Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's Just a Cup of Coffee...

In November I will have been with my current employer for 22 years. It's been quite a journey during the last couple of decades. When I think back to the starting point in 1987, I can realize that many changes have taken place, from then 'till now. I have also learned and experienced many things that have helped developed me into the person I am today.

I've been to Japan about 35 times. It's a wonderful country and culture. It's also a long flight from Madison, AL to Nagoya, Japan! I have stayed in Japan as long as 2 weeks, and as short as 24 hours. Actually, the 24 hour trip was the easiest because you're not there long enough to be effected by the time zone change. If you can get through the 24 hours in Japan, the return jet lag is almost zero. Twenty years ago there wasn't much English signage, no English TV stations, no English newspapers, no English spoken in taxi cabs, no Internet to speak of, and very delayed telephone connections. Young Japanese students would look at us and point. It was like we were some kind of alien in their home land.... I guess we really were. One time several young Japanese girls actually convinced us to get our picture made with them standing next to a life-sized replica of KFC's Colonel Sanders. They giggled through the entire episode. It was a bit challenging.

But today, it is an extremely comfortable place to visit. Several English TV stations are available via satellite, high speed Internet is common in even the smallest of local hotels, phone calls are high quality, English newspapers and magazines are up-to-date and accessible. Even the cab drivers are much more comfortable speaking to foreigners in the English language. No longer do the locals point us out or even recognize that we are there.... no more pictures with the Colonel! Despite the long flight to the Far East, I always enjoy the people, country, and experiences in Japan.

The thing I have realized the most in the past 20+ years is that "people are people" - no matter where you live, or where you're from. There are strong people, and weak people... smart ones and not-so-smart ones... humans are humans. You can see Mothers caring for their children, business people caring for their careers, and children just being carefree. We may all look different, but mostly, we are all the same.

I've also learned to think more deeply about many things. (you probably don't realize that from reading my blog posts...) Here's one good example that I often recite: After only 2 weeks on the job in Georgetown, KY, I went to the cafeteria with my Japanese colleague to get a cup of coffee. I proceeded to approach the industrial-type coffee machine, lift the lever, and place the hot java in my cup. Then I moved to the right and poured some milk into the coffee. Then I also added a bit of sugar to the cup. After a final stir with the small plastic stirrer, I was ready to pay for and consume my beverage.

But before I could leave the coffee station my Japanese partner asks " what are you doing?" I stated that "I was getting coffee". It was at this precise moment that I thought, "maybe working here is going to be tougher than I thought". But, then he said, "but why are you doing it that way?" Well.... I said, "this is the way we get coffee in Kentucky...". Then he said, "but, why are you doing it in that sequence"? Well I hadn't thought too deeply about why I was getting coffee that way... in that sequence. So, I said "I don't know, why?" He stated that "when you put the milk in the coffee before the sugar, the temperature of the drink lowers, and the sugar doesn't dissolve at quickly as it would otherwise". "Man, I'm just getting coffee!" was the only thing I remember saying. But, in that first early encounter, he was teaching me to think more deeply - about everything. Whether it's a big business decision, or simply making a cup of coffee.

There have been many examples in the past 20+ years that are similar to the story above. And, I suppose I will continue to learn everyday as I encounter people from all sorts of backgrounds and with a wide variety of experiences. Maybe I can even pass some of them along to other people along the way. So... what can I glean from all of this? I drink my coffee black now!


  1. I was totally thinking of using Kai-zan in my speech that I give at TU...




  3. Mr. Bolte,

    My experience at Toyota shaped me into the person I am today. I find myself questioning EVERYTHING, and I am never satisfied until I understand why things work the way they do. (By the way, this drives my wife NUTS! I'm sure you can relate.) I have also become very process oriented with everything I do. You story is a perfect example of the mentality of those a Toyota: To question everything we do and how we can become more efficient in every process. Great story. Keep the blog rocking, I love the widsom you share. Tell the family I said hi. - Steven Farmer

  4. Steven, i agree with your wife!!! i know i drive Jim nuts because i definitely don't think this way either....So i guess you could say, we balance each of you! hehe!!!! Good to hear from you! Tami

  5. well great...I didn't drink coffee until I started working at Toyota. The first cup I had, I watched as the people in front of me put their splenda in first and then poured in the coffee, then the creamer. Never thought about the sequence until I read this blog post. Now, I will think of it everytime I make myself a cup of coffee. Just ONE more thing to keep up with and my OCD self!! Thanks. haha