Saturday, October 25, 2014

What Are You Seeing Out There?

“What are you seeing out there?” I get this question a lot. I get it from both candidates and hiring authorities. I usually respond with a question along the lines of: “Do you mean the job market, the industry or the economy in general?” And, I usually get back “All of the above”.

So what am I seeing out there? First of all, understand that I am looking through the lens of transportation and logistics. And while it can be a pretty good indicator of overall economic activity, it is only one indicator. Secondly, the job market that I touch everyday is related to management and executive positions in the transportation, logistics and supply chain space. And that market has its own unique characteristics.

But these considerations notwithstanding, “what I am seeing” has relevance. And “what I am seeing” is a slowdown in hiring activity. It started in the summer and I thought it might be related to decision makers taking vacations and we would see things pick up in September. And we have seen a slight uptick in activity this Fall. But, it’s not enough to renew my confidence even though the number of total “job openings” across the nation has grown significantly year over year. It will be interesting to see how that growth holds up through the remainder of 2014 and into 2015. In our market, the hiring process has slowed and we are starting to see more clients “re-think” filling positions immediately. I would say that there is a growing concern about what the winter will bring and what to expect in 2015.

While freight remains strong and capacity is tight, I am starting to hear stories of downward pricing pressure in the heavy, specialized transportation segment. In my experience, this is an early indicator of an economic slowdown. Even more so, considering that overall capacity is down in that market. It will be interesting to see what happens in the flatbed and bulk sectors. To the extent those markets have benefited from the energy boom, demand there is trending down. Especially as it relates to new production. The upside is that cheaper energy will benefit other sectors of transportation and perhaps more importantly put more dollars in the consumer’s pocket. If there is one thing that may get us through the winter and 2015, it will be that cheaper energy translates to more consumer spending power.

The weakness in Europe and other foreign markets is starting to impact our economy. Of specific concern is that the manufacturing revival in the U.S. is very vulnerable to any decline in overseas demand. The political climate continues to worry and frustrate businesses while the specter of global terrorism poses a big “what if” question to every company’s strategic plan. And then there are long-term challenges related to massive government debt, a crumbling infrastructure, educating/training the next generation and figuring out how to support and care for an aging population.

Do I think the sky is falling? No. Do I think we are headed for another Great Recession? No. Do I think 2015-2016 will be up and down with more bad news than good. Yes. Will companies need exceptionally talented leaders more than ever? Yes. Will they actual hire them? Your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, October 13, 2014


As long as I can remember my dad’s side of the family has said we have “Indian blood”. Cherokee to be exact, from East Tennessee. My great-great grandfather was supposedly half-Cherokee. I have an old photo of his son, my great-grandfather, and I suppose he looks sort of Indian-ish. My grandfather and his siblings all tended to be sort of dark, with high cheek bones and a thirst for "fire water". My dad was the same. We tend to “hold our age” pretty well and “heal up fast” from wounds and injuries. So it all made sense. We had Indian blood.

Several years ago I started doing some digging and traced the Clicks back to SW Germany. The actual surname is Gluck and got changed to Click when they got to America. The first one arrived in the late 1700’s and the migration began through the Appalachians and eventually to Texas. Good stuff and I have filled in most of the Click family tree. Never could figure out exactly when the Indian got into “the woodpile”, but it was likely sometime in the early 1800’s.

A few years ago I thought about getting a DNA test just to confirm the Native American ancestry. But I figured, why waste the money? I’m German, Irish, English and Native American on my dad’s side; English, Irish and Scottish on my mother’s. A classic American mutt. But, I kept getting these emails and special deals from about DNA tests. Their persistent marketing along with my curiosity finally drove me to invest in a basic DNA profile test. It’s nothing elaborate. They mail you a tube, you spit in it, shake it up to activate the chemical preservative and mail it back to them. In a couple of weeks they email you a report outlining your most likely ancestral origins. For a lot more money, they can provide further testing and drill down even deeper into your DNA. But I figured the “basic” profile would be enough.

