Monthly Archives: January 2010

Toyota: What’s the Bottom Line?

Well, another cold morning in NE Ohio. And I’m tethered to the treadmill. Arrrgh. So I’m chasing the belt, keeping my eyes and ears tuned to the TV Talking Heads, and putting my faith in Punxsutawney Phil — PETA notwithstanding.

And of the stories that are making the continuous loop throughout the 24-hour news cycle, what’s happening with Toyota is important to say the least — and it demonstrates once gain the value of trust, credibility and timely, honest communication.

Toyota is in the midst of a major recall involving millions of vehicles. The fundamendial issue: safety. Hey, how do you feel about driving in a car or truck where the accelerator might stick — for whatever reason? So the company is faced with a problem that has to be fixed — and much sooner than anytime later.

Toyota — as best I can tell — has an excellent reputation for quality and customer service. And it has strong brand loyalty as a result. But that wasn’t always the case. I’m old enough to remember when the Japanese automakers didn’t have much of a reputation for quality or anything else. And in large measure, for Toyota, that’s what’s in play now: it’s reputation for quality and service and the hard-won, and sometimes all-too-easily-lost, customer loyalty. (Ask Tiger Woods. Oops. I digress.)

Did Toyota act quickly enough in making the decision to alert owners and potential customers and to suspend sales? And is it doing everything possible now to help owners in a way that lets them retain confidence in the company — and really, in the safety of their vehicles?

Here’s from an article in USA Today:

Whatever the fix, it won’t be immediate. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it must approve whatever remedy Toyota chooses for owners of its recalled vehicles. And CTS probably would require months to crank out enough new pedals to make a dent in the 2.3 million recalled cars and trucks, if Toyota settles on replacement.

Will Toyota be able to quell its customers’ worries soon enough?

“This could be the breaking of the Toyota mystique in the eyes of the American consumer,” Dalip Raheja, CEO of Mpower Group, says. Mpower analyzes risk and quality concerns in relationships with outside suppliers.

So Toyota has to demonstrate now that its products are safe. That it is taking responsibility for fixing problems — and is responsive to customers’ concerns.

But when you get to the bottom line here as elsewhere it’s about trust, confidence and credibility.

And honest, timely communication.

State of the Union: We’ll See

Well, I was back chasing the belt on the treadmill this morning. And no choice really. It’s quite frosty here in NE Ohio this morning. Wonder if Prez O will find it equally chilly tonight when he gives the State of the Union address? C’mon. Give me a break. It’s early — and I had to make the transition somehow.

Anyway, the president’s State of the Union address is great theater: triumphal entries, spirited glad-handing, hugs and kisses, standing Os and loud cheers (or not). And the TV Talking Heads are opining that the stakes for Obama couldn’t be higher. (Aren’t they always?)  That this is the opportunity for him to regain the — “Yes We Can” — spirit and momentum that carried him and many Democrats into office.

Good luck with that.

The State of the Union address really doesn’t provide that type of forum — or venue. The speech typically offers a shopping list of policy and other items that the administration would like to accomplish — and a plea for a bipartisan coming together to make something (anything?) happen. Thank God there is no PowerPoint involved. Oops. I digress.

Anyway, good speeches and presentations are memorable because they highlight a few key items well — and inspire the audience to take some action.  So when it is all said and done, here are the three themes that I would like to see emerge from tonight’s talk.

  • How are we going to strengthen the economy and get millions of Americans back to work?
  • How can we reach a consensus on health care — not just to provide some necessary protection and level of medical care to everyone who needs it but also to control the costs that threaten us as individuals and our economy long term?
  • How do we strengthen education in this country in a way that enables people of all ages to succeed today — and in the years ahead?

Big issues — without easy answers and made all the more difficult because of concerns about deficit spending and the political realities of the upcoming mid-term elections.

Can Prez O use the State of the Union to get the country — and members of Congress — focused on the big issues in a way that will get us to some resolution?

We’ll see.

Democracy and Condo Meetings: Lessons Learned

Well, no big complaints lingering from the weekend. The weather in NE Ohio has been mild enough that I was able to hit the concrete for five miles both Saturday and Sunday mornings. But the highlight came Sunday afternoon at the annual meeting of my condominium association. It’s democracy practiced at the grass roots — and it ain’t pretty, or even that effective.

Hey, it’s just like the spectacle we see — and complain about — Inside the Beltway. Just sayin’.

I was chuckling about the meeting again this morning, considering just how difficult it is to actually accomplish anything in government, business, education — or with a small group of your neighbors and fellow association members.

As background, I live in a condo complex of some 63 units. The complex is about 20 years old — and that means it’s time for repairs to roofs, roads and so on. And that means assessments — and difficult decisions about how to allocate limited financial resources. The governing body consists of three unpaid volunteer trustees — all owners. I served my time a few years ago — and I’m sure my blood pressure will return to normal at some point.

