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Divide and Prosper: An Asian Model for Successful Business Growth

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

I recently read Divide and Prosper, by Kuniyasu Sakai and Hiroshi Sekiyama, and posted a review in Goodreads.  My full review is linked here.

The book is, ostensibly, a business book.  It is written as an inspirational management guide.  As such, Divide and Prosper is extremely useful, providing a wealth of practical information for a successful business manager.  But this is only one tiny fraction of the book’s value.  The greatest merits of the book come from its attempt to inspire and motivate younger people to aspire to more than is offered by the status quo.

In my review, I wrote about the author’s detailed description of the subcontractor system in Japan in the section, “Big Business, Small Companies.” In this section, Sakai and Sekiyama describe carefully how the major corporations enslave the majority of the nation’s companies and people.

To Sakai and Sekiyama, the status quo does not provide redeeming lives to the majority of people.  This goes against the conventional “wisdom,” which says that Japan has achieved a higher standard of living than most of the nations of the world.  While it may have severe limitations in space and cost of living, the standard of wealth, safety, and convenience make Japan a mark of success, not failure.  But rather than spreading wealth thinly and evenly across the majority of the nation – as is the “common knowledge” explanation goes – the subcontracting system enslaves the majority of people. The big companies are not much more that a system of installing a small cadre of mediocre administrators to threaten, cajole, and pacify the masses, while pooling the wealth into the hands of a few wealthy and powerful elites, who hide anonymously behind the veils of their organizations.

First, the authors describe how the system is integral to the Japanese economy as a whole.  “The shitauke system is in one sense the very foundation of our modern business and industrial structure, the base upon which our giant commercial structure has been built.”  They continue to say that,”large corporations in a wide variety of fields act merely as “trading companies,” farming out jobs to their affiliates at cut-rate prices while charging their clients for the prestige of dealing with a top-notch Japanese firm.”

This structure is possible because the major, publicly traded, international corporations only comprise a small minority of the Japanese economy.  Sakai and Sekiyama write that, “90% of Japanese economy is minor industry.  Relatively few companies have more than three hundred employees, and more than three-quarters of all Japanese companies are very small, employing only a handful of people.  The real backbone of the Japanese industry is not the Toyotas and Nissans, the Matsushitas and Sonys, the Fujitsus and NECs, but rather, the thousands upon thousands of small firms that allow these behemoths to exist in the first place.”  Here, we start to see that the heart of their story is not just a positive guide to successful business, but a scathing war cry, aiming to defeat the massive corporate giants that cripple Japan and, ultimately, our world.

“In Japan, most small firms (and nearly all small manufacturing firms) exist in the shadow of a few dozen giant corporations which completely control their destinies. The master firm completely controls both its subcontractors’ production levels and unit costs, and this is the reason the giant industrial combines so jealously guard this system.”  Of course.  If a big company can control the production level and unit costs, it can offload most of its risks and take most of the returns from manufacturing.  It automatically inflates the big companies at the expense of the smaller subcontractors.

“What many people, even here in Japan, would find surprising is the astounding quantity of goods the firm purchases rather than manufactures.”  Again, this should not come as a surprise.  Manufacturing themselves would create a large number of “risks”, namely the human resources, facilities, and capital necessary to produce products.  Instead, the big corporations merely farm out the production, waiting “to put its name on the outer case and send the products through its international marketing and distribution system.”

This structure, Sakai and Sekiyama say, is an “industrial shock absorber.”  “The advantages of this system for the parent firm are just as obvious as the disadvantages for the smaller firms.  If the giant corporation falls on hard times, it will take a very long time (as we saw in the 90s) before it needs to lay off employees or radically alter any part of its own corporate structure.  It battens down the hatches and rides out the storm, keeping its own inconvenience to a minimum.”

“Having served as one of these “slave” companies for many years, I believe very strongly that a situation in which one must produce at another’s beck and call is ultimately destructive. “

Men are not lemmings.  Of course, the “mass suicide” popular story about lemmings is a misconception, but the metaphor that we frequently behave unquestioningly as popular opinion dictates, with potentially fatal or dangerous consequences is, I think, quite valid.  Our fetish with big things – especially BIG business, BIG companies, and BIG data – may, in fact doom us.  I hope not.

Documentary focuses of WWII Japanese – American internment camps in New Mexico — War History Online

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

My father’s family were interned at Poston Arizona, after being detained at the Santa Anita Racetrack.  My grandfather was arrested first, leaving his wife and two young sons to take whatever they could with them from their farm in Porterville to their internment.

Grandfather was taken to another camp with many other supposed ringleaders of the Japanese in California.  His crime: sending money back to his family before the war.

We don’t know which camp grandfather was taken to.  I think it was Tule Lake in California, but it could be these camps in New Mexico.  He eventually rejoined his family in Poston, but didn’t speak about his time of separation.  He died before I was born.

Granddad was a guy who boarded a freight ship to head off to America – a stowaway.  He ended up becoming a ranch hand in Arizona before heading back to Japan to marry my grandma.  He was a real pioneer, an adventurer.  Had a farm in Terra Bella before moving to Porterville.

