Sunday, December 25, 2005

Joyeux Noel des Francais Flandres!

Marche de Noel (Christmas Market) in Lille. Lille is a Flemish town that was annexed by the French in 1667. It has the unique characteristics of any Flemish town such as Le Grand Place (De Grote Markt), Flemish architecture, and--of course--bars serving the finest of Belgian Beers.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

We Wensen U Een Prettige Kerstmis en Een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Ieper, Christmas Eve 2005. A view of the Cloth Hall now from the distance with the Christmas lights decorating the streets

Christmas displays in Brugge, the capital of Provincie West-Vlaanderen. Some Chinese tourists asked me where to find Pizza Hut (a "traditional" Chinese Christmas dinner) in Brugge on Christmas eve ... Pizza Hut, in Brugge? Eh, anything open on Christmas Eve? Maybe Chinese food?

Another shot of the Grote Markt in Brugge

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In Authenticity, Conformity, Sincerity, and well ... CONFUSION!!!! Ieper: Fifth Month

Just a few years ago, a controversial theory in EvoPsych--Evolutionary Psychology--suggested that every human was hard-wired racist. The thinking goes, during the cavemen ages, people who ventured deep into foreign territories and met foreigners--who looked different--were more likely to be enslaved and killed. Those who survived were those who killed a foreigner as soon as they saw one. Therefore, we are all descendants of racists, and therefore, we too are--genetically--racists.

Then how do you explain the success of eBay's business model? If we are so full of prejudices, why do 125 million (and growing) trade online with people they cannot even see, in a site created by a French-Iranian descent?

It seems like EvoPscych itself has been experiencing an evolutionary of its own. As Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma and Game Theory suggests, racist cavemen tribes might originaly get stucked in Nash Equilibrium where each retaliated when a member of its tribe was killed. But soon enough the people with common sense realized that a Pareto Equilibrium laid in armistice and cooperation. So they set aside their prejudices, reached the Pareto Equilibrium, and prosper ... while those without this common sense perished during the next harsh winters and dry spells.

So, we are all descendants of cavemen with common sense. Of course, evolution is not yet complete, and this is why United States is bombing Iraq and European Union won't tear down its walls on the Turkish borders.

In short, I believe that it is misunderstanding that breeds racism, and not the other way around.

The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2005
Untranslatable Word in U.S. Aide's Speech Leaves Beijing Baffled

"In late September, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick spoke to a packed house of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York. The speech's punchline: 'We need to urge China to become responsible stakeholder' in the international system ... There was only one problem: What does it mean? The Chinese language has no corollary for 'stakeholder'. Some scholars translated it as 'participants with related benefits and drawbacks'. That implied China's interests might suffer if it attempted to meet Mr. Zoellick's 'responsible stakeholder' challenge ... The dustup in China over 'stakeholder' recalls the consternation that followed President Bill Clinton's proposal of U.S. 'engagement' with China amid a rough patch between the two sides in 1995. Chinese who spoke English were befuddled by a word that could mean 'both an exchange of fire and a marriage proposal' ...": Neil King Jr. and Jason Dean

Yes, we grew up in so many different languages and cultures, and it can be confusing. But if California can propel a Pierre Omidyar into a $60 billion business and 8,600 innovative jobs ... why can't we all?

A friend once said to me, "If you want to go see Europe, take a vacation ... heck, two vacations and go backpacking." I'd like to think that she just didn't want to see me go (hey, this is my blog, afterall; I'm allowed to think all I want). Another friend said something along that line: "You don't need three years unless you're really trying to scoop out all the alleys of Amsterdam and Paris". Now he is just plain jealous that he did not get to go (again, this is my blog ... any disagreement are welcomed and can be posted as comments ...).

I told them that by traveling, you get to see all the amazing Renaissance architectures, beautiful sunsets, and spectacular sceneries. But you'll never really get to understand the people. To walk the walk and to live the life simply are two totally different things.

Harvard Business Review, December 2006
Managing Authenticity: The Paradox of Great Leadership

"People want to be led by someone 'real' ... But while the expression of an authentic self is necessary for great leadership, the concept of authenticity is often misunderstood, not least by leaders themselves ... Authentic leaders remain focused on where they are going but never lose sight of where they came from. Establishing your authenticity is a two-part challenge. First, you have to ensure that your words are consistent with your deeds; otherwise, followers will never accept you as authentic. But it is not enough just to practice what you preach. To get people to follow you, you also have to get them to relate to you ... Authentic leaders know how to strike a balance between their distinctiveness and the cultures in which they operate. They do not immediately seek out head-on confrontations because they recognize that their survival as leaders (and, by extension, the survival of their initiatives) requires a measured introduction to, and adaptation of, the organization's established business networks and social relationships ... All authentic leaders are complicated and contrived. Many Americans revere the late Ronald Reagan for this authenticity as president--but he was also the first professional actor to make it to the White House.": Rob Goffee, Professor, London Business School, and Gareth Jones, Visiting Professor, Insead / Fellow, London Business School

That was the whole challenge. Sometimes, it is still confusing to me that the same people who expected me to bring great things would not listen to my ideas that sound "too American". And the same people who embrace "diversity" would take offense each time I took inspiration from my multi-cultural experience. There's just that fine line that is difficult to see.

