Archive for the ‘history and culture’ Category

Sanyo: washing machines and global symbiosis

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

Sanyo Electric, the sprawling Japanese electronics conglomerate, has its fingers in just about everything. They make TVs and solar batteries and cogeneration systems and air conditioners and digital cameras and phones and semiconductors. They’ll install things for you or deliver them for you or build you a house or send you temporary workers or even put up your folks in one of their nursing homes. Therer are 332 Sanyo companies around the world.

But Sanyo is in trouble. They managed to lose almost $2 billion in 2004, and have a staggering $10 billion mountain of debt.

Now Sanyo has unleashed an astonishing transformation. They’ve elevated a woman—Tomoyo Nonaka—to the post of CEO, with the founder’s grandson relegated to mere President and COO. Nonaka is the most senior woman in the Japanese business world by far, a Japanese Carly Fiorina who still has her job.

And there’s definitely a woman’s hand visible in the visionary new plan that Sanyo announced. There were the obvious things, such as cutting debt, selling stuff, shuttering factories, firing people, cutting costs. What’s more interesting is the new Sanyo vision: Think GAIA, becoming a “company to make the earth rejoice”. “living in global symbiosis”, “leaving a beautiful earth for the children of the future.”

Make fun if you will, but this is a vision of startling breadth. Now it simply remains to be seen how, or if, the company can actually bring this vision to bear to reinvigorate and revitalize its slumping businesses.

There’s more to the vision. Sanyo has grouped its competencies and technologies into broad areas, which it calls “programs”, with catchy names:

  • Blue Planet: address global environmental problems
  • Genesis III: develop sustainable clean energy society
  • Harmonious Society: create a rich society overflowing with love
  • Product Circulation: move to a zero-emissions, completely recycled, undamaging product life cycle

Finally, there’s an actual implementation plan, dubbed “Sanyo Evolution Project”, with three parts. The first, known as “Business Portfolio Evolution Plan”, calls for Sanyo to completely review and revamp its business portfolio, focusing on CO2 compressor technology, solar cells, and home appliances, while building five new “solution” areas:

1. Symbiosis and ecosystem solutions
2. Recyclable environmental solutions
3. Global energy solutions

4. New-generation commuter solutions
5. Family relationship solutions
6. LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) lifestyle solutions

They’ll also refocus R&D strongly based on the new vision. They’ll reorganize their network to lessen product and geographic dependencies.

The second part of the implementation plan is called the “Corporate DNA Evolution Plan”, designed to revolutionize the corporate culture, organization, and management processes. They’ll strengthen the corporate identity and establish a global headquarters with clout. The third part consists of the restructuring steps mentioned at the top of this post.

Sanyo has come a long way since Iue Toshio ( started making bicycle headlights back in 1947 in Osaka. We certainly wish them well in what they are calling their “Third Beginning”.

Nagasaki, 60 years later

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, I’ll share some relevant passages from Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory.

President Truman, in a diary entry from July 25, wrote: “This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

“He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.”

Many of the scientists did not want to drop the second bomb, or even the first. But Groves had been adamant. Consumed by the desire to demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt his success in building the monstrous new weapon, he lobbied vigorously for its use. Finally the military managed to convince Truman to drop the bomb on a real target, instead of making a demonstration like many scientists recommended, but Truman insisted the target be military. Fortunately, that took candidates like Kyoto and the Emperor’s palace in Tokyo out of the running. Unfortunately, it was then an easy end-run for the military to claim that Hiroshima, or Nagasaki, was a military target, since of course, both cities did contain factories producing war materiel. The orders that went out on the very same day of Truman’s diary entry, July 25, made no mention of military vs. civilian targets, and simply designated the entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others, as targets.

The bomb detonated over Hiroshima, “Big Boy,” was a uranium bomb, which Hanford had nothing to do with. It was dropped on August 6 1945. Riding along in a separate plane, named “The Great Artiste” and carrying monitoring equipment, was a certain Major Charles William Sweeney. Three days later Sweeney, commanding a B-29 named “Bock’s Car” after its usual pilot, Capt. Frederick Bock, dropped “Fat Man,” so named for its pudgy shape, over Nagasaki, a little Japanese port town on the southern island of Kyushu. Nagasaki was not really a strategic target, other than being where a Mitsubishi plant had produced some of the torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor. When Fat Man was ignited, conventional explosives violently squeezed the softball-sized capsule of Hanford plutonium inside until its density reached the point of supercriticality, causing a nuclear explosion. The fierce blast wind, heat rays reaching several thousand degrees, and deadly radiation generated by the explosion crushed, burned and killed everything in sight and reduced the entire area to a barren field of rubble. Hanford’s plutonium had performed its work admirably.

