Monthly Archives: February 2015

Not an American Sniper

By Lloyd Graff

Lloyd Graff at Basic Training, 1968

My wife and I went to see Clint Eastwood’s film, American Sniper. We thought it was a well made movie, Bradley Cooper was superb as Chris Kyle, but we walked out halfway through. Two tours in Iraq were all we cared to watch.

For me, it brought back sad memories of my youth – the Vietnam War – the war I was supposed to fight in, but managed to avoid.

I did go into the Armed Services. I left for Fort Jackson in South Carolina for Basic Training on New Year’s Day 1968, but I went as a member of the Illinois National Guard.

I figured I had a better than 50-50 chance I would not go to Nam. I expected to come home in five months and go back to college, writing papers and taking exams, not shooting at Viet Cong in black “pajamas” waiting to ambush me in the rice paddies.

At Fort Jackson I was one of two Guardsmen amongst my training company of 300 guys. The war was at its peak and the Tet Offensive was starting. In my bunk there was a sense of fear and anger in the older drafted guys. For the young kids there was excitement in some, bewilderment in others. For the Hispanic kids there was a feeling of displacement. They may have been saying, “This isn’t my war, but I’m here, so I better learn how to be a soldier.”

I was a journalist by training so I tried to assume a bit of detachment. I wanted to record the details in my head to recount later. I also wanted to believe I wasn’t going to Vietnam to keep from freaking out.

In my bunk one third of the guys were older and had experience in college. They were all trying to figure out a way not to go to Vietnam. They knew I was Guard, but they showed no resentment toward me, which I found surprising. Were it the other way around, I think I would have been jealous.

The training sergeants were generally professional and fair, except for a newly minted one who had never gone to war. He hated me and devoted himself to torturing me when he could. He used crude psychological warfare, telling me that all the Guardsmen were going to be activated and sent to Nam. He was a really shrimpy guy, a foot shorter than me, from New York. He always wore his Smokey the Bear hat to make himself look taller, but I think he hated me even more vehemently because of a sense of inferiority over his height.

It was winter at Fort Jackson and everybody got sick. Some people wanted to end up in the infirmary, but that ended when one of my bunkmates went to the infirmary and never returned. It was announced that he died of meningitis. We got our first passes right after that announcement. I went immediately to the biggest hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, and marched into the Emergency Room. The doctor looked at my throat and gave me a shot of penicillin. He assured me I did not have meningitis, and I felt like a new man. I went to the Union of the University of South Carolina and luxuriated in the company of college students. I watched basketball on TV, I even called a sorority and told them I was available. Amazingly, some young women came to meet me and one ended up inviting me to a big dance.

Then it was back to Fort Jackson. I learned how to shoot a rifle, take it apart and put it back together. It was an old M-1, not the M-16, because the Army was short on rifles in early 1968. We got into good physical condition if we could stay healthy in the raw weather. We learned how to march and slither on our bellies. The highlight of Basic was the obstacle course with live ammunition being fired over our heads as we burrowed under barbed wire and traversed a 300-yard course that seemed like it was three miles.

I graduated from Basic in eight weeks and stayed at Fort Jackson for specialty training in “Communications.” I had thought maybe I could use my writing background, but “Communications” was stringing wire on telephone poles.

I became adept at climbing 35-foot poles using metal spikes on the insides of my legs. Got a lot of splinters, but it was easier than Basic and the weather was improving.

Things went fairly smoothly and it was looking like I was going to survive Fort Jackson, but on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were riots in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. The National Guard was mobilized around the country. It was a terrible time in America but it also meant Guardsmen in big cities were needed to back up the police. I realized I probably was not going to end up in Nam like most of the guys I had spent four months with in South Carolina.

Selfishly, I just wanted to get home. I felt bad for everybody headed to Saigon, but I just wanted to not think about the killing. When I got home I hugged my parents and quickly left for college. It was a wonderful place to try to forget about the war and all the good guys who were sent to that awful place.

Question:  Where were you during Vietnam?

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I’ve Been Waiting So Long

By Lloyd Graff

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta. 2014

Major League Baseball Spring Training officially begins this week. This is a signal event for me stating that the teeth of winter will lift out of my groin in a few weeks.