But great leadership is the leadership that unites people with different background, cultures, and interests to work together towards a common goal ... the leadership that creates the next eBays, Googles, and Toyotas. This is not easy, and I still make almost as many errors as I make trials. But as Goffee and Jones added: "... The good news is while some people seem to be born with these discernment skills, others can, in fact, learn them. We have found that individuals who have had a great deal of mobility early in their lives possess these skills to a higher degree than those who have stayed mostly in one place ...".

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"So, what is home, to you?"

"So how would you answer that question: Where are you from?"

Me: "I will try to understand the context, and try to make it short."

"What do you mean?"

Me: "Well, after a while I was sick of telling the long version over and over. So I will think of an answer that will require the least explanation."

"Typical you. But what is home to you? As I can sense, English sounds like your first language now ..."

Me: "Hopefully soon enough West Vloms will be my first language. As I wrote in my blog, someone once told me that home is where your heart is, and my heart belongs to the people, the experience, and the enjoyment of the things that I do. It's not a physical thing. My last home--Memphis--is no longer there. The people who worked the nights away with me are no longer there. They are now scattered all over the world. But if I have to pick a place ... right now, Ieper, is home.

"But why? They think you were a scum who stole their jobs away?"

Me: "Once I was beaten up in the streets of Jakarta and was denied a spot in Indonesian public universities. Tennessee would not issue me a driver's license. True, Europe has its problems. But just because you have Hitler as your neighbor that by itself does not make the entire neighborhood racists. I mean, Bush gave Americans a bad name, but it was some American strangers who funded my education. Then a different American family welcomed me with open hands and helped me to integrate into the American culture. Here in Ieper? I would not have survived my first month without a lot of help from the vast majority of Belgians who enjoyed having me here. In return, I would be glad to show those extremist few that they were wrong: I too can make a positive difference in their little world. Giving up is like letting the bad people win."

"So why did you decide to go to Belgium?"

Me: "Well, why not?"

"I mean, what happened to your US permanent residency and citizenship? Don't you have to give them up to come here?"

Me: "You know ... that was among the most popular questions but also the easiest one: I never started the process."

"Why not?"

Me: "Then I would've not been able to be flexible and move to Belgium when I wanted to."

"You are making a circular reference."

Me: "What was your question again?"

"I forgot."

Me: "Works all the time ..."

"Will you ever settle down?"

Me: "Why is everyone asking me that? Somebody else asked me this before, and in the end she spoke to me less and less, then not at all. Maybe. One day."

"Who is she?"

Me: "It sucks to have to move all the time, learn new language, adapt to new culture, and build new relationships. It always feels lonely at first. But at the same time, I am willing to pay that price for all the experience. For example, I now know many people who work for the EU at the time when Europe is struggling in building a Union that will potentially direct where the global pendulum is swinging. It helped me widen my perspective."

"So what did you do when you get lonely?"

Me: "Ha! I went on a speed dating once."

"You what???"

Me: "Hey ... you got to try everything at least once!"

"Did it work?"

Me: "No."

"Where do you think you'll eventually settle?"

Me: "Two years ago I went to Zhengzhou, China to support a manufacturing plant start-up in December when temperature dropped to 20 Centigrade below freezing and people didn't even own heaters. So we bought portable heaters. But the locals--believing artificial heating was bad for health--resisted them so much that we had to type emails in our "office complex" wearing gloves during our first month there ... yes Zhengzhou was not what many Americans would call a "civilized" world. With me, there was some cultural connection, but not much. I eat similar food. But I am still what they call a banana. Once a taxi driver looked at me confused: 'You don't speak Henan, you don't speak proper Mandarin, what the hell do you speak??' I use my engineering handbook to make decisions and I don't give much respect to some ancient wind-and-water references. I mean, they had engineers who did not believe in thermodynamic laws. But they were all hardworkers. Together, we worked the winter and brought the plant up and running within the 6 weeks time we were given. And when we finally bagged our first pound of product 1.3 billion frustrations later, there was a different feeling. It's a feeling you'd get for securing hope and opportunities for the people who've given their all for the common goal. And, afterall, what can be more priceless than watching the superstitious Chinese flock around their much-hated portable heaters two months later? That was home."

"So China was home?"

Me: "No. Over there I was just a foreigner who looked exactly like the locals but don't behave like the locals. Home was with the people, the experience, and the enjoyment. I would in a heartbeat come back there for a similar experience, but it does not have to be China. Maybe I will have a different but equally satisfying feeling here in Europe. We'll have to see."

"In a sense, you'd never settle down?"

Me: "I'll tell you when I do."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

In decisions, decisions, decisions ...

"It's better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.": Mark Twain

I stopped watching "The Apprentice" after the second season because Amy and Troy from season 1 were just irreplaceable. And I think the reason for that is that people seemed to have figured out the rule of the game. Donald fires people for bad decision, and it's hard to make a bad decision if you don't make a decision. Unfortunately, I guess this is the general rule of the game whatever you do.

The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2005
Deciders Suffer Alone; Nondeciders Make Everyone Else Suffer

"Indecisive managers may not accomplish much. But on the long list of things they don't do is this: get fired. The not-so-little secret is that indecisions are often more frequently rewarded at the workplace than decisions ... Big bureaucracy abhors a decision, notes software-company executive Tony Tarsia. You can't be held accountable for something that doesn't happen ... Jonathan Gilbert and his colleagues at a high-tech company were confused after meetings in which a decision was supposed to be made but never was. 'What just happened?' was a frequent question. 'I have no idea' was the usual answer. They coined their own pathology for it: Decision Avoidance Behavior. It includes decision dodges such as unending questions, closing meetings without action items, requesting more data or study, angry outbursts in response to requests for a decision, and, of course, hiring a consultant whose greatest value was either to make a decision or get blamed for a bad one.": Jared Sandberg

Sounds familiar?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

In "The Window and the Mirror"; In Humility and Will: Teams and Level 5 Leadership

OK ... back to work. I've started receiving emails inquiring what happened to my blog that had not been updated for 6 weeks. I really appreciated them, actually ... at least somebody is missing my postings, but dude! Bloggers need vacation too!