Much to my surprise, there was no Indian in the woodpile or in the cupboard or anywhere else. And, apparently after old Ludwig Heinrich Gluck landed in America and became Lewis Henry Click, there weren’t many more Germans added to the woodpile either. I’m only 10% “Western European”. Turns out that my DNA origins are as follows: 30% Great Britain, 24% Ireland, 20% Scandinavian, 12% Iberian, 10% Western Europe, 3% Western Asia, 1% Eastern Europe.

I had never heard anything about Scandinavian ancestors, but as it turns out the Vikings spread their seed liberally throughout the British Isles, especially in what became Scotland and Ireland. So I’m guessing that is where the big dose of Scandinavian DNA got added to the recipe. The Iberian is most likely Spanish or Portuguese. Those guys explored the world and obviously plugged into the family tree somewhere along the way.

Now I am even more curious about my roots. I also need to come up with a different narrative since I’m not part Indian. You know I think I like the Viking and Conquistador options better. Or maybe my great-great-great-great granddaddy was a pirate. That would be pretty cool. And it explains so much about my family.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

To Err Is Human…. And You Still Can’t Fix Stupid

Way back in 1999 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued its landmark report on medical errors, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. The report's finding that as many as 98,000 people die each year due to medical errors ignited professional and public dialogue. Some changes were made in response to this report. Most notably when you have surgery everyone, I mean EVERYONE, ask you who you are and what body part is having surgery. “X” marks the spot and for the most part they cut and dig in the right places these days.

Last week a man from Ebola-ravaged Liberia was taken to the emergency room at Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. This man had all of the symptoms associated with Ebola and had just arrived from West Africa. Whoever admitted this gentleman had this information but somehow failed to communicate it to the medical team. Even still, one would think that reasonably intelligent doctors and nurses would recognize that this black man might not be from around here and perhaps they should double check his recent travel history given the symptoms. He did not have an African sounding name, so perhaps that led the medical team to think he was a local. And he was probably too ill to speak for himself. But somewhere along this chain of events, at least one person knew exactly where he had been and several should have suspected. Nonetheless, he was given some totally useless antibiotics and sent away. Several days later he was brought back, even sicker, after having exposed dozens of people to the Ebola virus. We are still waiting to find out if any of those individuals are actually infected.

The healthcare industry is not unlike other industries. The stakes are higher and more precautions are taken. And we pay a premium for the level of quality and safety we do receive from our healthcare system. But, they still make mistakes, do the wrong thing or fail to do the right thing. Just like other industries. We talk a lot about quality and in many ways products are better than they used to be. Design, engineering and manufacturing processes are, for the most part, very good. When there are bugs or glitches they get fixed. But when quality depends on a significant level of human involvement at the point of delivery…watch out.

If you pay attention, you’ll find that you seldom get a “perfect order” if the content of direct human input is very high. Most of the time it’s good enough and we don’t complain. So companies still feel OK about their service. At least until their customers quit buying. Honestly, I am surprised when anyone actually “gets it right”. I don’t know if service is getting worse, but it’s definitely not getting better. And furthermore, no one really notices or cares very much. In fact, it has sort of become an excuse for all of us doing a half-assed job at whatever it is we do.

We talk a lot about better, faster, cheaper…but the real order of priority is cheaper, faster and better. And better really means “perceived better” than the competition. So we consumers make trade-offs between price (cheaper), convenience (faster) and quality (better); and businesses respond accordingly. A lot of the time, the order you pick up at the drive-thru window is wrong, so you learn to check it. You know that the “sack boy” is clueless and/or doesn’t care so you watch how he bags your groceries. You buy warranties and keep your expectations low. If your computer runs slow it’s probably your own fault and if you can’t sleep at night it’s because that “number mattress” didn’t come in half-sizes or you should have bought the better (more expensive) pillows. And once in awhile, a person infected with a deadly virus walks out of a hospital emergency room.