Thursday, October 29, 2009

An amazing customer service experience

Since I often grumble about customer service, when traveling, I want to share an amazing positive experience.

As is my practice, I arrived early at the Madison, Wisconsin Airport and, after an intense two days of travel, conference-going and an 8:30 AM panel, I decided on a leisurely lunch. I chose a sit down restaurant, at a nice looking establishment called ‘The Great Dane’ ordered a Reuben sandwich and a beer, which I consumed slowly, answered emails on my iPhone and made calendar notations on my computer. All was well with the world. As my flight time approached I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, left her a generous tip, packed up my portable technologies and departed - leaving my winter jacket, with a recently purchased pair of Gortex gloves in the pocket, hanging on the back of the chair. This, I realized only as I crowded into the pack of a ‘regional jet’ five minutes before departure. There was no hope of retrieving the garment.

How could this happen? When traveling, I have a regimen of checking to forestall absentmindedness. My ‘travel vest’ has designated pockets for iPhone, passport, wallet, glasses, iPod, and plane tickets. When I departed the restaurant for my flight, all were in place. But for the past six weeks, I had been traveling mostly in Asia and a winter jacket simply was not part of my travel habit pattern. In the plane, I took a few moments to accept my fate and possible beneficial lessons I would glean from the experience. In January, I will be traveling from Iceland to Brussels to Singapore and It will be important to not to leave my winter clothing behind.

But wait....I had a credit card slip that included the telephone number of the restaurant. When I called from Detroit, a most pleasant member of the wait-staff said that yes, they had found my jacket and it was safe in the managers office. It would be waiting for me when I returned to Madison, except that, I explained, that would not be until next year’s South Asia Conference. She had no guidelines for this, but said her manager would call me on Monday. On Monday afternoon, he did. Much to my surprise and delight he said he would be happy to mail me my jacket. I have not doubt that in his rebirth he will attain Nirvana or be well on the road.

Should you be passing through the Madison Airport or other airports, please patronize the Great Dane Restaurant. The food is good, the beer is great and the customer service is other-worldly.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A quotation from Vaclav Havel on dangers of seeking to create democracy, with haste

I realize with fright that my impatience for the re-establishment of democracy had something almost communist in it; or more generally, something rationalist. I had wanted to make history move ahead in the same way that a child pulls on a plant to make it grow more quickly.

I believe we must learn to wait as we learn to create. We have to patiently sow the seeds, assiduously water the earth where they were sown and give the plants the time that is their own. One cannot fool a plant any more than one can fool history.

The quotation is from a speech given to the Institute of France and quoted in the 13 November 1992 International Herald Tribune. Donella Meadows used in her book Thinking in Systems (2008) to illustrate the importance of taking the presence of delays in complex systems seriously when attempting to play the role of change agent.

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Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere: A book that every AU student - and every American - should read.

I have just finished reading one of those special books that provides a new lens through which to view the world and crystalizes thoughts previously held, but not crisply structured. It is intended for general readers and refreshingly devoid of international-relations academic jargon. Its author, a long-serving Singapore diplomat is founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Regular Dormgrandpop readers will know that my recent international travels included a two week stay in Singapore and that Singapore will be my home for this coming Spring semester of my Sabbatical year.

The New Asian Hemisphere is subtitled, ‘The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.‘ Chapters address the ‘rise’ of Asian nations (especially China, India and many ASEAN members), the relative decline of “Western” dominance and the the degree to which hypocritical, self-serving and ineffectual Western policies have alienated many of the 88 per-cent of the World’s population who do not identify themselves with ‘the West.‘ In a concluding chapter, Mahbubani calls for a new practice of global leadership, based on ‘principles, partnership and pragmatism.’