Six weeks ago I discussed how "teams and good performances are inseparable: You cannot have one without the other ..." But actually there's also something more to it. "We were lucky, to live in such a community where the concern for the environment is quite high..." I've heard them saying. "It forces us to be aware of what we use and what we discharge, and this puts us in an advantage in today's environment where energy prices is constantly climbing."

Harvard Business Review, September 2005 / Best of HBR 2001
Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve

"... Compare Bethlehem Steel and Nucor, for example. Both steel companies operated with products that are hard to differentiate, and both faced a competitive challenge from cheap imported steel ... (Yet) Bethlehem Steel's CEO summed up the company's problem in 1983 by blaming the imports: 'Our first, second, and third problems are imports.' Meanwhile, Ken Iverson and his crew at Nucor saw the imports as a blessing: 'Aren't we lucky; steel is heavy, and they have to ship it all the way across the ocean, giving us a huge advantage.' Indeed ... Iverson went so far as to speak out publicly against government protection against imports, telling a gathering of stunned steel executives in 1997 that the real problems facing the industry lay in the fact that management had failed to keep pace with technology.

... The emphasis on luck turns out to be part of a broader pattern that we have come to call 'the window and the mirror'. Level 5 leaders, inherently humble, look out the window to apportion credit--even undue credit--to factors outside themselves. If they can't find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck. At the same time, they look in the mirror to assign responsibility, never citing bad luck or external factors when things go poorly. Conversely, the comparison executives frequently looked out the window for factors to blame but preened in the mirror to credit themselves when things went well.": Jim Collins, coauthor "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies"

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

... in new languages, new cultures, and new friends ... in paperworks, confusions, frustrations, and well ... fun!! Ieper: Third Month

Welcome to Europe. Where children's merry-go-round plays "Fuck Me Like a Whore" as a background music and where Brussel's dark alleys and certain Germanic "lifestyle" could make New Orleans, Cancun, and even the walletjes look like some humble theme parks.

Where life is almost all about savoring (when you're not doing bureaucracy papers), and where "moral" stands for the culture of caring for the weak and the future generations and has less to do with sticking your nose in something none of your business.

Where I still struggle to answer the seemingly simple question: 'Where are you from?'

Someone once told me that "home is where your heart is". But my heart does not belong to a specific location or a specific person within a location. It is with the people, the experience, and the enjoyment of the things that I do. I don't really own a "home" that I crave to return to. But in many corners of this planet, I have someone who will gladly meet me in hour's notice.

This is my curse, my blessing, ... my life.

Some think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and some think that the grass is greenest on their side of the fence (hence a taller fence is needed). It's just hard to appreciate life until you walk on someone else's shoes, isn't it? But I've walked the footsteps of many strangers, and I've learned that there is no grass that is greener or greenest; they all simply have different shades of green.

... eastern Italian Alps: and the journey concludes ... for now.

Friday, October 07, 2005

in Chiantis, ancient towers, nude statues, vineyards, olive trees, rolling hills, and mighty mountains ... Under the Tuscan Sun, Italia!

... then we were off for a week of Tuscan relaxation staying in a beautiful farm 'La Presura' in Chianti... visiting Firenze, Sienna, San Gimignano, Pisa, Lucca, and of course, the garden of Toscana: the Chianti's vineyards and rolling hills ...

'La Presura'




San Gimignano

Sunday, October 02, 2005

in beautiful cities, french wines, and french food: we started the trip through Paris and Geneve

After spending the night in Sheraton CDG (the best airport hotel I've ever stayed in, right in the terminal), I met a friend the next morning and we began our journey.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

In The Many Different Ways of Doing Things ... Ieper: Second Month

What make great leaders great? Socialist Europeans will be quick to answer: the team. True, but then, why are some teams better than others? To this, they will say: 'well, we have good, hard working people here in Flanders, ja?'

OK, fine. They are mostly right; at least based on my first impression. But we do have some good, hard working people in Memphis too.

Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005 / Best of HBR 1993
The Discipline of Teams

"We found that there is a basic discipline that makes teams work. We also found that teams and good performance are inseparable: You cannot have one without the other. But people use the word 'team' so loosely that it gets in the way of learning and applying the discipline that leads to good performance ... Teams differ fundamentally from (other) working groups because they require both individual and mutual accountability ... Think of it as a working definition or, better still, an essential discipline that real teams share: A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. The essence of a team is common commitment ... This kind of commitment requires a purpose in which team members can believe.": Jon R. Katenbach, founder and senior partner, Katzenbach partners / former director, McKinsey & Company, and Douglas K. Smith, organizational consultant / former partner, McKinsey & Company.

First, I don't think the people in Ieper are better, per se, but I strongly believe that we have a stronger team in Ieper. First, we are a small number of people. More importantly, we are all committed, and we all hold ourselves mutually accountable. If there's a problem, any problem, it's not uncommon for our support structures--such as lab, maintenance, or HR--to come forward, without being asked, and asked the production group what they can do to help remedy the situation. People seem to understand: it's not how many touchdowns he/she scores that wins the game.

