Strategy Consulting for Richard A. Michelson, McNeil Corporation and Inspection Technologies, Akron, OH
A reader of my blog posts has requested that I select and share stories from my days when I was earning my experiences as a strategy consultant. That’s good, because they bring out a lot of valuable pointers, and they are in days that are no longer under total confidentialities. I’ve already published the first on my experiences with George W. Tippins. This is the experience story about my experiences with Richard A. Michelson, then chairman/CEO of McNeil Corporation (now McNeil & NRM Inc.) and co-founder Sharon Golf Club), Akron, OH.
Growing up in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio and having both parents having worked for Goodyear, I was always enamored to learn more about the world’s largest tire maker. I also lived in a city where it seemed all the world’s tires were manufacured. Akron was home to: Goodyear, Firestone, General, and BF Goodrich. As a high-school student at Archbishop Hoban, you could literally see most of the tire manufacturing facilities of Goodyear just over the hill that Hoban sits on. Speaking of my high-school days, I had found summer jobs at Babcock & Wilcox; and as a caddy, gardener, and working in the kitchens and pro shop of the Sharon Golf Club in Sharon Center. (As Sharon’s top caddy, by the way, I was sent to both the PGA events at Firestone CC, and the LPGA events at Weymouth Valley CC where I was selected to caddy on the PGA tour for Texas’ Miller Barber, and for Australia’s Jan Stephenson in her rookie year on the LPGA tour, among other well-known pros. For Stephenson, it was her first tournament in the United States, and no one (including me) knew of her full golfing potential — or else I might have made a different life’s work decision.)
Sharon Golf Club also was a great place to meet famous people. While there, I caddied for General Westmoreland, Robert McNamara, Jack Nicklaus, John Glenn, Graig Nettles,
Thurman Munson, Joe Namath, Mike Phipps, Bob Babich, Lee Majors, many other celebrities, and business leaders of Akron and Cleveland that frequented Sharon, a private male-only golf club buit by local millionaires, for millionaires. Like I said, I had many opportunities to meet and converse with them all. One of the founders of the Sharon Golf Club was Richard (Dick) A. Michelson, CEO of McNeil Corporation in Akron, he often played his rounds with Glenn Meadows (also from McNeil). I caddied for both of them mutiple times. Dick Michelson was an old-school, pragmatic and very-friendly ex-Navy machinist who during World War II was stationed in Riverside, CA overseeing the production of the light Landing Vehicle Tracked version four (LVT-4) armored personnel and cargo armored landing vehicle that was used to strike the beaches of Saipan and Iwo Jima. After the war, he returned to Akron to find work within McNeil Akron Inc.
Work for McNeil Akron Inc. as a creative director
In the last few weeks I was creative-director at Akron’s Quadrathought Creative Group, a marketing services company, we were hired by McNeil’s CEO Glenn Meadows to design marketing campaigns for their OEM equipment for the global rubber and tire manufacturers. (I say last few weeks, because three weeks after we were signed on, the IRS and State tax agencies closed Quadrathought down for failure to properly pay employment taxes, which led me to Pittsburgh and the beginnings of The Xavier Group, Ltd.) I pitched the winning marketing campaign’s creative ideas and services to the upper management team (which included both Meadows and Dick Michelson among others). After the meeting, Dick pulled me aside and asked me if I used to caddy for him and Glenn at Sharon. I said that I was their caddy, and that started off a new friendly relationship between the three of us.
Research and Analytics into new directions for McNeil and their potential impact on strategy and profits
A week later, Dick Michelson called me back to explore and provide some advice and analyses work on whether McNeil Corporation should purchase BF Goodrich’s Aerospace Company (now UTC Aerospace) Inspection Technology Division. Inspection Technologies had been rolled out of Goodrich with French venture capital to create a start-up that became Inspection Technologies Inc. (ITI). Michelson and Meadows felt that “possibly ITI would give them a broader range of process equipment,” and that would better bolster McNeil to survive for the future, as the rubber tire industry was undergoing a massive shakeout (with class-action lawsuits against Firestone’s failed fiberglass wheels (additive manufacturing today would have been Firestone’s savior in the 70’s) and their attempts at radial tire manufacturing, and BF Goodrich’s hostile takeovers by European investors. I agreed to personally begin this process at Quadrathought for him and to use the results as some of the analyses in our more comprehensive marketing campaign.