Bock was much less creative in naming his plane than one Capt. George Marquardt, who came up with the cute moniker “Up an’ Atom” for the weatherplane he flew along on the run.

Fat Man almost did not make it to its August 9 date with destiny. There was a firing unit on Fat Man’s front that needed to be connected to a cable going through the bomb’s innards to a radar antenna on its tail that detected when the bomb was at the right altitude to ignite. Technicians in the Marianas from where the flight was to take off were trying to hook up the bomb on the night of August 7 when they discovered to their horror that both connectors were female; somebody had threaded the cable through the bomb backwards! There wasn’t enough time to disassemble the bomb and reverse the cable. Without telling anyone, the two got a soldering iron and some extension cords. They secretly, and very carefully, removed the two plugs on the cable and swapped them so everything fit.

The technicians evidently did their job well, since the bomb detonated as planned. Sweeney recalls that as he watched the bomb falling free on its forward arc, the somewhat bizarre thought flashed through his mind: “It’s too late now. There are no strings or cables attached. We can’t get it back, whether it works or not.” The mushroom cloud was “multicolored…intense…angry…mesmerizing…breathtaking…ominous.”

Bill Maher is not a comedian, he's a joke disorder

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

New Rules, Bill Maher’s new book, has shot up the bestseller list. It’s pretty funny. The really funny thing, though, is how little content it has—about one, one-sentence joke per page. The jokes are supposed to be about the way things have changed (hence the title).

I like Bill. I ran into him at the West Hollywood Book Fair last Sunday where he was signing his books. I’m sure his TV program is funny even though I don’t watch it because I don’t get HBO . He’s a indispensable antidote to much of the political silliness going on today.

But unfortunately most of the jokes in his new book are just stupid. Or ignorant. Take this one:

Sumo is not a sport—it’s an eating disorder.

Leaving aside what this has to do with being a “new rule”, what’s our friend Bill doing engaging in dime-store humor about Orientals? What’s next, jokes about buckteeth? Has he ever seen a sumo match or bothered to learn anything about the sport?

Perhaps he’d like to wrestle with Chiyonofuji, the great yokozuna whose 31 championships are second only to Taiho’s and whose body fat ratio would probably put Bill to shame. “Wolf”, as he was known, could lift Bill up with one hand and drop him on a pile of remaindered copies of “New Rules”. Or going back a bit further, perhaps Bill would like to wrangle with Wajima, another yokozuna who weighed in at a scrawny 132kg during his heyday in the ‘70s, when I first visited Japan.

Or maybe Bill would like to learn about the scores of kimarite winning techniques. Bill could even widen his horizons and learn about how sumo and sumo-like sports are popular thoughout Asia, notably in Korea and Mongolia, where it is said to date back to Genghis Khan. And instead of pandering to the ill-informed image of sumo wrestlers as fat bozos with an “eating disorder”, he could learn about their food culture and their remarkable chanko nabe stew.

The Tiger’s Lair

Monday, January 10th, 2005

The Travel section of the Sunday New York Times had an article on Bhutan, with a great picture of the famed Tiger’s Lair, but not as good as the one we took when we visited in 1997. Actually, these pictures are of two different buildings: ours of the original, and the NYT’s of the monastery rebuilt after the tragic fire that destroyed it just a week after our visit.

Japan's Family Mart brings its upscale convenience stores to US

Wednesday, January 5th, 2005

Convenience stores—shortened to “conbini” in Japanese—are ubiquitous in the Land of the Rising Sun. FamilyMart (website) is a giant in the category, with sales of nearly one trillion yen (US$10bn) and over 10,000 stores blanketing the archipelago.

Now “FamiMa”, as it’s known, is making a big push into the US, thinking an upscale, Japanese-focused concept can be successful here. The press release crows: “First lifestyle speciality all-in-one community to open in West Hollywood! LA gets the first taste of Famima’s “premium experience”. I’m honored. The new store is just up the street from my house, a 15-minute walk (Google map). The press release continues:

West Hollywood. California has always been a trendy place for firsts… design, fashion and food to name a few. Now add to the list, Famima!! A new lifestyle specialty all-in-one community store (Premium Grocer + Quick Service Restaurant + Convenience Store) concept that is thoughtful in its modern design and sophisticated in its product offerings is set to open on July 20, 2005 on the corner of Santa Monica and La Cienega Boulevards. With an appeal that is pop, hip, and Gen-X all in one, Famima!! is superbly positioned to be West Hollywood’s newest hot spot this summer.

Having visited the new store the first chance I got, I can say that the concept works well for me, compared to other “competitors” like 7-11 that basically make me want to kill myself every time I step foot in one. I like the range of foods they carry, including of course lots of Japanese candy (like Pocky) and instant noodles and even rice balls, magazines (which they need to beef up their selection of), and drinks. There’s a little restaurant which I didn’t try, fresh foods, coffee, and even stationery (although it seemed overpriced). The store is friendly and bright and attractive. It has stuff I want and need. I’ll be back.

