Monday, January 12, 2009

February 2008: Anniversary Letter

February 9-10, 2008 Opportunistic Randomness: I began this letter in February 2004. It is now February 2008 and using my advanced degrees in both mathematics and statistics, I can say that I just completed my fourth year of this project and beginning the fifth. This is the fifth February letter.

When I began, I did not know how long this project would last. I was not sure if it would make one year, let alone four. I am quite happy that it has gone this far. I am energized to keep it going as long as possible.

I recently was on the panel at my alma mater. The event was entitled Career Paths in Mathematics and the panel consisted of graduates of the Mathematics Department. I was the elder statesman, i.e. the oldest person, on the panel. We had to comment on how having a degree in math helped us with our career and give some advice to the students in the audience.

I opened with up with a statement, trying to appeal to the audience, that my entire career has been kind of a random walk. Why did I major in mathematics? Quite simply when it was time to choose a major, at the end of my sophomore year, mathematics was the only thing I had taken consistently. It was the only major that would assure that I would graduate on time.

This kind of lack of planning and random opportunity followed me or rather opened doors in front of me as my career developed. It began with music. I really wanted to play the clarinet. There were two reasons for this. First, my Grandmother’s brother, Samuel Frankian, played the clarinet. He lived in Aleppo, Syria and would send us tapes of his band playing the music I love so much. Secondly, I grew up in the Detroit Armenian Community when the great Clarinetist Hachig Kazarian was emerging as a world class talent. Every Armenian kid wanted to play the clarinet… like Hachig.

When it came time for instrumental music in grade school, I, of course chose the clarinet. I was so excited and so nervous the first day that I flunked the simple tone test the teacher gave. I was supposedly tone deaf (no comments from my musician friends on how I am still suffering from this affliction). At the age of ten, I thought my music career was over. A few weeks later, one of my friends was going to violin lessons and asked me to join him. I am still not sure why but I went with him. That worked out quite well. The violin led to the guitar which led to the oud which I am still playing, performing and recording to this day.

There are more career centric examples. For example, I learned Ford was hiring from the father of a girl I was dating in college. He gave me an application. I filled it out without a clue of what I might do there. Shortly later, Ford Human Resources called me and said they wanted to talk to me. I ended up talking with the managers of the Warranty Analysis and Reliability Engineering Departments with the Body and Electric Product Engineering group at Ford. The Warranty folks offered me a job because of my math background. I took it.

It was my first real job. My responsibilities were to analyze the first few months of warranty claim reports and predict if there were emerging problems that would cause consumer unhappiness, excess warranty costs, and, worst of all, a possible recall. It was interesting but not too challenging. I learned how a large corporation worked. I made excellent friends.
The next kind of, sort of, random event was the emergence of the quality movement in the automotive industry in the early 1980s. In 1980, NBC aired a “white paper” news show entitled, “If Japan Can… Why Can’t We?” It was produced by Claire Crawford Mason and narrated by Lloyd Dobbins. This show was dawning of the quality revolution in the US and specifically the automotive industry. This TV special, which was quickly available on video and shown over and over again in company meetings, introduced on Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a US based statistician and quality expert.

Deming had taught a short course in Japan after WWII at the invitation of General MacArthur. The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) offered Deming an honorarium which he declined. The Japanese then used the money they had offered Deming to establish a national quality award which they named the Deming Prize. It quickly became an award that the corporations in Japan took quite seriously. The white paper noted how this prestigious and coveted, quality award was named after an American that almost no Americans had ever heard of.

Shortly, Ford engaged Dr. Deming to come and consult in the company. I was offered the chance to go to some of these first lectures by Deming simply because I had a degree in Math, worked in Warranty Analysis, and frankly my management was not sure who to send. So, I went, it was another major turning point in my career and it was relatively random in that it was nothing I planned.

Less than a year later, the exact same thing happened when Ford brought in Dr. Genichi Taguchi the proponent of using Designed Experiments and a unique form of Multi-Criteria Optimization in both product design and quality improvement. The door was opened and I walked through. None of this was planned, but they defined my career. I became an expert in Quality Management even though I had no clue what those two gurus were talking about in those first few lectures.

I decided to get a masters degree to assist in what was now a business career. I contemplated going for an MBA, which I really truly should have done. But, I did not. I randomly came across a brochure from the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Wayne State University in Detroit. They were touting their MS as a technical MBA. I bit. Luckily, Professors Kailish Kapur and Leonard Lambert were there. They wrote a definitive book on Reliability Engineering. My technical MBA quickly became a master’s in quality management and optimization.

With the quality movement going crazy in the 1980s, we were all heavily recruited. I went to Rockwell Automotive and then TRW’s Seat Belt Division. I loved Rockwell. I worked there five years. I worked with George Mouradian. I also worked for Bob Adams one of the best bosses I have ever had. It was a fun and challenging place to work. I developed a software package for Life Data Analysis to predict the reliability of the heavy truck brakes, axles and drivelines that were the main products of this firm.

TRW was a tough place to work. With the stroke of a pen, a $200 Million seat belt company became the exclusive and sole supplier to seat belts and air bags to Ford Motor Company. It became a $2 billion business. The staffing and capabilities of the company were hardly suited to easily accommodate this ten fold growth. They hired like crazy. I was one of the crazies that were hired. We had to gain experience and implement business practices and policies to handle the increased volumes and intense pressures the sudden growth caused.