I wish I knew more about him, but I am sure that the first camp he spent time in was not a picnic.  Neither was Poston.

This should not have happened then.  It should never happen again.

Documentary focuses of WWII Japanese – American internment camps in New Mexico — War History Online.

Five billion people can’t use the Internet

March 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Aleph Molinari – Bridging the Digital Divide

The Digital Divide is a mother that’s 45 years old and can’t get a job, cuz she doesn’t know how to use a computer.

Most news focuses on the roughly 2 billion people in the world who use the Internet.  Economist Aleph Molinari chooses to focus on the other five billion people.  He is working to close the digital divide and empower people, by providing widespread access to technology education.

Español: Logo de la Fundación Proacceso

Español: Logo de la Fundación Proacceso (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2008, Molinari founded Fundación Proacceso and in 2009 launched the Learning and Innovation network.  The network uses community centers to educate under-served communities and

enable them to use technology for empowerment. In about 2 years, the network has graduated 28,000 users through 42 educational centers throughout Mexico.

Graph of internet users per 100 inhabitants be...

Graph of internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007 by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), source: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/ict/graphs/internet.jpg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Learning and Innovation network

employs a well-designed system to bridge this digital divide.  The system is divided into 4 educational parts.  The first focuses on computers.  The second is the Internet.  The third is office software.  The fourth phase is a 72 hour technology program that produces, in the end, a digital citizen.  While the program sounds somewhat trite, there is no doubt that the programs conducted by Fundación Proacceso and the Learning and Innovation network have made a huge impact on extremely poor communities in Mexico.

Molinari’s arguments are extremely persuasive.  There is no doubt to me that, as he says, “Internet is a right, not a luxury.” We can do a lot to bridge this divide, enabling many of the five billion – most of whom are in the southern hemisphere and Asia – to become active participants as digital citizens of the world.

Although the work ahead seems daunting, it is even more daunting to consider what will happen to our world in the absence of a more fair and just distribution of wealth and opportunity.  It is better to make do with less than to lose everything we love and cherish.

Molinari’s final message is full of hope:

The main message is that technology is not going to save the world, we are, and we can use technology to help us. Most technology is human energy, so let’s use this energy to make this world a better place.

Life is All About (bi)Cycles

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment
Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience 2010

photo by Ed Schipul This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

It seems that Bill Nye – the Science Guy – is way more well known than I know. Being away from the United States for 25 years and not one to pay attention much to TV in general, I don’t come across TV shows that air in the US – even on PBS – unless they are really popular or become important politically.  Though sustainability and good science are extremely important, they certainly won’t win many popularity contests among the TV viewing public.

Reading about the Science Guy now, I find I’d appreciate his TV program.  I really like his passion for bicycles and for personal health.

“There’s no machine known that is more efficient than a human on a bicycle.  Bowl of oatmeal, 30 miles — you can’t come close to that.”

The first paragraph of Bill Nye’s biography on his personal website says this:

Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is a man with a mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life.

What a fabulous introduction!  Making science entertaining and accessible is something I love doing, too, and hope to do for most of my life.

In the “crazy Bill vision”, Nye predicts that weather-tight “bicycle arterials” will be built.  These, he says, will be cost-efficient when compared to a modern roadway.  I fully agree.  They would be much lighter than roadways and bicycles are unlikely to produce anything near the wear and tear produced by cars, buses, and especially trucks.

But is our society ready to make these commitments to green infrastructure?  Tellingly, Nye says, “You could do that if you were committed.”

I’d love to see a future in which Bill’s vision for bicycles form a critical component in a sustainable transit system.  I’d like if it were not limited to places like Portland Oregon and Seattle Washington, where Nye believes that the commitment is likely to grow.  While I realize that these cities and some areas in and around San Francisco – where I was once a bicycle messenger – have both the political perspective and the occasionally inclement weather that provide an impetus to build ideal infrastructure for cyclists, the need is even more fervent in communities hostile to cyclists such as Los Angeles, Manhattan, Washington D.C., and Tokyo.

I’m hoping that in the wake of the 3.11 disaster, many more Japanese start to awaken to the reality that on the one hand mass transit systems are important, but on the other distributed and local systems are required.  While I look upon Shinkansen with admiration and awe, it is the local streetcar and the bicycle that I look to as critical in the ideal communities of the future.  In this future, the sleek and elegant tubes would be bicycle highways, competing with the Shinkansen for technical prowess and hi-tech coolness.  And bicycle manufacturers would supplant Ferrari and Porsche as the supreme designers of machines for transit. But the biggest winners: you and me!! (and Bill Nye!)

Giving the gift of Light

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

BioLite. The company’s mission is fantastic! – providing reliable, rugged, efficient, and stylish camping equipment to outdoors enthusiasts to incubate self-sustained energy access for the people who need it most.

I am not sure how I stumbled on this, but now I’ve plugged it all over Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. It is also on StumbleUpon and Digg. I could go crazy and add it everywhere else I interact socially, but I’ll stop there for now.

