Questions We’re Scared to Ask

By Lloyd Graff

Fanuc Robots at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant, Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co., Courtesy of SME.

One of the major challenges for people in business is to define and understand what they are selling and what their clients believe they are buying.

For employees the challenge is similar. What are you being paid for? How are you adding value? What could you do that would enhance that value either for your present employer or a future employer?

On the face of it, these questions may seem simple and obvious. For a machining company the answer might seem as straightforward as “I sell brass fittings that meet the price and quality standards of my customers.” That probably was the answer that has fueled the company for 50 years and dictated the newspaper want ads for machinists who produced the parts on screw machines from bar stock.

What haunts me is that what appears obvious, and has been good enough for a hundred years, is no longer today’s best answer. It’s not useless, because 90% of the people in the industry still think it works, but what if the obvious isn’t the right answer any more.

At one fittings maker somebody asked a new question several years ago. Why do we have to make these fittings out of bar stock? If we reduced the chips and reduced our consumption of brass per thousand fittings by 25% we could reduce the price and still make more money.

By changing the question from, “how can we run our screw machines faster” to “how can we make cheaper fittings by using less brass, and producing fewer chips,” they changed the game. The financiers were intrigued because the new process was capital intensive, but showed a potentially lucrative return on capital. When automation was added to the process, the robotic arms replaced the skilled screw machine operators with a person monitoring a screen.

This stuff came together for me recently listening to Bill Gates talking to Charlie Rose on big picture changes he sees happening now and over the next 50-100 years.

Big picture, Bill Gates is sure that robots will take over much of the factory and warehouse work over the next 10-15 years. His friend from Seattle, Jeff Bezos of Amazon has been building large warehouses all over America, employing thousands of people to pull stock from bins, but those warehouses, I’m sure, are built to switch to robotic parts-picking as the state of the art advances.

From a political standpoint we should not be surprised when poorly educated voters line up to vote for a demagogue like Donald Trump to vent their fear and anger, or for a simplistic hair brain like Bernie Sanders, who panders to the fear of young people about their future and blames everything on “Wall Street.”

I’m writing this piece in my kitchen, watching a spectacular blizzard in Chicago as I recover from my 14th surgery in 14 years. I’m certainly somebody who has seen the virtues of technology in my life. But I’m also worried about my children and grandchildren, who will have to figure out how to find meaningful work as robots get more agile and smarter over the next 30 years. They will be smarter than us one day. Did you see the movie, Her, a couple years ago? Think 2029.

The challenge today, February 2016, is to understand that technology is changing fast, even in our old-fashioned metalworking industry. Our customers always say they want “better and cheaper,” but what they don’t verbalize, but they convey under the purchase order, is that they also want reliability. Price doesn’t help if the parts don’t come when they need them. They also want somebody they can complain to and receive an answer from. They want somebody who can take a risk when their bosses will not allow them to take it. They want creativity, because they don’t hire for creativity. They have to find it on the outside.

They want people who have connections, because their bosses don’t want them to have connections. They might be dangerous to the business, because connected people talk too much.

So when I think about how to add value in a robotic world that’s going to be so great and so awful in the coming years, I think about the questions we should be asking right now in our business and in our jobs.

What do I do next when the process changes and they no longer need what I make?

What funny looking kid at a small booth at IMTS 2016 has the next big idea that the Kearney & Treckers and Warner Swaseys of today’s world are laughing at?

What do I tell my kids or grandkids when they ask me what skills they will need for the next 70 years that they will be working?

How do I find both the courage to quit and the guts to start when I feel stuck in the convenience of the present?

I hope you are asking good questions and getting some interesting and useful wrong answers to try out.

Question: What’s scaring you most today?

Share this post

15 thoughts on “Questions We’re Scared to Ask

  1. Emily Halgrimson Post author

    I’m scared about how I will retire one day. I’m scared that my boyfriend will ask me to marry him and of another failed relationship. I’m scared of being sued for something I don’t even know I did wrong. I’m scared of getting sick and not having decent health insurance and losing the small amount of equity I’ve managed to secure in my house to a debt collector. I’m scared that wages for us normal people will never start increasing and the cost to live won’t stop increasing. I’m scared about how I’m going to come up with $20,000 to replace my roof in five years. I’m scared to have to look for a job again one day, who knows when. I’m scared to bring kids into this world. I’m scared either Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, HIllary Clinton, or Bernie Sander is going to be president. Life is full of fear. It’s a scary time to be a normal Joe.

    1. Peter

      I’m sorry you are so scared. I hope you can let it go and think with a clear mind and see the huge number of opportunities all around you. We now live in in great times, sure there are problems and we should strive to be better but if you read history and understand what freedoms you have, life is good.

    2. Jack

      You need to develop a better outlook on life.
      As screwed up as things seem sometimes, they could be a lot worse.
      Count your blessings.

