will vote for Liberty, only if the campaign is free of insults. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter who is elected anyway.

One More Day in Laos

Ah, jeez.  Chicken feet.  I hate chicken feet.  They are worse than eating dog.

We were on our way to look at some land in Laos to lease for project I am working on.  Let’s just say that it is a bit of land, and unbelievably cheap. Thanks to the Communists, I guess. Before we went to have a look, we had to stop to see the village chief.  I like that.  He was noble looking enough and smiled.  His wife served the food while we sat on wobbly plastic chairs on a cement floor, sort of like a porch. The kitchen and bathroom (the outhouse) are always outside. There were pigs, goats and chickens running around.  There was one pig in a pit next to the eating area, where food was prepared.   I guess he was dinner for next week.  There was a goat watching me, front legs on the upper step, looking ready to charge.  I kicked a chicken out from under the table like it was a cat.

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I like these kind of adventures. Its more fun than hanging out in a fancy restaurant in New York City with a bunch of Republicans making a deal. But when his wife put the bowl of chicken parts in front of me I would rather have been anywhere else. I try my best to eat whats placed in front of me in situations like this, but I have gagged on chicken feet in the past. Dog, horse, monkey, bugs, live fish; I have tried it all.  To make it worse, there was a chicken head just under the foot, split in half as if a viking warrior had come down with a blow of his sword and split his skull cleanly in half. Oh, stop whining.  You just have to read it.  I had to eat it.

The toes are the worst part, so i decided to start from the ankle and work my way down. Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, pray for me.  Help me get through this day and I will go to church again.  Chicken feet are like chewing on someone’s nose. I gnawed down a way, then couldn’t do any more.  The Chief watched me, as if it were a test of manhood.  I hope I passed. The Thai people looked in admiration.  (For the record, I never eat fast food or factory food. They think Falangs can only eat McDonalds and KFC, and can’t handle spicy food.) I found out later, they had brought some Thai food along, just in case I couldn’t eat.  The sticky rice was pretty good, but everyone reached in with one hand, and ate it with the other.  I watched carefully so I wouldn’t use the wrong hand.

Just as I thought I was finished, the chief’s wife brought out a bottle of something that looked fierce, and I suspected was some sort of Lao white lightning, but it was red rather than clear. She poured some in a glass, handed it to the person on her left who drank it.  She refilled it, working her way around the group, same glass. That shouldn’t bother anyone.  No germs could survive. The drinkers all tossed it back, turned red, started to sweat, and then reached for a bottle of water.  The guy who was two over from me tossed his back like a pro, and I asked, him, what it tasted like. “Gasoline.”


Now, everyone who knows me well who reads this knows I don’t drink and haven’t for a long time.  Those who are the Facebook friends from days long ago might think, “That makes sense.  He shouldn’t.” I wasn’t going to drink that stuff, custom or no.  I looked at the Thai person in charge, and signaled, no way.  He waived the chief’s wife off, and I was saved.  I escaped, off by myself, as they started the second time around with the bottle.  I  went past a pig or two on the way to the outhouse, which I have to admit was about as clean as you could get an outhouse.  I walked around the village a bit, stared at by kids who had likely not seen a white man.  I liked it. I always do.

After a bit, the whole entourage came out, in a wagon pulled by a rice plow, everyone standing inside.  It was like a hay ride, but the wagon was small and I had no idea what was in it last. I walked behind the wagon for as far as I could.  When we got to the point where we turned to head through the rice paddies before heading up into the jungle, I climbed into the back.  That didn’t last long, as the wagon got stuck in the mud, and everyone had to get out and walk, me in my new sneakers, no hiking boots.

Well, we saw what we needed to see.  Life is just one adventure after another.

A Working Life Chapter 1

Life was easy back then. It wasn’t simple, but it was easy.

I am in  my mid-60’s now, and grateful.  I worked through one of the most interesting and transformational periods in the history of the United States. I think there were two periods, and they ran sequentially, without a break. My father lived through one, and I, through the next.  Now, I think we are on the edge of a third. The first was built on blood and steel, the second on the wave pushed up by the first, sustained by silicone and software. The one to come, I think, will happen as the wave crashes and falls.  I hope as it dissipates, the released energy will power our growth instead of smashing what lies in its path. I am not confident.

I can’t see any historical period where so much happened so fast to those who invent things, and those work in factories making them, and those who fight to preserve, and take them away.  I was lucky, and lived through the best of it. I worked with fascinating people in Asia, the U.S, Europe, South America and the Middle East on interesting projects in plastics, automotive, aerospace, foundries, steel, smelters, electronics and mining. I learned a lot in spite of myself. I Have earned enough to consider myself fortunate, lost it all, then earned enough back; not nearly what I had, but enough.

I thought I was lucky to see the world while helping engineers.  What I really saw was an evolutionary change that few are aware of, but everyone is feeling and fears. My father saw the beginning.

My father was educated in a one-room school house in Colorado, near the New Mexico border.  His family was poor, but it was a good family.  The one room adobe school was at the end of a dirt road at the base of a rock-strewn mountain.  There was no electricity until the mid-30’s, and kids from a long way off walked or rode horses to school, including a girl who was a descendant of Kit Carson, who my dad had a crush on.  Nearby, my father and his brothers took a horse-drawn wagon to a spring to fetch water for the school and their home. After the three of them left for the war, my grandmother, Mollie, and my grandfather, Sam, had a hired man fetch water with a truck. As a boy, Uncle John was charged with chasing the skunks out from under the school.  He got twenty-five cents for each pelt if properly tube-skinned. My dad lit the stove while John shot skunks, as he knew how to drop them with a .22 round before they sprayed.

