Tag Archives: Management

Toyota, General Motors and the Quest for Quality

A couple weeks ago, This American Life, the podcast from which this blog derives its name, aired an episode entitled NUMMI. The episode covered several aspects that led to General Motors’ decline and Toyota’s increased market share among auto-makers in the United States in the 1990s.

One of the cited reasons for GM’s downfall stood out in my mind: the emphasis of quantity over quality. While Toyota stressed manufacturing reliable cars, GM was trying to maximize the number of cars it was able to produce behind the idea that repairs could be taken care of at a later time. Ultimately, the consumers lost confidence in GM’s product, GM went bankrupt, and it was bailed out by the US government with $50 billion of taxpayer money.

Why did Toyota stress reliability and GM highlight volume? From the point of view of the podcast, it had to do with the management structure as well as labor relations between the auto-workers and upper management. Without getting mired in details, Toyota had a far superior management structure where workers felt like they could contribute ideas and wanted the product to succeed.

I bring these issues up because in today’s academic climate in the sciences, there are some apt parallels. Because of the structure put in place either by government funding agencies or by the administrators at universities, there is an ever-increasing pressure to publish papers. Of course, the added emphasis on volume does not necessarily have to lead to a decline in quality, but there does appear to be an inherent tension between quantity and quality. It is quite easy to intuit that in a world where publication quality reigns supreme, there would be far fewer publications in total.

There is a lot of fantastic science done in the present time, but because of the pressure to publish papers I am afraid that there is not enough time for a thorough education and proper scientific development. It is interesting to note that Richard Feynman published a moderate 85 refereed publications in his lifetime, but they were often of the highest quality. Truly remarkable breakthroughs take years of deep thought, synthesis and attention to detail, i.e. time.

It would be great to see a more concerted effort to manufacture more reliable cars, not just making many cars with the hope that a few will be manufactured well.

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What THE WIRE Taught Me About Science

The famous HBO series, The Wire, which many have called the greatest television show of all time (e.g. here and here), has a lot to say about urban decay, race relations, and the structure of power and organizations . There is one theme that is particularly relevant to us in the sciences that The Wire profoundly addresses: the competition between careerism and good work.

In the series, many that get promoted in the hierarchical structure of the police department are not the best policemen, but the ones that are the most career-oriented. In one of the more memorable quotes on the show (even though there are so many!), Lt. Daniels says to Detective Carver, who is about to be promoted:

Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

There is advice there for both advisers and students alike.

Advisers: (1) Pick students whose motivations lie in doing good work. (2) Show your students that what you do is about the work, about producing good science and not about publishing x hurried papers. (3) Help your students careers (honestly and without too much hype) when they aren’t looking (e.g. nominate them for awards, talk them up when you get the chance, etc.).

Students: (1) The adviser you pick will ultimately have a strong influence on where you end up and how you think about science in general; choose wisely. (2) Ask older graduate students, postdocs and professors questions; a large part of scientific development is figuring how/where to find interesting problems. (3) Do good work: Do not cut corners, do not hurriedly publish, be thorough and do not be dishonest.

In The Wire, there is a constant battle between the higher-ranked officials in the police department (who want to bring in low-level drug dealers under pressure from even higher-ranked officials and politicians), and the lower-ranked officials (who want to work a case until the entire case is solved so that they can bring in the drug kingpin and not just low-level middlemen). Fight the pressure to publish (to the best of your ability), and publish well when you do (sorry if you can’t see the analogy here!)

Alright, I’ll get off the soapbox now and just make one last comment: I have tried my best to follow these principles in graduate school (and have not always succeeded), but I do still think The Wire outlines a simple code to follow.

In the end, even in a show as pessimistic as The Wire, often good police got promoted and did their jobs better than the career-oriented ones. It is possible to do good work and survive even in this academic climate.

Also, if you’re a fan of The Wire, I recommend reading this: http://aaronhuertas.com/2011/11/what-i-learned-from-watching-the-wire-three-times/

The Idea Factory

I recently read John Gertner’s book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It had some great insights into the role that a stimulating environment can play in the creative process and how management can cultivate such an atmosphere. Some of the products invented at Bell (such as the transistor, laser, solar cell, etc.) were conceived of many years prior to their invention and introduction into the public sphere, emphasizing  Bell’s long-term oriented goals. The book also describes the management’s role in protecting Bell’s scientists from having to worry about funding constraints and government intrusions.

On a more sinister side, it also described the large concessions that AT&T (which owned Bell Labs) had to make to the US government to maintain its monopoly status. It is clear that there were massive efforts on AT&T’s part to ensure that it could stifle its competitors.

The book also goes on to discuss the model of modern-day businesses and how they are different from the Bell Labs model. Where Bell was a monolith, much of today’s Silicon Valley businesses ascribe to a “fail quickly and often” philosophy which is in stark contrast to the Bell method. This part of the book is particularly interesting as it discusses some similarities between Google, among other companies, and Bell Labs.

There is obviously no right answer here as to how things should be run, but the book does contain little gems of insight that are definitely worth storing in a mental vault. It is worth a read.