  2. Mike Ray

    Writing as a chipmaker I am concerned about the long-term need for machining, i.e. subtractive material removal instead of additive material construction (polymer, metallic or otherwise). We don’t want to follow the railroad’s lead in refusing to invest in cross-country trucking after WWII. For now due to material properties and cycletimes, it is still cheaper and faster to produce items if you have room for a cutter. I will likely purchase 3D printing technology in the future.

    Writing as an engineering technical service provider I am profoundly concerned about the lack of suitable machinist and mechanical engineering talent. Someone who understands process control, fits & tolerances, can think their way through problems and KNOWS HOW TO CUT is a rare commodity. For now I hire (and pay well) for attitude, potential and trustworthiness and spend a large amount of my payroll in paid training. Apprenticeship, if you will.

    As a citizen and business owner of the US, this in perhaps not the forum to address those concerns. That being said, (and in comparison to my business contacts in India) I have consistent electricity and water access, paved roads, secure facilities, an exceptionally low level of systemic corruption and a clean geographical environment to work and live in. Compared to financing the alternatives on my own (as is done in India) I am happy to pay taxes to support these resources and am willing to tolerate a reasonable amount of ‘municipal headaches’

    Cheers to you all.

  3. Tom hogge

    Donald Trump says he is a billionaire. Has children , Grand children . and more on the way.
    I have 140 plus employees that I must consider. I bear part of the responsibility of their Children, grandchildren, Mainly I pay considerable for their health care. That Obama has in large part made much harder to understand and afford. I also have family to be concerned over. So I am relying on the Billionaire . Hope he has the staff under him to make the country Great again !!! Soon the gloves come off on Hillary and watch out pant suits .

    1. David

      I can’t understand how someone who runs a business with 140 employees can trust the Donald. He is a hustler and small time thief who hit the big time with the culture of personality (Chairman Mao would be jealous), reality TV and our love of bling. He is a master at selling himself, not building anything.

      I don’t have a problem with billionaires running for office, our last mayor Mike Bloomberg was good even though I often disagreed with him. He would make a decent President.

      Surely you know that we don’t need to “make American great again” Our immigration issues are a direct result of the fact that the US is a magnet for the hard working and talented people from all over the globe who see our country for what it is, a wildly successful place with a wealth of opportunities.

      As the old saying goes we have the most screwed up (government, economy, whatever…) in the world, except for everywhere else.

      1. Jack

        I agree with some of what you say.
        But you obviously don’t understand the illegal immigration problem we are facing.

    2. Ron

      I’m glad that there is another “poorly educated voter” like myself that still reads Lloyd’s anti-Trump jabs. I was poorly educated over the last two presidential elections and voted for the loser, so Loyd’s choice should be safe.
      Since I work, have a machine shop and don’t have my hand out, I guess I’ll continue being a “poorly educated voter”. After the last election when AGAIN, 90%+ of a certain highly educated(?) demographic voted for obama, I said that it’s a lost cause because we’ll never recover from that type of educated voter who will vote for a person again even when they are worse off (at least that’s what I read because I am not of that demographic).
      If I were an educated voter like Lloyd then I would have voted for a president who put Tim Geithner in charge of the treasury.
      I will still vote and hopefully there are enough poorly educated voters who vote with me.

  4. Jim Heller

    I believe you have the answer to the question regarding what skills will be necessary to succeed in the next 70 years in your article. You repeated the word “somebody” a number of times and I think you are spot on. In the end, we are all still human beings with an innate need to connect, contribute and be validated and appreciated. The technology advances of the last 30 years have lulled our society into the false belief that our connections can be reduced to data traveling between machines. The advice I have given to my kids has been they need to have the skill to communicate verbally, in person and in writing, as that will set them apart from the balance of their generation. They also need critical thinking and problem solving skills as you pointed out. It is definitely a scary, but not hopeless future.

  5. Jack

    What scares me most today?
    Other than our corrupt politicians.
    We are bowling the best team in the league tonight. And I’m not bowling all that great.

  6. Mark Ellenberger

    We all have to focus and be the best that we can be in all areas in our lives. The endless noise of the World around us never stops. We have our circle of friends and we will have our highs and lows. It’s focus and a positive attitude. While I’m working I listen to and audio book “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie. It’s a life changer, just like Lloyd’s blog, it’s about listening to other people. It’s about being genuinely interested in what they do. Yes, there is a level of desperation in the World that only our Grand parents and Great Grand parents have experienced. Fear can be replaced by a Zest for the moment. Enjoy that company your with, relish the moment.

  7. Sara

    I once was told that you can only experience guilt if you accept it. Really works try it.
    I think the same applies to fear. It is only in the eyes of the beholder. Refuse to acknowledge it.


Comments are closed.