The twenty or so kids had the same teacher from grades 1-8.  She clearly did a good job. These kids went on to do well in engineering, medicine, and life, but there was a war to fight along the way. Uncle John, joined the Army Air corps, my father went into the Navy, and Uncle David, the Marines.  Between them, they had over 25 battle stars, my father and Uncle David, for Iwo Jima, while David landed on the beach and my dad was on a battleship 1000 yards off shore, his younger brother running up that deadly beach. Uncle John flew over Asia and Europe. They were the first Allen’s outside the United States (unless you count Texas) since the first one set foot in North Carolina in the 1660’s.  My grandfather, Samuel Ross Allen, was born in Belton, Texas, in 1888, and, to the best of my knowledge, never went beyond Texas, New Mexico, or Colorado.  He was a poor dust bowl farmer with a large family, and died at 58.

I was nothing like my father.

I knew little of his life and his culture. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. I knew nothing about hard work at an early age, and I knew nothing about working for food in a dusty field.  I knew nothing about thinking that a war was a way to get out of chasing cows on the back of a horse in a snow storm, wearing nothing but a flannel shirt stuffed with paper in a futile attempt to keep warm.  My generation went to war under justifiable protest, and his, because it was the right thing to do. There was a wedge between generations, generations that came to look at the the same things, but never to see them the same way. Mine is arrogant enough to think it is always right, never taking the time to imagine what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes.  We are, frankly, selfish and narrow minded, no matter how much we prattle on about diversity, inclusiveness and more day care centers and money for education, without ever asking how and why a one room school house worked so well.

Compared to him, I was weak. I grew up feeling that I deserved things. Life came easy for me and my generation, but I thought it was BECAUSE of me.  My father and I didn’t get along well.  We fought a few times.  I was hit with an open hand a few times, took it and stared back. Once, he hit me with a fist, and I hit him back. Then I took a beating. I don’t remember what it was about, but I was hard to handle. The time came for me to keep my head down, then get away.  I was 18, and a week after I finished high school, I was in the Navy. It was 1968.

The U.S. Navy had modern submarines and ships, but an aircraft carrier, two battleships, and a few destroyers were left over from World War II, with plenty of ammunition to fire from 5 and 16 inch guns into Vietnam. IMG_0023

I was a good submariner, but not much of a sailor. I learned a lot, the technology was easy and interesting, but like most things, it took me years to figure out just what I had learned and its value. I was a boy running a nuclear power plant. When I look back, I am surprised at the effectiveness of training which can teach boys to do such things, and do them well. The United States Navy had the best and most effective training I have ever seen. I tried to emulate what I had learned to teach engineers as I moved on. It became part of me. I hope the training is as good today. I suspect it is better, as today they teach kids like my niece to run machines on ships at sea far more sophisticated.

It was hard to be a good sailor or soldier then.  It was difficult to wear a uniform that set you apart from those who had been your peers, but whom you could never be like again. You saw things different, but I never saw them like my father did. I respected the Navy, loved my country and its people, but have come to fear my government. I learned that governments do two things well; take your money and take your life.  I have seen man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.  It is independent of race and culture. There are a few tasks we are stuck having government do.  I prefer to keep it to as few as possible, because I expect little, and fear the motive. I trust people in a factory far more.


I left the military, went to college, got an engineering degree, mostly paid for by the G.I. Bill, a bill intended for guys like my father and his brothers.  I deserved it, I thought. I was able to make my way through school without taking any money from my father, but it was easy to get a part-time job that paid enough to get by, and to drink plenty of beer on weekends.  A good education was cheap back then. You didn’t have to borrow money. A few years later, I spent more on day-care than I had on college tuition. I thought it was the way it was supposed to be, but had no idea it was because of guys like my father, and a post-war economy that wouldn’t last. In retrospect, I feel naive, but at least I think about it more than the people we elected. I know; that’s a low bar.

I graduated in the spring of 1977, looked in the local newspaper, The Erie Times, circled a few ads, applied to about ten jobs, and was offered more than one.  Getting a job was easy back then. I took a job at an interesting company, for $13,000 a year.  I bought a car, with payments of $79 a month.  I rented an apartment, and by the time I was 30, bought a house for $32,000, and was soon earning $30,000 a year.  Earning your age meant you had “made it,” that you were on your way.  This reinforced that I was getting what I was due.  I deserved it, by God!

I was smart, and learned quickly, but so were a lot of other guys.  Smart guys were easy enough to find. Yes, it was guys.  There were hardly any women running factories in those days.  There were a lot of black guys working in them, but few were helping to run them.  One black guy, the next door neighbor when I was a boy, had a high level job at GE.  He was an extraordinary man, in a world of smart guys. He had to be. We should have found a way to include minorities before the government got involved.  We would all have ended up much better off.  A good capitalist should have done it for no other reason than minorities and women buy stuff and see things in a different way. Seeing things different from the way I do is interesting to me. Even today, I don’t spend much time hanging around guys like me. What’s the point? Seeing things in different ways has become part of me.

If you just showed up at work back then, put in a little effort, you could make a good living. I was making my way up the middle class, a place I thought I deserved.  There were workers in the factory who could support a family, maybe not so well, but the work was dependable even if some of it a drudge.

My first job was an easy place to work for me, but once again, I didn’t know it.  We mostly made plastic milk crates in several cities in the U.S., with a few clever twists, and knew we would make a few more every year.  Brad, the guy who took the company over from his father was strange, but clever.  He was also smart, but clever matters more than smart. He was a good man, but haunted in more ways than one. Life has taught me that haunted people are often the most clever among us. So has history.

Brad was one of a very few haunted men, who I think, clever enough to develop a good idea, hire a few smart guys, build a factory or two, and keep it going.  He thought he had something to prove to himself. You try to prove something to yourself, do it, then change the criteria. It’s nigh impossible to do enough to prove enough to ourselves if we are haunted.

