Notes from Yvon Chouinard's talk

From this video here by the founder of Patagonia

- Be product-driven. Make the best product possible. Don't mess around.
- Flex-time for employees. Hire good people, let them do their thing when they want to, but make sure things get done.
- Blur the distinction between work, play, and family. Employees shouldn't be disappearing from home for 8 hours a day every day. Be surrounded by friends. Teach passionate people business, rather than trying to instill passion in businesspeople.
* Influenced by Japanese management style...very different from American
- Something is complete not when you can't add anything to it, but when you can't take anything away.
- Cause no unnecessary harm. Manufacturing, and everything beyond hunting & gathering, causes waste, but make efforts to minimize it.
- Climbing Yosemite: at the top, there's nothing. The big accomplishment was the climb to get there. Focus on the process.


The Intro to Entrepreneurship class I'm in is interesting enough that it's got me thinking about it outside of class.

Today we went over a concept that applies to frambeuilding as well as a lot of other stuff.
A successful business plan requires two things:
1. It has to have value. This involves a viable target market, a product that fulfills a need or want, a functional supply chain, etc.
2. It has to defy imitation.

Without #2, it's hard to have a growth business. Folks can easily do what you do better if the market is attractive enough.
There's a few ways to get #2 if you don't have it. A patent offers a limited solution: patents are expensive and take years to get, and someone could always reverse-engineer the patented idea or make a minute change.
Another way is to add an artistic element to the product or service. An artistic product has caché; the fact that it was created by a particular artist/craftsperson gives it value. Someone else copying the product would have to build their own caché to have the same success. This is what Richard Sachs talks about all the time: it's the builder, not the bike, atho.
The last way is relevant as well. A business person's network of suppliers, distributors, and customers is proprietary and may be impossible to duplicate. The most extreme example is business in small towns; a handful of people may control so much of the local commerce and politics that breaking into that market can be impossible. On a broader level, a relationship with a supplier of raw materials may ensure the survival of a manufacturing business. This seems more akin to the relationships Shimano must have with OEMs.

Lastly, here's a great bit about small business marketing from the excellent Sweetpea Cycles blog:

[The accountant] looked over our documents slowly interpreting the numbers on the page trying to understand the story that they told, and after a long silence asked “What’s this two hundred bucks for marketing?” “Mostly website stuff,” I answered.

He took off his glasses and looked at us. “Can I offer you a free bit of advice?”

“Kids your age feel comfortable doing everything on the internet. But a lot of people my age need something to touch. You know, something to hold in their hands. You guys need to spend a little money and get some brochures or something.”

It was like the Zen Master had hit us on the head with a stick.

Thankful, or: Diamond in the Back, Sunroof Top, Diggin' the Scene

I recently moved to Richmond, VA from the DC suburbs to pursue an interdisciplinary degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, combining studies in their Craft and Business schools as well as in the Precision Machining program at John Tyler Community College in nearby Chester.

Today has been interesting. It's the day before VCU classes start, so more errand-running in preparation for the semester.

Last night I discovered the rear hub on my bike was locked up, and fixing that is one of those repairs I can't do at home. So I set out today looking for a shop; the first was closed, so I tried a newish-looking one in Carytown. Turned out to be a very cool, relaxed shop, similar to one that just opened in DC that my buddy works at.

I got the hub temporarily fixed up, ordered new bearings for it, slapped on a new cog for lower gearing, and placed an order for a red-and-white Chrome Citizen to replace my aging Timbuk2. I hope it'll be very visible and sufficiently color-coordinated with existing cycling apparel.

As I was about to leave, I asked about the unpainted fork they had mounted in a cool velvet-lined box frame. That led to some framebuilding talk with one of the sales people. Turns out he's a recent VCU Craft grad, he built a lugged frame in the Craft shop, and we know some of the same people in the framebuilding universe. He's interested in doing custom bike part manufacture, but lacks access to suitable machine tools, as well as technical know-how to run the machines. Funny, I say, because I have (or will soon have) access to such tools and know-how to use them, but I lack sweet designs and ideas. Each of us realized pretty quickly we needed to stay in touch with the other. Fortunately, I'll be back to pick up my new bag in a week.

Did 45 minutes at one of VCU's two gyms, which are as nice as any I've been in (though that's not saying much, I'm new to the gym thing).

Wandered around later near the gym and art school, stopped into Pibby's, a tiny one-room bike shop that I'd bought parts from at a swap meet in Maryland earlier this year. The guy (the sole proprietor) gave me some valuable names and numbers: the guy I'd met earlier in the day in Carytown, a semi-local framebuilder, a powdercoater down the street. Just because I seemed like I might benefit from the info, I guess.

Drove to Chester, bought cheap gas and the rest of my John Tyler books. Class tonight was all shop safety, pretty boring, though by now we've started to loosen up and crack more jokes.

Then I went to the Lowe's (I know, I know) across the street from JT to get some carpet. I want to convert half of the spare room in my new apt. into a bike shop, but I need to protect the hardwood floor from the grease and stand and bikes. I picked out some perfectly grease-colored, dirt-cheap stuff and went to find a guy to cut it for me. Turns out he's a retired advertising photographer and used to be an avid cyclist. And he's got a machinist buddy with a shop way out in Oilville who's looking for shop help. He comps me a couple feet of carpet and gives me his buddy's numbers. At a Lowe's?!

