You may think it presumptuous of me that, of all the work we have to do and problems we have to solve, I would anoint any one item as “the most important.” Yet after seventy-plus years of observing the world we live in, including the last seventeen dealing with social issues, I am so certain that I am willing to put myself out there. What do you think? Is it the national defense? No—we spend way too much on that already. Is it education? No—that is step two of my issue. Is it climate change? No—although that is high on my list, and if it as serious as some believe, it will trump everything else. Is it homelessness? Hunger? The environment? Unemployment? Equal treatment and acceptance of all people? Terrorism? The growing gap between the haves and have-nots? The growing prison population? Oil? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no, although every one of those problems requires a huge amount of our attention as soon as possible.

I contend that the number one issue that we need to address with all the vigor and all the resources at our disposal is early child development. On the surface, this seems minor compared to the other possibilities listed. Here is my reasoning. There is indisputable evidence that human brains are 80-90% developed by age three. The necessary wiring is connected in those first three years, and if it doesn’t happen by then, the child’s potential is greatly reduced. The opportunity is lost; those connections will not happen later in life. By age five, values are formed. Those will be the basis for the child’s entire life. It will be determined if he will be honest or devious, industrious or lazy, ethical or deceitful, trusting or defensive, generous or selfish, and all the other characteristics that are relevant to one’s makeup. Once the values are ingrained in an individual, it is highly unlikely that she will ever change to any great degree.

To make the case, let me proffer an analogy that goes to back to the beginning of my manufacturing career. At Kane Power Industries, our primary raw materials were large iron castings, which we machined to specifications. They were used as housings for our products. The quality control procedure in 1980 was to machine, let’s say, 300 of castings in a run. When the run was completed, an inspector, was called in to measure them against specified tolerances and pass judgment as to whether they were acceptable for use. There were three possible results of that inspection. (1) They met specifications and could go to the assembly line. (2) They varied hopelessly from specifications, and they went to the scrap heap. (3) They were close but not quite to specifications. In this instance, they were sentenced to a purgatory we called rework, from which some more machining and labor might save them for use. However, the additional labor cost us any profit that might have been attainable if those castings had been machined correctly in the first place.

In the late seventies and early eighties, American manufacturing began to embrace a quality control called statistical process control. This procedure called for the machine operator to measure every tenth casting to ensure that it met prescribed tolerances. If the measurement was drifting toward the edge of a given tolerance, he adjusted the machine to bring it back to the middle of the tolerance range. In effect, he measured to predict if he would later produce an unacceptable product. If so, he prevented the making of a reject by adjusting the setup. A little later, we learned that if we went into the foundry of our supplier and imposed some production standards on it, we would prevent the receipt of out-of-tolerance raw castings.

Statistical process control is still used today. It has been enhanced by some other more sophisticated procedures to ensure quality. Together they lead to earning an ISO certification, which is almost universally demanded of suppliers in the twenty-first century.

So what’s the point? In life, our raw materials are infants. The processes to make them a useful product are pre-natal care, parenting, child care, a wholesome and healthy environment, diet, exercise, and various programs that are a positive influence on their development.

Yet, we continue to produce scrap and rework. Children who are raised from birth within the prescribed tolerances usually turn out to be pretty good citizens. They get an education, hold a job, become good parents, and are assets to their community. Those who are raised carelessly are often not ready for kindergarten when the time comes. From there, it’s a downward spiral. They aren’t equal to the other kids intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Being behind, they become disenchanted with school and often rebel in various ways. This frequently leads to dropping out, unemployment, welfare, trouble with the law, poverty, and on and on. Then they continue the cycle with children of their own.

Are you not yet in agreement with me that this is the single most urgent issue of the day? Those children comprise the generation that might solve some of the other problems I listed. We need to equip today’s two-year-olds to be ready to do a better job than we have done. In my opinion, that doesn’t set a very high bar. We’ve worked on these problems for decades with no solutions. We manage the problems as best we can, but we don’t solve them. Until we cut off the pipeline of people becoming scrap and rework, we will perpetuate the cycle. That is not debatable. The big barrier is that the solution will be horribly expensive. We have to run parallel programs for twenty years while we clear the pipeline of those children we have already mishandled.