From then on, it's just a virtuous cycle. When you know you can count on peers to do their part, there's the social pressure: you do not want to be the drag of the team. I've always wondered why in a country with such strong socialism influence, the company still felt highly entrepreneurial. I think I've found the answer.

The second--and more obvious--thing was that many people have been around for longer than I have lived. Not only this keeps all the expertise in house, but time also has helped the team gel together. I will assign this mostly to the fact that mobility in Europe is fairly limited and that the unemployment rate is a bit higher. But still, I also feel that the people-centered management style must have also helped.

And third, yes, I can see the work culture in general is a bit better. Again, with higher unemployment rate, there are a lot of reality checks going on.

However, although without doubt Ieper is the highest-performing facility in our company, I can always make a defendable case that Memphis is the most innovative. So it's not that the people in Memphis are of lower quality. I will always challenge this assertion. Memphis simply had to evolve to its different sents of challenges. We had to learn how to do twice as many product changeovers yet still scored a decent downtime. We had to figure out how to keep track the ten times the number of raw materials, five times inventory level, and twenty times different processes and product types. We had to manage the complexity. And I can say that we did this better than anyone else in the company (nobody else had had to do it). But as the cost of growth, Memphis simply has grown too big, too fast. See the definition of "team" again.

Simply put: Ieper's resources have been deployed to skin the few products that it makes; Memphis's resources have been deployed not to "solve the world's hunger" but to find creative get-arounds that work ... Ieper may know the science better, but Memphis knows the engineering better.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Managing for Creativity

In my previous post that had generated some buzz, I wrote that most people are not (directly) motivated by money. They work because they feel appreciated for what they do.

In today's environment where almost everything is outsourced, is heavily commoditized, and is highly deregulated, most competitive advantages no longer come from access to certain technology, certain raw materials, railroad access, or political connections. They often come from how effective an organization can "exploit" the only thing that's internally controllable: its own "creative capital". Though "exploit" might sound to be a negative term, it really is not. Take SAS.

Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005
Managing for Creativity

"Creative people work for the love of the challenge. An InformationWeek survey of tens of thousands of IT workers confirms that theory: On-the-job challenge ranks well above salary and other financial incentives as the key source of motivation ... SAS recognizes that 95% of its assets drive out the front gate every evening. Leaders consider it their job to bring them back the next morning. It takes roughly six months to get a new worker up to speed in terms of technical knowledge, but it takes years for the employee to truly absorb a company's culture and forge solid relationships.

(And) people who are preoccupied wondering 'When can I fit in time at the gym?' or 'Is that meeting going to waste my whole afternoon?' can't be entirely focused on the job at hand. The Oprah Winfrey Show, 60 Minutes, and lots of newspaper and magazine articles have publicized the perks SAS lavishes on its employees, but the company isn't just doling out treats willy-nilly. Not only do the benefits make workers more productive, but they also help retain those workers, reducing the company's expenses for recruitment and replacement ... the managers (in SAS) clear away obstacles for employees by procuring whatever materials they need. Larnell Lennon, who leads the software-testing team, describes his job as 'Go get it, go get it, go get it'. When his people come to him asking for a software package or financial support, he doesn't pepper them with questions. If it's a reasonable request, he takes care of it. If the outcomes aren't up to snuff, it's a different matter ... Some have described SAS's philosophy as 'Hire hard, manage soft.' But 'Hire hard, manage open, fire hard' is more apt.": Richard Florida, Professor, George Mason University, and Jim Goodnight, CEO, SAS Institute.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Moments of Greatness

Each time I was asked: 'what was your career-best moment' or 'what was your greatest leadership achievement'; my answer had always been: 2003 Zhengzhou, China, production facility start-up. That was my defining moment. More than two years ago. This is not to say that I accomplished nothing since then--though I probably did slack out a bit since then :) It was just ... different. I believed this moment had helped my career advances in many big ways. People saw what I did and remembered me for what I did; despite--and not for--how young and inexperienced I was. Ask anyone involved; and they will tell you just that.

There I was, in Zhengzhou, China ... given the opportunity and responsibility to support a plant start up. I was only 23 years old, barely 18 months out of school.

Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005
Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership

"I call it the fundamental state of leadership. It's the way we lead when we encounter a crisis and finally choose to move forward. Think back to a time when you faced a significant life challenge ... First, we move from being comfort centered to being results centered. Second, we move from being externally directed to being more internally directed. That means that we stop complying with others' expectations and conforming to the current culture. Third, we become less self-focused and more focused on others. Fourth, we become more open to outside signals or stimuli, including those that require us to do things we are not comfortable doing. We are adaptive, credible, and unique ... By entering the fundamental state of leadership, we increase the likelihood of attracting others to an elevated level of community, a high-performance state that may continue even when we are not present ... When leaders do their best work, they don't copy anyone. They draw on their own values and capabilities.

To get started (to reenter the fundamental state), we can ask ourselves (the) four questions ... Am I results centered? ... Am I internally directed? ... Am I other focused? ... Am I externally open?": Robert E. Quinn, Professor, University of Michigan Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor

Monday, August 08, 2005

In Belgian Beers and French Wines ... Ieper: First Month

Dear Friends:

By the way, Ieper is with an "i", not an "L". And those are not all cathedrals. The big buildings are the cloth halls that are used for trading clothes in the middle ages; now they are being used as stadhuis--townhalls. Though you are right; they have found other uses for the Cathedrals. Have you heard the expression: it's so obsolete it must have been "a" museum? Now you have. It's ironic I know. Just wait until they turn the Cathedrals into a Science Museum.

