Archive for January, 2012

Did We Give Up Too Soon?

January 30th, 2012

When I was a young child growing up in Taiwan, we used to have this icebox in the kitchen. To keep food cold, we would buy ice blocks every few days from the ice delivery man. Then one day, my parents bought our very first refrigerator. It was a GE. I still remember the sparkles in my parents’ eyes. We had popsicles every summer after that. Its humming sound softly reverberated throughout the house when we slept. By the time I left for graduate school in the U.S., 15 years later, that white electric “icebox” still stood faithfully in the corner of our dining room.

As I take a stroll down memory lane, an image of a black Singer sewing machine appeared. My mother was not a good seamstress but she managed to do minor alterations to my father’s pants and my school uniforms on that magical machine. I can still hear the wheels turning as I studied in the next room. Of course, every now and then, my mother’s friend Mrs. Lew would bring over a Sears Roebuck’s catalog. The cover pages were torn and many corners of the inside pages had folding creases. Those days, having something ordered from the U.S. would elevate a housewife’s social standing. As we children glued our eyes to the TV to watch the few American shows with awe and envy, adults would hang onto things that were made in the U.S. because we knew they would last forever. In 1985, when I went to visit China for the very first time right after my father passed away, people on the street offered me any amount of money for the blue jeans I had on. I suspect, by that time, their enthusiasm was more than for the quality of my Levy’s but the symbol of freedom it represented. I remember being overwhelmed and proud to be an American.

I don’t really know when we stopped making some of these products in the U.S. but I did notice the economic migration that has taken place in the last 40 years. It started out as a search for less expensive labor in order to lower the production cost and compete with the cheaper imports. Those days, products that were “made in Japan” had a “cheap” reputation. As Japanese labor cost became too high, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan stepped in, thus the birth of the “Four Asian Tigers.” They later became the sources of our cheap labor. China came next. Pretty soon, we did not just ship the most mundane jobs overseas, we outsourced whole business functions overseas as well. By the time we were done, we did not just make cheap goods to satisfy our domestic market. We had created a total supply chain economy.

Today, globalization has taken hold. In order to compete in the global market, we need to be close to where the customers are by setting up operations everywhere outside the U.S. We no longer make anything or deliver anything all by ourselves anymore. On the one hand, we have reduced the risks of carrying inventories, manufacturing and distributions by pushing these functions down the chain and into other parts of the world. On the other hand, our total dependency on the chain has just increased our risks. We traded the independence that we are so proud of for interdependence.

In too many corners, I hear people say that manufacturing in the U.S. is over and our future is in the service industry. Yes, certain industries are gone forever but should we really give up making anything in the U.S?
For 40 years, Asian countries have operated totally as export economies. They did this purely for survival. In order for the export economy to succeed, their citizens made the most sacrifice. I remember average Japanese consumers could not afford to buy the same TVs they made for export. They had to learn to delay their individual gratifications. They did it because as the members of a collective culture, they were used to subordinating their individual needs for the good of the whole country. The same thing can be seen in the other four tiger countries as well. Only recently, their export economy created a middle class that has seen its discretionary income increase and are now flexing its purchasing power. They started to have an expanding domestic market. On the contrary, U.S. did not start as an export economy, since we have been the biggest market in the world. Businesses continually tried to satisfy the insatiable consumer appetite by feeding it with cheaper imports. I frankly think we lost the willpower to delay our individual gratification for the good of the country. We did have it once right after the economic crash in the 30’s. Maybe we forgot the true taste of “hunger for survival.”

But using cheap labor overseas has an economic and social consequence at home. Imagine yesterday, there was a TV manufacturing plant in our town. But, the same product could be made in China for a fraction of the cost. We soon only paid $100 for this TV, instead of $800. As we continued to enjoy the cheaper TVs, the TV plant in our town could not compete and had to close down. Today, on the same spot, they built a Wal-Mart, selling all kinds of cheap goods made overseas. While we enjoy shopping and saving money, the best place we can hope to find a job is at Wal-Mart now. But a retail wage of $8 an hour cannot sustain our living standard that used to be supported by a factory job of $16 an hour plus all the benefits. Pretty soon, we will not even be able to afford to shop at Wal-Mart.