To me the beauty of baseball endures. It isn’t just the game and the stars, it’s the talking about the game with friends. It’s the memories of seasons past and the opportunity to watch my grandchildren swing a bat and toss a ball around. It’s memories of Ernie Banks and Harry Caray and a thousand semi-forgotten Chicago Cubs. And now it is hope for a better season with better players and a new manager and pitchers who throw smoke.

I find parallels between business and baseball. The game is timeless in its simplicity, just like the tenets of business are simple but very hard to execute in the moment.

With performance enhancing drugs now apparently reduced significantly in the game, the home run has become an unreliable weapon. Few teams are built around sluggers when 38 homers is good enough to lead the league. Pitchers are more dominant with 96-mile per hour fastballs common and split finger pitches at 88 and unhittable. But this kind of velocity quickly kills pitchers’ arms. Today a starting pitcher hopes to pitch a strong six innings and then give way to a bullpen of flame throwers and trick pitch specialists to finish the game.

With starters usually happy to just pitch into the 7th inning you might expect the starting pitcher to have a reduced economic value, but the contrary is true. A reliable starter who can start 35 times a season and pitch 200 innings is one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the game. A 10 game winner who can keep a team ahead or within one run most of the time makes $10 million a year of he has staying power in the game and can reach free agency status with an intact arm.

Every team in Major League Baseball is attempting to develop a dominant bullpen with high quality role players to fill the seventh, eighth and ninth inning slots. The Kansas City Royals showed us in the playoffs of 2014 that a shutdown bullpen and decent starting pitching can take a mediocre team to the World Series.

This brings us to the value of a manager in baseball. In a very long season with highly paid young people of very different backgrounds (often half the players are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and increasingly Cuba) it is very hard to develop cohesion on the field and in the clubhouse. Teams that have a great manager and a Latin leader on the field like the San Francisco Giants did in the now departed Pablo Sandoval (signed with Boston) can play better than their players’ stats.

In the machining world, with the large number of Latinos on the shop floor, developing leadership amongst the Spanish speaking employees is crucial to the success of many firms I encounter.

Another change in baseball that has an analog in the business world is the emphasis on data analysis. Good managers in baseball have an a­nalysis of hitter success off various pitchers and where they are likely to hit the ball if they make contact. We see much more movement of defenses today than a few years ago. Good pitchers can dictate play by pitching to spots that match the defense. This makes bullpens even more invincible today because pitchers are fresh, relying usually on one pitch on which they have great control, with defenses set up specifically to combat players’ tendencies. I think many businesses follow the path of least resistance continuing to pursue products and customers who are low margin and high maintenance rather than focusing on new, juicier opportunities. Successful sports teams make changes quickly.  After Green Bay Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy’s terrible play calling against Seattle in the NFL Championship game he gave up his play calling responsibility to the Offensive Coordinator.  The Packers also have already cut the player who dropped the pivotal onside kick by Seattle. (I think the onside kick is a play that is under utilized. Teams should try it once a game and develop expertise).

With pitching so dominant today I am surprised that the super speedy running specialist is still rare on teams’ 25 man rosters. As single runs become super valuable in tight low scoring games against overpowering bullpens an unsettling base runner can tilt an inning. An analogous player in football might be a specialist in onside kicks. It would catch on.

Baseball 2015 is finally here. In the snows of January you think it will never come. When business stinks and you can’t seem to close a deal it feels like a winning streak will never come, too. Spring training means hope. It feels like I’ve been waiting a long time for this one.

Question: Have you been missing baseball this winter?

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The Smart Rat

By Noah Graff

I recently heard a story on an NPR podcast called “Invisibilia,” which discussed the effects expectations can have on human abilities.

The story begins by describing a scientific test conducted on rats.

Researchers took several rats and put them in cages, arbitrarily labeling half the cages with “smart rat,” and the other half with “dumb rat.” Lab technicians who did not know that the rat cages were labeled arbitrarily, took the rats out and tested their abilities to finish a maze.

My inference, as I assume most people’s would be, is that the rats from cages labeled “smart” would do no better on average than the rats from cages labeled “dumb.” After all, the rats’ cages were labeled arbitrarily. But rat after rat, the ones labeled “smart” finished considerably better than those labeled “dumb.” So how did this happen?