I was supposed to have a walk in closet--have to admit these things are a luxury around Ieper--but the apartment that I wanted was snapped out before HR could make a decision on my living arrangements. I am not too happy with my apartment now, but anyway it's fairly cheap. No, they do not have satellite dishes here. Why would you want the ugly dishes on top of these "cute little dollhouses" (as a friend called them) anyway?

I love it here, though I have to admit that I am homesick already. Missed my big-ass fridge, Costco, 24 hr neigborhood Kroger's, AC, SUV, cheap Chinese, American (sized) steaks, golf course lot, Best Buy, cheap(er) gas, free reward credit cards, and all other American (hedonistic) "cultures" (but NEVER mention the phrase "American Culture" in front of a European unless you're mentally ready for some verbal abuses). Shoot; but I won't complain about the cheap reliable train (did I mention 1 hour train ride to Paris?), friendly and sociable people, downtown living and free concerts, Belgian beer, French wine, mild weather ... who needs AC? Come to think about it, at least I will never have to wear sweater in my office in the middle of the summer anymore.

And I missed y'all. Hope you will come visit soon, since I've planned so much travel I won't get to set a foot in the "States" within the next three years!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Gentse Feesten!

To tell you the truth, I think the real celebration was in Gentse Feesten!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Brussel: 175 Jaar Belgie

(I've had my lesson ... from now on ... I'm taking the train and walk everywhere! And keep a detailed map handy, just in case!)

The show of Belgium's military might. Yeah ... an oxymoron. Well, at least their people could say 'our army does something for us (entertainment)'.

and a pretty neat parade ...interesting displays ... horse-powered grain grinder ...

and of course ... got to take the picture of this stupid mannekin pis ...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Antwerpen, July 2005

"My Belgian husband has told me a helpful rule: when there is no sign, go straight. This works much of the time, but one day, I was driving with him when we came upon a roundabout. There was a road going at a 90-degree angle to the right and one at about 11 o’clock. No signs, of course ... Memory told me that I should go right, but I was testing the 'go straight' rule. I asked where I should go and he said: 'To the right, of course — that's the straight road' ... Natives already know their way, don't travel much and don’t need street signs. This is great if you grow up, get married and die in one town ...": Miriam Levenson

Yep ... I spent half the day trying to figure out how to navigate this "medieval maze of Belgian streets and equally medieval signage". Luckily I finally found the "Centrum" sign again, which, took me to the Centraal Station instead of the Grote Markt (about half an hour walk). Luckily, Belgian cities are fairly small. Oh yeah, by the way, to add to Miriam's list: the signs do not necessarily point to the direction you want to go, especially in a 5-way-roundabouts. They make 30-degree angle, sometimes.

And no, I'm not the father who's afraid to ask for direction. The problem was--which I learned the hard way--summarized nicely by a colleague:

"Don't ask them whether you should go North, South, East, or West! You'll confuse them! Besides, there is no such thing!! You need to know all the directions of the big cities. Then you have to know all the major street names ... That's how we explain directions!": Peter

Easy to say, when you've lived here the whole time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ieper, Belgium, 6 July 2005

So, this is what Ieper looks like. My first day I spent walking through the city, which is very walkable.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Birthday, USA!

Some found it an irony that I booked my flight to leave USA on July 4th. Well ... Chicago's big fireworks were set for Saturday July 3rd, when tourists and citizens could pack the entire Magnificent Mile before and after the celebration!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Las Vegas, June 2005

Life is an adventure. SEVEN days to departure. What would you do? Pack? Last-minute shop for cheap(er) electronics? Build electrical socket conversion so your phone would work in Europe? Hell no ... VEGAS, baby!

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Atlantic ... is now the new frontier. Eight years ago I crossed the Pacific to continue my education. Then I crossed the Mississippi to begin my professional career. Along the way, I took a detour over the Pacific to support a new facility start-up.

"Life was like a box of chocolate. You never know what you're gonna get.": Forrest Gump

And in two weeks, I am crossing the Atlantic to begin my next phase of life in the EU city of Ieper, Belgium.

I have been fortunate. Each time I reflected on how I could measure a year that passed by, there were always more than 365 unforgettable moments, more than 52 interesting jpeg snaps, and more than 12 new places visited. And an almost infinite number of special friends.

Wow. I am sad: I have to part with so much in the United States of America. My friends, my lunch group, my house, my car, my mentor, ... you know, you never really appreciate all the things that you have in life until it is time to part with them. I'm scared: I don't know what to expect; I don't even speak the language. But I'm excited: I'm anxious to start working on my new assignments and to sort out all the challenges.

"Why do we fall Master Wayne? To learn to pick ourselves up!": Alfred Pennyworth--Batman Begins

"I don't believe it!": Luke Skywalker, after seeing Yoda lifted the X-Wing up from the swamp
"That is why you fail.": Yoda--The Empire Strikes Back

To remind myself: Life in the new world has never been easy, and never will. But you should NEVER give up. Somehow, you've always worked it out, because you kept trying. And believe that you always will, somehow, eventually. Have faith in this.

