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Mass customization and the changing logistics of manufacturing.

Mass manufactured, cookie-cutter products are going the way of the Model T. But how to customize affordably? Roundtable participants say the answer lies in new technologies and the ongoing integration of man and machines.

"People can have the Model T in any color--so long as it's black," said Henry Ford in building a mass market for his newfangled automobiles around the turn of the century. The underlying assumption: Uniformity means high volumes and low unit costs. Today's manufacturers, however, are finding Ford's maxim won't do: They've been driven to customize products and services by more demanding customers with a better idea of what they need to make their own businesses run more efficiently, and by fierce competition with one another. But they need to create distinctive products while maintaining competitive prices.

Enter mass customization, the catchphrase for an eclectic blend of technology, production, distribution, and human resource strategies. Though the term sounds like an oxymoron, it refers simply to the ability to mass produce customized goods. Mass customization was conceptualized first by Stan Davis, author of "Future Perfect." It was elucidated by roundtable participant Joe Pine, founder of the Strategic Horizons consulting firm in Ridgefield, CT, and a former program manager with IBM's Advanced Business Institute, in his book, "Mass Customization." Pine also wrote on the topic in the March issue of CE. The notion has sparked a manufacturing revolution no less comprehensive than that wrought by Ford and his assembly lines. But increasingly, customer need for product variety and uniqueness will drive manufacturers to mass customize as a competitive necessity.

Key to customization at low cost are advances in the speed, capacity, and utility of information and telecommunications technologies. Typically, companies use computer integrated manufacturing to link islands of automation in production, sales, design, finance, and operations into a single system that is fast, responsive, and flexible. At Bally Engineered Structures in Bally, PA, salesmen, engineers, and operations personnel can tap into a PC network anchored by a midrange fileserver to tinker with product specifications. All the company's regional offices are integrated via computer, says President and CEO Tom Pietrocini. Other technologies that support customization include computer numerical control, computer-aided design, material requirements planning, and computer-aided manufacturing. Software-based MRP computerizes processes and schedules on the factory floor. CAM generates manufacturing requirements from design specifications.

The early success stories have been well-documented: In Germany, luxury automobile manufacturers BMW and Mercedes-Benz have pioneered the so-called individual car; in Japan, there's Toyota and National Bicycle. Stateside, even the dowdy descendants of Ma Bell have crashed the scene with customized products such as call-waiting, call-forwarding, and automatic dial-back.

But the champion of mass customization in the U.S. is Motorola, winner of the 1988 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. In the mid-1980s, the diversified electronics company was one of five or six makers of pagers in the U.S. But today it is the only maker to have survived price wars with giant Japanese firms. The secrets to its success include faster cycle times, adherence to Six Sigma quality standards, and being able to predict and prevent defects before they happen. But most important, Motorola produces competitively priced pagers in relatively small batches, or "lots." (Lot size is perhaps the most widely accepted measure of mass customization muscle--the smaller the better.) Motorola's pagers are available in vibrant colors such as Bimini Blue and Vibra Pink. Plainer versions slip into cloth sleeves, in teal, fuchsia, and silver that coordinate with a wearer's apparel. Alphanumeric pagers can display stock prices and news flashes, and the company is testing a pager that can store voice messages. The payoff: Motorola has garnered a mammoth 85 percent share of the U.S. market.

Profitability remains the pot at the end of the customization rainbow, but there are additional benefits to embracing the approach. Giving sales representatives access to online information hands them greater flexibility and control, shoring up fledgling employee empowerment initiatives. Customization technology facilitates greater cooperation between customers and vendors, a trend that is accelerating in an era of tough times and tight budgets. Customization also has spawned parallel movements such as custom marketing, which Motorola CEO George Fisher describes as the "big challenge of the next decade". "Companies that figure out how to custom market and interface with manufacturers like us will have an edge in the future," Fisher says.

Obstacles abound in the race toward customization. Frequently there's wrenching cultural change as companies abandon their internal focuses and begin looking outside to satisfy customer needs. MRP and other computer models sometimes do not accurately reflect factory processes, grouses Aeroquip's Howard Selland. Bally's Pietrocini counsels a go-slow approach, installing customization technology one business unit--or even one product--at a time.

CE gathered manufacturing CEOs and experts to examine how companies must approach this technique and the implementation issues it raises.