I bought an Epson printer and never thought of getting an extended warranty because the price is cheap enough that I can always buy another one if this one stops working. When a product that used to have high quality becomes nothing but a commodity, we no longer care if it lasts. But competing solely on cheap price should not be our only business strategy. If our goal is to sell a new one to replace the old one as quickly as we can, we have just commoditized ourselves. And when we do, we become replaceable and irrelevant in the world. Once we step on the downward economic spiral that we have helped create, it will be increasingly hard to get off.

Japan quickly learned that it could not survive on cheap exports alone, since there would always be other countries that could do it cheaper. It moved onto perfecting its quality. In the old days, when Dr. Deming first put together the “Continuous Improvement” business theory and model, it did not get a whole lot of fan fares in the U.S. first. But it caught fire in Japan. I believe it was because the theory and practice fit the Japanese culture. Traditionally the Asian cultures encourage perfectionism. That means you have to keep doing and improving until you get a perfect result. This is one of the reasons that Honda and Toyota had such brand loyalty in the U.S., not because their cars are cheap.

A friend of mine went to Japan to learn pottery. She found an old master. When she first started, he had her sweep the floor for a whole year. Then the following year, he let her start making the pots. Every morning he would come into the studio and examine her work. Without a word, he would break every pot she made and had her do it again. He did not speak any English and she did not speak any Japanese. This went on for two more years. By doing it again and again, she had to figure out how to get close to perfection. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Excellence is born out of the desire to be perfect. Do we Americans have this in our culture?

Culturally, there is a difference between Asia and the U.S. in their pursuit of excellence. In Asia, traditionally, children were taught to do things by repetition. They learned to find improvement within the box. In the U.S., children were taught to think first and to break the box and invent something new. This was why for years, we laughed at the Japanese for never inventing anything new but copying something already invented in the West. However, they were the ones who perfected many U.S. inventions and dominated the market. Sony Walkman, Canon or Nikon cameras are just a few products that come in mind. To win in this global economy, we need talents for both invention and perfection.
I don’t think we Americans lack the innovative spirit but do we have the ability to persist to perfection and build things that will last again?

Fareed Zakaria, CNN Talk Show host, did a special program on “Education”. His guests suggested that to compete in the world economy, we have to either upgrade our education to restore our innovative strength, or downgrade our wages. I think the solution lies in the “both/and,” not “either/or.” Apple Inc. has seen its sales of I Pad and I Phone soar even in the down market. But most of their products were made overseas. They claimed that cheaper labor cost was not the only reason for them to build overseas but skilled workers. So, the question is: can we make a high quality product at cheaper labor costs in the U.S. in order to compete in the global market? We may not be able to lower our wages to the third world county’s level, but I believe we can certainly find ways to reduce the overall cost of production in this country. As we continue to spend more money than any country on education, we ought to find a way to spend it on increasing and upgrading the world-class talent pool as well. After all, it is the American workers who build Honda and Toyota cars in the U.S. We should be able to build other products here as well.

Maybe we cannot build every product and revive every industry in the U.S, but I believe we can certainly make products with the highest quality at a competitive price in the global market. The question is: “Do we have the wills to keep reinventing ourselves to the perfection?”

I hope we can move beyond the rhetoric and commit to the “built to last” blueprint put out in President Obama’s State of Union address last Tuesday and restore the standard of excellence we used to have.

Celia Young consults with multinational businesses to help restore their business vision of “excellence.”

Are We Winning?

January 23rd, 2012

Every time I watched a movie called “Taking Chance”, I would cry.  It is a simple story about a Marine colonel escorting the body of a dead fellow marine to his hometown in Montana.  I was touched by the way ordinary Americans stopped and paid respect to his flag draped coffin along the way.  I was also touched by the way the colonel struggled with his own mixed emotions on this journey.  My heart ached for all those young lives lost in the war.