Driving home tonight I was reflecting on the day and on how thankful I am:
• To live in this exciting new city, where people are interested in making things in the same way I am, and where there's resources available for folks like us.
• To not have to pay tuition out-of-pocket, or have it paid by my employer, as my classmates at John Tyler do, and to be able to go to school far from home.
• To have access to these new textbooks, which, while maybe not enthralling, will answer a lot of the most basic questions I'd had on my mind.
• To have free, convenient access to the best-equipped gym I've ever used.
• To live in this great new house, where I have room for a dedicated bike work space, and to be able to furnish it with carpet and tools and parts.

Other Blogs to Read When I'm Busy

Classes start tomorrow (er, today) here at Virginia Commonwealth U in Richmond.

Since my academic duties may soon preclude me from posting with the regularity to which you have become accustomed, please see the following:

Awkward Things I Say to Girls is so on point it's scary. Someone actually writes down all the awkwardness?
An Unfortunate Series of Events is a local blog, partly about cycling, not at all about happy endings.
Reading Lifehacker for one day will make you realize how unproductive most of your life is, and then teach you how to change that.
Bike Snob NYC takes on the fixie culture set with unmatched impunity:
It drives me crazy when people talk about the special skills you need to ride a fixed gear. (Uh, it's the same as riding a regular bike except your feet keep moving.) At the same time, though, there is more to riding a fixed gear (or any bike) than following what seem to be the Three Commandments of Fixed Gear Riding: 1) Thou Shalt Have Thine Keys Exposed At All Times; 2) Thou Shalt Not Tape Thine Bars; and 3) A Helmet's Okay, But A Brake Is Gay.

For those following the industrial engineering segment of our program:

Lean Blog covers lean manufacturing techniques (which are modern evolutions of Taylor's ideas) far better than I can.
ShopFloor, the blog of the National Association of Manufacturers, covers, y'know, American manufacturing with a political bent.

The tool of choice for keeping track of all these blogs (and, of course, this one):
Google Reader.

American Machining

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I've been reading an excellent biography of Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who helped develop high speed steel (which is essential to modern manufacturing) as well as a system of shop management that revolutionized manufacturing, and ultimately helped to shape modern life.
One of Taylor's contemporaries, Fred Colvin, was the first editor of American Machinist magazine. AM subscription, is free, though I've yet to receive a printed copy since my request a few weeks ago. The website is nicely done and they have some interesting articles that offer perspective on the state of manufacturing 100 years after Taylor.

From articles in AM's 2005 State of Manufacturing:

Finding and Training Tomorrow's Machinists
The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists. Now, a machinist has to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics. Employees at all levels must have the skills to deal with the technology inherent in complex environments.

Students asked to describe images associated with a career in manufacturing responded with phrases such as "serving a life sentence," being "on a chain gang," or "slave to the line," or even being a "robot." Almost unanimously, they saw manufacturing opportunities to be in stark contrast with the characteristics they desire in their careers. Thus, they do not plan on careers in manufacturing.

"Most young people have in mind a 20, 30, or 40-yr-old manufacturing model," notes Tom Whelan, a principal at Omaha's Silverstone Group specializing in human-resource development. "The dangerous, dirty, labor-intensive assembly lines of the 1950s are gone, replaced by robotics and intelligent systems requiring high-tech skills. In spite of dramatic changes in factory conditions, the old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist. Manufacturers have failed to show how they've modernized, embraced new technologies, and involved workers in management and product development."

One reason manufacturing is perceived as a declining field is that employment figures reflect the number of manual-labor and assembly-line jobs being replaced by robots or moved outside the country. Most people don't think about the higher-level jobs remaining.
This is the crux of the issue in American manufacturing labor reform, one I've been reading about in the Taylor biography. Implementing Taylor's system of scientific management to a shop often meant mass firings because job descriptions changed drastically—workers did much more work (usually at considerably greater pay). Taylor actually found that unskilled men could fill jobs once considered highly skilled, once the job was boiled down into its component parts and the new men were given training in their specific task. Experienced machinists tended to resist the changes and rely heavily on inefficient rules of thumb. At the same time, Taylor mandated drastically increasing the number of foremen supervising a given number of men. The result was a re-shuffling of manufacturing jobs.

Outsourcing has moved these relatively unskilled jobs overseas. What remain are more highly skilled positions, making things the Chinese can't make as well or as efficiently. American workers will have to learn new skills to stay competitive in the manufacturing labor market, but it's probably good for everyone in the long run. More products will continue to be available at lower prices. Whether that abundance is ultimately good or bad, it continues a trend that Taylor is responsible for launching in earnest.

In 1912, Taylor's system reached nationwide fame and controversy Scientific management was even the subject of congressional hearings to determine its place in the nation's factories and armories. By the end of the first world war, scientific management and its derivatives were widely accepted worldwide, and nowhere more so than in the US. The war effort required such drastically increased production that Taylorism presented the only viable option. What will it take to make outsourcing as accepted as scientific management is now?
Another misconception is that manufacturing offers only low-paying jobs. According to the Department of Commerce, the average salary-and-benefit package for manufacturing workers was $62,700 in 2003. The national average for all jobs was $51,000.
Surprising numbers, no?


Leveling the International Playing Field

In Arizona I saw one of Haas' fleet of "after-sales support" vans that seem to be key to their success in the American CNC tool business. Each van is a cross between a Snap-On truck and a repair shop, as I understand it, roving from one plant to the next, doing repairs and supplying replacement parts.

The sidebar "Success in China" describes how Haas' success there is likewise dependent on those vans. It's just hard to imagine these Haas vans criss-crossing the Chinese countryside, getting stuck behind a flock of sheep or a washed-out bridge. The Haas van, the picture of American technological progress, juxtaposed* against the difficulties implicit in working in a place like rural China. I'm generalizing here, and I've never been to any part of Asia, but I liked the image.

* Can you tell I've been in art school?