Five years ago this last Monday, Katrina struck along the Gulf Coast. Its aftermath still lives with us, the 9th Ward in New Orleans still devastated with diminishing hope. The Katrina experience was transformative along many dimensions. It graphically illustrated the execution rigidity born of planning and responsiveness that comes from leadership gained through cronyism and political machines. Lives were lost and value was destroyed in an experience that put light on our soft underbelly. In fact, 1836 people died and 135 were missing and financial losses exceeded $108 billion. The aftereffects from looting, violence, and losses to the economies would fill scores of books. It reshaped the local economy, created a diaspora of resources and cast doubts globally about our values.
Elected leadership made bad decisions. “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” - Mark Twain (1835 – 1910),
On the flip side, Entergy, the electric utility, distinguished itself with an exceptional response and record setting electrical system restoration. They were ready, willing, and able. This last weekend Isabel struck the East Coast, but this time, with very different consequences. We learned and many alive today can give thanks for that. Elected and appointed officials were ready, willing, and able. The final count is not in, but fewer (40+) have perished and early estimates of costs hover around $10 billion. It brought with it the still growing calamities from flooding, yet to be assessed.
While both storms destroyed property and economic value, some irrecoverable, those in charge with preparation and execution during Irene saved scores of lives. Why? While arguably we may have some better elected and appointed officials, the gene pool of the planners and responders did not change. What did change was the process, specifically, the process capability. The game changed from disaster response to disaster prevention. The process learned from the consequences of managing downstream from the storm, to well upstream of the storm. Change comes and storms are unavoidable, and they are both opportunities to be harvested. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity and there is opportunity in every storm.
Our business environment is well into a violent and unstable economic and geopolitical hurricane season. Do our planning and response processes reflect that? Do we hunker down, hold our cash in a safe box and wait for the storms to end, or harvest the opportunities each storm creates? Are managing with “detect and correct” or with “predict and prevent”?
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Salt in My Attic by William Shedd
The 9.0 earthquake that devastated northern Japan continues to have severe aftershocks. They are shocks in what clever physicist would ascribe to a type of space-time. It’s not about Star Trek stuff, or the time travel that fantasies love to use, but rather how one type of event starts a whole series of other events along a different type of path, affecting a different space at a different time, but connected. These types of other events are very real “butterfly effects” where a small change in one place can cause a whole bunch of changes downstream. Believe it or not, that earthquake has changed our lives, our businesses, and our collective futures. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker is expecting a 35% drop in profits, primarily from supply chain disruptions. Maybe that’s a no brainer, but it’s also driving severe supply chain effects globally and very real adverse economic and employment pain here in the US. From automakers and their suppliers, to many of the stuff we buy including our beloved electro-gadgetry … it’s still hurting.
How many of our business plans had “the earthquake” included as a scenario? Not very likely … Our nuclear industry was in the early days of a beautiful renaissance, one with a promise that would be a large driver of untethering us from our OPEC masters … but it too has been severely damaged by an aftershock … but one with no Richter scale. Disruptive events aren’t what they used to be. Historically, disruptive events were contained to the extent of our technological and logistical isolation …. We weren’t all networked. Globalization has changed that … we’re one big interdependent and interconnected family. The apparent and marketed successes of globalized supply chains and very sensitive “just in time” systems had a big Black Swan lurking … behind our chosen lines of sight.
Today, complexity has become a global behemoth, creating new rules of business and generating many more choices and opportunities for innovation and value creation. I certainly love my Android phone more than the beeper I had 30 years ago. For businesses, that complexity requires a severe filtering of what is included in planning and consequently what we chose to be blind to. Planning in business love the optimists and sometimes ostracize the pessimists … the ones who ask the unnerving questions.
Given Japan’s location, how likely are earthquakes? I heard an unfortunate comment from a nuclear industry spokesperson … unfortunate because it is an industry I love and believe in … that “the damage at the Fukishima plant was not from earthquake damage … but rather from the tsunami, it performed as designed.” Aren’t earthquakes and tsunamis connected?
