Saturday, February 23, 2013

After This, Nothing Will Be the Same

Remember Dick Fosbury?  In 1967 he was ranked the 61st best high-jumper in the world.  At the Olympics in Mexico City the following year he cleared the bar at 7 feet 4.25 inches and won the gold medal.  He did it with a style so different from the traditional “western straddle” that it came to be called the Fosbury Flop.  People laughed.  Even some of his coaches watched in disbelief.  One newspaper described it as going over the bar “like a guy being pushed out of a 30-story window.”

Today, you cannot find a world-class high jumper who doesn’t do the Fosbury Flop.  One moment it was one thing; the next, it would never be the same.

I was pondering these kinds of events as I wrote my post on Henry Leland (The Prophet of Quality)--how suppliers and competitors could not believe what he was able to do with quality and interchangeable parts in 1908 on that British test track, but afterwards, if they did not do it as well, they could not compete.

Here’s a small one with big implications:  In 1970 or 80 or 90, if someone stood up on an airplane and started causing trouble, most of us put our head down in our books and let the flight attendants handle things.  Now, after 9/11—one of the silver linings, I suppose—if someone stands up on a plane and starts causing trouble, the entire plane stands up and duct tapes him or her to a seat.   There’s no hesitation.  We’ve learned the hard way that there’s no protection like self-protection.  One day changed everything.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Memory of David Rossi, 1957-2003

Dave with our baby, who is now 17.
It was ten years ago today we lost David Rossi. Only the good die young.

Dave studied Chemistry at PITT, and I had the great good misfortune of living with him just after graduation, right around the time PITT won the national championship, the Pirates won the World Series and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  We roomed together for a couple of years in Brooklyn Heights when we both worked for the Chase, and in our first year at HBS.  Dave introduced me to the HP-12C, to Isaac Payton Sweat, and to the advice from his summer of reading (nothing but) Louis L'Amour that you shouldn't carry a knife unless you're prepared to use it.  Dave convinced me one night over beers that Harry Truman was the only person in history who ever could have really ruled the world, right after WWII when he had the Bomb and the Army and the wartime economy.  (If I ever go back to get my PhD in History, that'll be my thesis.)  He also shared with me his irrefutable theory of dating by the numbers, which I wrote about in 2007.

In the time I knew Dave, though, all he ever really wanted to do was Space.  He would have been an astronaut except for his eyesight.  Between Spacehab and Orbital Sciences, he got close.

Here's how to describe Dave best: At his funeral in Washington ten years ago, there were maybe six of us who were asked to speak.  As we talked beforehand, I realized we all believed the same thing: David Rossi was our best friend.  Six best friends.

I believe we were all correct.  Unless, of course, you count Sandy; then there was really only one.

Rest well, good friend.  I'm turning up "All This Ol' Wailin'" now so you can two-step in those damn-fool boots.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Prophet of Quality

Henry Martyn Leland was quality before quality was cool. Born near Barton, Vermont, in 1843, this mechanically-gifted farm boy soon fled the fields and proceeded to assemble a stellar “mechanic’s resume,” roughly equivalent today to someone having worked for IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Google.   Starting as a machinist in a company that manufactured power looms for America’s booming textile industry, he was employed during the Civil War at the cutting-edge United States Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, moved to the world-renowned Colt Revolver Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, and spent time with Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, one of the finest toolmakers in the world.  By the time he arrived in the automobile industry at the turn of the twentieth century, and specifically as general manager of an upstart brand called Cadillac, he had emphatic views on what made for manufacturing quality.

Leland must have cut quite a figure, more like a Biblical prophet than entrepreneur and mechanic.  He was full-bearded, slim and angular, cantankerous and autocratic--a God-fearing boss who opposed drinking and smoking, and held regular prayer meetings in his factories.  I don’t know if he ate locust, but he strikes me as John the Baptist with a set of calipers tucked in his hairshirt.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Taking "Weathermakers" to Basel: Some Lessons

A view of Basel and the Rhine from our conference room window.
It's hard work, but somebody has to do it.
It's been two years since I first waded into the Carrier Corporation archives to research and write Weathermakers to the World.  This is long enough, especially with my faulty memory, to begin to get fuzzy on some of the important details.  So when an opportunity came along to present the book, especially in a grand hotel on the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, it also turned out to be a good time to study-up on the story and even reflect on a few of its larger lessons.