Perhaps I found The New Asian Hemisphere particularly engaging because the author’s no-punches pulled-critique of ‘The West” and “Western pundits” highlights observations I have reached independently and in some instances written about in my blog and elsewhere. He characterizes the invasion of Iraq as ‘a seismic error, one of the greatest acts of folly of our age.’ He scores the hypocrisy of agricultural subsidy programs, disadvantaging global south producers, that are ten times greater than often ineffectual foreign assistance programs intended to assist them. His critique of US opposition to regulatory regimes intended to mitigate global warming reminds us that when addressing problems arising in the ‘global commons,’ “it is natural to expect the wealthier members of the global community to take greater responsibility. Those of us who pioneered the field of “Global Modeling” have been arguing this position, often to deaf ears, for more than 30 years. He notes that widely documented hostility of many Muslims toward America should not be surprising, since America seems to have a double standard, vis a vis the Muslim world, when it comes to promoting democracy, controlling nuclear proliferation, human rights and the value of life itself.

Yet despite the critical tone of some chapters, I found the New Asia Hemisphere’s message to be empowering and hopeful, not only for people living in Asia but for those living in the West. The future world Mahbubani envisions is rich, diverse, multipolar and resilient. The development trajectory leading to that world is one that should be embraced, not feared by the West. He ‘writes, “The end result of the powerful processes of de-Westernization should, therefore, be the world moving toward a positive destination in which many rich ancient civilizations are reborn, adding to the cultural wealth of the world and unleashing new instincts of cultural tolerance and understanding. The unpeeling of the layers of Western influence from around the globe could well lead us to a happier universe where we will have, for the first time in human history, several different civilizations at the same time, with simultaneous explosions of knowledge and wisdom. All this could lift the human condition to a higher level than experienced in any previous century.”

This is an important book for Americans to read, and especially for students at American University. You should buy it (or take it from the library) read it, discuss it and ponder its message.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another hubris lesson - this one having to do with laundry

Melatonin not withstanding, I woke up at 3:30 this morning could not get back to sleep. The time difference between Singapore and Washington DC is 12 hours. After 45 minutes of meditation I removed a large load of laundry from the dryer, planning to fold it before I started the day’s tasks. I was very proud of the fact that, despite fatigue on Monday night, I had put my white laundry in the washer and, then, yesterday morning, loaded it in the dryer. Focus and efficiency! Except that... I noticed some curious black spots on my favorite white cotton Khurtas. I had left a pen in pocket of one and all were stained. My morning agenda changed. I spent the next hour our so scrubbing out stain spots with a clorox detergent mixture and then removing stain marks from the inside of the dryer. These were not the tasks I had planed for my wide awake early morning hours.

There is a useful lesson in this about smugness, hubris and not putting a large load of unsorted laundry in the washer when one is exhausted from and international trip. Hopefully I will remember on my next return from overseas.

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If you want to realize your hopes and dreams...

Lee Kuan Yew, who was independent Singapore’s first Prime Minister and served for many years is regarded by many as a key architect of Singapore’s ‘success story.‘ A new colleague at the Lee Kuan Yew School told me, ‘the greatest development challenge is to find leaders of Lee Kuan Yew’s caliber.' Lee is also a controversial figure, viewed by some as an autocrat whose authoritarian ways have limited democracy in Singapore. I number myself among Lee’s admirers, and this was true long before joining the staff of the school that bears his name was even an idea.

Each morning during my Singapore stay, I walked through the beautiful entrance hall of the Lee Kuan Yew School and passed by a large picture with one of Lee’s aphorisms inscribed. I have noticed it in several other settings around the school as well. Along with Lee’s picture (he still serves in the cabinet as “Minister Mentor) I now have it posted in my kitchen. The aphorism is this:



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Is air travel worth it?

I’m nearing journey’s end. Perhaps this is not the ideal time to ask such a question, after nearly thirty hours of flying and layover, with more to come. I am sitting at Heathrow Terminal 1, surrounded by the somewhat sterile, commercial wasteland that airports have become. The scene is much like a very upscale hawkers stand. In front of me there is ‘World of Watches,’ ‘Hugo Boss,’ ‘Bally’ another ‘Hugo Boss,’ ‘Ted Baker,’ ‘Smith Books...’ and much much more, People walk by, looking tired and purposeful, mostly oblivious to the commercial blandishments spread before therm. A middle aged woman offers shopping brochures to passers by. Mostly, they ignore her or turn away. A man speaks on his cell phone... loudly... as if he were sitting in this office. His negotiating the sales of some product. Since I am less that a yard from where he is conferring, I make eye contact. He looks away and continues his conversation. A tired mother calls plaintively to her 3 year old son who is wandering away. He does not respond. Finally, she picks up her backpack, hand luggage and baby to chase after him. Nobody seems to be having much fun. Flying and airport waiting times are mostly something to be endured, with the hope that what lies at journey’s end will make it all worthwhile.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good bye to Singapore - for now, but with challenging future prospects

