Thursday, July 29, 2010

Profile, Please

It would be pretty easy to avoid racial profiling, a big concern with the controversial Arizona immigration law, which was mostly put on hold yesterday by a federal judge.

Local cops simply could ask everyone who is stopped on suspicion of a law violation if he or she is in the U.S. legally.

Asking a single question shouldn’t be much of an impact on the officers’ time. It would be sort of like asking to see a driver’s license during a traffic stop.

Unfortunately, because few Americans carry proof of legal residency, this nondiscriminatory policy could result in the arrest of most of the population. That, of course, would have an impact on the gendarmes’ time. Because most of our workforce would be in jail, we would have to invite a whole lot of guest workers to cross our borders and build and staff a huge number of holding cells.

And where would those who were convicted be deported to? And, as many do now, would the new wave of guest workers become illegal by staying in the country after their legal work time expired?

These are important questions all should ponder.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let Me Suggest

I made my first employee suggestion in 1977 at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison, Wisconsin. The unsatisfactory outcome of that experience kept me from making another during my next ten years with the U.S. Forest Service. Last month, as a customer not an employee, I offered up a minor improvement idea at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo.

If my experiences are any indication, little has changed in the management of suggestion systems over the past 33 years. It was inept to a ridiculous extent in all three of my experiences.

At FPL, a photographer, Jim Brooks, and I became good friends. Most of Brooks’ work was running the photo lab. I marveled at the volume of page-size glossy prints of charts and graphs churned out daily for review copies of research reports and other documents. I asked Jim why the research divisions and the publishing section didn’t simply make those copies on the Xerox machine FPL had installed several years earlier. He said that had been brought up a time or two, but nothing ever came of the idea.

One day, everything came together to get me working on my first employee suggestion. The FPL newsletter published a glowing report on the suggestion system, including several examples of substantial cash awards made for the better ideas. As a fairly new, fairly naïve, employee, I was enthused. I asked Brooks if he could come up with numbers for a full year on how many prints the photo lab processed. He could; actually he tallied several years’ production. Within a day or so, a report was circulated showing costs per page of running copies on the Xerox machine. That study was made because FPL was considering installing a half dozen more units, one on each floor of the two main buildings.

I gathered up the info and filled in the necessary form, with Brooks and me as co-suggestors. We showed beyond a doubt that FPL would save at least $2,000 annually making the change, and quality with paper copies was just fine for the purpose. An organizational savings of $2,000 a year, for the foreseeable future, was a fairly hefty sum in an era when my annual salary, about in the middle for those working at FPL, was $9,000.

Within days, we got phone calls from the Director’s Office telling us our suggestion was accepted. The next week Brooks and I were summoned to a meeting spot were all employees in our unit were assembled. FPL Director Herb Fleischer arrived with two checks in hand. Each was for $12.50.

“Well,” I told a disappointed wife Sandy, “Every little bit helps.” I was so ticked off I couldn’t think of anything original to say.

Three weeks later draft reports crossing my desk for editorial signoff still included glossy photo prints of charts and graphs. I cautiously approached my boss, Chief Editor Max Davidson. One of his assistants placed all orders for photo prints and page copies. I asked if there was a time lag between official acceptance of an employee suggestion and putting it into practice.

Davidson, who had attended our little check awarding ceremony, said he never had liked the Xerox copy idea, so he wasn’t going to make any changes.

In 1987, I was working in the Forest Service Regional Office in Milwaukee. The director of administrative services, Roger Thomas, had developed in intense dislike for me, based on reports reaching his ears that I thought several of the people in his staff group ought to take more frequent breaks from their usual activities to do a little work. Unfortunately, the second (and last) employee suggestion during my career involved the administrative services staff.

My interest in paper recycling was high, as it is today, after two years doing information work for the recycling research project at FPL. Our Milwaukee office had collection points for used paper in every staff area. Administrative services people made the rounds at intervals to pick the waste paper up and get it ready for a recycling firm to haul away and process.

As in every Forest Service office I’d been in, employees used and discarded lots of blue-lined writing paper. My suggestion was that clean, unwrinkled, used paper be separated from the other stuff. During slack times in the duplicating section operated by administrative services, blue lines could be printed on the back of the sheets, the sheets padded, and the pads stocked for reuse. In total, the office spent several thousand dollars annually for this type of paper, so annual savings obviously would be half that amount.