Anyway, Obama and team are having a tough time with health care reform, creating jobs, clawing back Wall Street bonuses and so on. And the lessons from my condo association meeting might help explain why it is so difficult to gain consensus — and act for the common good, nationally or locally.

  • People act primarily out of self-interest. In effect, everyone is a lobbyist.
  • The relationship between increased services and increased expenses is not (apparently) easily understood.
  • The complex has many mature trees — but no money tree as best I can tell. That requires some tough decisions related to point two above.
  • Communication is difficult at best — no matter how hard an organization tries, or the size of the audience.
  • Change is something we all talk about — but most don’t enthusiastically embrace.
  • It’s hard to engage people — even when their own self-interest is involved.  We need 51 percent of the owners to attend the meeting — or return a proxy — to conduct business. Ten minutes after the scheduled start, and following a few frantic phone calls, we managed to get to — drum roll, please — 51 percent. Woot.

Oh well. That takes care of condo business for the next year at which time we will reconvene for another exercise in grass-roots democracy.

Wonder what will happen to health care in the meantime?

Politics and Perceptions: Why Openness and Civility Matter

I expect that Prez O and others in the administration would rather have celebrated their first anniversary in the White House yesterday talking about matters other than the outcome of the Massachusetts Senate race. Hey, I would have rather marked the occasion somewhere else than spending the bulk of the morning at the dentist’s office. Life ain’t fair.

Anyway, as I was being poked and prodded yesterday, I had plenty of time and incentive to listen to radio reports about Scott Brown’s upset win — and what it means to the future of our Democracy. Or not. Time will tell. And there are plenty of pundits out there trying to explain what happened and why. Here’s an interesting view from David S. Broder in The Washington Post, “In Massachusetts Senate race, a vote of no confidence.

I’ve spent many years working in public relations — and in some ways that involves managing expectations and perceptions.

And my sense is that people are disappointed — angry? — that the Obama administration has not changed how Washington works. That’s my perception — and I expect that many share that view.

The expectation was that beginning a year ago we were going to see a new era in government — and in politics.

We were going to see more openness and less of the usual Inside the Beltway maneuvering, with lobbyists and insiders taking more of a back seat instead of driving policy. And we were going to approach issues with civility in Congress and elsewhere — where people of different views and viewpoints could disagree but still come together in the national interest.

Hey. That was change I could believe in.

But the perception — at least for me and I believe for many voters in Massachusetts and soon elsewhere — is that hasn’t happened.

A lesson from the Massachusetts Senate race. How about this?

Openness and civility matter. It’s what we expect now from our elected officials and leaders in Washington and elsewhere.

Jay and Conan: A Generational Workplace Issue?

Wow. Good thing I decided to chase the belt on the treadmill this morning instead of hitting the concrete. Looks like the roads here in NE Ohio managed to accumulate a light layer of ice overnight. I don’t need to face that in the early a.m. on two feet or four wheels. So I’m better off plodding along on the ‘mill and catching up on the TV news.

Let’s see. The devastation — and entire situation, really — in Haiti is horrific. The special election for the Senate seat in Massachusetts is compelling. And the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien affair is a debacle.

I’ll admit it. I don’t stay up late enough to watch either Jay or Conan — ever. I don’t recall seeing The Tonight Show hosted by either of them. Woot. So I don’t have an opinion on the relative merits of either as an entertainer. And I’m not sure that it really matters all that much who hosts The Tonight Show these days. David Carr had an interesting perspective in his NYT column yesterday, “It’s Not Jay or Conan. It’s Us.” He opines, in effect, that the audience has slowly been abandoning late-night TV for a variety of reasons — and that trend won’t change.

Maybe so. But beyond ratings, entertainment and egos here, I wonder if we are seeing an issue being played out very publicly that is also occurring in workplaces across the nation. It’s the idea of a generational shift — where one group leaves the workforce creating opportunities for younger workers.

For a variety of reasons — setbacks during the Great Recession, the imploding of the stock market and retirement savings accounts, longer life expectancies and so on — older workers are staying in the workforce longer. And with fewer jobs available overall — particularly full-time jobs that pay a decent wage with benefits — this has implications for those waiting in the job queue.

For instance, interesting article by Michael Winerip (“On Vacation and Looking for Wi-Fi”) in the Sunday NYT:

Even more striking to me is the government’s predictions about what is going to happen to us boomers in the workplace over the next decade as we reach what used to be considered retirement age.

A lot of us will go right on working.

In 1988, when the World War II greatest generation was hitting retirement age, 11.5 percent of people 65 and older were still working. By 2008, 16.8 percent of those 65 and older were working, and by 2018, when those 65 and over will be mostly boomers, 22.4 percent are expected to still be working, according to a new study by Mitra Toossi, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She projects that by 2018, 14 percent of 79-year-olds — 1 in 7 — will still work, versus 6.1 percent in 1988 (1 in 16). “It is an amazing change in a short time,” Ms. Toossi said.