B. Joseph Pine II (Strategic Horizons): In this era of mass customization, CEOs first have to get one thing right: Foster the correct mind-set. In mass production, the mind-set was always internal, focused on the efficiency of the line and the plant, which forced customers to sacrifice things they wanted or needed for low cost.

On the flip side, mass customization starts with the customer. It operates on the belief that all customers deserve to have what they want or need, even if they don't know what it is or how to express it. The corporate mind-set should be: We need individual customization, high quality, low cost, and innovation.

Arnold Pollard (CE): Henry Ford was wrong. His belief, "any color as long as it's black," doesn't hold water.

Pine: That's right. Forcing the customer to sacrifice based on your internal production needs is wrong. They used to call the telephone system POTS, "Plain Old Telephone Service," because everybody got the same thing--the choice was rotary or touch tone. Now you can get anything you want--call-waiting, call-answering, call-forwarding--and the telephone company services it.

After determining the mind-set, CEOs have to figure out how to get from where they are to where they need to be in terms of their processes, production capabilities, and product.

Tom Pietrocini of Bally Engineered Structures, who will offer his insights shortly, always uses the word, "journey," to describe this process. Tom's company claims to produce 10,000 different varieties in 10 days. That's a reasonable place to start if you realize that it is simply an estimate of where you want to be; you can set a numerical goal, but you shouldn't be limited by it. I don't believe Tom set that specific goal when he started the journey; he just wanted to satisfy his customers and get value from them. Likewise, I don't think Motorola had a goal of 29 million different combinations for its pagers at the beginning. The company knew it needed low cost and high quality to compete with the Japanese, but it also needed to go them one better--to get to individual customization and a lot size of one with zero set-up time.

J.P. Donlon (CE): We recently spoke with George Fisher, and he says Motorola probably could do lot sizes of one, but it doesn't want to, because it's too expensive.


Thomas W. Pietrocini (Bally Engineered Structures): Our lot size typically is 20 units, so we are small on lot sizes compared to other businesses. We ask the customer, "How do we make the sale to you?" And he tells us. If we agree to his requirements, we get the sale and adhere to his guidelines.

We started by trying to satisfy our No. 1 customer, McDonald's. The McDonald's concept of order entry is that the customer walks through the door, orders, and is served in 60 seconds. So when the company talks to you as a vender, its concept of what delivery performance should be is far more demanding than the average customer's.

But customization of the manufacturing process can be quite difficult. Our order process had 86 steps. In addition, because the average customer changes his or her mind two and half times before the product is delivered, our manufacturing cycle time was four days, but our office had no idea what to tell the factory to make. So, often, the factory was making the wrong thing, dragging out the process to eight to 10 weeks instead of four days.

Today, the 10 weeks is down to 10 days. The order is entered, and goes through an artificial intelligence configurator, part of our Computer Driven Intelligence Network. The configurator is a computer program that simultaneously reviews more than 65 engineering rules. The network comprises a series of "dumb" personal computers tied through telephone lines to a fileserver--in our case the midrange IBM AS400. The system enables salesmen, engineers, and production and operation personnel to access vital information regarding a product and its design.

Typically, an outside salesperson uses a laptop computer to dial into the system via modem and design a product to his specifications. These flow through to the MRP files. (MRP is material requirements planning, computerized scheduling of the factory floor.) Specifics in the files determine steps in the production process. The finished product is compared with a model constructed through computer-aided design, and a drawing is sent to the customer. Our best time for this entire routine is 70 minutes.

We're going through a sea change, and there's a lot more turmoil ahead. Basically, the silicon chip--information technology--makes mass customization possible. It facilitates information technology which, in turn, lets you get data to your employees in time for them to make that special hose coupling and deliver it in 24 hours to the customer 600 miles away.

Bally does 70,000 to 100,000 transactions per day. Everything in our factory is bar coded. Our 32 regional offices are connected by computer terminals, allowing the interchange of data to determine the next product we have to make.

Purchasing is now done on computerized systems by the hourly plant production worker. We have 22 different software packages on our mainframe. And we have a relational data base. More than seven software packages run on the PC networks. As you can see, information gathering and exchange is critical to making the right decision.