There were lots of guys like me, smart, young, who were able to keep the place running, week after week, and year after year.  We didn’t need to be clever. We just wanted a little more.


The older I get, the more fondly I think of Brad, and what I learned from him. He certainly is unforgettable.  He hired people who could really sell, and he knew how important it was. I remember, one day, sitting in his office in Los Angels with a few other guys talking about ways to spend his money on some silly project.  Brad half-listened, jumping up and down, sliding the glass partition open and shut to order Suzie to do some damn thing, breathing hard, and snapping his teeth.  The harder he breathed, the closer he was to saying something.

“Nothing happens until something is sold.”  That’s all he said. I had no idea what in hell he was talking about at the time.  I do now. Go sell it, whatever IT was, then do it. Sell it first.

Now, in my own little company, I try to get a purchase order for one dollar. If I can do that, I can get another, and another.  I watch others flail away trying to make a million dollars, while I want to earn a buck.    Way back then, I resented the sales guys.  After all, they weren’t as smart as I was. They just dressed better, and were all better looking guys.  But they could sell, and nothing happened until something was sold.  If they didn’t sell, there was nothing for me to do. Brad knew it, and knew how to hire the right guys to sell. To me, I still thought in terms of what was fair…fair to me.

Brad had a few other clever ideas. One was crazy.  He decided to buy a business that was making components for hard drives in the days when it was a new product.  He was also crazy enough to give me the most senior manufacturing management job.  I had no idea what in hell I was doing, and was too foolish to admit it.  If I had, there were guys to help, like Tim and Mike. However, I was lucky, and learned a lot, especially from a couple of guys in the tool room.  I was able to put what I learned to good use in the next few years.  I was lucky.

We were machining parts for one gigabyte hard drives back then, that were as big as apartment-size washing machine, selling for $40,000.  Today I can give away a 128 gig thumb drive with my company logo for customers to hook onto a key chain.

In Brad’s primary business, the one before he decided to buy the company that made hard drives, you could project sales for the next year based on the last. It was easy, and you weren’t likely to be far off, so at the end of the year, you could easily congratulate yourself about how smart you were.

I was just learning to use an electronic spreadsheet back then. I remember working with Alan to figure out what it meant to “replicate” numbers and formulas down a column.  A year or so before that, I was using thirteen column green accountants paper to project (guess) at budgets. The speed at which you could make a change was based on how fast you could use an eraser, pencil and a calculator.

Electronic spreadsheets are something my father never learned. It involved typing and he wanted nothing to do with it. When I was in about the 9th grade, I signed up for Personal Typing. When my father found out, he said, “No son of mine is going to learn to type,” and threatened to pull me out. How was I supposed to know that Real Men Don’t Type?

Nothing came of it, but I made sure I didn’t get a good grade.  I only took the class because Jim, Mark and I thought there were lots of pretty girls in there. I think my father must have feared that any desire to learn to type meant that I was sweet on Jim or Mark. Years later, when Dad took a job in San Francisco for the Southern Pacific Railroad and had a gay secretary, I reminded him of that episode.  He was far more tolerant at that stage in his life, but clearly had hoped I had forgotten.

Neither Brad, Mike nor I had any idea that everything we were machining for hard drives would be obsolete in 6 months.  We had no idea that the business, that business in general, would change so fast. We should have. The sales and profit projections on that new spreadsheet thing were silly. Not only did we need to learn to make and sell things as they were being invented, we had to have access to clever people, and lots of them, to do it. Then it wasn’t the sales guys that mattered as much as the engineers who could change the factory around on a dime, and make a profit with increasing competitive pressure.  We didn’t have it. I didn’t know it then.

I think Brad learned, slowly, to face his own shortcomings, and came to depend on Mike to compensate. Brad came to trust Mike, who was smart, and worthy of Brad’s trust.  Mike became clever. Mike didn’t gossip with those who didn’t matter.  He had a level of humility, or at least exhibited it, that was beyond his years. Clever, I think, is latent, not learned, but must be developed and fostered to flourish.  Mike pulled it off. I wonder if he knew what he was doing at the time. I didn’t.

Manufacturing and industry were on the cusp of a revolution.  The products made in the USA were going to change and change fast.  I had no idea what was to come.  I don’t think Bill Gates, Andy Grove or Steve Jobs did either. They had clever ideas; extraordinary ideas.  Were they also haunted?  Jobs was.  It was to be the best of times, and the worst of times. Things happened, and a lot of people suffered while many got rich. Although techies got rich, not many got into the middle class as a result of what was to happen. Politicians took credit for the best, and blamed capitalism for the worst. It happened fast. I know what happened, and why.  Politicians don’t.

I was in the deep end of the pool then, in over my head, at least then, and so were a lot of other people. I was escorted to the door, lucky or smart enough to know some of what I didn’t know, determined to move on, to learn and to protect myself. I did learn or develop this thing called clever, and ultimately find my place. Maybe clever comes from failure. I did fail, but learned to fail and fail fast, then move on. My place was in the factory, a place I liked, and learned to be among the best in a very narrow field.  I was no manager, no general manager.  I am a specialist, in a field that has only a few.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be the best, it was that I liked factories, liked making things, liked making them run better, and and was liked with the people who worked there. Factory people are special.  They are the reason there is a middle class.  They really do add value. I know it, and I help.

The New Science of Fixing Things

We got good at it.  It was fun. We got to be the best.

Chapter 2 A Japanese Machine Tool Company  soon

Chapter 3 An introduction to Consulting  a little later…

Chapter 4 Founding a Consulting Company..after that..

Chapter 5 The New Science of Fixing Things  A project or two


English or Metric?