"With great power, comes great responsibility.": Ben Parker--Spiderman
"It's not what you are underneath but what you do that defines you.": Rachel Dawes--Batman Begins

BE HUMBLE, and BE THANKFUL to the people that helped you become what you are. You did not get there on your own, and you never would have. Remember the ultimate goal. It is to measure each year in life in laughters, in joys, in loves, in new learnings; in the different ways of becoming a better person.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Huntsville, Alabama: Marshall Rockets and Space Center

Marshall Rockets and Space Center--NASA's developmentel center for rockets and propulsion technologies-- is a worthy visit if its on your way during a trip across Alabama. It's a great place to learn a bit about human's journey into space, and its "G-Force Accelerator" (the big centrifuge they put astronauts in to simulate rocket's acceleration) is one of its kind. It makes me appreciate that earth's gravity is "only" 9.8 m/s^2! :)

Space Shuttle exhibit in Marshall Space and Rockets Center in Huntsville, AL

Rocket Park in Marshall Space and Rockets Center in Huntsville, Ala

Monday, May 09, 2005

Your Company's Secret Change Agent

Harvard Business Review, May-June 1996
Reaching and Changing Frontline Employees

"We have watched employees turn the slogan Quality is Everything We Make into Quality is Everything We Fake... The frontline workforce is not sprinkled with a handful of cynics; it is cynical through and through.": T.J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin

Harvard Business Review, May 2005
Your Company's Secret Change Agents

"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people all remark
We have done it ourselves": Lao Tzu

"Newton was right: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In organizations, that reaction comes in the form of avoidance, resistance, and exceptionalism ... The trick is to introduce already existing ideas into the mainstream without excessive use of authority. Why use a sledgehammer when a feather will do? ... People are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.": Richard Tanner Pascale, Associate Fellow, Oxford University, and Jerry Sternin, Assistant Dean, HBS

Fresh out of college when I first started working, one of my first bosses Darrell told me, "Yeah, go ahead with your proposal. But make sure you work with the operators. First explain what you're trying to accomplish, then ask them if your solution would work."

As a fresh engineer then, I could not possibly out-think the operators. So you could also say that I was following Darrell's advise more out of necessity than anything. I listened to each of their opinions and worked really hard to get those that make sense implemented. And those that didn't? I explained to them the potential problems of those ideas and hinted alternative solutions that were (made to sound as if) built upon the operators' originial ideas. Somehow, the operators were adapt to change.

But as I grew comfortable to the processes, I began to overrule the operators a lot more often. I began to get lazy and stopped pushing hard on plant management to get things done from their part. While I still drove these initiatives to completion, somehow these changes never sticked. Lesson learned.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

We Don't Need Another Hero; We Just Need Another Marla: Marla Ruzicka, 1976-2005

Harvard Business Review, September 2001
We Don't Need Another Hero

"Everybody loves the stories of great leaders, especially great moral leaders. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Gandhi. We exalt these individuals as role models and celebrate their achievements. They represent, we proclaim, the gold standard of ethical behavior ... Or do they? I don't ask because I question the value of ethical behavior--far from it. I ask because over the course of my career as a specialist in business ethics, I have observed that the most effective moral leaders in the corporate world often sever the connection between morality and public heroism.": Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., Professor, HBS

Before a road car-bomb killed her in Iraq, Marla Ruzicka wasn't a hero. "Now I wish I'd pushed harder so that more people might have known about her when she was doing her work," writes Christopher Allbritton, an Iraq-based journalist. But Marla was busier in the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq than she was looking for a best way to get into a prime-time spot. Marla learned that the most effective way to right moral wrongs was not through loud protests aired by CNN. Instead,--according to The Washington Post--through her quiet diplomacy, she earned the ears of journalists, generals, and politicians--most notably Sen. Patrich Leahy, D-Vermont, who helped her cause in obtaining $17.5 million appropriation fund for Afghanistan and Iraq war victims.

"No one can heal the wounds that have been inflicted; you just have to recognize that people had been harmed.": Marla Ruzicka, Founder and Director, CIVIC Worldwide

For more info: Wikipedia entry on Marla Ruzicka

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Long-Term Vision, Short-Term Focus

The Wall Street Journal, April 5th, 2005
Chiefs With the Skills of a COO Gain Favor as Celebrity CEOs Fade

"I'm only as popular as the company's last quarterly results": Mark Hurd, CEO, H-P

It's the eternal debate over long-term vs. short-term interests. We have often accused our managers and CEOs of sacrificing long-term goals for short-term gains. But the generally accepted fact is that the best-run companies are those who maintain short-term focus: GE, Siemens, Dell, ... In the meanwhile, all the "invent" companies out there sooner or later will realize or have realized that they have/had been using their long-term dreams as excuses for underperformances.

Harvard Business Review, January-February 1989
Companyism and Do More Better

"Rowing harder doesn't help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction.": Kenichi Ohmae

Dreamers and visionaries make great leaders, we hear. But the problem with dreaming without executing is that it gets you nowhere. The problem with long-term vision is that you can only guess what is there beyond all those obstructions along the way. So the short-term gains may not be so evil, after all. Taking a note from Finance 101: "a dollar now worths more than a future dollar; a dollar in hand worths more than a promised dollar". It is important to establish checkpoints to earn the short-term gains as well as to ensure you're headed in the right directions.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Execution without Excuses

I have always wondered if our company is the HP of the personal computer world. We do not do rocket science, but fortunately we do sit inside some huge walls of economies of scale and know-hows created by high capital and technological intensity required in our industries. Still, the following quotes from Michael Dell might hold true even for our industries:

Harvard Business Review, March 2005
Execution without Excuses

"I founded the company over 20 years ago with $1,000 in starting capital. By contrast, Compaq had been launched two years earlier in Texas with some $100 million in capital. That's an unbelievable difference. Dell bubbled up through a kind of Darwinian evolution, finding holes in the way the industry was working. We didn't become asset-light just because it was a brilliant strategy. We didn't have a choice.": Michael Dell

(In the "Lean Enterprise" training, we learned how the "sea of inventory" covers all the rocks of process imperfections and wastes. Big companies sit on huge levels of inventories so they will never have to bump these rocks. But because they don't see these rocks, big companies generally do not have as much incentives to continue moving forward towards perfection.)