.My two weeks’ in Singapore passed all too quickly, but confirmed my belief, based on previous experience, that a preliminary reconnaissance trip, when contemplating an extended stay, is essential. The stay was intense, which is what one wants when arriving as uninvited guest, with no previous institutional relationship. Though I had visited Singapore as a tourist, I had little knowledge of the local terrain and no previous contact with the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public affairs, apart from a letter of inquiry and a cordial response from the Dean.

System Dynamics modeling, the computer simulation theory/methodology I have studied and written about from time to time, made the difference. This fall, the Lee Kwan Yew School initiated, for the first time, a course in System Dynamics as an option in the Master of Public Policy curriculum. It is being co-taught by the dynamic, high-energy Director of the School’s Institute of Water policy, who had studied the methodology as part of his graduate studies. His co-instructor is an equally energetic young faculty member whom I had met at the System Dynamics Society meetings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thus, on very first working day in Singapore, I was scheduled for a sixty minutes-plus lecture, following a lengthy get-acquainted meeting with the two instructors to discuss course related matters and and research-related opportunities that could be be informed by System Dynamics. This was particularly exciting for me, because it rekindled a long dormant interest in water policy issues, reminding me about the importance of water resources as an element of the development process. On the morning of my second day, I had moved into a temporary office, adjacent to that of the IWP Director. Soon, I was meeting students potential future colleagues, getting a sense of the School’s research agenda and making plans.

The most important outcome is a possible research initiative inspired by the IWP Director’s concept of the “Living City” as a future scenario for addressing urban development challenges and opportunities in Asia. Urbanization is widely viewed as a Yin-Yang dynamic. While urban growth, and especially growth of megacities, is seen as problematic, it is also in cities that the economic future of Asia will inevitably be shaped. Cities must, inevitably, be the engines of economic growth, creativity, innovation and revitalization if the human race is to survive and prosper sustainably on planet earth. The challenge is to define a vision that makes this possibility real and then to implement development trajectories that can attain it.

According to the IWP Director, a living city comprises dynamically interlinked subsystems: shelter, competitiveness, infrastructure, transport and information. Effective governance plays a particularly important role. But more important than the elements themselves is how they are interlinked and function. In his view, a living city resembles a thriving, healthy organism. It is beautiful, livable, sustainable and resilient. It interacts with its environment symbiotically. It offers a hopeful, empowering, attainable option for the survival of the human species on the planet earth. But is this vision attainable? If it is attainable, what development trajectories could move growing cities in the 500,000-population range toward the vision of a living city? How can today’s megacities, presently grappling with major problems of unsustainability and overshoot move in that direction?

If things work out as looks promising, there will be an exciting opportunity begin a project that seeks answers to such questions when I return to Singapore in January.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Welcome to the Adam Road Food Court

Some time ago, I am told, many Singapore streets (as in Washington DC) were populated with a variety of entrepreneurs who sold food from pushcarts. They were called “hawkers.” As Singapore modernized, however, the government decided that street selling was no longer acceptable. But instead of depriving the hawkers of their livelihoods (almost certainly this would have been the US solution), the Singapore Government created ‘Hawkers stands’ which are now scattered throughout the city.

On this and previous trips, I have visited four Hawkers stands. My favorite is the “Adam Food Court” which is within an easy walk of my office and hotel. It has stands surrounding central atrium in which plastic tables and benches have been installed. Here are some of the offerings, which are displayed in brightly colored signs and pictures, by respective entrepreneurs: “Adams’ Indian Rojak,” “Adam Mutton Soup,” “Siti Yur Clay Pot Noodles,” “Taj Mahal Drinks Stall,” “Adam Seafood BBQ,” “Cuttlefish with Kang Kong,” “Curry Mixed Vegetable Rice/Porridge,” “Beehoon with Pork Leg,” “Soon Huat Fresh Fruit Juice.” “Reck Hee Hot and Cold Dessert.”