IMG_1705I live on my sailboat in the Caribbean.  Now I am in Panama.

I asked the local maintenance guy to change the zincs (sacrificial anodes) on my boat, a task for a diver.  There are zincs on the end of the prop, the rudder support, the prop shaft and the bow thruster.  The diver was from Spain, and the guy he dives for is from South Africa.  There is an Englishman on the next boat over with an accent so thick, I just nod and agree with him.

I handed the South African boss the zincs and he asked if I had spare stainless steel bolts. I said I did, and fetched them.  He asked if the boat, an Island Packet 445 made in the  USA, used that “stupid American measuring system.”

I replied, “It’s not American system.  The damn English gave it to us before we threw them out. And the bolts are metric.”

The Englishman, who was drinking beer because it was just past noon, jumped in, “At least we had enough sense to get rid of it. You Yanks will never be able to do science as long as you keep it up.”

I made a comment about the French having start it with Napoleon, which starting a series of trading a few more offensive and politically incorrect shots.

The Spanish diver came up, and said one of the bolts he was trying to reuse was bent, and he needed a new one.  He handed it to the South African. I looked down from the deck of my boat, and asked, “Is it an M6?”

He gave me a dirty look as if I didn’t know bolt sizes from afar. “It’s an M4.”

“How long?” I asked.

He replied, “About an inch.”


It was dusk.  I was walking through Bocas town with Toni wearing short pants and a t-shirt, a ball cap, and my backpack with chancleta on my feet. Willie stopped his rusty old bicycle next to me and said, “Weed, Weed?”

I find it a bit odd that he even asks me, a man in my mid 60’s. Then again, why not? Lot’s of gringos still smoke dope. “Look, Mate, give it a rest. No, I don’t want any weed. You ask me every night, and I tell you the same damn thing. That was in another lifetime. Don’t you recognize me as the guy who always says, no?”

His broad white smile opened across his black face. “And I always tell you white people all look the same to me.”

His lack of prosperity doesn’t say much for the drug trade, but he has reached a level of infamy, as everyone in town knows him as Weed Willie.

I like nicknames.  Maybe it’s because I never had one. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time remembering names, but never forget a nickname. With a name like John, you would think I would need one to differentiate me from others in a place where there are a lot of John’s and no one knows your last name.  When I was in the Navy, I was called by my middle name, Ross, but that’s not a nickname.

Here in Bocas, there are those who are great friends, and have been great friends for years, but don’t know your last name.  I like that.

There is Hostel Heike, who owns a hostel, of course. That’s a good nickname.  It speaks to her character as well as what she owns.  I bet she is from Germany.  There is a hostel in town called Hostel La Vista.  That’s a great name.  It sticks with you. I wonder if Hostel Heike owns Hostel La Vista.  That would be perfect.

Chris Fish sold fish, of course, but he can’t get fish anymore from Panama City, so now he makes sausage.  I wonder why he isn’t called Fish Chris, or if he will be called Sausage Chris before too long.  Its too bad about the fish.  I liked him. He was careful to make sure he only had fresh fish from the sea. He told me not to eat tilapia, junk fish raised in tanks fed chicken waste, or the trout, farmed in Chirique since they are fed liver pills loaded with chemicals.

There is also Wifi Gary. He installed the wifi in the marina, and is always fixing it and upgrading the equipment.  Gary is about my age, clever and friendly.  He is clever enough, I guess, to keep getting calls to fix it.  I wonder if he bills by the hour.  Gary is building a grocery store on Red Frog to expand his empire.  I wonder if he will get a new nickname.

Last week, I stepped onto the water taxi to town at the Red Frog Marina dock.  DC was coming down the dock (that’s his real name) asked where Gary was.  One guy said that he was on his way to Almirante in another boat.

I said, “Which Gary?”

DC said, “Wifi Gary.”

“I just saw him up in the villa reception area on the phone.”

Nicknames are much better than last names. They set you apart, especially when no one knows your last name.

A few days ago, someone asked me if I saw the infection on Skinny Bob’s leg. No, I hadn’t, but I have no interest in Skinny Bob’s legs when he DOESN’T have an infection. However, the reference to Skinny Bob was all I needed to get the picture.  Here in the tropics, you really can get an ugly infection. Skinny Bob had such a bad infection, he put out a call on the local radio for help in getting anti-biotics.  I haven’t heard about him lately.  I hope he is OK.

There are sailors here in Panama from all over the world.  The people from New Zealand have the same nickname.  You guessed it; they are all called Kiwi.  There is Kiwi Dave, who is a great welder, if you can find him. Now, I hope no one gets offended, but I never met a Kiwi or an Aussie who wasn’t at least half crazy, but in a good way. Actually, I don’t care if you do get offended.

There is Diesel Jeff, who is the best around if you need your engine fixed.  Jeff is short.  Nowadays, no one gets nicknamed based on size or shape.  People get too easily offended. Years ago, if you are a big guy, you might get nicknamed Tiny. No one would want to be called Tiny Tim.

When I was in the Navy, I had a good friend named Shelby Berryhill.  He was an Indian, the kind with feathers, not dots.  He was called, Chief, of course.  Back then, all the Indians were called Chief, just like the Juicy-Fruit chewing Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I subscribe to a weather service for sailors. A guy named Stormy does the forecasts.  See?  I can remember his name.

Gee, I wish I had a nickname.

I Hate the Yankees

Everyone has a story. Most people have an interesting story if you can get them to tell it.

Late one day, I was walking to my room after checking into the Hilton in Detroit.  I like to chat up pretty much everyone when I get a chance, so I said hello to the chambermaid in the hall and asked how she was. She was timid, not used to the people in the hotel talking to her. I guessed she was not from the United States.  Few people who clean hotel rooms are, and I fear she was used to the guests ignoring her.

