Letter 3/05/09

March 3, 2009
An interesting editorial (“The Upside of Negative Thinking,” Jan. 8)

Up with negativity
Leland Teschler’s editorial on the upside of negative thinking (Jan. 8) clicked with many of our readers. They sent in other examples and comments decrying the practice of killing the messengers of much-needed critical thinking. They also made some pretty good guesses for the previous “Name that Gadget.”

Negativity doesn’t pay
An interesting editorial (“The Upside of Negative Thinking,” Jan. 8). But your final conclusion, that we may need a few more negative thinkers in top management, is not the solution identified by Elmer Johnson (a GM executive who warned about a failure to encourage open and honest discussion within the company). As you relate, rather than “negative thinking,” he seemed to suggest that an environment which encouraged open and honest discussion rather than one in which fear thwarted negative news delivery is what is really needed in top management. This is far different than negative thinking.

Ron Hansen

As a person who deals with laws and regulations, I am often the “negative thinker” who is seen as not being a positivist or possibility thinker. Too many business plans get made that discount such “negativism.” But when the warnings come true, leaders often blame the negative thinker or realist for not getting their job done. As the old saying goes: “Search for the guilty and praise and honor for nonparticipants.” For the last decade, consultants have told us there are no problems, only opportunities. I believe it was Lee Iacocca who contradicted this when he wisely said, “I know when I have a problem and I know when I have an opportunity.”

It seems in today’s world that having a plethora of opportunities may mean you are on the short road to bankruptcy. We need, as businesses, to get past “positive speak” and address problems.

From the Web

This editorial is on the money. And I have a theory as to the root cause, namely the “self-esteem building” that has become a core element in education (especially government-run schools). In my experience, you get self-esteem by building and accomplishing things, and even then you want to be sure to temper your thinking by reflecting on what could be done better next time, not just what went well.

Wes Prais

I prefer the term “pragmatic” to “negative thinking.” But I absolutely agree that many businesses would benefit from more, rather than less of it. Critical thinking is essential to creating, implementing, and assessing any business plan.

The question then becomes: How to encourage businesses to think more critically, and then pursue more pragmatic, workable solutions? If messengers of such thinking are routinely (figuratively) shot on sight, there are not going to be many volunteers.

When GM bought EDS, Ross Perot came with the deal. They ended up buying him off for $750 million so they wouldn’t have to listen to him say that they were heading toward disaster.

From the Web

A certain famous motorcycle was being sent overseas for a race at a particularly demanding road circuit. Our chief engineer said the machine was built too lightly for the pounding it would take during the race. He was told not to be so negative. The bike was sent to the race, it crashed, and the rider was killed. Another tragic case of management not wanting to hear the truth.

Jacob Saunders

The editorial emphasizes the importance of proper analysis and reporting on projects or situations. The example about the CEO not being a “numbers guy” is all too true. Often the CEO is someone who talks a good story and thinks quickly on their feet. But the problems start when a CEO begins believing he is right by virtue of his position.

Engineers working for a company are paid to use their analytical capability to find how things will work and tell their superiors the facts of the situation. On occasion, that may cost the worker a raise or even a job (been there, done that, not fun).

This is not a new situation. Take for example the children’s story about the King’s new clothes.

Mike Clark

Projects gone bad
Back before anyone had heard of Six Sigma quality, my company was using an outside contractor on a custom RF module in the communication systems we sold. The project was wildly late. Then when the modules finally arrived, the sales person on the project campaigned to have us just install them and ship the job without testing anything. He even made a stink about the “delay for needless testing” to upper management. Fortunately my boss had enough clout to stop this freight train.

Be the first to identify this device from a past issue of Machine Design and win a fabulous prize, along with the honor of seeing your name in an upcoming issue. E-mail entries to [email protected] and put “Gadget” in the subject line.

Several readers came close to identifying this device from 1970. But the winning entry came from Kevin Fairchild. The gadget is a heating-serving tray proposed by Whirlpool for Skylab astronauts. It has built-in compartments for food containers and four switches that activate heating elements to keep food at its serving temperature. The control in the upper right-hand corner is an automatic timer.

You can almost guess the rest. When we checked the modules, they were all as dead as doornails, at least at room temperature. But strangely enough, they worked fine at the high and low-temperature spec, where the contractor had obviously tested them. But they would poop out once they emerged from a deep freeze and sputter back to life as they got good and hot.

My recollection is that the sales guy tried to avoid both my boss and me from that day forward.

Glen H.

Gadget guesses
Is it a magnetic tray that can be used in space to hold down items such as cutlery and plates?

Ryan Burgard

The gadget is an early meal warmer from the airline industry.

John C. Anderson

A temperature-controlled hospital food tray?

Andy Wallis

It looks like an ultrasonic sanitizer for medical or lab equipment.

Kim M. Dunneback

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