The act of opportunistic randomness was that just before joining TRW, I got a call from a head hunter inquiring about a job in New York with Colgate. Yikes, New York! Not the Auto Industry! It was definitely out of my comfort zone though it sounded like an intriguing adventure and opportunity. But, I was about to go to TRW, so I told them no. Then the head hunter said, “You know the VP of Quality there is Harry Artinian formerly of Ford Motor Company.” I knew Harry, though not very well. He was also Armenian. So, I asked, “Did Harry give you my name?” He responded that Harry had not. Then I said, “Tell Harry you called me and see what he says.” Within the hour Harry called me back. This began a nine month process of me eventually going to Colgate.

I was hired into Colgate’s Total Quality department. Colgate was an insular company that did not take to outside ideas or outsiders very well. Harry quickly was out of the company, but our core group, all of us from the outside, got a Colgate born and bred VP Bob Martin another favorite boss. We retooled and “Colgatized” our approach from Total Quality to the “little bit better every day in everyway” Continuous Improvement Group.

In this transformation, opportunistically, we shifted our business focus as well. Colgate’s pressing quality problems were really more service related than product related. Our focus changed from product quality to service quality. Service quality in this case was the ability to effectively and efficiently process and deliver customer orders. Service quality quickly gave way to logistics and supply chain management, which is the focus of my career today.
Sure, I had planned to go to college. Sure, I had planned to have a job (I was not really thinking career back then) and to work hard and succeed at that job. I had a general direction to go but not a definitive plan like others who always knew they wanted to be an artist, an engineer, a lawyer, or a physician. No one I knew ever said they wanted to be logistician or quality engineer.

This monthly letter also falls into this category. I started a daily writing project on my 49th birthday with the goal of documenting a transformation or rather the passing of my fiftieth year. I had some vague notion of turning it into a book on turning fifty. It was a general direction but no definitive plan. Then in January of 2004, I learned of the amazing life and monthly letter of Aram Kevorkian. I immediately knew what to do with my daily writing. Unfortunately, this door opened after the esteemed American-Armenian lawyer in Paris passed away. I never got to meet this remarkable man.

February 16, 2008 – Other Writers: I have read two books since I wrote my August 2007 on Summer Reading. I read The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. At the end of December, I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. These books were sitting on the shelf in my study for months. I read Ms. Shafak’s book first for a most simple reason. In my August letter, I spelled her name wrong. Nadya Uygun, a faithful reader and friend corrected me via e-mail. I felt both stupid and somehow obligated to read this book.

Ms. Shafak’s book was very good. She is an excellent writer and weaved a wonderful tale, examining the Armenian-Turkish issue from both sides and how much they are intertwined. She explored these issues from the struggles of Armenians trying to stay Armenian in the US, the whir and hum of life in modern Istanbul, and yet seasoned with the mysticism of the Istanbul of yore. It is well worth reading by anyone interested in good literature and things Armenian and Turkish.

As much as I liked Ms. Shafak’s book, I liked Mr. Hosseini’s The Kite Runner even more. I really loved this sad story set around the transition of Afghanistan from before the Soviet invasion through the iron fisted rule of the Taliban. It was mesmerizing. Mr. Hosseini’s writing was not obviously brilliant. It was subtly brilliant. The passages entranced and, to repeat the word, mesmerized. I found a fascination for a country and people I only knew through CNN reports. I found a longing for the old Afghanistan. It is well worth reading.

The other example of excellent writing is anything from the author Michael Pollan. I have read four of his pieces in the New York Times Magazine. He writes about food. He educates us on the effects the food industry and supply chains have on the quality of our food and our well being. He is very readable and engaging. I admire the ability to make the topics he chooses easily interesting and accessible to anyone who reads his article. The last article of his that I read was entitled, “You are what you grow,”from the April 22, 2007 New York Times Magazine. If anyone wants, e-mail me and I will forward this article to you.

February 17, 2008 – Pens: In my February 2005 letter, I wrote about when I write each day and the pens I use to write with. I wrote last year about the serendipity, random opportunity in this year’s parlance, to now work for writing instrument company. I have forsaken the Caran D’Ache ball points I truly loved for ball point products of the company I work for: Parker, Waterman, and Paper-Mate.

This year there was another change. I have evolved from ball points to gel pens. I would say that 80% of the time I write with a gel pen. Our brand is Uni-Ball. Uni-Ball is a product of Mistubishi Pencil of Japan. We are their exclusive distributor and marketer in the US - My weapon of choice is the Jetstream RT (RT for Retractable). They write incredibly smooth and bold.

There is a price, however, for the bold lines and ultra-smooth writing. The ink is used up at a much faster rate than ball points or roller balls. Gel pens use a water based ink that is more organic in nature making less stable than most ball point inks. As a result, one refill may write perfect and another may write inconsistently with faint lines or skips. But, when they work which is most of the time, they are unbeatable.

When people find out I work for a pen company, they say how they really like gel pens. More often than not, they mention a particular brand and model, the Pentel G-2 and ask if that is ours. I explain that it is our competition and that our brand is Uniball. The G-2 is a fine product I bought a few to test. But try the Uniball Jetstream, I think it is better.

To end, allow me to provide this odd but interesting website: It gives step by step on how to trim and put a Mont Blanc refill into a G-2 body. They claim to transform a $2 pen into a $200 pen. There is so much to comment on this, but I will leave it for another letter.

Thanks for all your encouragement and comments on this most rewarding project.

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