Information technology is still evolving. Bally was the first company worldwide that did online data collection with IBM, with which we have an alliance, so we got instant updates. When you wanded a bar code, all of your inventory ledgers changed.

We've taken some of that technology out to the field. We've used the IBM information network to create data linkage between software packages. We established some hard disciplines inside to get information technology to work.

In some ways, it was easier for us to do this, because we don't have much staff--only about 450 employees. You can cover the distance from me to the shop floor in a heartbeat. And we involve everybody. Right now, we have six project teams with about 60 people who meet weekly with us to discuss the latest developments. Every 90 days, we get together and decide what we will change over the next 90 days.

Here's how the philosophy started: Originally, we had a manual system when I came on board. I was familiar with computers and knew automation was the way to go. So we picked three project champions, and they started putting in modules. The first month, the work had to be put on both the manual system and the new system. Gradually, that changed until a particular job or function was completely automated. And every 90 days we'd push our champions to work on another part of the business. We still do that today; we've had some 50 project champions over the past 10 years.

It's kind of like going to college. You go to 10 to 12 weeks of classes, and then you get a break. When you return, you go to something else.

Mass customization is an important element of what we've been able to accomplish, but we're starting to move past it, more toward customized marketing--taking what we know and building unique products for unique customers who design them to their specifications.

Darryl F. Allen (Trinova): Have you been successful?

Pietrocini: Yes, we're successful, because we're still alive, and we're making progress. Now we have begun to look at the customer's needs in terms of regulatory issues and how to fulfill them through a different technology. We started to embed sensors in our walk-in coolers and refrigerators, so we can get diagnostic feedback about whether the unit is in compliance with regulations set by the FDA.

Leroy D. Peterson (Andersen Consulting): In my mind, success means satisfying the customer. Montgomery Elevator is one of my clients. It built a relatively small electronics plant in Texas. An elevator recently went down because of the flood in the Midwest. The company got a call in the afternoon and was able to mass produce the unit, which was custom-made for that government building, and deliver it in less than 24 hours. That's a tremendous competitive advantage. I don't think Montgomery will ever lose that customer.


Allen: What examples do we have of mass customization generating profits?

Pine: Lutron Electronics is one. It is the No. 1 producer of lighting controls in the U.S. The company almost went out of business in the 1960s, because a large company came in with mass production, lower costs, and a goal of beating out everybody else in the industry. Lutron knew it couldn't compete against this company on cost. So it hit on something different: working with interior designers to better meet customers' wants and needs.

Now, it has a premium price, but the cost structure is as good or better than anybody else's, and Lutron has more variety, more customization. Some 95 percent of its business involves product shipments of less than 100 units a year. And it's never shipped the same product twice in its systems business for conference rooms.

Another example is Motorola. In the mid-1980s, it was one of five or six makers of pagers in the U.S. Then the Japanese came over at a much lower price. Motorola did all the usual things--complaining to Washington that the Japanese were dumping--but the company also began redesigning its pagers so it could lower the cost and yet have higher quality than the Japanese. Motorola established a level of customization far beyond what anybody else was doing. It is the only surviving maker of pagers in the U.S., and it owns 40 percent of the worldwide business.

Howard M. Selland (Aeroquip): Motorola might say the secret to its success was emphasis on reducing cycle times, adhering to Six Sigma quality standards, and being able to predict and prevent defects before they happen. In other words, the ability to produce a customized pager for every man, woman, and child in the world wasn't a grand design, but rather resulted from a mission to reduce costs and increase reliability.

Now if lot size is the goal, then maybe we have the all-time record. Our lot size in our hose and fittings business and in our valve business is probably about six pieces.

Thomas K. Walker (ITT Automotive North America): I think a lot of it depends on the type of business you're in. In our business, automotive, no one can expect us to get down to a lot size of one. Car companies themselves are beginning to consolidate platforms so they don't have as many special cars anymore. They can't afford them. They want low cost and high quality from us. They're looking for us to fill the orders they give us on time. But they're setting the rules.


John D. Nichols (Illinois Tool Works): Nobody shoots for a lot size of one; you shoot for what the customer asks for. If he asks for 10,000, you ask whether he wants them tomorrow. If he says "yes," then there's real panic. |Laughter.~

In our better plants, we have the order entry sitting at the front of the in-line manufacturing process. We put the shipping department at the end of the line. So everyone has their own delivery, customer service. We separate out service as a separate entity, because we deal with different people.