We have become a society of short-term thinkers. We are not willing to invest in a product or process that won’t pay off for several years. Instead, we put band-aids on our existing products, or we make cheap, inferior new products that will break as soon as the warranty expires.   That is a practice that leads to mediocrity, which is where we are today.

It is essential that we build a child care system for working parents that is high quality and taught by professionals educated in child care. We also have to make it affordable to all parents. Child care is a common ground where values can be taught.

There are two other traits that are not exactly values. Yet, they are as important as any values we can imagine. Those are intellectual curiosity and hope. We want our children to be insatiable in their thirst for knowledge. And a child without hope is a child lost.

All of these characteristics need to be modeled rather than preached. Many parents don’t model any of these traits, because they neither possess nor value them themselves. When that is the case, it has to be done outside the home. Child care is the most likely influence to make a difference. Kindergarten and first grade are too late.

We also have to build an enormous parent education network for those parents who are willing to admit that they shouldn’t necessarily raise their children as they were raised and are open to learning better methods. By the way, bad parenting crosses all socio-economic lines.

These are not the only actions necessary to turn the ship around, but they will do for a start. I only know that we need to address early child development in a big way, or the results of our education system will continue to decline at an accelerated rate, and proliferation of drop-outs, poverty, crime, and our prison population will continue.

The cost will be in the billions every year. Where would the money come from? The only possible answer is tax dollars. You can’t pass the hat among individual and corporations and expect to reap an amount necessary to make a difference. The financing of the solutions has to be mandated. Money could be made available from a major tax increase or from a redeployment of existing dollars. I suggest reducing the bloated defense budget and reallocating the money gleaned from that.

Stay tuned in my next blog, I will bring forth a utopian idea that might cause you to label me a lunatic if you haven’t already.  I promise it will be shorter that this voluminous offering.


A Talent for Turnarounds: How to Overcome Personal, Professional Crisis and Come Out On Top

By Doug Otto

Article first appeared on PRWeb

In today’s fast-paced environment, executives and managers often find themselves in crises that require immediate and sometimes revolutionary action. The days of having time to allow situations to evolve to acceptable conditions are, in many cases, gone. It is necessary to turn those negatives into positives in a short time.

As a former manufacturing and nonprofit executive, I provide readers with insight in a world of uncertainty and change in my new book, “Machete Moments: A Turnaround Manager: Burned Out at Fifty-Four—Turned On for the Next Eighteen Years”.

“Machete Moments” is a story about turnarounds – in business and non-profit management, and in life itself. For those facing the difficult professional and personal transitions in life (or those unsure as to whether embark on such a transition), this uplifting story based on Otto’s experiences will inspire a true sense of courage and conviction.

I wrote this book as a way to reach out to those facing ‘turnaround moments’ in their lives and careers. Machete Moments’ is all about seizing those critical situations and moving forward in the best way possible.

Article published in Smart Business Magazine, 3/20/14

Article first appeared in Smart Business Magazine: Riding the roller coaster

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed a day at the amusement park. I observed there were those who preferred the merry-go-round and those who chose the roller coaster. I loved the roller coaster — the one with the drop so steep I thought I would fly out of my seat. As business executives, some choose the merry-go-round because it’s safe and smooth. And some choose the roller coaster because they love the rush it yields.

Throughout my career, I have chosen the roller coaster four times. In the business world, whether for-profit or nonprofit, the rough ride usually means a turnaround is needed. Several have labeled me as unconventional. That’s OK, because all four organizations I have led are thriving today. In fact, I believe that characteristic is an asset in crisis management.

In my 34-year career in management, divided equally between those two sectors, I have developed five principles for dealing with the difficulties I inherited when I took the jobs.

  1. The Golden Rule. I’m not a religious man, but I accept this as a secular cornerstone for success. If everyone adhered to this rule, the only laws we would need would be those to ensure safety. You need to gain the trust of your teammates, suppliers, and customers, and that cannot be achieved without making this a policy.
  2. Be deliberate in listening to the aforementioned colleagues. Set appointments to solicit their suggestions and complaints. Go where they are comfortable — avoid your office or conference room.
  3. Perform over-the-top actions. They can change your culture. I once cut off production in a manufacturing plant that was the poster child for disorder. When everyone reached his workstation one morning, I played a rockabilly tape over the intercom. After the initial shock, I told everyone to clean for two hours and then meet me in the courtyard. For the remainder of the day, they were put into groups of 10 to identify a problem or opportunity and present a plan to resolve it. Management delivered doughnuts and coffee during the cleaning and pizza for lunch. We not only got some great ideas, the workforce felt included and still talk about it today.
  4. Eliminate naysayers. They are a cancer in your organization.
  5. Encourage questioning authority, including you. With the proper attitude 4 and 5 will complement each other.