Today’s world is much less dominated by trends and easy predictions … how many surprises have we had to respond to in our enterprises? My bet is that we’ve had more of them more frequently … in some multiple of our increasing interconnected interdependency. Take a look back and count them … what would we have done if we had known or prepared ahead of time? As we look ahead and build our planning and business models for the coming year … are we asking the right questions? How many levels of “what if” along our interconnectivity are we exploring? Have the aftershocks created more timidity in decision making? How much time do we invest in complexity driven failure modes versus “win” and “capture” plans. Do our business continuity plans address the really scary stuff?
There is opportunity in every storm, after all, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Seneca, Roman philosopher, mid first century AD.
What’s in a name? How about the three R’s: recognition, reputation, and revenues? What’s the value of a brand? BRANDZ has just published their evaluations and valuations of global brands. It’s a measure of just how valuable the commercial brand is and supporting insight into the whys and wherefores. The shifts and changes in their rankings are a barometer of how our choices of who delivers value are manifested in our buying behavior. It’s not an opinion poll, but rather an evaluation that incorporates business results with analysis inclusive of some subjectivity. It’s free and easily downloaded. The big global headline is that Apple, with an 84% jump in score, has surpassed Google as the most valuable brand in the world. Technology, specifically technology that enables our multi-polarity and interconnectivity to flourish, rules the top of the list … the standard bearers of an increasingly untethered and disintermediated consumer and commercial world. That means that value propositions increasingly incorporate wireless connectivity without a middle man. Googling it, Tweeting, linking up on Facebook or LinkedIn, catching it on YouTube are fully integrated into our lexicon. Recently, repressive government regimes in the Middle East have learned just how powerful these untethered forces are.
There is surrealism to this, particularly for us Baby Boomers. Brands exist in a very Darwinian environment, with success belonging to the fittest. What being fit means has changed lots over the years. The shift years ago from industrial dominance was led by the services economy. In fact, one of the top 5 this year, IBM, now a consulting and technology services giant, was once a hardware maker selling typewriters and lots of computers, behemoths and little ones. The current kings of the hill are all technology firms, with the exception of McDonalds and some might argue that their value proposition and the stuff they sell are untethered, disintermediated, and high tech as well. To nail down the point, Amazon is now a more valuable retail brand than Wal-Mart.
Early losers in this sea change included stock brokers replaced by powerful web engines that enabled more effective, efficient transactional capabilities. Those that transitioned to become trusted advisors are still with us, but very few order takers remain. Be they Borders or Blockbuster, wireless and untethered trumped brick and mortar between customer and supplier.
Delivery of value has increasingly demanded convenience as the driver.
- How often do we measure our performance in delivering convenience?
- Are we ubiquitous in accessibility?
- How many hand-offs exist in between us and the customers’ actual securing the benefits they seek?
- How well are our electrons delivering value? Do we paper or pdf, snail mail or email, travel or teleconference, drive to the mall jungle or click to Amazon, carry cash or card it, keep knowledge in persons or in our systems and processes ……?
- How are our customers deciding where to shop and how will they decide with whom to buy?
- How quickly do we adapt and respond to changing requirements?
- Are our improvement efforts focused on where our customers are going or on getting better at where we are at today?
Last fall I experienced a nuclear stress test. It had nothing to do with power plants or the stress that the operators in Japan are undergoing. Mine was conducted by my cardiologist and the isotope was a means to gain transparency into my system under different conditions, conditions that evaluated my behavior in a dynamic environment. Happily, it rendered good news that rewarded the hundreds of miles and several of my treasured New Balance athletic shoes.
Over that last couple of years, we’ve highlighted the evidence and perspectives that our business world is increasingly more dynamic, interdependent, highly networked, dangerously complex, and managed by tools and traditions built on much more stable process experience. Business models and algorithms, control systems, enterprise tools and performance improvement technologies derived significant power from the likelihood that behavior repeat sufficiently to enable the power of statistics to improve decision making. I many cases, that stability and value remains and I expect that that will go on beyond any horizon I can conjure. In fact, Dr. Deming encouraged us to look at the world through the lens of Plan, Do, Check, and Act, and his truism remains eternal.