That’s enough of a reason for me to say hello, to show a bit of respect, merely by acknowledging her, usually enough to make a person feel welcome.  I tried to place her country of origin and couldn’t, so I asked where she was from. She hesitated, then I knew it was from the Middle East. Middle Easterners always hesitate; they assume that I hate them.  I waited, and she said, “Iran.”

“Do you like the Tigers?” I asked?

“No, I like the Wings,” she said proudly.

“You are going to make a good American,” I told her, and she beamed.

The next day, I was in my room working when she came by to clean.  I got her to tell me that she had been in the U.S. for a few years, that she worked two jobs, her husband two more, and that she had two children in school.  She worried about her kids fitting in, that they were becoming too American too fast.  Her daughter was going out with am American boy, and she, of course, worried about her.  Her children sound like Americans when they speak, don’t care about there own language, and perform among the best in their class.  She feels badly that she is hardly there for her kids, and has to work so hard.  I said, that it is the way immigrants become American, and that I hoped her children were very successful and took care of her when she was older.  She deserves it, for she is making sacrifices for her children so they can live in the United States.  Living here is not enough. Becoming a citizen is not enough.  If you come here, you need to become an American, and they are trying.

Her family likes the Wings, while I hate the Yankees.

When my son was a boy, he once said, “I hate that.”  I have no idea what it was that he hated that day, but my then-wife took it as an opportunity to say, there would be no talk of hate in the house, and went on as to how, “Hatred corrodes the vessel that holds it.” There was an exception, of course, when it came to the Yankees.  We loved to hate the New York Yankees,  as did my parents and grandparents.  We grew up loving the Red Sox. You had to hate the Yankees if you were from New England.

Now, this was all good natured form of hatred, if there is such a thing.  Players could go from one team to the other, but it does seem as if the flow of great players has been from the Sox to the Yankees, starting with Babe Ruth.

Red Sox player Johnny Damon professed his dislike for the Yankees and was quoted as saying, ”There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they are going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.” — Johnny Damon, May 2005

The traitor Damon then went to play for Steinbrenner’s evil empire, and a t-shirt was soon seen around Boston with his long-haired image, and the words,

Looks Like Jesus

Throws Like Mary

Acts Like Judas

It still annoys me after ten years. He even shaved his beard and cut his hair to look like a Yankee.  Damnit.

It’s the American way to change teams, but the loyalists have to continue to support the home team. The right to change teams often comes with a fight. Curt Flood refused to accept a trade, challenging baseballs reserve clause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Flood lost, but shortly thereafter, free agency became part of baseball.

It might be painful, but the freedom to change teams is the American way, even if it is to the Yankees.  This rivalry is so old and so strong, the TV broadcasters like to show a couple, husband and wife, one tricked out in a Red Sox hat and gear, the other in Yankees pinstripes. Its perfect.

When I lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, there was a guy from Iran who ran the Oriental rug store on Congress Street.  He married an American woman.  I ran into him often at Starbucks. His mood ran hot and cold, depending on the Sox and the Celtics. Once in a while, we sat and talked, and I asked him questions about Iranian politics.  Once, I said, that I thought it was a good deal that he could have more than one wife. He looked at me, and said, “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about.”  He complained that his one wife and several daughters never paid any attention to him.  Welcome to the American team.

It’s the American way to allow anyone onto the team who can play the game. It has not always been that way, and we need to work to make sure the American team adds players as soon as they can play.  There is no reason, ever, to keep people off a team who can play.  Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play major league baseball in 1947, the date many people use to recognize when baseball was integrated.  It was really the ridiculously late date of July 21, 1959, when the Red Sox added Pumpsie Green.  Neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees, both late to integrate, could win against teams that had. As a Red Sox fan, it pains me that the Sox were dead last in integrating.  They can never say, “wait until next year.” That game is in the record books.

I wonder at the irony in Curt Flood fighting baseball’s reserve clause a mere ten years after Pumpsie Green played for the Red Sox.  Flood is not as recognized as Robinson, but I imagine every adjective used to demean Robinson was also directed toward Flood. It was Flood, the American, who changed the American way in America’s sport.

After you make the team, changing teams is a big decision. When my mother, an Irish Catholic, married my father, a Scottish Methodist my Irish descendant grandmother, Maize Donovan,  seethed quietly. She had lived in the Irish section of Boston. Nor did she like it when my mother’s sisters married men whose families had come from Italy. At least they were Red Sox fans. Soon, however, she loved my father and my uncles.  It is American to marry someone from another religion or race.  It is what we do. Our children are all mixed up.  Good for us.

Americans don’t have a problem with immigrants. They like them. They understand that the country is based on immigration, and that America has a culture of inclusion, perhaps not as good as it should be.  It is not just what we strive for; it is what we fight for. A culture of inclusion, however, means that once you come here, you have changed teams.  We want you to get onto the American team. We will even give you a generation or two.  I wish we would figure out how fast immigrants could get onto the American team. If there are too many too fast, then we end up with isolated communities, based on a culture that is not American.  It won’t work.

Americans don’t care if you bring your religion with you. I suspect there are more religions in the United States than in any other country.

We believe in freedom of religion, as long as it is a religion of freedom.

Bring your religion of freedom.  Just don’t cut women, make them enter by another door, or prohibit intermarriage. Don’t tell a woman she cannot do something because she is a woman.  That alone leads to third-world backward cultures dominated by stupid men. No society can advance by holding back women.  If you inhibit the freedom of anyone from doing anything because of race, sex, or sexual orientation, then I don’t want you here.  Frankly, get out. You will ruin America.