FamiMa is going to roll out quickly in the US. The West Hollywood store is the first of 250 they plan to open over the next five years. I wish them well. But I have some suggestions. They don’t seem to understand that people drive cars over here, and need to be able to identify the store from the street, then quickly grab a convenient parking spot. And I’m not sure the “FamiMa” name works—maybe they should go back to “Family Mart” over here. I know they had to bring people over from Japan to staff the stores but they should make sure those people function a little better in English. And they need to work on their website. Finally, where is the Yakult? Good luck, FamiMa.

Pachacuti as builder

Saturday, January 1st, 2005

Pachacuti (Wikipedia) was the legendary ninth Inca and architect of Incan civilization. Given the magnitude and success of his undertaking, I like to think of him as the originator of many modern management techniques. From this perspective, let’s take a look at his approach, specifically as it involves building.

Building was a theme running throughout Pachacuti’s reign—building symbols and ceremonies, temples and other edifices, and even entire cities.

After his initial victory over the Chancas, Pachacuti needed to set some quick priorities on what to focus on next. He wanted to find something doable and visible. His decision was to concentrate on building a fabulous temple in Cuzco. He named the temple Coricancha, or “Temple of Gold”.

600 years later Coricancha remains a prominent feature of Cuzco. It is a quick walk, just a few hundred yards, from the Plaza de Armas. The temple’s massive walls of stone, towering 20 feet high and joined with the legendary Incan precision, stand silently today just as they did when built and certainly will 600 years in the future, or probably 6,000. The Dominicans built the clumsy Monastery of Santa Domingo around and above the ancient temple. But they were either unwilling, or more likely unable, to destroy it. So modern-day visitors like ourselves can still ponder the essence of Incan civilization in those very temple chambers in which Pachacuti offered prayers and sacrifices to his God. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Why a temple? The decision to make this his first major project reveals the sharp thinking typical of Pachacuti. He could just have easily decided to make it his first priority to tighten up his organization, or expand his empire, or strengthen the economy. But he knew that whatever initiatives he undertook in the future would all require both that he have unquestioned legitimacy and authority, and that the nation have great confidence in itself. That is why he chose to first build a huge temple as a highly visible symbol of his power, his devotion to his God the Sun, and the entire civilization in the region around Cuzco. At the same time the existence of the new temple, with Pachacuti as chief worshipper, bestowed unquestioned legitimacy on him. In essence, he was legitimizing himself, a neat trick.

The temple was a large project for the Incans at the time. But remember that they had available the huge amount of booty they had won during the battles with the Chancas. So in a sense the emple project was a way for Pachacuti to take the ownership of the process of managing the disposition of the fruits of war.

At the same time, though, the temple project was small enough hat it could be completed in just four years. So the temple’s construction would be a quick win. It would establish in everyone’s eyes the ability of Pachacuti to lead. And it would also place beyond doubt the ability of the whole Incan nation to successfully execute such projects.

Finally Pachacuti knew that the temple would be indispensable for the future projects he had in mind. For instance, the presence of the temple lent much of the necessary authority for consolidating the nearby tribes.

Hands-on management at its best

Pachacuti displayed his very hands-on style during the temple construction. He selected the site himself. He personally designed the temple using cords to indicate its dimension. He visited quarries near Cuzco to inspect in person the stones to be used in the construction. During the building, he visited the site to monitor progress. Sometimes he himself would pitch in to help with the actual building work.

The temple that you as a tourist visit today is shorn of all decoration. We are told, though, that when the temple was first built it was adorned with fabulous amounts of gold and silver. We know that Atahualpa specifically mentioned Coricancha’s gold to Pizarro as one way he hoped to make his ransom. The first three Spaniards to see Cuzco reported that “The buildings were sheathed with gold in large plates”. With crowbars, they removed 700 plates each weighing 4 1/2 pounds, worth $15,000,000 at today’s gold prices. Inside, there was a band of gold eight inches wide running around the entire building at roof level. There were uncountable statues and other decorations, including the amazing garden. This garden had tiny corn plans with stems of silver and ears of gold. Of course, during the looting of 1533 all these items were melted down by the Spaniards.

Staffing and funding

As a great manager, Pachacuti knew that his job was not done when the temple was built. He needed to staff and fund the temple as well.

Pachacuti wrote a job description for COO which called for someone older, honest, and trustworthy. He then filled that job. Pachacuti set the initial headcount plan for the temple at 700. He filled 500 positions with young Incan girls. He ordered them to stay permanently inside the temple like cloistered nuns. These girls were called mamacona in Quechua. (Mama means mother.) The other 200 were men called yanacoma (yana meaning “retainer”). They were responsible for generating income for the temple. They did this by farming lands which Pachacuti endowned the temple with.

