Posts tagged ‘Ross Perot’

Corporate DNA

Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example.  Part of this piece read:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

To Which I Would Add One More Concern

Don Boudreaux had these two rejoinders to the notion that the GM bailout is a success simply because GM is making a profit.

Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health.  Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses.  Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so.  No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

Economically literate bailout opponents argued also that it sets a bad precedent.  By signaling to big corporations that government stands ready to pay the tab for the consequences of their poor decisions, big corporations will more likely make poor decisions in the future.  It’s far too early for Mr. Dionne to conclude that this prediction is mistaken.

I would offer a third concern -- that the government has kept hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and billions of dollars of physical assets under the management of the same group that have decidedly underutilized these assets in the past.  A bankruptcy without Federal intervention would likely have shifted assets and skilled workers into new companies with different management teams and cultures pursuing different strategies with different information.

I always have trouble explaining this issue to people.   Think of a sports team with great players but a lousy coach and management team.  Having the government ensure that the lousy management stays in control of the great players is a waste for everyone.  I explained it more in depth in this post, where I concluded

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case – Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA...

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Corporate DNA

In a post on letting GM fail, I discussed what I called "corporate DNA"

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot. You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change. ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation....Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you. When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

This seems to match the take of many insiders.

To John Shook, a former Toyota manager who worked at a joint-venture plant run by the Japanese company and GM in Fremont, California, that explains why the two automakers are in such different shape today. When it comes to engineering and manufacturing, Shook says, Toyota and GM are about equal. Where they differ is in their corporate cultures.

"Toyota is built on trial and error, on admitting you don't know the future and that you have to experiment," Shook said. "At GM, they say, "˜I'm senior management. There's a right answer, and I'm supposed to know it.' This makes it harder to try things."

The whole Bloomberg article this comes from is quite good.  Its pretty clear that GM had every reason to anticipate the current mess 3-4 years ago, and basically fiddled while the cash burned.  My strongest reaction from the article was, please let me have an epitaph better than this one:

Wagoner, a 31-year GM veteran, was the embodiment of its culture, an apostle of incremental change. Exciting as a Saturn, quotable as an owner's manual....

The Howard Beale Vote

As a libertarian, I am hugely excited that Ron Paul is getting some positive attention.  However, I have a terrible time syncing up the enthusiasm for him in some quarters with the historic indifference to libertarian ideas in the same quarters.  I am worried that this country has a 5-10% Howard Beale segment (I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more) that will get enthusiastic about any third party candidate who seams to challenge the establishment.  Do these people behind Paul really understand him, or are they just the same folks who supported Ross Perot's populist melange?