I can't put the large original equipment manufacturers into the same computer in the order base with the small guys. You can't clog up the system. Your response is different. My kid can schedule most of the orders from our OEM guys. They aren't that complicated. I don't want the accountants to allocate costs all over, because I'm going to price myself out of my major easy-targeted product line--which are the longer runs--so those are all separated from service, order taking, and how the product gets manufactured.

We don't allow people to organize and set up departments. After you have a clue as to how you want to respond, mass or non-mass, long runs or short runs, then you can organize. And usually all the functional departments disappear.

I've been billed as simplistic. My favorite phrase these days is: "Our simplicity objective is to run our companies in a '50s manner with 21st century toys."

I would quarrel with Joe's concept of the CEO's mind-set. I think the majority of CEOs sit at nice desks with a whole row of buttons, but they're not connected to anything. |Laughter.~

The CEO's job is to create an environment in which employees can mass customize. Toward that end, we got rid of the planning department, the MIS department, the purchasing department, and the central engineering departments. Now we don't allow any systems work until the operations guys define it, and we're starting to exclude the finance guys, because we find they're too dominant. They tend to come up with neat ledger solutions, so everything balances. That's an antiquated concept.

We have trained generations of managers and manufacturing people to install accounting and finance-oriented systems, because it gives them a scorecard. But they need a different kind of scorecard.

Jeffrey H. Coors (ACX Technologies): What's your scorecard?

Nichols: Each one is different. The guys work it out.

Peterson: John, I think your concept of simplification is super. We had a slogan: Simplify, then automate, and then integrate. You try to simplify the business. You don't simplify what the customer wants, you simplify the response to it.

One of my clients got into what he called the CIM school of computer manufacturing. He asked me one time, "Do you know what CIM stands for? It doesn't mean computer integrated manufacturing; it means 'costs immense amounts of money,' and that's something you definitely don't want to do." |Laughter.~

Nichols: The MIS people justify their costly requests by claiming benefits from the multiple use of data. We've all heard their argument: The schedulers, management, everyone can call up the data on MIS in real time. However, most people don't need that data at their fingertips. They can walk down the hall or pick up the phone and ask somebody for it.

A consulting firm once put in an accounting system for our screw operation. At each point in the process, the system required that reports be made. Nobody needed the data, nobody used it. It was a wasted effort. Just what do you do with it?

Selland: We're putting in some of the systems we've learned from Ford. One of them is a Quality Operating System--the notion is that you only need 15 benchmarks to evaluate a plant's efficiency--plus or minus three. The significant part is that the people who run the plant or the department are the ones who decide what the measures should be. Here's one tip: They should be non-accounting measures.

In many cases, there's virtually no cost to variety. When we were in the automotive glass business, the production line had a drilling station where we'd drill holes into the glass for the pulldown window crank. Now some glass needed these holes while some didn't. But we calculated costs separately for that operation--despite the fact that the product passed the whole drilling station whether or not holes were drilled--because the accountants figured out you had to amortize the capital equipment used for drilling. Eventually, we said, "The hell with it," and calculated one single charge for the glass, with or without holes.

Nichols: The real goal is to reduce the number of people who are doing what I call non-value-added functions. If you're asking your customer to pay for a lot of quality guys or accountants, I'm not sure they're adding a lot of value to the functionality of the part or the machine.

We design a part like most people here will over electronic wire from our CAD to the customer's, and back and forth, and we can produce a brand-new part in 24 hours and have a sample up there by whatever the air express time is. You do that, because that's what the customers asked for. But doing things this way has good and bad sides to it.

When people first wanted to do CAD, I said, "No, when you can link CAD to computer-aided manufacturing, then we'll do it. Because all you're doing is a little fancy drafting." I lost that battle. So we had CAD machines all over the place. But finally, they are connected to CAM. So now, if you can get the CAD portion done, you've set your manufacturing parameters. Then, because CAD is linked to CAM, you know how to do it.

Pietrocini: Sounds like it's working well, and yet, particularly when it comes to MRP, you employ strict criteria to determine what works and what doesn't.

Nichols: My problem is lots of people have computers, and there's paper coming out, but benefits might be marginal.