You cannot bring your laws with you.  We have our laws, laws fought for in a Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights wars, where men, women and children have died, sometimes by our own hand.  We will fight again if we have to, reluctantly, but test no American in his will for freedom.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founding Father’s set a high bar, a bar even they did not clear. Yes, we can do better.  But we can never lower the bar.  If that bar is lowered, there will be no America.

The Catholics don’t measure up, you say? It would be American for women to be priests. We are getting there, too slowly for me.

Last night was New Year’s Eve. I went to Catholic mass at a small church in Bocas Del Toro, Panama with my Panamanian girl friend who is descended from China, and is Catholic.  One priest was from Panama, one from Vietnam, and one from Spain. There were people in the simple church descended from Africans, Indigenous Indians, Chinese, Spanish Panamanians and a few Europeans, like me.  I was the only man wearing short pants and sandals.  I hope my mother wasn’t watching from heaven. I would have tried to justify my attire by telling her Jesus wore sandals. People from all over the world were there, cultures mixed but parts preserved, making one culture in one Church.

I liked the mass.  The music was Latin and fun.  There was lots of clapping and swaying, mostly by the black people and a group of Chinese girls. Only one woman wore a veil. That’s her choice.  No man can tell her what to wear.  I recall that my sisters and mother had to wear scarves to church.  I also remember a feeling of superiority that I, as a boy, was exempt.  I was an altar boy at St. Rose in Topsfield, Massachusetts, and girls were not permitted to serve.  Today, I would refuse, but today, girls can serve. It is an important message to boys.

If you want to be American, then your old culture has to fade into the mixed-up American culture. My ancestors didn’t like it, but they had to accepted it. It makes us who we are, and it makes us stronger.  Your culture will be absorbed, and change America for the better.  However, if you come to America, and you build barriers to becoming American, isolate, and refuse to join the team, then I fear for my country.  We will lose the essence of who we are, a people who are comfortable with changing our core, but not our core principles of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and the Freedoms described in the Bill of Rights.

The woman who changed the sheets in the Hilton likely had more education than the people who slept in the beds. Maybe that is the price she has to pay, having escaped a country where she was no longer safe. She might have to give up the hope for her daughter to marry a nice Iranian boy of the same religion. I hope her daughter’s children will be American, and nothing else. I hope they like the Tigers, hate the Yankees, and root for the Red Sox if the Tigers are out of the running.

If a Picture is Worth 1000 Words…What Do You Do When You Need 100?

If it were not for the electronic gadgets we have available today, we couldn’t do what we do for a living. Only a few people would live on sailboats, what I do when not making a living helping people around the world with quality, product performance and reliability problems.

We need to communicate with people around the world as readily as we can with the folks next door to do what we do. This has only been possible for a few years, even though we accept it as normal today. I remember being astounded when sending my first fax by using the telephone, which took several minutes per page. Before that we had to use snail mail for documents, and expensive international phone calls for talking, always through AT&T. David lives in England, Tobias in Germany. The biggest impediment to communicating with one another now is that someone might be in bed. In 2015, we worked for clients in a dozen or so places in the United States, Germany, Italy, China, Mexico, and a few other places as well. When a client contacts us, we go. When they want to communicate, we need to be available.

Our seminars and slides are stored in Dropbox. We now scan documents with Scanner Pro on I-pads, and use GoodReader as a filing system. Everything is backed up in a cloud, and somehow, my Mac, IPad and IPhone all stay synched.

I am currently in Panama. I just sailed from Red Frog in Western Panama to Colon, near the canal, but I won’t stay long. I have to decide if I am going to sail to Trinidad in the Eastern Caribbean, leaving before the Christmas winds, or through the canal, northwest to Costa Rica, then to Tahiti in January or February. And I will still manage to get my work done at The New Science of Fixing Things.

I admit I am a far more dependent on technology than I should be. I principally use electronic charts. Years ago, I learned how to use a sextant, but forgot, a wonderful tool replaced by a GPS and a chart plotter. I took pride in surprising the instructor as we sailed from Bermuda to Virginia, consistently able to find our position within a few hundred yards, and always within 2nm, while others were off by far more. Now I could do as well with a sextant as a chart and a dart.

I learned coastal navigation with a hand-bearing compass and paper charts. I used to mark my position when anchored with that same compass, check it and plot it with a pencil every 15 minutes until I was sure the anchor was set. Now I toss my big Rocna anchor off the bow, set the scale on the chart plotter so I can watch as the boat traces a path and moves in 6-foot increments. I set an alarm to go off if the boat moves more than .1nm and the GPS does the work. The compass, and a spare are behind me as I write this at the navigation station on my boat, Ariadne. I would be embarrassed to admit how long it has been since I used them.

Even with my dependency on electronics, I try to avoid the addiction of electronic gadgets we depend upon. I rarely carry a cell phone. I don’t want to be in touch all the time. Frankly, I am not that important, and what you want to talk to me about can wait. I don’t want a picture of what you ate this morning and I am not much interested in the details of your personal life in an instant message or Facebook. I don’t want to walk down the street texting. I don’t want to chat with you. If I am in conversation, I want to engage, to look you in the eyes. I won’t talk to you if you delude yourself into thinking you are multi-tasking, texting while talking, which means doing multiple things poorly.

Gadgets make it harder and harder, but more important to find peace. Peace comes from the comfort I get from simple things, from walking in the jungle near Bocas Del Toro listening to the parrots, or anchoring in Bluefield, a place with no Wi-Fi or phone service, where I hiked and swam under a waterfall a few days ago and bought a few lobsters from the Indians as they paddle alongside in their kayukas. It means turning the phone off when I write.

I find peace by taking the time to see things, which means to spend uninterrupted time when things matter, things that I enjoy seeing, or things that are important to see. Seeing does not mean looking.