This is an amazing find, though. While I am looking forward to seeing this product in Japan, hopefully even playing a part in making that happen, I think its true merit is in bringing electricity and a potential lifeline to places where the grid is off as often as on. Lights, of course, but radios and mobile phones and other communication devices could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.  But even in the absence of such a situation, the lack of continuous and reliable power often means even greater hardships for many in the developing world than would otherwise be the case.

Already, the BioLite has won recognition and awards for its performance, making cooking with wood safe and easy while also providing electrical charge to power LED lights, mobile phones, and other devices.  The CampStove is $129 (US) and is planned to ship before camping season 2012 (before summer, I assume).

Sales of the CampStove are intended to support the one-time establishment costs of the HomeStove.  The BioLite HomeStove’s efficient process uses less than half the wood of an open fire and reduces smoke emissions by more than 90%. Since around half the wood used in the world is used for fuel – more than 75%  in developing countries – and indoor air pollution is one of the key issues raised by the World Health Organization as a major cause of respiratory diseases, distribution of the HomeStove may be vital in providing clean, safe, and easy heat and an affordable source of electricity.  The company intends to become profitable while making the homes of the 3 billion people who cook on open fires safer.  Now that, is a great reason to build a company!

Introducing the new BioLite CampStove – Reserve now! from BioLite on Vimeo.

This is a comma, not a full stop. – Ruel Bobet 10/26/2011

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

LIVESTRONG

For me, LIVESTRONG is not just an organization that provides support for cancer survivors and led by the enigmatic Lance Armstrong.  It is a way of life.

I believe in the LiveSTRONG Manifesto.  I became a LIVESTRONG Leader for 2012 because I wanted to use my experience leading groups through adventure and sports to learn about cancer, cancer survivorship, and its prevention.

We believe in life.
Your life.
We believe in living every minute of it with every ounce of your being.
And that you must not let cancer take control of it.
We believe in energy: channeled and fierce.
We believe in focus: getting smart and living strong.
Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything.
This is LIVESTRONG.

I just read today in the LIVESTRONG Leaders group on Facebook about a young man who was fighting cancer until last weekend.  His words from last year about how he was facing his fight says succinctly a lot about why I have joined the fight.  His attitude is evident in the title of his post, which I used in my title as well.  (Thank you Ruel, rest in Peace.  You are now, in my mind, an exclamation point.  That will keep screaming out forever!)

TEXAS 4000 RIDE: This is a comma, not a full stop.

I’ve been wearing a LIVESTRONG wristband for  around 7 or 8 years now.  Long enough for it to become as fitting and natural as a watch or – really, as much as I love/hate to say it – my wedding ring.

My LiveSTRONG wristband

My LIVESTRONG wristband

I started wearing it around 2004, when I finally got one at the NikeTown Portland store. (The store was the first of the NikeTown concept, which has now been mostly phased out.) I’ve been wearing one full time since.

I started wearing the band mostly because I loved the way Lance Armstrong competed.  I have been a fan for many years, since he came back from cancer and started winning the Tour de France.  But I first started paying attention to cycling races because of Greg LeMond.  I had already been a fan of cycling itself, but LeMond’s first victory at the Tour de France in 1986 coincided with my being a bicycle messenger in San Francisco.

Then, in 1987, LeMond was accidentally hit by a shotgun blast during a turkey hunt by his brother-in-law,  nearly killing him.  But after losing two years of professional racing, Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1989 and 1990.  He was the first American ever to wind the race, but after coming back only 2 years after nearly losing his life, I became hooked.

Then came Lance.  His story is now legendary.  Never came close to reaching his potential (for 5 years he was projected to become a star) during his career leading up to 1996, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.  Spreads to his lungs and even his brain.  Surgery, extensive chemo, and a long hard rehabilitation.  Two lost years of professional racing.  Then, in 1999, Armstrong amazingly wins his first Tour de France.  Then, even more dramatically, Lance wins the world’s greatest race for 7 consecutive years.

We’re about the fight.
We’re your advocate before policymakers. Your champion within the healthcare system. Your sponsor in the research labs.
And we know the fight never ends.
Cancer may leave your body, but it never leaves your life.
This is LIVESTRONG.
Founded and inspired by Lance Armstrong, one of the toughest cancer survivors on the planet.

I’m not as big a fan of the Tour de France as I once was.  I don’t think it is because there have been no American winners since Lance.  Nor is it because of the lack of media attention.  Part of it is because of the media attention, especially the focus on doping.  But much of it is because I’m more focused on just living and doing, rather than watching others compete.

I’ll keep on riding, running, hiking, climbing, and swimming.  These things are important to me.  They are me.

We are LIVESTRONG.

Come along for the ride of your life!

The Story of Broke

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

It seems that the world is full of people who are broke.  Heck, even nations, like Greece, are close to broke.  Or, if you think about how much they’ve put future generations in debt, then countries like the United States and Japan are broke.

Or, are they?

If you think about it, these nations are collecting more than a trillion dollars each year in taxes.  Sure, they are spending more than they “earn”.  But surely they can be better managed, without cutting on schools, healthcare, pensions, and social services.

Here is a simple and entertaining video illustrating why you should reconsider our government’s priorities.  Then, it is up to you to think and act upon this.  Our collective future depends on it.

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