• When and how do we subject our enterprises to that PDCA?
• What is the nature of our Check activities?
• Do we get beyond “according to plan or budget”?
• What type of stress tests are we employing? How would our business continuity plans hold up?
• Are we evaluating what we operate against the assumptions we made when we developed our plans, processes, and systems?
• Are the experiences of the last three years is sufficient to justify a fresh look at our Check phase?
• What causes and effects do we think about today that were insignificant a few years back?
• Have we learned anything new about assumptions, risks, and opportunities? Do our enterprise systems, business processes, strategies and objectives reflect that learning?
• Who is asking the discomforting questions within our enterprises? What questions do our trusted advisors ask of us? What answers do they provide to our questions?
• Are yesterday’s data building today’s processes to deal with tomorrow’s problems? What change do we anticipate?
• How well do we currently change our capability in the face of adversity or new requirements? How far upstream do we analyze?
• Where do we sit on the fragility to agility scale?
• Do our metrics come from an odometer or a telescope?
“Events will take their course, it is no good of being angry at them; he is happiest who wisely turns them to the best account.” Bellerophon by Euripides 480-406 BC
2010 was a year where much of our attention and anxiety were held captive by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a sobering reminder of our dependence on fuels that support our lifestyle, commerce, defense, and essentials to life today. Moratoriums on deep water drilling ensued followed by hearings and probes into why it happened and who we need to blame and subsequently seek a means of exacting some comforting justice. It’s been months since the topic has had front page coverage, almost forgotten much like the devastation and impacts of Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti, China, and Chile.
Currently, the horrors precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan coupled with the political sea changes in the Middle East fill our front pages. In each of these cases, the parallel story on their impacts on our energy supply shares the spotlight. Events and actions that precipitate unpredictable instability are universally disturbing. We are not a species well wired for the unpredictable, much less so for the unthinkable. Our education is much about real or conjured patterns that explain the world and how it came to be as it is currently. The damage in Japan to the nuclear facilities is frightening and the consequences still very uncertain. They are not the result of irresponsible entities, commercial or governmental, but rather of our shared capacity to evaluate the unthinkable. Consequently, hordes of post mortem experts and pundits are ready to quickly make on the fly strategies about our energy future. The nuclear industry is at risk, sadly with a broad brush, and the media is all too happy to stoke the fires of panic.
I believe the fundamental issue remains unchanged. It is not about energy, or earthquakes, tsunamis, or accidents, or financial meltdowns. It is about our inadequate capacity to evaluate the unthinkable. Poor decisions are likely to follow, those borne in the heat of fear and politics. Some will want all the answers to questions that respond to the thinkable and consume valuable time and minds needed for the exploring of the unthinkable.
It’s time to reread “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Impact-Highly-Improbable/dp/1400063515).
While these frightening events are globe rattling and cascade to us all, similar issues may well be alive within our organizations, enterprises, and businesses.
• What is the process through which we evaluate important decisions?
• Do our plans follow well established patterns of business rules that we believe to be stable and reliable?
• Who addresses the unthinkable?
• How many high impact surprises have we observed in the last three years?
It’s something to think about. Thoughts?
Many great cities developed for one important reason. They were at crossroads, or at bays, river crossings, or safe harbors. Some were near resources to be harvested or emerging roads, tracks, or caravan routes. They grew because they were or would become markets. Market towns enabled trade, commerce, and exchanges that enabled value creation. Agriculture, mining, cattle, diamonds, forestry … all types of enterprises emerged, so that exchanges could be made, with money or barter as instruments. We could get and sell stuff. For most of human history, markets were visible, tangible, and somewhere we travelled to buy or sell. This tangible requirement and the transportation linkages determined life or death to commerce and the development of cities. Ask the railroad towns that were bypassed by the interstate highway system or mining towns that had no metals or minerals left to harvest. Our conquest of time and space over centuries has shaped this dynamic.