Scientists theorized that the lab technicians, without thinking about it, treated the “smart” rats differently from the “dumb” rats, which led to the differing results. The technicians handled the supposedly smart rats with more care than those that were supposedly dumb, which led to their superior performance in the maze. Thus, the higher the expectations the technicians had for the rats, the better the rats would perform.

The NPR story centers around Daniel Kish, a blind man who from the time he was young was allowed by his mom to do everything seeing children could do. He was allowed to play outside on his own. He’d climb trees, cross streets, fight with other kids and even taught himself to ride a bike as a very young child. On his own, Kish trained himself to use a tongue clicking method called human echolocation which enables him to know where he is in space, much the same way bats navigate. By sensing echoes from nearby objects, people trained in echolocation can orient themselves by interpreting the sound waves reflected.

In elementary school, Kish met another blind kid who had previously gone to a school for the blind. This kid had been used to people constantly helping him function. People always had led him where to go and brought him whatever he needed, but when he was left on his own he became helpless. Schools for the blind are no longer in vogue today, as people have realized that not letting blind people struggle to function on their own is debilitating. Today Kish devotes his life to working with blind kids to teach them to be independent. He teaches kids do the type of activities on their own that he had taught himself when he was young, such as climbing trees, hiking, crossing the street and even riding a bike.

Kish says that the main obstacle he runs into in his quest to make kids independent is love. Parents understandably have considerable trouble allowing their disabled kids to become frustrated or perhaps even harmed by letting them struggle on their own.

I grew up with a learning disability which made me a slow reader and slow writer. I had to receive extra time on exams and go to special tutors, but my parents always expected me to get good grades and produce great work. They never said, “Maybe he’s just not good at school, so we shouldn’t put pressure on him to do better.” Instead, my parents gave me a ton of help, but they always treated me like a “smart rat,” making me believe that I was gifted and would do well, no matter how impossible the work seemed. I also think that by seeing their examples of academic achievement, along with those of my older siblings, I simply accepted that excelling in school was what I was supposed to do. If they excelled, why shouldn’t I?

Question: Did your parents’ expectations help you or hurt you?

Daniel Kish rides bicycle blind using echolocation

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Gun Control’s Biggest Advocate: The Church?

Courtesy of The Atlantic. By DAVID A. GRAHAM

A prominent Manhattan parish wants to turn moral authority into action, taking Walmart to task for selling weapons with high-capacity magazines.

Like many proud, East Coast WASP institutions, the Episcopal Church has lost considerable clout over the last few decades. Trinity Church, in Manhattan, is a rare redoubt of influence. Thanks to Queen Anne’s 215-acre donation in 1705, Trinity is one of Manhattan’s largest landholders. The church has sold some of the land and parlayed into a $2 billion portfolio, making it an exceptionally wealthy parish.

Two years ago, an internecine fight broke out over what to do with that money. Some members of the vestry, the parish’s managing board, felt the church should be more activist, and many of the more passive members resigned or were forced out.

Read more here.

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American Pipe Dream

By Lloyd Graff

Yesterday, I received a one hour crash course from a client deep in the plumbing business on what it takes to be successful making faucets and bathroom components in America.

He works for a company that sells to big box retailers. They have made their stuff in China, but five years ago, they took on the challenge of showing the CEO and accountants of a publicly traded company that they were not only relevant, but could make good brass components in America for less money and with way less aggravation than using subsidiaries in Shanghai. In four years they reduced their hourly burden rate by one third. The employees who made the cut are making more money through production bonuses, and the shop’s old National Acmes are cranking out perfect parts on time to satisfy the numbers people at Home Depot who require a 98% inventory fill rate or they charge the companies penalties.

By reorganizing the shop floor into product cells they were able to change the standard of one operator running two machines to an average of three machines. They hooked up sophisticated monitoring equipment with predictive software that told the operators (and management) how many holes each drill made in real time, so they could change drills before they broke or made inferior parts. This dramatically increased productivity by eliminating most of the tooling wipeout that can kill a setup. The drills and taps now come out of a “vending machine” on the shop floor, not from an inefficient tooling czar, thus saving a lot of space and kibitzing time.