My suggestion landed back on my desk pretty quickly. Written across it in large letters was: “REJECTED. Ridiculous! There is no slack time in our duplicating section.”

Sometime later, a small voice on my phone said, “Mr. Klade, I really need to talk to you.” It was a nice young lady who ran an offset press in the duplicating section.

The caller said she had put in a suggestion to print blue lines on the back of selected waste paper for reuse within the office. Printing and padding would be done during slack periods in her section. Her suggestion has been accepted, and she was to get a $500 award for the idea. She had just heard I made the same suggestion about two weeks earlier, and it was rejected.

“I just don’t feel right about this,” she said. “I think we should split the money.”

That was a very honorable proposal by someone who was in one of the lowest pay grades in the organization. “You keep the money,” I said. “I’m just glad we’re going to get a recycling improvement around here.” I also commented that she should be proud of herself for making the phone call.

I worked for the U.S. Forest Service for another decade. In all that time, I never considered for a moment wasting ten minutes writing another employee suggestion.

At Borgess Medical Center, patients can use several communications systems to get help when they need it and to stay in touch with the outside world. Telephones are a must for several needs.

During my stay as a patient, telephone use could have been smoother, saving time and embarrassment for me, and time for busy hospital staffers. The space where most handsets show one’s phone number was blank on mine. Probably no need to put the number there was apparent, because each patient had a bulletin board on the wall directly across from the foot of their bed with a bottom line showing their phone number and room number.

The trouble was, only patients with supernatural powers ala Superman, or those who thought to bring binoculars for their hospital stay, could read the phone number when they were in bed. My long-range vision is excellent, and I couldn’t read that number. In the first day or so of my stay, whenever anyone asked for my phone number I had to do something special and keep them waiting until I could answer that simple question. After that, I wised up and wrote the number on a tissue box kept with all the clutter on my bedside tray. Once in a while, I could fumble around and find the number there.

The solution to the irritating small problem seemed simple and almost without cost: Remove the paper strips inadequately displaying room and phone numbers on each patient’s bulletin board and replace them with strips printed with legible type. There was plenty of room on the boards for larger strips.

Mindful of my poor record in the suggestion rewards arena, I asked one of the RNs who was in charge of me if she could get a cash award, or at least a complimentary letter in her file, for submitting an improvement idea to Borgess. She didn’t know! Much literature exists on suggestion systems. A cardinal rule is to be sure all employees know about the system, how it works and who is in charge of it.

The nurse thought my idea had merit. She dialed a number. “Do you handle employee suggestions?” she asked. After several minutes of reply, she said, “OK, I’ll call her.” That call also had no immediate positive result. Maybe, my little thought ultimately will translate into an improvement at Borgess for patients and staff alike, but I doubt it.

The Borgess “Patient Guide” asks, “How are we doing? Where can we improve? Would you like a staff member to follow up with you about your comments?”

I dutifully sent a comment (not about the phone number suggestion) to the Customer Relations Department and asked to be contacted about it. That was six weeks ago. I’m still awaiting the response.

In seems reasonable that big organizations would make special efforts to tap the brainpower of experts who use their services. Hospitals get all sorts of professionals as guests. Why don’t they make a little extra effort to identify them and solicit their ideas?

At present, they seem content to just fall into a good idea once in a while. A recent news story reported how acclaimed designer Michael Graves, best known for his work for Target, came up with the ideas for a whole new suite of attractive and functional hospital furniture after a rare disease landed him in a hospital. Graves was said to have observed, “I don’t want to die in here because it’s too ugly.”

Graves took his ideas to Stryker, a leading manufacturer of medical equipment in Portage, Michigan, not far from my home. The result was shown in June at a prestigious furniture show at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The furniture was displayed as the Stryker Patient Room Suite. We may assume Graves was rewarded handsomely for his ideas.