Then I got angry at those who made it seemingly so easy to send young men and women to wars.  I am frustrated by our single-minded pursuit of the world order.  This leads me to think about the U.S. foreign policy for the last few decades.  We Americans have mystified ourselves into believing that we are the “superhero” or the lone ranger on a white horse who is the only one that can save the world from its demise.   As a superhero, we have several choices to lead the world.  We can beat our enemies into submission with our super weapons and super army.  We can coerce the world into loyalty with our money.  We can collaborate with or inspire the world in order to establish mutual benefit and lasting harmony.  We have been using our weapons and our money to lead in the world for so long that we don’t think about the other choices.   Since the U.S. is mainly an individualistic culture, acting like a lone ranger makes sense.  And many of us believe that to collaborate is to compromise; and to compromise is to show we are weak.  This is why moving toward global collaboration remains as an intellectual exercise.  Instead, we hang on to our superpower status, even though sending more troops or weapons and spending more money that we can no longer afford will not bring victory.  I often wonder why there is not a loud enough protest when we continue to spend billions of taxpayers’ money in wars that we don’t understand and will not win because we don’t really have a clear picture of what “winning” is supposed to look like.

History shows that yesterday’s ally is often tomorrow’s enemy.  This is not some old Western movie where the two gunmen meet up at high noon in the public square.  The one with the quicker draw will win.  In real life, we don’t know if we are winning or losing the war.  So why are we in the war?  Haven’t we learned anything from the history?    We say that the fanatics create “martyrs” out of their dead.     We call our fallen solders “heroes” instead.  We say we are proud of them for sacrificing their lives for the country.  But did we not just create our own brand of martyrsm?  For what purpose?

I live in a town near a Marine base.  Every weekend, I see people offer to pay for some young marines’ dinner in a restaurant.  They say to the young soldiers, “thanks for your service.”  While this looks and feels very patriotic, why can’t we work harder not to send them to war in the first place? During this presidential election season, there seems to be only two voices.  One wants to close the border.  The other one wants to continue to be the world’s police.  I am so afraid to wake up tomorrow morning and find out we have gone to war with yet another country such as Iran.  Is there any room for a third alternative?

As we continue to insist on being the only superpower in the world, the other nations have learned to adapt to us.  Many of us don’t see anything wrong with the fact that people outside the U.S. know so much more about us than we the world.  How did we decide that speaking only one language makes us more competent than those who can speak two or more?

Should being the superpower include removing a leader of another country and bringing them to our land by force?  What makes us think we can just put people in prison for years without a trial for the sake of national security?  And we pride ourselves for being a people of justice?  How is it that after we have polluted our land for so long, we now preach environmental protection around the world while letting our wastes get dumped outside our border?

A previous business partner often insisted on paying for everything from our dinners to product development by himself.  This created such a top/down power dynamics between us that drove a wedge in our partnership.  I realized in the end that he would rather sacrifice our partnership for the sake of hanging onto his power and control.

In the 80’s, Japan’s economy was on top of the world.  It had a perfect opportunity to step in and partner with the U.S. as leaders of the world but did not.  Now, it is China’s turn.  It does not seem to be stepping in either.  Recently, I asked a few of my friends if the U.S. would welcome a co-leader for the world.  They all said not in their life time.  I believe this sentiment is widely shared.

In mid 80’s, Vincent Ching, a young Chinese American was beaten to death the night before his wedding in Detroit, because an unemployed father and son auto workers blamed the Japanese importers for their job loss.  They took out their hatred on Ching, even though he was not Japanese.    Many Americans have long held suspicions toward the Japanese and now the Chinese.  We did not share the world’s leadership with Japan then and we certainly would not with China now.  This is why Japan and China choose to stand in the shadow of the U.S., letting us bear the sole burden of occupying the world’s superpower’s position and leading us into more debt, more wars that sacrifice more young lives and widening the gap between our ideology and our reality.  We do all this for the sake of keeping our control.

Actually, the most admired quality of our leadership in the world is our spirit of ingenuity without us trying to project or force our ideology onto other countries.  While we still enjoy being the center of the world as a superpower, the center of the world has been moving.  There are now multiple centers, each holding a different kind of power because they have begun to emulate our ingenuity hoping by becoming more innovative, they will find the freedom that they have admired the most about the U.S.