The following is an excerpt from my book, Machete Moments.

Words and Beliefs That I Just Don’t Understand

I would never want to insult anyone because of the terminology I use.  However, in America, we have diluted the English language, in the name of political correctness, to such an extent that often I don’t know what the speaker is talking about.  Many of the changes are totally artificial.  I think the primary reasons to change a traditionally understood term would be to avoid hurt feelings or to be more accurate.  Many of the changes we have had thrust upon our population do neither. Here are a few examples of changes to which I see no point.

  • Drink to hydrate
  • Secretary to administrative assistant
  • Husband/wife to spouse
  • Angry to upset
  • Arguing to being defensive
  • Die to pass
  • Religious to faith-based

The ones I’ve mentioned so far are pretty harmless, driven by pretentiousness or by the much overpopulated advertising world.  Other than to be irritating, they don’t affect my life one way or another.  Although relatively benign, they provide the slippery slope from which the language is diluted where it matters.

Here are some changes that do make a difference because I face them in day-to-day life.  They are examples of political correctness gone berserk.

  •  Mexican to Hispanic (This is a term that was invented by the U.S. government for the 1980 census.  It is a convenient term that Americans created to make it easier to complete forms.  There is not total agreement among those to whom we apply this label as to whether Hispanic or Latino is better.  Or would they rather be attached to their country of origin?  There is nothing wrong with referring to a person as a Mexican or a Cuban.  If I am in another country, I prefer to be called an American—not a Caucasian from the Western Hemisphere.)
  • Poor to socially marginalized or vulnerable
  • Mentally ill to emotionally impaired

And then there are some that have gone through so many changes that you need a scorecard so that you use the right term.

  • Retarded to slow to intellectually disabled (I agree that we needed to find an alternative to the word retarded because it has been misused so frequently as an insult.  What I don’t understand is that the national advocacy organization, which used to be called the Association of Retarded Citizens, is now called ARC.  If they want to do away with the term, how can it still be part of their acronym?)
  • Shell shock (WWII) to battle fatigue (Korea) to operational exhaustion (Viet Nam) to post-traumatic stress disorder (today)Illegal aliens to undocumented to unauthorized (I was in a meeting with 30 people the first time I heard that last term.  Not one of us knew the meaning.  Everyone wondered “authorized to do what?”)
  • Slum to ghetto to inner city

There is a tremendous amount of work to be done in human services and education—more than we can complete if we work 24 hours a day for life.  Time spent in making irrelevant changes to terminology is wasted and absurd.  We should simplify our speech and writing so that it can be understood by those who don’t work with the subject in their day-to-day lives.  Does anyone actually believe that a poor person feels any better being called socially marginalized or vulnerable?  She’s poor—not stupid.  All of the original terms on the list bring a clear picture immediately to mind.  That is what good words do; they have impact.  The reason we have words is to communicate a clear picture of the subject, thought, or action.  Why do we want to dilute any emotional or logical impact by making up words that don’t describe the subject in a simple way that is understandable to all?  The new words bring absolutely no emotional reaction to me and do not stir me to action.

While I’m ranting over the use of our language, when did the polite people start calling everything they disagree with inappropriate?  If you disagree with someone’s comment, have the balls to own your disagreement.  Then you and the speaker can fight about it.  To say that someone is inappropriate disarms the speaker.  You have made a unilateral judgment to which there is no reply.  Appropriate and inappropriate don’t mean the same to everyone and have different connotations depending on the crowd and setting.  I’ve been in places with people who had no objection to my saying to someone, “What the f… are you talking about?”  This is most likely to happen when they are prattling on with no real point to make and with no end of the prattling in sight.  In fact, it happens on a fairly regular basis.  On the other hand, even I would not stand up in a town meeting and say that.  (Usually not—there could be exceptions.)  If you grew up in a church atmosphere, different things are inappropriate to you than if you grew up in a locker room environment.  I will close on this subject with the summary comment that it is inappropriate for us to judge one another as inappropriate just because we disagree.


