Words from the Oracle: STAY HUNGRY - Understanding the Wisdom of Professor Justin Lin


2011-12-01
Report by Greg Niederhaus When we walked into Chaoyang University of Technology to interview Professor Justin Lin, we expected it to go down in English because he had spent eight years in the USA studying. Unfortunately for the writer of this article, Professor Lin has a mischievous streak and he answered all of the questions in Mandarin Chinese. He was pressed for time which sped up his delivery, and though his wisdom is clearly vast, there are a few things that could be taken a few different ways. Dealing with this master of riddles, it was kind of like conversing with an oracle. Chaoyang is the institution where Professor Justin Lin is guiding the first group of second generation woodworking machinery industry students to earn their masters degree in that very subject. Each was born into a family that manufactures woodworking machinery. As the world is aware, Taiwan built up its technical ability in this sector over the past decades to where it ranked third in the world for export volume, just behind Germany and Italy. That is, until China stepped in to snag the rank, largely due to Taiwanese factories opening up there and of course, reverse engineering. Yet that does not take away from what Taiwan has to deliver in terms of quality, reliability, pricing and service. What it does do, is to increase pressure on the upcoming generation of industrialists in this sector to regain the rank their fathers had achieved. When asked of his thoughts and concerns for these students as they prepare to graduate, Lin had quite a bit to explain. "One kind of rice can feed a Hundred types of people." Practically the first thing he said generated a bit of a mystery. Could it mean that one variation of a machine can meet the needs of the masses? Could it mean that machines should be designed so that any given machine can be applied to any number of industries? He said, “I often tell my students that the process of establishing your thought patterns is just as important as observing what reasoning and abilities you will need to adapt to the future. People often fall into different traps during the process. One is accepting the reality that others have set up as their own, even if deep down their own judgment sees things differently. Another is believing so strongly in one's own convictions that many essential factors get neglected.” It seems that what he said about the rice was a facetious way of saying that he is trying his best to rid some students of complacency, and get them hot on the track of innovation. "My hair is already being washed, so what's the big deal?" This was another of Justin's brain twisters that went something like that. He said that some of his students like to say this phrase. There is often an atmosphere of banter between him and the pupils. The attitude expressed by this saying is one of complacency, he explained. Many students who grew up around machine factories think that since the machinery has already been designed and in production for years, that they can simply ride on those coat tails through the future. They believe that all they have to do is keep operations going as they have been, and that's it. What they don't see are the way the playing field is evolving and what their competitors are up to. “ I tell them to wipe the bubbles away from their eyes and take a good look at how to keep their heads above water in the future!” "The Ludicrous Conceit of the King of Yelang" This professor certainly likes his riddles. Some of the students in the master's program are delving into the domain of technology, while others are focusing on tactical planning for industry development. No matter what their particular focus may be, establishing the right mindset is Lin's core objective for his students. Parochial arrogance is the theme behind the king's fable. He tries to show his students that whether it be at an individual level or within an organization, as soon as one lets arrogance dominate their self view, they embark on the path to destruction. “A lot can be learned from our ancestors who taught humility and open-mindedness,” says Lin. “Think of vast amount of benefits you stand to gain if only you are open to them, versus the same amount of loss if your mind is closed.” He explained that foreign influence is a great source of fuel for fast growth, and all one has to do is look at Taiwan's brief history to see how it evolved into a major global player so quickly. “When the students start to grasp this concept, it's time to start with the ideas of innovation and clustering.” "Drifting Along with the Tide" Four decades back when Taiwan was just getting into industry, it was a completely different world. Everyone was running around in bamboo carts with rags on their backs; they were diligent, hard working, thrifty and intent on improving their country. These are the blocks on which the “Economic Miracle” of Taiwan was built. They were a different breed of people. It didn't take long for social economic development to see widespread affluence and material wealth. Conversely, many of those born into a world of plenty seem to think that they were born equipped to deal with the future. Much of the young generation today is unable to bare hardship, which means they are ill-equipped to deal with changes challenging the industry. At this point it is appropriate to explore the relationship between what is inherited versus what is innovated, and the S-curve as it relates to the depletion of an innovation's efficacy in demographics and economics. To put it more simply, a surfer can catch a wave that is powerful and ride it as long as it takes to hit the beach. If a beach never comes, more surfers catch the same wave and the ride continues on, how long will it continue to carry them as the load increases, before it loses its momentum? “When the students start to grasp this idea,” says Lin, “it's time to drive home the virtues of