The Die Is Cast Part 1
Some years ago Eliyahu Goldratt wrote a book called “The Goal”. It explained the theory of constraints and the practice of a manufacturing philosophy known as Optimised production technology or OPT. Goldratt chose to write it as a novel relating the story of Alec a harassed plant manager with marital problems who has been given three months to save his factory. The story narrates how Alec utilises OPT and a Socratic approach to save the factory and his marriage. The book was a surprising best seller and essential reading for managers in the 1980s and 90s.
For some years many young foundry men studying casting technology have bemoaned (albeit sometimes tongue in cheek) the fact that no one has ever written a novel about foundry men and the exciting challenges they face.
Always up for a challenge I tender the following series (with the inevitable Thailand flavour) in an attempt to rectify this omission in the literary annals. It may become prescribed reading for all students of casting technology….or then again maybe not.
Part 1 Bewitched
Alan did not want to be considered ungracious but he was now extremely irritated with his Japanese hosts. He had been in Thailand for a week and all he had seen was the inside of the factory and the agreeable but unexciting restaurant in his hotel. They hadn’t even taken him to a karaoke bar. He had spent his 42nd birthday twiddling his thumbs in his room in a small hotel in the Chonburi countryside. He was desperately in need of some distraction if not a little bit of harmless mischief. At least tonight Takashi had bought him to Pattaya even if it was only to another quaint restaurant.
He had known Takashi for some time but had only met Makota, the very serious plant director and his surly young assistant Osamu this week. They were extremely difficult to socialise with, a behaviour which could be attributed to a natural Japanese inscrutability. Naturally cheerless was probably more apt, he thought. The business with them was not going well. All week in his dealings with them he had been decidedly uncomfortable and felt he was being metaphorically shafted. He had a constant vision of being lashed to the conference table with his belt roughly undone and being reamed by a swarthy sumo wrestler with a faraway look in his eyes. On his return to the UK Alan resolved to quietly ask his psychiatrist pal about these odd thoughts.
The restaurant was opposite the mighty Marriott hotel and had a very pleasant ambiance. The food was good the service was competent and he had enjoyed the entertainment of traditional Thai dancing and music the resident troupe provided. However as he listened to Osama recite the glorious history of the Hirota corporation and the productivity record of the plant for the umpteenth time his attention had begun to drift. His eyes settled on the small group at the adjacent table.
It was clearly a family party. At the centre sat a rather imposing western man in his 60s. He was tall with a short cropped haircut and his similarity to the actor Ed Harris fascinated Alan. His whole bearing and deportment suggested a US military background. Next to him sat a Thai man a little younger and somewhat shorter but with the same rugged military air.
Opposite them sat two expensively dressed Thai women who Alan guessed were sisters and of a similar age to himself. They had undoubtedly been exceptionally beautiful women in their youth but the effects of gravity and evident indulgence had diminished their previous splendour. The strange piled up beehive hairstyles reminiscent of 1950s also gave them a daunting if not scary appearance. At the far end of the table sat a very small and ancient Thai lady. At her side was a sweet young teenage girl dancing attendance on her every whim.
But his attention was now exclusively taken with the vision of loveliness moving around the table taking photographs of the party. She was quite animated in getting everyone to pose whilst the big American smiled indulgently at her. She had a childlike quality but was probably in her mid 20s, slim and at 5’5 a little taller than the average Thai girl. Simply dressed in a white V necked shirt and a split floral skirt that although modest could not disguise a pair of slender shapely legs. A slim line bob haircut framed her face which although would not be described as beautiful was undoubtedly pretty. The word “elfin” came to Alan’s mind. Her features were somewhere between western and Asian, Eurasian was as apt a description as any. Alan noticed that she had also attracted the attention of Osamu who had for the moment ceased his customary sermon.