Some new thinking about their respective roles from my book, Machete Moments. I had left the manufacturing world and complete changed careers to become president of the United Way of Bartholomew County (IN). This is a reflection of my conclusions over 17 years on that job before my retirement in 2012.

There are a couple of impressions widely held by those who manage in the for-profit world.  I absolutely bought into them during my business career.  (1) Non-profit organizations should be managed in the same manner as for-profits.  (2) Those who work in the non-profit sector are somehow a little less than those in business or a profession.

Less in what ways?  Maybe less ambitious; you might be a little on the lazy side if you are not held to the tough standards of the business and professional sectors.  Maybe less tough; they don’t have what it takes to handle the pressure of making a profit.  Maybe less intelligent; if they were smart, why would they settle for a lower paying job than they could earn in business?

I had an epiphany not too long after my transition.  As far as management practices, many should be replicated going from business to charity.  But there are many areas in which standard for-profit management actions don’t make sense in a non-profit organization and can even be counter-productive.

For openers, there is no demand for profit.  Financial stability is still a requirement, but an agency’s budget should be set on using its income to provide services within its mission.  It’s considered smart management to build a rainy day reserve, but if that reserve grows to an amount that is greater than six months of operating expenses, you might want to stop to consider whether you are feeding too much to the reserve and not enough to services.

In businesses that have departments, divisions, or multiple locations, top management can set policies and procedures, and in most cases those are carried out throughout the company.  In human services, there might be several agencies in the same community dealing with different aspects of the same problem—homelessness, poverty, addiction, neighborhood centers, and the others.  We can debate whether that should be the case, but it is what it is.  None of them is the boss of any other one.

At United Way, I was often called upon by a board member or donor to tell one of the agencies that we funded what to do.  As president of United Way, I had no authority to do that.  Actually, any collaboration is strictly voluntary, and each organization has its own board and its own CEO who often protect their turf like a pit bull hanging onto your pants leg.  The only hammer is money, and boards are reluctant to cut funding lest that action become a community issue.

Then there’s the presence of volunteers.  If a human service agency is not using every volunteer it can get its hands on, it is wasting money.  An agency should consider finding a volunteer to do mailings, filing, and other such routine duties.  There are also a number of higher level jobs that can be handled by volunteers.  Depending on the organization and the skill of volunteers who embrace your cause, they might handle bookkeeping, case work that doesn’t require a specialized degree, fund raising, and marketing, to mention a few.

Finally, in business you know who your customers and your potential customers are.  You know who your suppliers are.  And you know the difference between the two.  In the non-profit world, your donors and volunteers are both suppliers and customers.  You don’t need to convince your suppliers to sell to your manufacturing company or your store, but in a non-profit agency, you need to sell your potential donors and volunteers on the idea of giving to your organization.  That means they are customers in that respect, but they also supply the money and volunteer time necessary for you to operate.

When you go to the supermarket, you select and pay for your items and take your groceries home.  As a donor to a charity, you pay for the groceries, but someone else takes them to her home.  That is a very different dynamic and one that needs to recognized in managing a non-profit organization.

These are huge differences.  Every person who agrees to serve on a non-profit board should have an orientation that makes him aware of these differences.  Then we could avoid the question so often asked of agency CEO’s, “Why don’t you run your agency the same way I run my business?”  Once that question surfaces, the CEO is forever on the defensive trying to justify her strange methods.  Even worse is the scenario where board members think the question but don’t ask.  Then there can be a continuing suspicion about the quality of the management of the organization without the CEO’s awareness.

In reference to the perception of inferiority in the human service world, I wasn’t right about that either.  The truth is that most of those who choose this direction do it deliberately.  They are driven by different motives than the size of their paycheck and their desire to be or to impress a big-shot.  After seventeen years, it is my opinion that those employed in both sectors are just about equal in intelligence, drive, and toughness.  Just as in the business world, there are highs and lows in each of those qualities, but neither group is noticeably better than the other.  They just have different motivations and priorities.