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When Being A Speed Demon Is -- And Is Not -- The Answer

Is anyone in Detroit reading BusinessWeek -- especially your Mar. 27 issue ("Speed Demons," Cover Story)? The mentality of General Motors Corp. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F), especially, is set in the 1950s and 1960s. Their answer to losing money is firing thousands and thousands of workers. Their response to losing market share is to ignore the signals to produce what consumers want and instead bribe them with discounts.

If speed-to-market is an answer to retaining and building market share, why hasn't the management of the automobile industry read the handwriting on the balance sheets? They have had enough time to remake their offerings.

Garrett U. Cohn

Baileys Harbor, Wis.

I would add another best practice idea to your playbook list: the art of listening. Most organizations have a direct connection with their customers through every employee who touches a customer. From the sales department to shipping and receiving, information on how to deliver new value through "speed" innovations abounds. Management's challenge is to constantly ask employees how to make things faster and better. John Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) was known to do this before passing out ice cream to his rank-and-file workers.

When corporations develop systems to pause and listen, they will be able to speed things up in the areas of greatest importance to their customers.

Arnold Ng

Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Re "Hesitation at homeland security" (News: Analysis & Commentary, Mar. 27): While an officer in the Air Force, I helped test various aircraft self-protection systems (including the Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) system on cargo aircraft mentioned in your article) and ground-based missile interceptors. Military aircraft need an onboard protection system for shoulder-fired missiles because they are likely to fly into many different airfields for a variety of missions during their lifetimes. Commercial aircraft always fly from one passenger airport to another on a predictable schedule. A ground-based system at high-visibility airfields (e.g. New York, Washington, Los Angeles, etc.) would protect all aircraft, could be made redundant, would have no weight, size, and power restrictions, and would have no deleterious impact on aircraft performance and maintenance. Moreover, there are far fewer runways than there are aircraft, so the overall cost of a robust system is likely to be lower. All aircraft are protected, including the very small and those coming from outside the U.S.

I do not doubt the ability of onboard systems to protect aircraft. However, I do doubt the business case for already struggling airlines -- especially when one thinks about putting a $1 million system on a $20 million regional jet. Off-the-shelf systems have their places and uses, but we should not forget that off-the-shelf will not always mean cheaper and better.

Alex Johnson

Former Captain, USAF

Ithaca, N.Y.

Re "Newspaper guy bets big" (Media Centric, Mar. 27): Gary B. Pruitt's $4.5 billion gamble on newspapers is preposterous. Pruitt may be the best in the newspaper business, but that won't compete with the speed of the development of online newspapers. More and more people are modifying their home pages through services such as Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) and MSN (MSFT) to receive the information they want quickly, efficiently, and for free. If Pruitt can save the American newspaper, it will be the biggest thing since William Randolph Hearst.

Thomas Callaway

San Diego

Re "How rising wages are changing the game in China," News: Analysis & Commentary, Mar. 27): Rising wages of local Chinese workers and middle-level managers is far less problematic for multinational companies than operational waste and unfairness. My grandfather helped a Swedish pharmaceutical to build its first joint venture in my city. After 20 years that company is still enjoying its contractual privilege. Management lives lavishly, especially expatriate workers. This remains quite prevalent, and I believe multinationals have large room for cost reductions.

Meanwhile, huge salary gaps generally exist in multinational companies between local workers and expats. Even Chinese on H1B visa work status can earn much more than fellow Chinese colleagues in the same job. Since most consumer products are quite affordable in China, "global pay" is actually a bonus rather than a way of maintaining the home-country living standard. We will reach a new equilibrium in the labor market when large numbers of overseas students (like us) go back, and when government reforms in education (like encouraging creativity rather than memorization) take effect.

Shengxin Xiao

Salem, Ore.

What is wrong with this picture: Because wages for Chinese factory workers have "surged" to $160 a month (45 cents an hour for a 12-hour, 7-day week), labor shortages have "pinched" profit margins and are setting off inflation "alarm bells" in the U.S. Are we so blinded by our own wealth that we begrudge a bare rise in the standard of living for poor, exploited people? Will global manufacturing's next "hot spot" be East Africa, where workers can be paid in cups of corn?

Bill Tilden

Oakland, Calif.

You say, "Imports from China aren't pricier -- yet." How about, "Imports from China are pricier -- already"? Anybody who imports products from China knows that prices have gone up substantially over the past year for products that contain metal and various other materials.

Dan Rothman

Fountain Valley, Calif.

In "These chemicals are so deadly" (Science & Technology, Mar. 20), your "solutions" to securing the transportation of hazardous products throughout our nation come with unintended consequences. For example, although shipments may be rerouted when the federal government identifies heightened security threats, rerouting merely shifts those risks to other places. The Justice Dept., Homeland Security Dept., and Transportation Dept. all have agreed that local control of rerouting is not the answer. America needs a national solution to protect against terrorist attacks on the transportation of essential chemical products, rather than a patchwork of state and local quick fixes and knee-jerk reactions.

To ensure the timely delivery of essential products, America's chemical makers have been working with the railroads and federal security experts to improve shipping and inspection procedures, increase training and tighten screening for employees, enhance surveillance along rail lines, conduct security audits, improve emergency response capabilities, and create tamper-resistant shipping technologies, among other steps.

Jack N. Gerard

President & CEO

American Chemistry Council

Arlington, Va.

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