The object of their attention then approached their table and handing her camera to Makota asked “sumimasen… isshani shashino tottemo ii desu ka” which even Alan’s rudimentary Japanese recognised as “excuse me could you take our photograph please? Makota got to his feet with an agility which belied his age and began arranging the family with the panache of a professional photographer. Once satisfied he had taken sufficient shots he handed the camera back to the young sweetheart.
The American military looking gentleman stood up and with a sonorous “arigatou gozamashu” bowed to Makota with a slow graceful motion. Makota was surprised and delighted to hear the formal thank you in his own language and proceeded to jabber away in it to the American. When the American replied in what to Alan was very fluent Japanese Makota seemed beside himself with pleasure. Makota spread his arm with an expansive gesture indicating that he would be honoured if the American and his family would join us.
With great ceremony tables were pushed together and chairs reorganised. With immense charm Makota took the arm of the ancient Thai lady and settled her into the seat next to him in a huge display of chivalry. Alan noticed during the activity Osamu had managed to manipulate the seating so the young beauty was next to him. Makota was now deep in conversation with his new American friend.
Alan found himself seated next to the Thai man. Eager to show that the money he had spent on his Lingaphone tape was not wasted Alan introduced himself in his best Thai. “Sawadti Kap, pom tu Alan ….yin de ti chi ruecha Kap” (Hello my name is Alan …I am pleased to meet you). The Thai man gave a huge smile and in an almost perfect and accent less English replied “ It is nice to meet you Alan but as my English is probably a little bit better than your Thai it may be best that we speak in English…. but I do appreciate your gesture”. Alan’s new companion extended his hand and continued “My Thai name is long and unpronounceable so call me Joe” Alan took the hand and shook it warmly.
With the new seating arrangements they found they were sitting a little remote from the rest of the party. Joe pointed in the direction of the party and explained to Alan. “The two pampered queens are my wife Khae and her sister Kanita, the young girl acting as handmaiden to the old crone is my daughter Kwan”. Warming to a theme he continued” the big ugly farang is Edward my brother in law and the lovely young woman you couldn’t keep your eyes off is Kulap (or Rose as she likes to be known). She is his daughter and my niece”.
Joe took a sip from his beer then said “She is Luk Krueng (half Thai half farang), very bright and speaks three languages”. He gave me a grin and continued “She is unmarried and available. She has no idea what she wants to do with her life but her mother wants to see her married off to a nice farang man. He stopped for a moment and with a smile continued “With that information you now have a definite advantage over your young Japanese colleague”.
Alan smiled and felt immediate warmth for his new companion who turned and asked. “So what is an obviously bewildered English gentleman doing in Thailand and what brings you with these sons of yippon?” Alan took a deep breath and explained the nature of his business and his current frustrations in the dealings with his Japanese colleagues. Joe was quiet for a moment as if carefully choosing his words then calmly said” The Japanese are a strange people and very difficult to deal with. All Asians can be devious but the Japanese are masters of the art”. Alan sighed as he recalled the anguish of the past few days. Joe looked at Alan and continued “if you don’t mind me saying at this moment you look a defeated man… the great Sun Tzu suggested sometimes a General has to disengage from the enemy, make a tactical withdrawal and fight again at a place of his own choosing”.
Alan smiled at his new friend’s insight and said “I take it you are a military man” it was Joes turn to be impressed and replied “Yes I have done almost 30 years in the Thai military and coming up for retirement”. He pointed at the big American and continued “that is how I know that big ugly brute there; we were both stationed at U Tapao airbase in the 70’s. I introduced him to his wife Kanita and in return he taught me English”. Joe laughed and added “I think I got the better deal and he has never forgiven me.”
A bottle of whisky had appeared on the table from which Takashi had begun pouring everyone a measure. Alan asked “Do you still live near here?” Joe replied “No when the Americans moved out of U Tapao I was transferred to a desk job in Bangkok and I have lived there ever since”. Joe continued “We are down here for the funeral of Khae’s father which we celebrated last weekend in a village outside Sriracha”. We are taking the old crone (sorry my mother in law) back to live with us. I dread it but the wife and daughter are excited about having her with us”.