The tooling sales people became allies in the project, with Iscar, Kennametal and Allied reps visiting the plant every week to share best practices. They also started buying tooling from MSC, which is phenomenally efficient in getting tooling to a client quickly.

The company bought a new Fanuc wire EDM to augment their old Agie machine and improved output by 70%. It was a fast payback on a $150,000 investment, so now they are making all of their form tools in-house.

They have become great experimenters in the arcane world of coating. They love the mad scientists at Balzers who keep coming up with slightly different variations for their drills. This willingness to continually tinker with processes enables them to keep shaving costs.

The virtually complete changeover to lead-free brass in the water cooling industry has been a boon to them. Rather than complaining about lead-free, they embraced the change and figured out how to make the cranky material an ally while competitors fight with lead-free brass.

Brass prices have dropped by a dollar a pound over the last 18 months. The retailers are certainly aware of the raw material changes, but prices have held fairly solidly, which is one reason the company is prospering.

The firm does not make everything in house. They have two trusted outside suppliers who are highly skilled on lead-free brass and they have found it useful to job out about 10% of their work to reduce overtime costs and simplify their in-house operation. The outside sourcing is a safety valve and insurance against unforeseen disruptions. Price per piece is slightly higher, but it is deemed to be well worth it.

I had heard about American companies beating foreign competition, but it had never been clear to me how management in the ancient art of screw machining in the high wage market of the United States had managed the task. Wage cuts really have nothing to do with it. It’s all about the organization, tooling technology and the COMMITMENT.

Question:  Is manufacturing prospering in the United States?

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Hail a Robot

By Lloyd Graff

I am fascinated by changes coming in staid old automotive land.

The battery operated car business is moving rapidly. Tesla may be surpassed by BMW or GM in the next few years, but Tesla may still be the big winner with its mega battery factory in Nevada, which will push the price down significantly on this platform. Never underestimate Elon Musk. Batteries are the game changer in the electric car business. The car is secondary for making money.

Other truly interesting developments include the advancement of self-driving car technology and the rise of Uber, the automated car service that is quickly replacing taxis and changing many people’s driving habits, particularly those of younger urban folk.

Several companies are predicting a viable self-driving car in three years. Certainly there will be regulatory issues to navigate and lawyers to neutralize, but the trend is clear. In some places in this country or elsewhere the autonomous car will likely be driving people around in five years or less.

Now word comes out that Google, which is at the forefront of development of the self-driving car and also a major backer of Uber, is considering competing with Uber. The Uber founders are furious and scared.

While Uber has a big first mover advantage in the automated car service business, Google could cut the wheels out from under it with its autonomous car. Google already comes into the race with elite searching and mapping software. Imagine the price advantage Google could have over Uber with a driverless fleet hailed by a Google App. This may sound like it’s out of the Jetsons, but it is likely within reach soon. It could revolutionize travel, particularly in cities where Uber is growing phenomenally at the moment.

Google currently has $64 billion in cash on its books, but it knows the search business which provides most of its profit can’t last forever. Some people see that business as threatened by the growing number of mobile apps that take away opportunities for search ads on mobile devices. So Google keeps buying companies and developing new products like Google Glass, looking for a home run to augment search. It looks like urban transportation has the potential to be a game changing business of major magnitude. Uber is now starting its own research into driverless cars by backing a team at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, but they are 10 laps behind Google. And, Google, an early investor in Uber, with its own person on the Uber board of directors, knows a tremendous amount about Uber’s operation.

From the viewpoint of the people in the machining world, the driverless car could be a net plus. A lot of old cars will be scrapped. The urban market for vehicles will expand. Rail traffic may be reduced. The pickup truck and SUV market will probably not be disrupted in the short run. I can easily imagine a driverless garbage truck with computer chips in garbage cans and dumpsters.

One reason why car sales are running at close to 17 million a year in the U.S. is the appeal of new technology. Honda’s clever Super Bowl ad with synchronized cars with rear cameras backing into parking spaces highlighted the appeal of new stuff for auto buyers. Scrap rates right now are relatively low as people are making their cars last longer than in the past, but high-tech cars are prompting increased sales despite that.

I believe the autonomous car will give car sales a big shot in the arm. I know I will be an early adopter.

Question: Do you want a driverless car?

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