Globalization has already happened.  The world is increasingly complex with its emerging multiple centers of power.  And it requires a very different kind of leadership and citizenship.  I often start my global leadership workshops by having the participants draw a picture that represents their view of the world and how they are connected to it.  The drawings usually say a lot about what they do or don’t pay attention to.  Today’s leaders cannot afford to have blind spots in their world view.

I hope we Americans can come back to our core and continue to be the most inspiring country, and be true to the symbol of freedom we represent.  Living by example is the best leadership without persuasion or coercion.



In her consulting practice, Celia Young works with global business leaders to help them use their power effectively.

Are Our Beliefs Really That Sacred?

January 16th, 2012

As a social scientist, I continue to fascinate myself with the intense energy around the defense of one’s belief.  So I thought I would poke at this social phenomenon a little bit.

We were born into this world naked as a piece of blank canvass.  Circumstance and environment are like paint brushes that stroke us with different colors, shapes and impressions. We are constantly influenced by the teachings of our experience and socialization.  Very often, we swallowed whole these teachings since we were children.  These experiences helped form our world view.  We wear this view like a pair of colored glasses through which we see the world.

These colored glasses are the distortions we learned to depend on.  Our beliefs are our distortions.   They are our truth.  But the moment we think our truth is THE TRUTH, we are stuck.  Actually, to discover the UNIVERSAL TRUTH, we need to go back to be that new born baby, who came into this world with innocence, curiosity, pleasure, acceptance, need for love and ability to sense etc.   Along with compassion and forgiveness, these are a handful of universal truths that we share as human beings regardless where we come from.  During the bombing of the twin towers, many people used their cell phones to express their “love”.  They did not express “judgment”, “condemnation” or “hatred.”  We had to learn these expressions through our distorted belief systems.

There are two major influences to our beliefs: religion and culture.  And they are both learned and often swallowed.  Sometimes, our cultures are intertwined with our religions. We learned not only to defend them, but also to pass them on to the next generations without questioning.  We think they are sacred.  But are they?  If we have learned them, we can unlearn them as well.

I like to think that our contemporary world has so much capacity to embrace a variety of beliefs.  But when some of us use our own belief as a shield to judge and alienate others, or a weapon to condemn others with such an air of righteousness, then, we have become slaves to our belief.

We might believe we are the “white knight’ that will save and protect the world from evil.  But do we have the right to convert other countries into our ways according to our ideology and our definition of democracy?

Two generations before me in China, women in my family still had bounded feet because the culture believed that “three-inch” feet show the true beauty of a woman.  Never mind that the mother had to crush all the bones in the feet of her 8-year old daughter just so that she would have a chance to get matched into a good marriage.  This belief was so strong that anyone against this practice will be thrown out of the family.

Other social phenomenon may not be as bone crushing as the bounded feet of a young girl but equally oppressive.

Many European settlers came to this land because they wanted to escape religious persecution.   On the surface, we might see ourselves in this country as having religious freedom, but in practice I see many unconscious biases.  First of all, Christmas and Easter are officially still the only religious holidays on the calendar.  There is such an unspoken assumption that everyone believes in God and this is a Christian country.  Secondly, there seems to be an undercurrent questioning who the true Christians are.  I had a student who declared that she was a Mormon in my class and then apologized immediately.  The only reason, I figured, for her apology was her need to avoid offending anyone in the room.  In so many corners, people murmured, sometime loudly enough that Mormonism, along with Buddhism, Judaism and Islam are not real religions.  What happened to love, acceptance, and our proclaimed religious freedom?

Now, if you don’t believe in God at all, would you feel comfortable enough to say it in public?

Then a girlfriend of mine recounted a flight from JFK to LAX sitting next to an Arab woman with a baby.  She made comment on how frightened she was.  What clues did she get that made her equate this woman to a terrorist?

In his 2006 book, “Faith and Politics”, former three-term Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest, John Danforth, observed how religion had become a divisive force in the American political life.    I don’t necessarily agree with everything he wrote.  But I have noticed that many public policies or practices in this country carry a faith-base agenda. We as Americans like to think that we truly have a separation between church and state.  But as a leader, can you really leave your religious or even cultural beliefs at the door when you take on a leadership role for a company or our country?