Automation also has an effect on how people feel about themselves and how they perform their jobs. I have worked for Ford, ITT, Aerojet General, and now ITW. Our issue from day one was, how do we keep the work ethic? Everyone answered their own phones, nobody had a car except salesmen, no country clubs, no perks different for management than for other people, except for stock options. We are trying to eliminate the hierarchy and keep everything relatively simple.

We acquired a fairly large machinery company. We tried to persuade these people they didn't need MRPs and central planning and scheduling and production control and all of these other people to sit in the air-conditioned offices so the union guys could get their direction and control. It took us a year and a half to convince them we ought to go to cell manufacturing.

These experiences have colored my opinion about the benefits of automation.

Selland: I feel like a reformed drunk here. I started my career about 30 years ago in MIS, but more and more people are realizing that for every million dollars you spend buying MIS equipment, you add a million dollars to your cost every year forever.

The problem with MRP is that it's the wrong model. It determines how much lead time you need to deliver something, how many days the product will spend in each department. Then you do scheduling. However, that schedule assumes everything is going to work perfectly. In the real world, nothing works perfectly.

We get so much solace from the fact this model is so perfect that we say lead times aren't important any longer, and, therefore, we can plan not only 30 days but six months or 18 months in advance. Then we need all kinds of information systems to feed the MRP system to tell us how to correct the model. All of these support systems are there mainly to make the MRP system look like reality. And it's not.

Today, when you talk about mass customization, high velocity and time-to-market is everything. It gets back to the notion of simplicity. If you challenge the amount of information you have to collect and the systems you have to use, I think it pays off.


Nichols: I would like to switch gears and discuss the international marketplace in terms of the relationship between manufacturers and suppliers. Some of our biggest problems result from what I call the "Lopez Effect." As you know, Ignacio Lopez was chief of procurement at Opel-GM before he was lured to VW. We have been called in by all of the global companies we deal with in the paper industry, the beverage industry, and the canning business to work out a master contract. That can be very difficult and can involve the coordination of many individual needs and requirements.

We don't have a Lopez now, although we had one when I arrived. In the "Caine Mutiny," you all remember Captain Queeg's obsession with the strawberries. This guy's obsession was that he could buy cardboard and save the corporation a fortune. Of course, every one of the units could buy cardboard on the stock market cheaper than the master contract.

Coors: Yes. These big central purchasing guys blow a lot of smoke but . . .

Nichols: They talk a good game over lunch.

Coors: They're great at lunch, but they're a pain in the rear to deal with as suppliers. |Laughter.~ I don't want that kind of person in my shop.

Peterson: One of our biggest challenges is to work more closely with our suppliers. We did a study recently in which we took 18 automotive supplier component plants, nine in the U.K. and nine in Japan, and looked at their productivity, velocity, and inventory levels. We identified five of those plants as world-class--all of them were in Japan. Those plants had 2-to-1 productivity over the other 13. They had quality levels 100-fold better. And their incoming defect rate was 2 percent of the others. So the quality coming in from these venders was significantly different. That's because the Japanese work hard on cooperation.

We still have a long way to go, because those guys across the pond aren't sitting still.

The survivors these days tend to be the smaller companies, because they are a little more agile, a little simpler. For me, the toughest job is going into a huge company, where corporate politics makes life difficult. The people issues are overwhelming.

Donlon: Would you say the biggest hurdles to achieving mass customization are people issues?

Peterson: I think the people issues are the most significant ones, particularly in the bigger companies. I am concerned, however, because sometimes the people issues get all of the attention, and we don't do as much in technology, set-up, and vender programs.

I have trouble with very successful companies and very large companies. Successful companies don't need to listen, they don't need to change, because they're already perfect. And the big guys have gatekeepers all along the way protecting corporate politics.

Nichols: Customers want more variety. They don't want just black for their cars. You have to interface with the customer and use all the toys at your disposal--even buy software from Arthur Andersen--to satisfy their needs. |Laughter.~

But the issue is pushing technology down to the front lines and passing on benefits to customers. Some large plants are responsive and doing all this stuff with 1,500 people, and they're all integrated with the computer network. It's terrific. We somehow haven't figured out how to do that with our people.