I don’t know what the names of all these dishes - from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India refer to - and there appears to be no easy way to find out except studying the pictures and experimenting. The average price per dish is $3 Singapore, with few costing more than $10. A large bottle of Singapore’s Tiger Beer is $5.40. Certificates of cleanliness are prominently displayed at most stands, however I have been a little diffident about eating sea food. Two evenings ago I consumed a dish that included an indeterminate sea animal and 3 prawns, with no ill effects.

Writing this is making me hungry. I think I’ll go for some mutton soup and Behoon with pork leg, topped off with a Tiger Beer over ice.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Colombo and Singapore - Not a Good Trip, but a Good Ending

Update from Singapore. I have been here almost exactly a week, but I have not been sufficiently disciplined to collect my recollections in one or more blogs. Tonight, sitting in my comfortable room at the Copthorne Orchid Hotel, on Bukit Timah street, Singapore, I am getting down to the task.

Another excuse for not writing is that I have been sick. Not flat on your back or rush to the emergency room sick and, apparently not infected by the H1,N1 flu virus about which there has been a lot of concern everywhere I traveled. Just one of those debilitating, broad spectrum malaises that saps ones energy and can erode the spirit as well, if one allows it. It has been accompanied by a persistent, hacking cough. Probably new colleagues at the Lee Kuan Yew School’s Water Policy Institute, though they have been unfailingly cordial, are viewing me with roughly the same level of enthusiasm as I viewed my recent traveling companions.

For my malaise was contracted on the Colombo-Kuala Lumpur leg of my Colombo-Singapore flight on Sri Lankan Airlines. It was almost entirely fully populated by a cadre of elderly Malaysians who must have been on some sort of tour - or perhaps they were being surreptitiously evacuated from a Tuberculosis (or H1, N1) isolation ward at Colombo’s General hospital. The wheezing and coughing was that bad and it continued without interruption through the entire flight. Mostly the hackers covered their mouth and nose when they coughed, but not always. I just knew I was going to get sick and, of course, I did.

The airport checkin wasn’t all that great either. When I fly out of Colombo it is normally to London and I spring for a business class seat. My marvelous Sri Lankan travel agent, with whom I have dealt for nearly twenty years, arranges a very reasonable rate. Check in is not a problem. For this short flight, however, I chose economy. The check in lines were long, disorganized and moved at glacial pace. Check in took more than two hours and I just barely caught my flight.

It is easy to make contrasts between Sri Lanka and Singapore, most of which are not favorable to Sri Lanka. I mostly will resist the temptation. Readers know that I love Sri Lanka. Dysfunctional check-in lines and a planefull of contageous companions are not likely to dim that affection.

But Singapore’s Changi Airport is quite remarkable in the way it processes large numbers of passengers congenially and efficiently. Lines can be fairly long, as they were at immigration, but move briskly. When one is in doubt, there is almost always an information counter nearby or, more likely, a helper at one’s elbow to courteously offer assistance in fluent English (and probably other languages too). Things are quite different than in Colombo or at dysfunctional Frankfurt Airport on which I reported in an earlier posting.

But where were the two bags I had checked in Colombo? I waited... and waited...and waited. The group of passengers standing hopefully beside the conveyer belt dwindled. Ominously, a message flashed on the TV screen above the belt, “all bags from the aircraft have been loaded on the belt.” My bag had not appeared. I began to scan about for that least welcome of all airport kiosks, the lost baggage claim center.

But wait... a crisply dressed young man appeared at my elbow. “Can I help you?” he asked, cheerfully, “you look as if you have been waiting a long time.” I acknowledged the truth of his observation and, at is request, produced my claim checks. I had learned my lesson in Frankfurt and they were right at hand.

By what Karmic magic the young man accomplished this feat, I will never know, but shortly after he had looked at my tags, but as far as I can tell, taken no other action, my bags magically appeared on the near empty conveyer. “Are those yours?", he asked and when I nodded he said “good” in a satisfied voice. We matched the claim checks, just to be sure. “Who are you,” I queried gratefully. “Oh. I’m from the airport baggage lost and found department,” he responded with a smile as we went our separate ways.

I had arrived in Singapore.

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