Some of this is good — we’re healthier and want to work longer. Some is social policy — a change is now in progress in the age when people are able to retire with full Social Security benefits, from 65 to 67.

And some is just really bad news. The economic downturn has depleted retirement and savings accounts and that means many will have no choice.

For the time being, lots of us are staying in condition to work until we’re 79 by keeping at it on vacations and weekends.

Before the Great Recession there was the notion that there would be a shortage of jobs in this country: baby boomers would retire in mass with fewer young people following them into the workplace.

We’ll see.

And Jay Leno — or most anyone else for that matter — should not be forced to retire.

But the Jay and Conan debacle does point to some bigger national issues that we are still going to have to wrestle with — and they are more important that who hosts The Tonight Show.

It’s about jobs. It’s about the economy. And it’s generational.

Winter Blahs: How SAD?

Well, I hit the concrete over the weekend for the first time this year. With the temps in the low 30s and no new snow or ice here in NE Ohio I was able to get in five miles in the early a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Whew — I thought I was going to be stuck inside all winter.

And that’s really not something to joke about. It happens — especially for the elderly who may have some difficulty driving, getting to public transportation, or just generating the enthusiasm for pushing off the couch and heading outside. Hey. I’m carrying an Ohio Golden Buckeye card in my wallet. It can happen.

Anyway, I was thinking about that during both my runs this weekend. The more I can get outside and the more I can keep active the better I feel, physically and mentally. I expect that’s true for most.

But it ain’t always easy. And the weather in many parts of the country — here in the Akron/Cleveland area as an example — doesn’t always cooperate. We’ve had two (maybe) sunny days this year. (Cleveland, by the way, averages 66 sunny days a year. But hey. That’s seven more than my hometown, Pittsburgh. Go figure.)

If you are struggling with the winter blahs, don’t just discount it. I went for years without knowing that I had an underactive thyroid — and trust me, that had some big consequences in terms of energy levels, weight loss and gain, ability to sleep (or not) and mood swings.

It’s not uncommon for people to experience seasonal affective disorder. My doctor mentions that to me almost every year when I have my semi-annual thyroid test. Here’s a description about SAD from the Mayo Clinic online:

Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you’re like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer.

Of course, I attribute some of the winter blahs this season to the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are not in the NFL playoffs.

Go figure.

College Football and Things That Matter

OK. I’ll admit it. When you see the devastation and suffering in Haiti, it’s more than a little difficult to get worked up about college football. And I guess that’s true of other things that dominate the news these days. In the overall flow of our daily lives, does the kerfuffle about Jay Leno and Conan really matter? Nah.

Still, I try to opine here frequently on things that I believe do matter: ethics, integrity, character and so on. And that gets me to college football — particularly the recent stories about Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin. Carroll is heading back to the pros from U.S.C. — and Kiffin is ending a short tenure at Tennessee to fill the U.S.C. spot.

I know. College football — particularly at the upper levels — is a big business. And the head coach — and members of his staff — are careerists in the mold of anyone in business or on Wall Street. So from that standpoint, I understand why they grab the best deal they can. And since their employers — in many cases publicly funded universities — give contracts a wink and a nod, they might as well go for the gold.

Yet saying that, there is something sleazy about coaches breaking commitments while still under contract — particularly to the young athletes who they have recruited and who do not have the same ability to shift from school to school. And I’d like to think that colleges and universities go beyond football and other sports to teach some life lessons: ethics, character, integrity among them. Go figure.

Anyway, George Vecsey opined on this in his NYT column, “Coaches Come and Go, Except JoePa.” Here’s from the column:

Meantime, there is always Paterno, the last of the lifers. The old Brooklyn Dodgers fan turned 83 recently, with two years left on his contract and a crusty determination to keep going beyond that. Ya wanna make something of it?

Carroll put in nine years at U.S.C., which is long by the standard of his flighty profession, but Paterno has been the coach in Happy Valley for 44 years, since the regime of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Paterno has won two national titles, and the worst thing that could be said about his operation was that if some of his lads got into a fracas away from the field, he might dismiss the fringe players and administer tough love toward the talent. But academic scandals? Recruiting scandals? Money flying over the long Appalachian ridges toward a prospect? None of that.

By coincidence — nobody at Penn State has that good timing or sense of humor — on the day Carroll bade farewell to the troops at U.S.C., Penn State issued a release that its football players had the highest graduation success rate, known as G.S.R., 85 percent, and the highest federal graduation rate, 89 percent, among teams ranked in this season’s final top 25.

These figures were in a report released by the N.C.A.A. in November. The same study said U.S.C. had rates of 58 and 57 percent. Figures like that do not necessarily have anything to do with coaches, but Penn State has generally been conducting football with integrity for decades.

I don’t know whether Joe Paterno is a good football coach or not. But to me, at least, his legacy will be to remind us what college football (and sports in general) should be about: ethical conduct, integrity, character — and helping young people succeed in the classroom and on the playing fields and courts.

You know. Things that matter.