In the New York Times Digest last Monday, there were three articles together on the business page that caught my attention. The first was entitled "G.M. Disconnect between Managers and Engineering". The original article as it appeared in the newspaper is here. It is concerned with defects that are detected in products at the engineering level and either do not get to the level of the organization that can solve the problem, or do so and are not dealt with, usually either for reasons of time or money. This is neither new nor newsworthy, but probably we need to be reminded of it once in a while. Engineers want products to be as perfect as possible. At “higher” levels of the organization, schedules and profit loom large. If people are killed (the ignition switch mess at GM, the Challenger explosion), or if the product is highly visible and potentially dangerous (the Three Mile Island shutdown), the media grabs hold of it and the impact is large. This is especially true if it is found that management knew of the problem before. It is not likely that product defects can ever be completely banished. But managers should perhaps be more aware that eventually, the cause of such things will be discovered, and the cost to the company will be far larger than if they were solved when discovered. Unfortunately, the punishments at higher levels often seem to be proportionally less than those at the working level.
The second article, entitled "Japan Seeks to Squelch its Popular Tiny Cars", available here, concerns effort in the Japanese government to inhibit the production and ownership of keis, small cars that are particularly appropriate to the crowded road conditions, high fuel prices, and relatively small trip lengths of Japan. The government is apparently concerned that these very popular vehicles (40% of new cars sold in Japan last year were keis) are distracting the Japanese automobile industry from more profitable larger cars. The Japanese people, who have become used to the convenience and low cost of these small cars are rightfully annoyed.
The third article is "Music for Nothing, at Least While it Lasts" (here). It focuses upon the increasing amout of services and entertainment available over the internet and television either free or for very low cost (not counting the monthly payment to internet service and TV providers and the time spent blotting out advertisements and junk). The concern is that this “boon” will be at the cost of the quality of the material. It has an interesting and revealing comment from the musician Van Dykes Parks that appeared in The Daily Beast concerning a song he recently wrote with Ringo Starr. He stated that in the good old days, the song would have provided him “with a house and a pool”, but at current royalty rates he and the former Beatle would make less than $80. I must admit that I would like to finish a couple of books that I think could make a lot of people think about such things as creativity vs. control, innovation vs. tradition, and quality vs. profit, but probably won’t in the present scene of information overload and the need to market one’s own work. Writing books is hard work and requires a lot of time. I am not looking to spend even more time publicizing them through endless hours on the internet and doing book tours, especially since the book-reading population is decreasing.
These three articles caused me to continue to wonder about the effects of unbridled capitalism on the quality of products. Obviously high quality products should not injure or kill people. G.M.’s safety problems are being blamed on its “cost culture”, a corporate attempt to minimize costs and therefore maximize profit and competitiveness—clearly good things in a capitalistic system. Similarly, high quality products should fill people’s needs. Perhaps cutting down on small cars in the country might protect export profits by further encouraging work on larger ones, which seems like a good capitalistic thing to do. But, shouldn’t the Japanese people have the types of cars that fit their culture? The area in which I live, would certainly benefit from much smaller cars. It presently contains so many “normal” size cars (often containing one person) that they neither seem to move around so well any more, nor find places to park.
And if people depend on high quality music, information, and entertainment from the internet, TV, and other media, and the media depend on that to attract us to their advertisements as well as on the money we pay them directly, where does the money come from to allow the people who produce such material to develop? Will the quality hold up? Where will the future outstanding musicians come from? Listening to the music floating up from the dormitories below us, drum machines seem to be increasing their presence. Groups using them are more affordable, because drum machines do not require any practice or particular talent to deliver their rhythms and may be adequate for college dances. But hopefully they are not a portent of future music, because listening to a simple and unvarying repetitive rhythm too long is a good way to be driven mad.