Shopping and commerce “has come a long way, baby!” The yearly post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy continues to amaze, particularly with how the connected world has changed our business landscape. It’s like watching an unfolding chapter in the Star Wars epic, except that the war is over our spending wallets. In this recent episode of the on-going war, the Cyber Alliance has again bested the Mall Empire for our loyalties. In fact, for some time now, the Mall Empire has painfully learned from these battles, and some have defected to or are replicating many of the Cyber Alliance strategies and tactics. This Cyber Alliance had its beginnings several years ago, deep in Amazon web jungles or perhaps a scenic eBay. If this keeps up, there is a good chance that the Mall Empire may have to close more of their forts or garrisons. If the battlefield is “our wallets”, who gets to it faster?
Business by brick and mortar is diminishing, some to extinction, by economics, wasted resources, overheads, and more often a more ubiquitous predator, the online competitor and operator. In fact, many brick and mortar enterprises today succeed only because they have built an online presence. Many slept in on Black Friday morning while others were out at midnight and stayed out until midday or later. The Friday shopper fought bottlenecks, endured queues, and mass insanity for deals. I logged on, chose, paid, and checked out, all sitting with a great cup of coffee.
From a business perspective, the online world is yet to find boundaries. It, like our universe, continues to grow and we continue to discover more about it. Visionaries are in the wonderful position where new business models are there for the making. The risks and rewards are so different, that in many disciplines agile will trump big and flexible will trump fixed. From the customer’s perspective, it is a whole new journey, walking through boundless virtual shopping malls and the new excitement that more choices and transactional convenience brings.
It has always been about convenience and cost, for buyers and sellers alike. How soon can my customers secure the benefits they seek and at what cost? The virtual world provides dual benefits of customer convenience and a more level playing field for the seller and suppliers. Historically, large brick and mortar meant more items, sizes, and choices for the customer. It defined convenience geographically and in floor space design. Goal one was to get the customer in the door and goal two was to keep them inside shopping, not much different than a casino in Las Vegas. Not so anymore.
The Black Friday and Cyber Monday battles are not just about holiday gifting, are they? How about our own enterprises? Are we there on Friday or Monday, 24-7? Whose convenience does our business model favor?
Thanksgiving 2010 is upon us. It nears the end of a year replete with catastrophes, wars, economic and political upheaval. The media successfully amplified issues, created pain and panic disguised as news, and pundits freely demonized others without restraint. Yet, above this soup of sadness are life, dignity, and the love we are capable of demonstrating. We hope that this Thanksgiving begins a better year and launches renewed opportunity and reminders of all that is good about life, …, personally, professionally, or collectively, as enterprises.
Positive opportunities always abound and finding the right lenses to see them and the strength to harvest them are for us to develop. General Motors is re-emerging and, with that, millions of lives can develop for the better. The answers to our challenges will never come from politicians or the phototropic entourages that swarm around them. Good government is not born from political biases or polarizing pundits, but rather, it comes from a demanding citizenry and a strong obsession to persevere and create new value.
I am thankful for our human capacity to solve problems and overcome calamities and our shared desire to create a better place for our children and grandchildren alike. I am thankful for the privilege and responsibility of free choice and also thankful that it is priceless and requires that we all pay a price. Scan me, frisk me, and make me twirl, I am thankful for the opportunity to fly. Tax me, ask of me, count me, even restrict me from doing some things; I am thankful to be here. Our security and safety is not achieved by spectators, comfortable in their chairs, pontificating and pulling at every thread. It comes from gladiators, in the line of fire and criticism, using the tools and skill available to keep us safe. Remember, the same critics that point at what is being done will flip like a penny and point at what wasn’t done if anything should go wrong.
The Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, became official in 1863. It became a holiday in the midst of the most horrific and devastating period in our national experience, the Civil War. Yet, it was born of our capacity to help one another and collectively find solutions to calamities and disasters. This capacity is one to be thankful for and we wish for it to become what redefines the coming year.