It turns out that Coricancha was not the first temple built by the Incas. In fact, a temple already existed on the very same site. This temple had been named “Inticancha”, or “Temple of the Sun”. But ancient Incan correspondents report that this previous temple was a crude affair, nothing more, really, than a group of stone huts. In his decision to build a much grander temple on the site of the older one, we can again see Pachcuti’s thinking at work. He simultaneously honored and validated the work of those who had gone before him, while greatly extending and redefining it.

Coricancha was actually much more than just a temple, as Pachacuti also knew when he ordered it built. It also served as a template for the approach to symbol-building in other provinces. Eventually, all major provincial capitals had their own Temples of the Sun serving as a symbol for their region and a focus for their religious energy. As Pachacuti no doubt intended, the Temple of Gold successfully served as a highly visible and distinctive symbol of the reign of the Incas until the tragic fall of their civilization.

Like many great empire builders, Inca Pachacuti continued his building activities through his reign, building massive structures throughout his kingdom. The majestic fortress of Macchu Picchu is believed to have been built during his reign as well. According to some accounts Pachacuti was also responsible for starting the construction of the huge fortress above Cuzco, with its trademark monolithic stones arranged in zig-zag rows, called Sacsahuaman.

This article is part of an upcoming book on Pachacuti’s management style. Interested publishers may contact me at rtm at gol dot com.

Neurobiology invades the popular culture

Monday, May 31st, 2004

From an article in the May, 2004 issue of Men’s Health:

Q. Whenever I have cash, I feel great. Then, when it’s gone, I get really down and antisocial. What’s wrong with me?

A. I’d guess you have low activity in your prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain involved with planning and judgment…

It looks like neurobiology is really invading our popular culture. What’s next?

PS. Men’s Health is actually a very reasonable magazine, worth reading.

Raybassa and Benjamin on translation

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

Gregory Raybassa is a literary translator from Spanish and Portuguese into English who I have never heard of. But I was struck by an a recent interview with him in the New York Times where he quoted Walter Benjamin, the German literary critic, as saying:

No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.

How many thoughts do you have per day?

Friday, April 23rd, 2004

The New York Times reported that Alex Rodriguez’ “performance coach” is working with Alex to reduce the number of thoughts he has per day. Most people, he says, have 2-3,000 (that works out to about three per minute, in case you were wondering), whereas highly trained professional athletes get rid of negative and useless thoughts, reducing their total daily thought count down to 1,200 or so. And they hold each thought longer.

I’m sure Dogen would agree that this seems very logical so far, but I still have two questions. First, how do the athletes reduce their thought count? And second, exactly how do you define a “thought”?

Christoph Bull, organist extraordinaire

Saturday, March 13th, 2004

It’s impossible to miss Christoph Bull in the organ scene here in Los Angeles. I think I first heard him play at one of the weekly concerts at First Congregational Church, which lays claim to having the largest church organ in the world—actually, three organs controlled through a single console. After playing some of my favorite Bach and Reger pieces in his clean, powerful style, he asked the audience for a theme to improvise on, and ended up choosing mine: “Michelle”, on which he did a great job. That reminds me: he promised to send me the recording on a CD and never got around to doing that. He also played a concert at the new organ in the Catholic cathedral here.

Last week Sakiko and I went to a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall that he called “Organica 2004”. I was surprised at the huge turnout for an organ concert; that was probably due both to the popularity of UCLA’s music series, and Bull’s mastery of the e-mail medium: he’s the Howard Dean of the organ world, complete with his own website, although he doesn’t have a blog yet.

The organ console was down at the bottom of the orchestra pit and then raised dramatically, facing forward, to the level of the stage, spotlighted, as the concert began. On the screen behind the console were projected huge images ranging from shots of the actual pipes producing the sounds we were hearing above the ceiling, to real-time shots of his hands on the manuals and feet on the pedalboard, to abstract kaleidoscopic images.

Bull is trying to pull the organ into the 21st century with his Organica series. In addition to solid renditions of the classics, and performances of his own compositions, he did a beautiful duet with an electronic violin, and in the final piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor which we’ve actually all heard a bit too often, he pulled off the amazing stunt of playing the organ at the same time as a synthesizer placed to his side.

You may be thinking that this sounds too weird and contrived to really be any good. But actually the effect was glorious and exhiliterating. And there’s more: Bull was actually singing some of the songs. He has an excellent voice, and his rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird was ethereal. He turned half around, facing the audience, playing the organ with one hand and one foot, and sang to us.

Some may find this all contrived, but I it worked wonderfully. Christoph Bull is our new Virgil Fox.