“Are you staying in the village?” Alan enquired “Hell no, I couldn’t face village life anymore, we are all staying for a couple of weeks at the Marriott over there” Joe replied pointing in the general direction of the imposing edifice nearby.
At that moment the niece came over with two glasses in her hand. Alan was quietly pleased she had managed to disentangle herself from Osama’s attentions. She handed one glass to Joe and as she passed the other to Alan gave him a shy smile. Alan felt himself blush from his toes to the roots of his sandy red hair. She planted a kiss on her uncle’s cheek and sat herself on his lap. This afforded Alan another view of her delicious legs and he blushed again. She turned to Alan and in a voice as sweet as honey asked “I hope uncle is not boring you with his stories of intrigue and espionage”. She flashed him the most beguiling of smiles at that moment Alan knew he was lost, she had captured him. She rose from her uncle’s lap and returned to sit beside her father and Makota. As he watched her engage Makota in conversation in what seemed fluent Japanese the germ of idea came to him. Little did he realise that idea would change his life.
The party finally broke up; the elderly lady was tired and needed her bed. Effusive goodbyes, thanks and handshakes were exchanged as the family party made their way back to their hotel.
On the drive back to Chonburi Alan sat quietly in the back of the car with Makota, deep in his own thoughts. He carefully evaded Osama’s several attempts to return the conversation to the business of the factory until he finally gave up.
On their arrival at the hotel Alan got out of the vehicle, respectfully thanked Makota for his hospitality and gave him a large bow. He then turned to Osama and informed him that he was going to take the weekend off so he did not need to be collected in the morning. Alan seeing Osamu’s face flare up like thunder, ignored him, turned to his friend Takashi and said “I need to clear my head….I will see you on Monday morning”. Then with a curt goodnight he quickly left them and returned to his room. Almost as he got into his room the phone rang, knowing it was Osama he ignored it. When it rang again 10 minutes and 20 minutes later he took the receiver off the hook.
The next day was Friday and as expected Osama was knocking on his door at 0600. Alan ignored it and after 10 minutes his protagonist got bored and left. Alan checked out of the hotel mid morning. He informed the receptionist he would return on Monday Tuesday. He called for a taxi, his destination the Marriott hotel in Pattaya.
Alan had inherited a small engineering business in the industrial heartland of Britain which had been in his family for two generations. His grandfather had founded the Artemis Engineering company in the1930s and was able to cash in on the emergent aircraft industry just before World War two. The subsequent hostilities saw the company expand producing aluminium aircraft components for the war effort.
Alan’s father took over the company in the 1950s and turned the expanded resources to machining parts for the growing car industry. On graduation Alan joined the business. His Father insisted he work his way up through the company, he particularly wanted Alan to understand the foundry operation which was his pride and joy. His father was also adamant Alan augment his Engineering degree with a business qualification at some point. On his 30th birthday Alan enrolled on an MBA course which absorbed his evenings for a few years.
Alan’s younger brother Peter studied accountancy and on joining the company took responsibility for the company’s finances. This suited Alan and allowed him to concentrate on the technical side of the business.
The unfortunate and untimely death of his parents in a road traffic accident forced Alan to take up the mantle whilst he was still in his early 30s. It was somewhat a poisoned chalice as the industry had been decimated by the Thatcher years of the 80s and the company was in decline.
The only bright spot on the horizon was the influx of Japanese car manufacturers into the UK. With his newly minted MBA and full of the enthusiasm this imparted Alan identified the opportunity presented by the Japanese implants. A challenge many of his competitors shied away from. They perceived the sons of Nippon to be too capricious and difficult to deal with.
Alan had read extensively about the economic miracle that Japan had undergone since the Second World War. He had studied the works of the Japanese gurus Shingo, Ohno and Ishikawa who had initiated it. He was also familiar with the American pioneers like Deming Juran and Crosby who helped make it possible. With an evangelical zeal and boundless enthusiasm Alan introduced the practices of lean manufacturing and Just in time into his own company and adopted the philosophies of total quality and continuous improvement that underpinned them.