Monday, March 14, 2005

"People Quit People Before People Quit Company"

"People quit people before people quit company." I'm not sure where I heard this first. When I tell others that I don't work for money, they'll snap back "yeah, but you're different". Am I? I might be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but I believe most people are--in most way--like me. We work because we feel appreciated; and that by working harder, we will learn more and therefore, the more we will be valued by our supervisors and our company.

Harvard Business Review, February 2005
Transforming an Industrial Giant

"First was the very simple message: Be number one or two in each business, or you will not be successful ... The second thing I admired about GE is that people are really the most important thing. I always wondered why they have such excellent people. Was it just that they pay more in the U.S.? I realized it was their people development program--Section C.": Heinrich von Pierer--CEO, Siemens AG

Harvard Business Review, April 2004
How Fleet Bank Fought Employees Flight

"The results of the analysis seemed to suggest that inadequate pay and heavy workloads were the key drivers for turnovers. Management tried to address some of these concerns by tracking market pay more systematically and by offering more flexible working arrangements ... Yet to Fleet's surprise, turnover rates continued to rise rapidly. Indeed, many companies have found little relationship between what employees--particularly departing employees--say motivates their behavior and what actually does.": Haig R. Nalbantian, Principal, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, and Anne Szostak, Executive VP and Director of Human Resources, FleetBoston Financial.

So Fleet utilized some kind of a "Design of Experiment" method by changing several variables and observing the impacts of the variable changes on turnover rates. The following is the top 5 variables that reduced Fleet's turnover ratio:

1. Promotion within the past year reduced turnover rate by 11%
2. Incentives reduced turnover rate by 8%
3. Continuity / same group supervisor within the past year reduced turnover ratio by 7.5%
4. High school educated employees on average had a turnover rate that is 5% lower than their college-educated counterpart.
5. 10% reduction in layoffs reduced turnover rate by 3%.

On the other hand, the following variables had less than 1% impact in reducing turnover rate:

15. 10% market pay adjustment
14. One-point increase in regional unemployment rate
13. One year increase in tenure
12. Increase in local market share from 10% to 20%
11. 10% reduction in worked / scheduled hours

Money does matter, but not as much as how it matters. Promotions and incentives go a long way in telling people how much they are valued, while a simple market pay adjustment might convey the message that "we have been underpaying you all along".

Sunday, March 13, 2005

A Taboo on Taboos

Are we in a commodity business; should we compete on price, or should we be competing on quality and customization? Are our Marketing and Research & Development adding value, or are they the unncessary evil? Can we be Intel, or should we become a Dell?

Harvard Business Review, February 2005
Breakthrough Ideas for 2005

"A reporter sniffing around PeopleSoft's user conference last fall was surprised by what she didn't smell: fear. Despite the sword of Damocles suspended over their investments by Oracle's hostile takeover bid, customers discussed 'comfortable subjects regarding PeopleSoft's business administration programs, such as new features they'd like to see in the next version--rather then whether there will even be a next version' ... The worst thing about elephant in the room is that if you ignore them long enough, they become invisible. That's what happens when companies avoid subjects because they are politically dangerous, socially unacceptable, or just too dire to contemplate. The result can be a failure to anticipate predictable developments and consequent errors in the strategy.": Leigh Buchanan, HBR, Senior Editor

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Two Sides of the Brain

I was recently accused by my close friend of sacrificing a long-term dream for some short-term gains. My thought-process and the discussion were a lot more complicated, but yes, I might have made some impulse decisions. Which, according to The Wall Street Journal / adapting a report from the Fortune magazine, was a human-nature:

"Why is it so hard to save for retirement? It may have something to do with how our brains are wired. When researchers at Princeton University's psychology department ran brain tests on undergraduates, they discovered that humans are of two minds, writes Justin Fox in Fortune magazine. The research showed that when it comes to money matters, part of the brain is hard at work making calculations and weighing options. But when participants in the study opted to get their money now, the more primitive limbic system of the brain 'lit up as if it smelled dinner.'"

Friday, March 04, 2005

Wanted: A Continuity Champion--The Case for Staying On Course

Don't get me wrong: I have often been praised (and cursed, too) for my persistence in driving changes.

But sometimes, I can be (and need to be) stubborn too. I believe there are times when you can't change just for a change's sake. And this includes my job. Sometimes there are disagreement, and sometimes you don't get treated fairly. But you will get this everywhere in any job.