concentration, learning, emulation and unification. These virtues are indispensible for future growth. It is also a good time to explore how technology and management relate to the growth of enterprise.” "Patents and Innovation Bring Zero" When the professor made this declaration, we were baffled once more. Isn't everyone these days swearing sideways that innovation and patents are key? We had to take a step back and ask him to clarify. Laughing he said at a higher volume, in English, “Your profit! Your revenue! You will see an extra zero at the end of the figure!” As an example he recounted the story of a friend in the industry who used to produce OEM. That sector is furiously competitive so when he invented a unique industrial computer connector, he saw an opportunity to jump to a new level. He patented the product and approached foreign buyers. “Without the patent,” his friend told him, “the agents won't have the confidence to distribute the product. If someone copies it and gets a patent they can turn around and file a lawsuit.” Since the buyer had confidence to move forward with sales, revenue generated from the connector increased exponentially. Why do we need to innovate? China is the biggest competitor. As they improve, can we just keep producing as we used to? Some students think that innovation and even patents are not important. They don't see that lawsuits are occurring more and more, especially in Taiwan. How do we make breakthroughs in R & D as well as management? As far as management is concerned, the three main things to focus on are Q , C & D (Quality, Costs and Delivery). Enterprises must consistently find ways to present clients with better quality while lowering costs and ensuring prompt delivery. If the management skills are strong, the level of competitiveness will be strong and that's when the company can start counting the zeros. "What is a Bee without its Swarm?" He referred to a couple of books on his curriculum by Harvord Professor Henry Chesbrough called Open Innovation and Open Business Model. This is where students realize that closed mindedness leads to limitation, that it is important to streamline supply chains and what the power of cooperation can bring about. Looking at EUMABOIS call for European woodworking manufacturers to come together in the form of clusters, HOMAG is a good example. It is the integration of many companies under a single banner, and any machine on any woodworking production line is available through them. If you want to set up a production line, HOMAG handles it. When any one of the machines on the line needs servicing, HOMAG handles it. Integration leads to quicker consultation, faster set up time, efficient production and fast, reliable service. According to Professor Lin, Taiwan would stand to benefit if its woodworking machine manufacturers come together. "Heeding the Sheep Herder" With over 200 companies in Taiwan producing woodworking machines, competition can get chaotic. This can actually squelch growth on the national scale. Professor Lin believes that the single most important thing that can spur the quickest industrial growth is to heed calls from TWMA to establish the W-TEAM. The government is already willing to subsidize half of the project. This is basically a research center for the woodworking machinery industry, where expertise from various companies and institutions come together to develop new technology for common use. The other half of the funding comes from companies who are willing to invest in the form of money and technology. Some companies may ask the question, “What is there to gain by sharing our technology with our competitors?” The idea is that as TWMA sees areas for technical improvement it will propose projects and basically ask the question: “We see big potential for this particular functionality in next year's machinery. If we work together we can produce it fast enough. Who wants to be able to offer this function next year?” The companies that contribute get to use the technology, and the others will have to pay a premium for it once they see the value. In the national perspective, this will help streamline the industry as contributing companies start to lead the industry while others may dwindle out of the picture. And from the global buyers' point of view, they'll have even more confidence knowing that certain technologies are the products of a collective organization. "I am the Biggest Frog in the Well" I decided to take a risk and play Justin's game. He was talking about the diligence of students who ask, “Why is Japan's technology better? Why is China growing so quick? How can I learn enough to contend with them?” Then he mentioned the odd student who believes that his father's technology is already the best. “Do you mean to say, 'Jing Di Zhi Wa?'” I asked. “Exactly!” he exclaimed. “A frog in the bottom of a well might be the biggest one in that particular well. But there are a lot of wells out there the frog cannot see.” Not taking things for granted, facing the truth, cooperation, curiosity and creativity are further virtues he encourages in his students. Gaining hands-on experience from the woodworker's perspective is another thing he encourages. Coming together will empower Taiwan's suppliers to offer customizing capabilities for fast results in changing needs for new functionality. Clustering, tight supply chains, Q , C & D, humility, and staying hungry will keep Taiwan's suppliers world class. Viewing the woodworking machine industry as a pyramid, the top is occupied by Germany and Italy. China is at the bottom. Taiwan is in the middle. Lin's question to his students is simple: “Which part of the market do you want to cater to, the lower end of China or a higher end than your own?” In closing he emphasized the need to design functionality that surpasses the customers' needs. Looking to APPLE as an example, Lin asked, “Why not surprise the customer with functionality they never even knew they needed?”
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