Looking means taking a photograph with my phone of a parking place at Logan Airport, so I won’t loose the car. I don’t care to see a parking place, only to look then move on. (I don’t own a car now, but I have a nice dinghy with a 15HP Yamaha.)

I can often see what I need to see with a pencil and paper and a bit of uninterrupted peace. A pencil and paper are ancient devices with a proper place in today’s world of engineering. The best engineers I know keep notebooks. All of them can make a sketch, without exception. Can you? Do you know when to draw a sketch? Do you know when to take the time to draw? Do you know how powerful a sketch can be? Do you know how to make it powerful?

The picture below is a sketch of a cutlass bearing and the zinc on the prop shaft I drew into my boats logbook.

2015-11-27 17.15.27.jpg
Shaft Zinc and Cutlass Bearing

I could have looked and taken a photo, but I chose to draw it and see. Drawing takes a bit of time. I like to draw because it helps me to see. I like the peacefulness it brings to me (when the gadgets are off) and I like knowing that I am learning what I need to learn. A drawing has only what I want to see. A photo has too much information, too much to look at, and not just what I choose to see. A photograph doesn’t come with labels or notes on the important parts.

“But I can’t draw,” we often hear.

“Then you cannot see,” I will respond. If you cannot see, then you cannot understand. If you cannot understand, then you cannot fix anything. The good news is, that drawing a cartoon is a powerful and simple way to start any project. And, you can draw. Get to it.

Just draw what you see. With a bit of practice you will get better. A drawing can be crude. It might be done on the whiteboard. I think it’s more difficult on a whiteboard, because you are usually trying to draw while others are talking at you, but sometimes, you have to. What matters is that you took the time to see, not just to look. A cartoon shows that you are taking the time to learn.

Whiteboard Work.  It has mine and David’s handwriting

David drew the following cartoons while working on a difficult project in Germany. It took some time, but he needed dedicate the time to the drawing, to really think through the function and to get it right.

From David’s Notebook
Also from David’s Notebook
One from my notebook

Solving engineering and technical problems requires a process of some sort. The best process is not one that is made up with the idea of using a bunch of tools, but one that is developed over time…years…and then written down by the experts who developed it, and used it.

For years, after we solved tough problems at The New Science of Fixing Things, people asked, “How did you guys learn to do that so fast and with such insight?”

I shrugged, and said, “We got old,” meaning we have been doing it for years. One person told me, “You have said that before and it is not helpful. You need to take the time to figure out what you guys do and how you do it then teach it. What you have is valuable and needs to be captured.” He was right.

We think we have captured it, and now teach what we do better than we ever have, based on the 8C process below.

8C Process From d-TACTICS Workbook


What we discovered as we looked at our notebooks is that every project started with a sketch, a cartoon, the first step in d-TACTICS for Matryoshka Characterization with small multiples, and z-STRATEGIES, energy concepts for machine performance and reliability

A proper cartoon is an effective learning tool. It provides the opportunity to begin to see not just to look. It is the beginning of gaining insight into how stuff really works. Insight and understanding is often a pleasant surprise.

For those who want to do what we do, start with a cartoon. We will be happy to teach you the rest as well.

“The growth and transformation that has occurred in our Technical Problem Solving group over the last 18 months just simply blows me away! This transformation, I owe a largely to your, David, and now Tobias’s teachings.  Clearly you got it right and I’m certain TNSFT will leave a lasting legacy well beyond our years.  My only regret is that I was not able to successfully fight the head winds here to begin this journey 8 years ago when I wanted. I can only imagine what the organization would be doing right now.  I really look forward to our growing partnership as we move forward together in the future.  Thanks again for all of your help!”

You are welcome, my friend. Thanks for the chance to work with you.

Last Night in Shanghai


David, Tobias and I finished a two-week d-TACTICS workshop in China yesterday. Together we took the subway and the maglev train to the airport. The train was fun. We reached 300kph while looking out the window at the cars stuck in traffic, blowing horns like the Chinese like to do. It took 7 minutes to get from Central Shanghai to the train platform between the two terminals. The total cost of the trip from the far side of Shanghai was about $7 for the train and 70 cents for the subway, compared to $80 to go the other way in a taxi.

Tobias managed to get a late flight back to Germany last night. David left for London this morning, and I will leave tomorrow for the U.S. then back to Panama. I have to go to Alabama to pick up some spare parts for my sailboat, which I left at my sister’s house, then head for Panama and back to the Ariadne, my sailboat.

I am in the Shanghai Pudong Ramada Hotel at the airport now on the 7th floor. This is my third trip to China in the last 8 weeks. I reached Diamond level on Delta airlines this year, a reward I hope never to get again. Yesterday, I got a call from one more client to come to help with a problem. I turned them down, as much as I wanted to stay, but I think I wanted to go home. I have made a lot of sacrifices over the years when people have called, rarely if ever having the sense to say, “no.” I am 65 years old. It’s time. Even David and Tobias said to go home.

The sky is as clear a New Hampshire morning, a rare event here in Shanghai. In one direction from my 7th floor room I can see the runway, with one large plane after another taking off for cities halfway round the world. When I look the other way, there are so many ships carrying freight that every day looks like the Invasion of Normandy, or perhaps the Battle of Leyte Gulf since we are in the Pacific. Can the demand for goods around the world really be so large? Who is buying all that stuff? Does it all have to be made in China?

Maybe, just maybe, there are a few things on those ships The New Science of Fixing Things helped make a little better. Maybe there are engineers in the factories where we have worked and taught, who can make things better and are more reliable. Maybe there are a few folks here in Shanghai who will remember us after we fly away, because they had fun learning to do their jobs better, faster and are confident in the products they make.