Yesterday, residents in the San Francisco neighborhood of San Bruno returned to what was left of their homes. Several had burned when a 24 inch transmission gas pipeline failed and a fire ensued. The section that failed was due to fail and, following the rules of physics, it complied. Those who own older homes, older cars, or are getting personally old know that time, elements, and decay will eventually win and create a disruption. The organizations who own and operate the pipeline take their responsibilities to customer, public, and customer safety with lots of gravity. The pipeline was due to be replaced and there was a plan filed with the regulatory agencies to do the repair work. They follow a business process that requires lots of opinions and decisions to weigh in before the line is fixed. It is called regulation and the real problem is compounded, not created by regulation.
In this case, the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between physics and economics has created another calamity. There are powerful forces at work to make it certain that many more calamities will happen. These calamities occur in all types of business systems: personal, private and public sectors, for profit or not. We operate these systems with a very specific fuel and consume that fuel to create value, deliver it, sustain it, and get some more fuel to run the process some more. When we are running out of that fuel in our tanks, we must convert the value we create into more fuel, find ways to consume less, borrow some more fuel, or stop consuming all together. That fuel is money, the lifeblood of economies worldwide. In order to operate our business we are required to compensate our sources of money at a specific rate. It is often the alpha process of all processes. The laws of economics will stipulate that no money means no process.
We have all seen the effects: work stoppages (private and public), staffing impacts, restructuring, budget adjustments, reworked plans, downsizing, ad infinitum. There is one specific behavior that is very dangerous; to systematically postpone, delay, underinvest, or forego maintenance of the physical and human systems that operate the business. It happens. An item scheduled for this year gets pushed into the next year’s budget in order to meet this year’s economic plans and aspirations, and we expect the laws of physics to change for us. Since many of our maintenance plans are statistically derived, the odds that a specific item will fail as a result of a “small” delay seem like a safe bet. It’s a bit like skipping an oil change or maybe taking a medication every other day. Does that become a habit? Do we eventually build a decision system that believes that the odds will always play out in our favor? Do we manage our plans and messaging to reflect an optimistic view? What happens when lots of the stuff is already old? Do we believe in luck?
When we deliver value, it is done so at a certain level of capability, meaning that some are better at converting money into value than others. Left alone, all these systems are subject to decay and disruption. That can be a pipeline or the skills of our people. When we engage in a process that decays faster than the business requirements to create value, a disruption is inevitable, physical or monetary. Yes, a delay in maintenance increases the chances that failure will occur and delays in building knowledge, skill , and tools for our people does the same.
When satisfying an economic goal in the present is competing with a possibility of a negative consequence in the future, who wins? As we face the current economic challenges, how do we decide what not to do? Do we manage the future from the present or the present from the future?
Labor Day weekend is upon us as is also the statistical peak of the hurricane season. Somehow the coincidence befits the times as it may well be a different type of statistical peak for labor. The Labor Department defined the day as “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It provokes an interesting question as to who is the chicken and who is the egg? Are “strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country” a consequence of the labor movement or the cause? What does the experience of our current situation say?
Much of the political rhetoric (pick any party) defines our most important objective is to “get Americans back to work.” It sounds like it is possible to return to where we’ve been. But time’s arrow is much like a one way street and the future does not appear to look much like the past. My growing concern is that many actually believe we can go “back to work” when “back” is not there anymore.
Much has to do with the nature of value creation and what happens as conditions change and value gets redefined. At the expense of sounding simplistic, three dimensions for value have always been “faster, better, and cheaper” and in a multipolar world, value creation is mercurial and hard to hold on to. It means that if we’re not faster, better, and cheaper now, and someone else is and continuing to improve, catch up becomes improbable.
“The faster I go, the behinder I get … You have to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are. If you want to get anywhere, you’ll have to run much faster … Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass” Lewis Carroll.
The question is do we know how fast we’re going and how fast the ones ahead are running? Who’s measuring? How fast is faster changing? How fast is better getting better? How fast is cheaper getting cheaper? Many can demonstrate that they are in fact improving, year after year, and yet the business is in dire straits.
Today we can only reap what we sowed yesterday, and the cycle repeats every day. As Labor Day approaches, what should our strategy for value creation become? How in tune are the ways we get faster, better, and cheaper with the real races being run, perhaps across the globe or across the street? How long has the race been running and are we gaining or sliding? What do the laws of physics say?