The workforce was initially sceptical but very quickly adapted when they saw the benefits and quickly became enthusiastic converts. The precision engineering skills developed for aerospace and the experience of low cost volume production for the car industry were successfully fused with the Japanese techniques. Alan targeted the Japanese companies that were setting up locally and began to receive orders. Alan utilised the inherent inventiveness and innovation of his workforce to specialise in the demanding (but highly lucrative) prototype and pre- production batch manufacture.
The company’s reputation for quality and service spread quickly amongst the UK Japanese business community and they soon became the supplier of choice. Within a few years they were supplying all of the Japanese car implants and the majority of their UK based Japanese subcontractors.
Investment in CAD/CAM technology maintained productivity and competitive advantage. In the next 10 years the company thrived, turnover doubled and boasted 200 employees. Alan recruited David a graduate from Cambridge University School of engineering to help him in the day to day management of the operation. David’s introduction of predictive mathematical modelling techniques added a new dimension to the company’s offering. The Japanese managers and senior engineers had come to respect Alan and his team and rely on their expertise with their product launches. Some had even begun to consider him a friend
Takashi was plant manager of Hirota Corporation’s UK operation. Hirota were one of his principle customers and Alan had known Takashi for a few years. Takashi was in his mid 40s and had lived in the UK since Hirota had established their UK plant about 5 years previously. Alan and Takashi had worked together on several projects and Takashi had introduced Alan to several other Japanese companies. Hirota had won a contract to supply the air conditioning and intercooler units for a range of Japanese vehicles that were to be manufactured in Thailand. The major Japanese car producers had identified Thailand as a low cost location to produce cars for the Asian market.
One product range Hirota were particularly successful with was Charge air coolers. They are used to cool the engine air after passing through the turbocharger before it enters the engine which aids fuel combustion. Alan had recently been involved in the development of a particular product for a low volume specialist European application. It had proved successful and now a major Japanese vehicle manufacturer had decided to incorporate it into a model to be produced in volume numbers at a plant in Thailand. Hirota (Thailand) had the contract but had placed an order with Artemis for a pre production batch of 3,000 units. This was to satisfy the initial demand for three months whilst they developed their own capacity in the Kingdom of Thailand. The project had gone well and Artemis were about to deliver the last few units to complete the contract when they received an unannounced visit by Takashi.
Alan was always pleased to welcome his friend but the impromptu nature of the visit concerned him and he suspected a problem. He was correct; Takashi informed Alan that Hirota (Thailand) was experiencing difficulties in producing the charge air cooler unit. This was a source of great embarrassment as they were already beginning to fall behind with supply to the Car manufacturer which was resulting in considerable loss of face to the Hirota Corporation. Takashi explained that Makota the director of the Hirota plant in Thailand was a personal friend and had begged him for his help. Takashi had come to Alan to warn him he may need to make a further batch of the offending units to cover immediate demand. However he had principally come to petition Alan to go to the plant in Thailand as a consultant to assist them in solving the problems. Takashi promised they would pay his airfare and his hotel bills for three weeks.
Although Alan was allegedly friends with Takashi he felt he was being taken advantage of somewhat. Alan knew the Thailand operation had given a price of $80/unit against his price of $130 so the truth was the embarrassment was as much financial as it was “face”. If they couldn’t produce and as a last resort had to procure the units from him in the UK, with a projected demand of 48,000 units a year they were looking at a potential cost increase of $2.4 million over what they had estimated.
With such high stakes Alan was surprised they hadn’t engaged a University or a team of consultants to investigate their problems. Alan knew coercing him to examine their problems would merely save them $600 a day in consultant’s fees. In Alan’s opinion such corporate parsimony beggared belief. Unfortunately Alan knew he could not refuse to help. For the sake of future business relationship with Hirota Corporation he felt honour bound to help them. Anyway, he thought, a couple of weeks in Thailand could be interesting.
To be continued