Guess you have to think big. One line of type a patient actually could read and other thoughts from a small-time communicator must be just too, well, small-time, to consider, even when the suggestions are freebies.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Just Trust Him

If there were a contest for the least trustworthy people on earth, Afghans would be front-runners for the trophy. They’ve been picking the pockets of visitors to their land for centuries, from assessing outrageous fees on merchant caravans to today’s sophisticated raids on the U.S. Treasury.

President Hamid Karzai, that pillar of integrity, appears to have his eye on a special place in the history of Afghan duplicity. He currently is devoting some of his American-backed energy to one of the great con jobs of all time in his part of the world.

On June 14, someone (Karzai or associates?) motivated General David Petraeus into making major media comments about the “discovery” of $1 trillion in valuable mineral deposits in Afghanistan. Petraeus said the find has “stunning potential.”

A lot of Americans, including me, consider General Petraeus trustworthy. He is viewed by many as a military hero for conceiving and carrying out the troop surge in Iraq. Many believe his leadership was a major force in improving the situation there.

But Petraeus doesn’t wear a geology service ribbon. He got conned. Minerals experts have known for years that valuable deposits are present under Afghan soil. Remoteness, difficult terrain, poor transportation networks, and constant warfare are what prevent their extraction, not a lack of knowledge that they are there. And much has been known about precise locations for a very long time.

Within days of the “discovery’ announcement, Karzai popped up in Tokyo. He told Japanese government officials they would get priority in developing a huge Afghan mineral extraction and processing industry. The reason? Japan has been second only to the U.S. in pumping dollars into Afghanistan—about $5 billion so far. He didn’t say anything about an American priority. The Japanese haven’t contributed lives as we and others have, which tells us something about Karzai’s values.

What message does Karzai’s Tokyo statement send to capitals around the globe? Send cash, or increase your contribution to what already is being extorted, and you’ll move up on the mineral rewards list.

The best Afghanistan position for America to be in is out of there.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Way to Go, Congress

Without all the yowling that accompanied recent changes in our insurance-regulated health care system, which actually don’t qualify as major reform, Congress is well on the way to passing a major reform bill that will have long-lasting beneficial effects for all of us.

Legislation to put controls on Wall Street shenanigans and the high-handed robbery practiced by credit card issuers hardly drew a ripple of interest in the media compared to the hue and cry about health care adjustments. Yet the financial reform measure is much more significant. It undoes a whole lot of ill-advised deregulation dating back to the Reagan years and rampant throughout Clinton’s time in office and both Bush administrations.

Could any members of those administrations actually have believed that bankers and brokers would regulate financial dealings in the interests of our citizens? Ridiculous. It is a government function to establish a financial system and to control it. Period. That’s not socialism, or fascism, or any other kind of ism. It’s just plain common sense.

The financial giants rolled out their big guns and bankrolls and lobbied hard against any return to controls that history showed work, plus a few more to counter creative (read crooked) dealings they thought up in recent years. For once, Congress listened to the American people, not the lobbyists.

I’ve laid some harsh criticism on our Representatives and Senators of late, but this time they deserve a round of applause. They proved that our system of government can work to serve us.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Keeping the Good Stuff

Otsego, Michigan, and Tomahawk, Wisconsin, have several things in common.

The lynchpin of Otsego’s economy is a paper mill, a reminder of bygone days when mills dotted the Kalamazoo River. When I was growing up in Tomahawk, the paper mill provided most of the desirable jobs, and it still is a major employer. There is a location difference. Otsego’s mill, now a U.S. Gypsum operation, is just a couple of blocks from downtown. Tomahawk’s is a couple of miles outside the city limits.

Otsego (population 3,900) has an unusually wide main street because years ago the city fathers thought the town would grow into a large center of commerce. That never happened. The width of the main drag in Tomahawk (population 3,800) is nearly identical. That’s because the lumber baron who hired an architect to develop the city layout assumed the settlement would eventually hold tens of thousands of residents. That never happened.

Small-town living has its drawbacks. One often cited is that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Another is the lack of diversified shopping opportunities. And a high school band concert is unlikely to satisfy the entertainment needs of some folks the way a night with a symphony orchestra does.