Fitness precedes performance. Jump starting a poorly maintained car or one with outdated capabilities doesn’t win races. Restarting economies mean restarting individual enterprises with specific markets and challenges. Each has their own race to run and each must take responsibility for fitness. If our enterprise is obese, then we must become lean. The rules and requirements for performance tomorrow will change in the middle of the race, so we may need sufficient agility to change on-the-run. We may discover that what worked well yesterday is currently our greatest constraint.
“I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then.” Lewis Carroll
It’s absolutely fascinating how much leverage going green has gained. It’s hard to miss the marketing, packaging, and commitments that continue to grow and show. Many of us make green choices daily, some bigger, some smaller, and some to feel better, all with positive impacts. My observations are that, in consumer goods, the visible focus is on producing “from recycled” materials or from producing from benign components or processes. But what about all the really big stuff we build, produce, or operate?
The globe is dotted with far too many closed facilities, done with their productive lives, some nasty, awaiting a future that may never look green. Nobody likes them and they serve as reminders and warnings for decision makers. It is easy to presume sinister capitalists or overzealous weapons producers as the blame, but it is hard to escape that it’s a lot about economics and prosecution of the national will and multiple interests. Economics is a bit like physics in that processes will frequently follow the paths of least resistance. Similarly, extraction and harvesting economies have denuded the landscape, inviting regulation and in some sectors and countries, restoration efforts, but not yet without irreversible consequences. Getting to green may require multiple generations and someone to pony up on the costs. There is no Utopia, and the noble natives of the planet Pandora exist only in fantasies; and illusions that these harmonious societies ever existed are unsupported history. It’s challenging, because what got us here may eventually constrain us from getting there. What got us here was our capacity to solve problems and overcome obstacles, motivation notwithstanding. How we frame what are problems and opportunities drives important directional decisions.
After all, decisions are typically biased by the productive capability of what we make, build, or operate. What that means is that there is far more weight and attention given to the costs, effectiveness, and efficiencies of fabricating, constructing, and operating than to what happens at end-of-life. For lots of the big stuff, end-of-life is typically far into the future, messier to deal with, and makes the review and approval process more “difficult.” I’ve tested this hypothesis multiple times over many years, and the responses are consistent, end-of-life and decommissioning are not a big factor in the design discussions. Perhaps that is changing.
Over the last 50 years, some of the ugliness that we contend with as enterprises, governments, and consumers has to do with the direct costs and externalities ensuing from unplanned outcomes or effects at end-of-life. Granted, many plans and proposals have language addressing full life cycle costs, yet the evidence of subsequent actions have not aligned. A lens that I’ve found to be helpful is that what we get is precisely what our design, fabrication, and operation is supposed to give us. If it is not giving us that, then we have to investigate, the design fabrication and operation, where the errors or defects were generated that result in what we’re getting. It is as true for what we’re doing today as for what yet awaits us when we have stop or abandon the process. We’ve already designed, built, and operate with end-of life costs, to a good or poor degree.
The challenge ahead is not simple, simplistic, nor easy. Our economic systems create powerful forces and motivators. I really love the life that technology enables and don’t really want to give it up. I have many friends who build and operate some of the really big stuff and they are good, intelligent, highly principled, and ethical people. They care about the welfare of our world and their legacy as much as we do. The challenge is striking the balance between a more certain today and a sometimes very uncertain tomorrow. It gets really hard, when our positive economic rewards are about what we do in the present. They are immediate and positive, versus far into the future and negative. Which would you pick?
For visionaries, this creates an opportunity. The storms of growing public sentiment and distrust of some industries creates an awesome opportunity to design and differentiate with a smarter end-of-life offering. Smarter end-of-life creates value, reduces compliance burdens, fosters complementary lines of business, impacts investor perceptions, and can have a transformative effect on vision, values, and behaviors. For revisionists, a different family of motivators is often necessary. Carrots have longer lasting benefits than sticks.
Sometimes, the military does this well. The really good conquest and occupation strategies are done and executed against a well developed exit strategy. Forethought enables us to manage the present from the future.
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” Sun Tzu
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