I hope so. It really matters to me. It seems as if the fundamentals of making things aren’t so fundamental any more. But we have fun teaching it and I am grateful for those who invite us to work with them. I am the luckiest engineer I know. I like the work, and the people we work with around the world.

I know when things started to get more confusing for manufacturing engineers. It was when we replaced, or tried to replace, sound reasoning with computers and thousands of data points when only a few will do. Projects that should take an hour or a day often take a month or a year, by people who make claims about continuous improvement and six-sigma.

We had a couple of projects this week that were rather simple (just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it is easy.) Simple projects, properly told in a story are very revealing. Simple projects teach us the fundamental principles we need to adhere to when the tough ones come along.

One project was claimed as a run-out issue on a shaft-pinion assembly. (It still gets under my skin when someone calls a problem an issue, but these folks are Chinese and heard this nonsense from Americans, so I meditated for a second and let it go.) Just as we always do at the beginning of a project, we have to sit through a presentation of useless statistics confused with problem solving tools. We looked at a process capability analysis of run-out which came from measuring lots of parts, revealing nothing useful, but claims of stability or lack thereof.

You cannot diagnose anything based on measuring shaft run-out. It can’t be done. There is a simple test for how helpful a measurement system is for diagnosis. If the value is calculated, then don’t use it. (There are exceptions, and we know them all.) Run-out is generated by setting an indicator on a shaft, rotating the shaft 360° and reading the full sweep of the indictor; in other words, subtracting the smallest value from the largest value. It’s calculated, and looses useful positional information.

I read Keki Bhotes book on World Class Quality 25 years ago, and knew that what he was proposing in the infamous rotor shaft case he copied from Dorian Shainin was flawed. It was flawed because he used the shaft diameter, a measurement that is independent of how the machines tool created it. A lathe creates a point in space some distance from the axis of rotation, a radius. Thus, a diameter is a sum of two radii, a weak approach to professional problem solving. Simple enough. Unfortunately, Keki used this case to teach multi-vari to thousands over the years from a starting point that has little to do with the action of the machine, but rather a universal decomposition into within part, part-to-part and time-to-time.

In the new shaft run-out case and the old rotor shaft case, the measurements reveal nothing about the machine action that created the parts, which is the whole point of this level of technical problem solving. No one teaches it properly…well, we do. It’s the primary focus of our d-TACTICS workshops.

In the shaft run-out project this week, the measurement of run-out was not only of little help (other than for quality control) but the measurement of run-out improper. They were being measured while located in a VEE block, not on center.

I asked them to select three shafts, number them, and chuck #1 into a milling machine. Once in the milling machine, I asked them to properly locate and zero the indicator, mark the shaft, then rotate 90°, mark the displacement again, then repeat at 180° and 270°. Next, do the same thing for the rest of the shafts. Then, of course, we plotted the results of the three shafts, starting at 0° then 90°, 180° and 270°. The plot below shows the results. As always, a list of numbers never has the power of a picture.

shaft shape ccccc

Once that part of the task was finished, the shafts were inserted into the pinion using the normal process. Next, each assembly was checked again at the four positions where the displacement was measured and recorded. The values were plotted. The redlines the shaft shape as it was received, the blue the same positions measured after the pinion was installed. Have a look. Is the run-out a function of the INPUT (shafts) or FUNCTION (assembly process?)


Since we know small sample sizes are effective, and most people are trained to sample lots of parts, one guy asked if he could measure a few more to gain a bit of confidence. I relented, as long as he was willing to look back upon completion and tell me how much value the additional parts (and time) really were worth. He did, and admitted it had little value, but did make him feel better. However, I drew the line when he said they wanted to calculate the correlation coefficient. He did it anyway when I wasn’t looking.

That reminded of a somewhat tough but interesting job we had a few months ago in Beijing, the details of which are not important. As part of the job, I asked the folks in the CMM room to measure the shape of an inspection cover for a large gearbox. I specifically asked for shape, not flatness, as flatness is a series of numbers, a calculation. (Now you know calculated values are trouble.)

I couldn’t talk to the CMM folks (Chinese), so I drew a picture with three cones to locate the part, showed him were to zero the CMM, and put a point on the cover where I wanted each reading. I think I wanted about 7 points along the long sides, and maybe 5 along the short sides. I would have done it with a dial indicator, (a clock if you are English) but they didn’t have one. Hardly anyone has the hand tools I want any more, the basic tools for simplicity and speed that give us the ability to take our own readings, to think through what measured values are telling us in a story as they are revealed and plotted on a sheet of paper, rather than a list that shows up in your email. These days we have little choice but to use beautifully precise and accurate, but often, unnecessary machines that can stand in the way of the craft of problem solving.

A few hours later, I was handed a thumb drive. I inserted the drive into my Mac, and was annoyed by a string of thousands of numbers when I only wanted a few. I went back with a translator, careful not to offend anyone. They had no cones to establish the datum as I wanted, so they used the CMM machine to find a datum. They then used a scanning probe, thus tens of thousands of numbers that breaks every rule of “keep it simple.” I went back to the conference room, picked out a few numbers and deleted thousands more, drew a picture and saw all I needed. The plate was distorted, and appeared to distort where the handles were welded on. The bolt torque was used up to straighten the plate instead of squeezing the gasket and water leaked into the gearbox.

d-TACTICS is the first in a series of our workshops, where we teach these principles if factories, followed by d-STRATEGIES, also a workshop in a factory.

z-STRATEGIES builds on these principles. It is taught using machines we have built, based on principles of machine performance, learning how make machines run better, last longer, and have some fun.

Now it is dark. I can see the navigation lights on the ships out the window of the hotel here in Shanghai, and I will head for home when I wake up. When I get home, I will get onto my sailboat, and head for Dolphin Bay near Boca Del Toro and take a few days off.

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