Having small units is the greatest way to develop managers--people who run businesses instead of reading out of policy books or showing slides. You can take a chance with them at an early age. They know everybody in the plant, they know all their customers, they know their suppliers, they know the management risk. If he screws up my little $10 million plant, we'll survive.

Allen: How do you ensure that the guy running that plant knows the right things to do?

Nichols: We have no formal reporting system, but our fellows constantly travel. Eighty percent of our guys have global responsibility for their products at the upper-management level. They see the best technology around the world.

Coors: Do you have multiple plants making the same products?

Nichols: Absolutely.

Coors: How do you coordinate that?

Nichols: I don't. It's not like the can business where products all come in about the same.


Donlon: How do you see mass customization as a source of strategic advantage? What is the greatest challenge to making it succeed in your own organizations?

Selland: Mass customization adds up to consumer anxiety. I don't think having 1,000 toothpastes in 10 flavors is necessarily a better deal than 100 toothpastes in 10 flavors.

You have to get into consumer behavior models to understand it. But I do think the move is on in industrial America to be able to provide things quicker on demand. Meeting this challenge requires an enormous amount of coordination. You basically are shaking up the entire operation to move toward leaner, more flexible manufacturing.

William P. Madar (Nordson): The atmosphere has to be right if you're going into mass customization. Your distribution system and technology have to be appropriate for that strategy. If you don't have the right interface with the customer, customization will backfire.

We've been a little tough on Mr. Ford and his "any color as long as it's black" motto, but we've forgotten why he chose that strategy: because he had to make a product that could be sold at a price that would create a market--in a situation where the market didn't exist before.

We need to be careful that we don't latch on to a new buzzword and forget that we face challenges to create products where, even today, markets don't exist.

Within Nordson, the challenge is to balance the ability to listen and to customize. You can't believe how many ways there are to seal a box. You must marry the careful response to what customers believe they want to a healthy dose of proprietary input that allows them to see how they can improve their productivity and meet their goals in a creative way.

Pietrocini: Mass customization can be a strategic advantage if you're ahead. But it's not going to be much help if you're behind your competition. It depends on whether you're delivering something of unique value to a client base. In the food service industry, every buyer is unique; they all have their own value systems. So we build to their requirements. About 10 percent of our sales result from a faster turnaround time and faster delivery performance than our competition.

William Y. O'Connor (Ascom Timeplex): We often deal in large communications systems hooked to many points worldwide. So we've tried to retain our edge by being able to deliver anywhere in the world within three weeks of the order placement to the time it gets installed. That's pretty unique in the network computing arena, considering that we have to deal with differing standards and tariffs across the world. Also we must be able to integrate old equipment with new equipment. In the end, we have to use mass customization just to compete.

Peterson: Mass customization has to be customer-driven. It has to be joint engineering of a product to the extent that you can work with your customers and have your people in their plants and work with their marketing departments. One of our partners believes in the SOMO concept, because he wants his plant to "sell one/make one." So when they sell one on the shelf, he makes one in the plant.

In terms of challenges, I think U.S. management isn't quite as aggressive as the Europeans and the Japanese in achieving the goals set for operating plants. And we have to think more globally.

Walker: In the automotive industry, mass customization probably will happen more in the prototype development area (such as customer self-design) than in the actual product that is manufactured and delivered. As such, I look not at how we got to the product, but rather at how we are working with the customer.

One difficult problem is pushing customization concepts down through our layers of management. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are different cultures in the northern U.S. versus the southern U.S., and in union facilities versus non-union facilities.

Nichols: Mass customization is the result, not the aim. We are not going to win on just low-cost manufacturing. We are going to win by adding value through technology.

Coors: I agree with John. Competition is tough. To stay ahead we need a technological advantage. We're going to have to be more innovative, more resourceful, and more responsive. The key is your relationship with customers. You almost have to have a product ready for them before they know they need it.

Pine: Mass customization is a reality. Manufacturers must unleash the capabilities of people on the front lines, in marketing, manufacturing, and production.

Pete said, "Simplify, automate, and integrate." I think that's often wrong. It should be changed to "augment and integrate." It's not just integrating or downsizing, it's augmenting employees with technology, taking their skills and capabilities and unleashing them toward satisfying what the customer wants or soon will want.
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Title Annotation:CE Roundtable
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Panel Discussion
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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