Harvard Business Review, February 2005
Breakthrough Ideas for 2005

"The ability to champion change is the very mark of a leader, we hear. Change agents are sexy by business standards. They battle strong vested interests and mankind's reluctance to rock a boat, even (or especially) if it leaks. Change will not happen without their heroic assistance ... the defenders of status quo too often appear to be--and are--knee-jerk naysayers who champion the wrong continuity. It's more glamorous to be Napoleon (who gained and lost an empire in little more than a decade) than Hadrian (who gave the Roman Empire a stability that endured for generations) ... But 'coping with change' can mean standing firm against a tide. 'Setting direction' can mean staying the course. Part of the leader's job is to evaluate the threats and opportunities that change creates.": Thomas A. Stewart, Editor, HBR

And sometimes, the discussion also turned to my present career. Some people think that I would be better off doing something different, because some think that I have accomplished quite a lot. Well, I take that as a compliment, but, really?

I recognized that I had done many good things. But humbly, I too recognized that I might not have done them as well without the support of the team and the environment that I currently had. And this is why I do not seek always seek change just for a change's sake.

Harvard Business Review, May 2004
The Risky Business of Hiring Stars

"Our data showed that 46% of the research analysts did poorly in the year after they left one company for another. After they switched loyalties, their performance plummeted by an average of about 20% and had not climbed back to the old levels even five years later ... Most of us have an instinctive faith in talent and genius, but it isn't just that people make organizations perform better. The organization also makes people perform better ... When researchers studied the performance of 2,086 mutual fund managers between 1992 and 1998, they found that 30% of a fund's performance could be attributed to the individual and 70% was due to the manager's institution.": Boris Groysberg (Assistant Professor, HBS), Ashish Nanda (Assistant Professor, HBS), Nitin Nohria (Professor, HBS)

Friday, February 11, 2005

Men = Bugs = Monkeys ... According to The Wall Street Journal

Some fun Valentine-Day facts ... you know, I've always wondered why I (read: men) do the things we do. But heck ... I guess it was just our (ir)rational nature?

The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2005.
Do the Mating Habits of Bugs Offer Lessons for Human Valentines?

Take gift giving. Tiny creatures called dance flies don't have an ornate tail or much else to signal their sex appeal as, say, peacocks do. So the male shows off his fitness through his largess, bringing a female a big dead fly, for example, so that she can nibble on it while he mates with her.

But among some dance flies, cheating is rampant. Over the years, (scientists) suspect, a few males decided to heck with lugging along a dead fly to their assignation, and instead bestowed just an insect fragment, wrapped in easily carried silk to make it look bigger. Getting good results, some males began skipping the snack and presenting just a worthless wisp of silk. That way, they got to invest less in sex (less foraging for a nuptial gift) and still reap all the rewards.

Whether the behavior of dance flies and crickets holds any lessons for humans is left as an exercise for the reader. But if you doubt that people make bizarre mate choices, consider this little study. It is a common observation that in poor cultures, men tend to prefer heavier women, while in wealthy cultures they prefer thinner ones. A team of psychologists therefore made young male volunteers in New York feel poor or rich.

Sure enough, when the men felt poor (they compared their bank accounts to a millionaire's) their stated "ideal" woman weighed more than when they felt well-off (comparing their bank accounts to a pauper's).

Monkeys Are Willing to 'Pay" for a Glimpse of High-Status Apes

During the experiment, four monkeys named Wolfgang, Sherry, Dart and Niko were seated in chairs facing a computer monitor, as researchers electronically monitored their gazes. The monkeys watched a slide show featuring pairs of photos taken of their 12-member troop. Viewing a particular image triggered a squirt of juice.

The monkeys' gazes showed a clear preference for power and beauty, no matter the cost. They chose to look at pictures of alpha monkeys of both sexes, and potential female mates, although they had to sacrifice -- or pay more for the view -- by accepting 10% less juice. The photos were of faces of male and female alphas, and, in keeping with how monkeys judge a potential mate's receptivity, the backsides of females.

All primates living in complex societies have evolved this drive to study what's around them, Dr. Glimcher explained. "People are willing to pay money to look at pictures of high-ranking human primates. When you fork out $3" for a celebrity gossip magazine, "you're doing exactly what the monkeys are doing."

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Flipping Without Flopping

Can we change our mind? According to Professor Kramer from Stanford Graduate School of Business, we can ...

While decisiveness is important in leadership, acknowledging a mistake and take an appropriate correction is also important. And sometimes, in this constantly changing world, it is required.

I too may have to make a change of plan soon ...

Harvard Business Review, February 2005
Breakthrough Ideas for 2005

"Flip-flopping is not the same thing as indecision - roughly, the inability to arrive at a choice. Rather, it means altering a stance after a choice has been made ... It is a way of saying that I'm wiser today than I was yesterday.": Roderick M. Kramer, Professor, Stanford GSB

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sumatra Tsunami (originally posted 12/28)

I appreciate the emails and phone calls regarding the recent tsunami disaster near the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. While my immediate family is safe in the island of Java ... some good 1,000 miles away from the quake's epicenter and is well-shielded from the tsunami by the island of Sumatra, the tsunami had killed more than 100,000 people in Sumatra and wiped out hundreds of thousands of homes. Food-borne, water-borne, and air-borne diseases loom. Drinking water, food, and clothes are scarce. Millions are out of jobs as their shops, fishing boats, farms, and other structures and infrastructures are badly damaged.

For more information and ways to help, please see the official site of Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C. You can also channel your donation through American Red Cross, or through
the's "One Click" American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund if you have an account with Amazon.

Trip Notes: Las Vegas 2005

Ying in The Piano Bar, Harrah's Las Vegas

"I see dead people ... walking around with regular people ..."
... Luxor

The Venetian ...

New York ...

Paris ...