When I was a teenager growing up in Taiwan for a period of time, my mother would take me to a different place of worship every week.   This week was the Catholic.  Next week was the Baptist.  Over the following weeks we visited the Buddhist, Taoist, Mormon, Jewish temples, and so on.  I finally had to ask what she was doing.  She said, “Honey, we are buying insurance.  We cannot afford to offend anyone’s God.”

I thought my mother was the most equal opportunity believer.

If we truly want to live up to the image we have about ourselves, we ought to dig deep in ourselves beyond our beliefs and get re-acquainted with the universal truth we all carry so that we can be better human beings. While we are at it, we ought to be able to create a tent that is big enough for every belief and make sure we give ourselves freedom to change our own.


When consulting with her FORTUNE 500 clients, Celia Young often helps point out how unexamined beliefs can influence business policies and strategies with unintended global consequences.


Who is the true “Conservative”?

January 9th, 2012

For years, I have been intrigued by the seemingly endless pursuit of “a true conservative” in the Republican Party during every election season.  I understand that there is a value polarity between “conservative” and “liberal”. However, I have never seen the almost frantic search of “a true liberal” in the Democrat Party.

If you ask most of the Americans and if they are willing to be honest, they will tell you that they hold a middle of the road value and point of view.  So, why spend so much energy and money debating on who the true conservative is?

There is a down side of every extreme view when practiced.  These extreme views usually are very narrow views.  Most of the time, they don’t represent the real world out here.  It is like the frog that sits at the bottom of the well, fervently arguing the definition of the sky.  Not only does he believe his definition of the sky is true but also will silence anyone who think there is much more to the sky than what he sees.  When we insist on holding that narrow view, we get bogged down in our own ideology.  Then the world is seen as only “black” and “white” and “right” and “wrong”.

If we truly believe in “thou shall not kill”, then why do we have endless wars in the world?  How do we find it justifiable to kill someone just to be true to our ideology?

For thousands of years, many old cultures on this planet based their lives on the notion that energy moves naturally along the path of “Infinity”.  This energy includes a force and counterforce.  When the force pushes hard in one direction, the counterforce will naturally push equally hard in the opposite direction.  This is the self-correcting principle of the universe.  It is like “exhale” and “inhale”.  We cannot survive very long at the one end, without the other end.

To me, the struggle between “conservative” and “liberal” has very little meaning.  This is not an either/or game.  The moment we buy into the labeling, we restrict and force ourselves to think there is one “right” way.   And we believe we must choose one vs. the other.  It is like to win; we must make our opponents look like a monster so that we can beat them into submission or kill them.  Getting swept up in this game of duality can do more damage than good to us all.

If we win by beating down our opponents, would this “win” sustain itself?  Would those who get defeated be willing to stay down forever?  Does winning a war equate “peace”?

So, the “conservative” wants to take over the country because they believe the country has become too liberal.  However, if the conservative beat out the liberal and gain the upper hand, wouldn’t the liberal become the counterforce just to wait for a chance to revenge itself?  Is this really healthy for the country?  Just ask those companies that vacillated between centralization and decentralization for decades to assess if they have reaped any net gain.

I feel sorry for any candidates who are labeled “moderate” because their voices are not heard very much.  They actually represent a whole lot of us.  This means many of our voices are not heard either.  Or at least, our voices are not sexy or provocative enough to get any press coverage.

In the real world, business leaders face the task of choosing the most advantageous strategy for  business every single day.  Often, there is no clear choice but mounting dilemma between options.  Every path has its upside and its down side.  The most effective leaders are the ones who can skillfully manage these dilemmas by incorporating the “both/and” values contributed by competing options, in order to create business success.

I certainly hope the leaders of this country can demonstrate their skills to lead from “both/and”, not “either/or.”


Celia Young, a global organization development consultant, has been using the “infinity” principle to advise and assist business leaders to formulate and implement winning strategies for the last 25 years.