Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Small Manufactured Article For Adornment

After reading the Harvard Business Review blog’s ideas on women’s leaders in my last post, another post caught my attention.  The title of the blog was Investing in Infrastructure Means Investing in Innovation.  

Not being a Harvard grad, I had a difficult time understanding the title of the blog, so I asked myself what does “innovation” mean, and why do I want to invest in it?  I learned to ask these types of questions in my on the job training at a sewage treatment plant working with technology salesmen.   

At one point, I was even told by such a salesman that I was too honest, when I failed to hose the sewage scum off some wastewater treatment equipment he wanted to sell to some clients.  The glitter and shine from the polished stainless steel seemed to blind the customers to the sticker price associated with the bill of goods he was hoping to close a deal on.  This same salesman also confided in me one day that he had “buttered much bread” with the materials that found their way to the sewage treatment plant. 

Taking the honesty cut as a sign that I was not meant to become a salesman, I decided to continue down my original career path and stuck with civil engineering.  I hoped that my insights into the world of salesmen would help me to avoid becoming distracted by the piles of salesmen’s pitches I would have to shovel my way through in my work as a water and wastewater engineer. 

So back to “innovation”, what does it mean?  One meaning that jumps out from my dictionary and happens to be spelled out in capitols is “NOVELTY”.  This word conjures up images of things I typically wouldn’t want to invest in, so I continued my dictionary search to better understand where I should spend my money.  This lead me to “novelty: a small manufactured article intended mainly for personal or household adornment”.  Again, since I work hard for my money, I normally wouldn’t want to invest it in what sounds like a trinket, so I continued my search and came across this definition: “adornment:  to decorate especially with ornaments”. 

Through the years, I have bought a few ornaments, and what I learned is that though they look pretty, they were mostly shinny veneer on a thin glass shell, and broke easily.  Which brought me to a better understanding of what I was supposed to buy, “ornament: one whose virtues or graces add luster to his place or society; or embellish”.  And finally things began to click, “embellish: to add to the attractiveness of by adding ornamental details”.   

This was obviously a sales pitch, one I had heard before, and unfortunately been sold on one too many times before in my 25 years of working as a civil engineer. And in the process I have swallowed a number of crap sandwiches myself.  In this work in consulting, manufacturing, and government, I never was promoted to the level of CEO.  But I am finally learning to take the salesman’s advice from my first job and be sure to scrap the scum off the ornaments being sold, so that I can really evaluate what lies below.  I also learned that to be successful in either engineering or sales, requires the use of many of the same embellishments. 

And what follows is my attempt to define what it is we are being sold, by making some embellishments of my own to the questions asked by Ms. Bell and the answers given by Mr. Spiegel.

Why is our expensive infrastructure failing?

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. a D on its report card for infrastructure.  What they forgot to point out on the report card was that it was their engineering skills that designed this failing infrastructure – in essence they gave their own projects a D.  They either forgot they designed these projects or else forgot that design of a project goes beyond convincing clients to buy expensive equipment and infrastructure and building it and installing it and making a healthy profit themselves in the process.   

Designing a project is supposed to involve assisting clients to figure out what they need, and then finding the best alternative to meet those needs at the lowest cost over the lifetime of the project.  And the cost analysis also needs to cover such things as operation, maintenance and replacement of the equipment and infrastructure when it reaches the end of its useful life.  If you fail to pay for those costs, the project fails when the equipment and infrastructures eventually fail.  This is definitely not a highly technical problem to figure out.    

Unfortunately for engineers and us, when you factor in those types of costs, particularly the replacement costs, most large infrastructure and high technology projects would not be cost effective when you compare them to simpler technology solutions. There are some big commissions and large contracts behind projects that aren’t cost effective. 

So the answer to the question is that our infrastructure is failing because engineers designed them to fail, and as a result they made a lot of money, and so did we. 

What are the advantages of having taxpayers pay for expensive infrastructure and how does that impact your bottom line?

There are two big advantages.  One is it makes commerce a lot more profitable.  You can move goods around the country and export them easily and we don’t get stuck paying for the infrastructure needed to do that.  Secondly, this complex infrastructure needs expensive equipment and technology to keep it functioning and coincidentally that is what we are in business to sell.   

So not only do we stick the taxpayers with the bill for building the infrastructure we need to ship our goods around the world, we also get the US taxpayer to reimburse us again by buying our equipment to keep it running.  In sales we call this double billing or getting the most bang from the taxpayer buck.  The bottom line is not a doubling of profits, but the multiplier effect of quadrupling them.     

So what innovative sales techniques are you investing in to sell this scheme to the taxpayer? 

Good sales is all about intelligent marketing, it’s how you package the product that matters more than what’s inside.  We have found that if you slap the word “smart” on anything, consumers will buy it.  We are using it in our “make the grid smarter” and “smart building technologies” campaigns.  Taxpayers have been fooled by this in the past with “smart phones”, and were betting they have not gotten the message on this sales tact yet.    

We are also investing some marketing money on using a more subtle form of the “smart” label with printing lingo like “high tech” on the package.  Most folks think you need to be smart in order to use high tech stuff, so it makes them feel smart when they use it.  Being “green” is the new feel good way to get people to buy, so all we do is spray some green paint on our products and sales pick up like crazy, because people feel "green".  “Efficient” has a similar effect, but for us it means being more efficient at making more money – for when something becomes more efficient consumers just buy more of it. 

And to be even more effective we create some amazing wizardly light shows with electricity, gas turbines, energy hubs and all kinds of other high tech gadgets to create something like the Super Bowl Half-time Show – the largest competitive distraction of the year.    

And then to top it off we use the idea that these things create great jobs for taxpayers.  “Jobs” has been the most effective label you can put on a product these days to ensure a sale.   It’s amazing how simple these marketing ploys are, and how they help us make people think they need what we want them to buy. 

You also need a slick salesman to pitch the campaign - someone to put the taxpayers at ease, someone with charisma and who wears a nice  suit to boot.  That’s where political donations come in – we backed Obama for president because we liked the way he sounded and looked in front of the camera and the sense of trustworthiness he projected.  When he says he wants to double exports in 2015, he is helping us quadruple our profits, by getting the taxpayers to buy into funding the infrastructure we need to do that as we discussed earlier. So he earns those future commissions he'll be getting from us.

Do you see other opportunities to use these techniques to grow your business in the coming years?

Definitely, we see ways to cut our costs and increase profits not just by avoiding paying for the infrastructure cost related to transporting our products from coast to coast and around the globe – we see potential in getting taxpayers to pay for the cost of providing the utilities like water, sewer, and electrical services to our manufacturing facilities, of training our workers and paying for their healthcare costs, and even to get them to provide security for our oversees operations.  The beauty of this master plan is that when we own the institutions that provide these ancillary services to our manufacturing operations, we get to bill our workers – the taxpayer – for the services.   So any money we pay them in salaries comes right back to us with interest due.   

The key to making this scheme work for us is to keep the competition out.  By cornering the market, we make sure we capture the profits.  What you want to avoid is spreading taxpayer money thinly across the country like peanut butter, and instead pile all that bread in one heaping wet stinking rich pile right in the middle of our plate.

That is the “big idea here” – to fool the people into working for us for basically nothing, and help us keep this overpriced infrastructure cranking away, with lots of shiny distracting lights strung between it all – and in the end we all get to feast on that big old crap sandwich. 

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