Among my memories of growing up in Tomahawk 60 years ago is that most people didn’t have a lot of money. A few coins, however, went a long way. For a long time, a good-sized ice cream cone cost a nickel. A glass of beer went for a dime, and astute bartenders made sure their customers stayed happy by pouring a free one occasionally. You actually could buy things for a nickel or a dime at the “five and dime store.” Some of those prices prevailed when we made rare visits to the state’s big city, Milwaukee, but a lot of things cost more there.

The retail landscape has changed across America, in big and small cities. The big-box stores and chains have forced many mom-and-pop operations to close. Selections have improved a lot, but convenience and service often have declined, and the changes aren’t always as cost-effective as we tend to think. Occasionally, some of the good things of the past are preserved in small towns.

A few days ago I needed just one finishing nail of a certain size to complete a small project. I couldn’t foresee any future use for that size nail, and didn’t want a box of them adding to the clutter in my already overly extensive collection of miscellaneous hardware. An attempt to find the needed nail in my son’s even bigger collection failed. I was resigned to paying a few dollars for a whole box or package of unwanted nails to get the one I had to have. We must do that nowadays in most big-box hardware stores, and other stores that carry basic household supplies.

I stopped at Bob’s True Value hardware store on the main street of Otsego. I thought I’d get a laugh: “Big deal today. I only need one nail. Can we do that?”

“Sure we can,” said the clerk who had asked about a minute after I entered the store if she could help me. “We have nail bins. Follow me and we’ll look.”

In the lower bin on the far right was a good supply of the perfect finishing nails. I took three, assuming I would louse the project up at least twice before I got it right, as usual. When I asked the cashier what the charge was, she asked, “You got a nickel?”

Looking for a nail was somewhat incidental to my main mission. I was in Otsego on a Tuesday for a haircut. A real barbershop is located right across the street from Bob’s hardware. It even has a barber pole near the entrance. Four barbers, all men, were busy shaping and snipping the locks of a bunch of mature adult men. Business was booming because on weekdays the geezers get a one-dollar discount. Even without it, a haircut there costs $11, not $16 or more as it does in today’s phony barber shops, where the chairs are lightweight metal tubing and the snippers mostly are female.

In the Otsego shop, the talk is of things like football, hockey, guns, fishing, and cars—guy things and big boys’ toys. I firmly believe that is the way God intended barber shops to be, but it’s the only one I’ve found in the past ten years that fits the bill.

The Otsego shop is a good place to feel important in a real barber chair, and the barbers, several of whom are fully mature, are very good at their craft. They’re good in another way.

The senior discount day is supposed to be Wednesday. The first time I forgot and showed up on Thursday, I chuckled about missing my chance to save a buck. The barber told me I had no problem; they give the discount every weekday anyway. Perhaps this is in deference to the geezer customers, some of whom might occasionally have a bit of trouble remembering what day it was when they arrived assisted by their canes and walkers.

By happenstance, wife Sandy and I returned to Otsego the very same day. Judy’s Restaurant is right next door to the barbershop. We had spotted an ad for a lunch special featuring a sandwich we both love and have trouble finding in restaurants. It was our first trip to Judy’s.

Judy’s is not part of a chain, or any other type of arrangement to apply the name to a place you can find anywhere else. It is unique. The restaurant has been in business for 44 years. The real Judy seats patrons, and takes the time for a little chit-chat with them if they want. The place is not elegant, but it was neat, clean, and busy. The décor features historic photos of Otsego scenes and individual pictures of many area natives. The service was excellent during our visit.

Our waitress offered a half-dozen variations in the components of the special. I kept asking, “Is that included?” It was. The portions were more than adequate, but so good I finished everything put before me. I skipped dinner that night.

Costs weren’t bad either. A three-item lunch for two including drinks (mine was accompanied by a pot of coffee left at the table) and tip totaled a whopping $14.00. We checked the complete menu. It had a fair amount of variety and was chock full of down-home items not a whole lot pricier than the daily lunch special. We’ll go back.

In small towns, some things still are the real deal.

Order Restored

Thanks to Karen Vogelmann, Business Success Coach (see link to her web page in right column), this Blog is functioning as intended once again. Karen is not a web page fixer by occupation; she is a darn good business fixer.

Any readers in the world of commerce who want to improve their profits and satisfaction with their work would do well to visit Karen's web page and see what she has to offer.