Once I relocated to Pittsburgh and started The Xavier Group, Ltd. I announced Xavier’s start-up in many newspapers. Because, I had ties and family in Akron-Medina, I also had the start-up release sent to the Akron Beacon Journal, the Medina County Gazette, the Wadsworth Sun Newspapers, Rittman-Norton-Doylestown Trogdon Papers, and community papers in Fairlawn, Barberton and throughout West Akron. Michelson read the release and called Xavier at its new Pittsburgh location (in Ross Twp.). In our conversation, he explained that even though Quadrathought no longer exists, he would like to hire The Xavier Group to continue the analyses and work on projects for his company. I explained that legally we would have to side-step any work on any kinds of marketing, advertising, or sales campaigns for McNeil. He then asked if we were able to provide our engineering services and strategy services for McNeil specifically regarding ITI, but also McNeil’s line upgrades at Goodyear’s tire manufacturing facilities in Akron s a subcontractor to their prime contract. Xavier took the job, and McNeil became another one of our first clients.
Status of the Rubber and Tire Industry
It needs to be understood here that THIS is what strategy is all about. It is difficult to think of an industry that was affected more by the wave of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the 1980s than the U.S. tire industry. Seventy-five percent of the companies in the industry (accounting for 90 percent of the value) experienced a takeover bid or were forced to restructure during the period 1981-89. As a result of this activity, control changed hands in over half the companies in this industry and forever altered the rubber and tire industry in Akron. Even more remarkable, in the majority of cases, control was transferred to foreign owners. By the end of the decade, the longstanding traditional American firms like Firestone, Uniroyal, BF Goodrich, Armstrong, and General Tire belonged to foreign companies. As a consequence, large U.S.-owned tire manufacturers, who in 1971 represented 59 percent of the world production and included four out of the top five producers, dropped to just 17 percent by 1989.
The rubber industry was in a shakeout mode being broadsided by European and Japanese competitors who introduced radial tire designs; just as the steel industry based in the same region was broadsided by the new technologies of electric arc furnaces and mini-mills. The foreign competitors, looking for a vulberability of the traditional giants in their industry, had latched on to disruptively innovative technological advances.
The switch to the radial technology required major capital investments because it was not economically feasible to convert the existing bias-ply capacity to producing radials; Firestone’s attempt to do so ended in fiasco, and record financial losses. As a result, tire producers faced the prospect of making major capital investment in a low margin sector at the same time as the growth prospects for the entire sector looked grim. The major diversified tire companies (Goodrich in particular) made the conscious decision to reduce their capital and development expenditure in the tire business, sell their foreign operations, seek government “national security” contracts within the military-industrial complex to salvage some operations, and look for a foreign (European) buyer for mostt of its domestic operations.
It was also this rapid technological change that began in the 60’s and culminated in the 80’s that generated overcapacity in certain industries (and significantly in manufacturing), that required longstanding firms to quickly and RADICALLY improvise and adapt with new strategies for survival from optimizing the use of R&D explorations; operationally downsize; or exit. Managers who were tied to old paradigms to this day, still fail to recognize quickly enough that a decision has to be made; so they continue to invest in the old paradigm as they always have, and turn to legal channels to defend against the broadside intrusions to their markets. When managers behave this way, exit is significantly delayed at substantial cost of real resources to the company, to the industry, and to the society as a whole, and in my opinion, we see a lot of this in the current politicized ideologies of the “Make America Great Again” approach to business strategies.
The tire industry of the 70’s and 80’s serves as a great example of how favoring the power and profits of the old paradigm over attempting new disruptively-innovative products and services can become a road to perdition. Wide-spread consumer acceptance of radial tires by 1982, meant that worldwide tire capacity had to shrink by two-thirds (because radials last three to five times longer than bias ply tires). This, therefore, required that the tire giants had to move forward with new strategies if they wanted to survive. Instead, historical analyses suggest that they turned to the military and defense “national security” industry to keep them safe (which ultimately didn’t help at all — but led to multiple recessionary downturns that negatively affected US society.
“This business is going through some rough times. We have to make major investments so that we will have a chair when the music stops,”was the chant coming from many business leaders in that time. They failed to recognize the true issues facing them at their front doors.
Lessons from the Steel / Primary Metals Industries
In 1964, all of the US Steel behemoths (US Steel, Bethlehem, Republic, LTV, National) made the decision to stick with basic oxygen furnaces (BOF) and improve outputs in their facilities. The STRATEGY was to milk the cash out of BOF when electric arc furnaces and overseas mini-mills challenged the leaders in steel. That meant NOT investing in new steel equipment and plants, but reengineering operations with union labor pay increases that increased experienced steelworker loyalties; and to increase purchases of automation and advanced manufacturing equipment that (in combination labor, automation, advanced tooling) would improve outputs and profits of existing (old) facilities. They would “milk them” until they were no longer profitable, then sell them to others. (Unions thought they were negotiating better deals and higher middle class wages — but the strategies used in steel suggest otherwise!)
At McNeil, because they saw their rubber and tire “cash cow” drying up, as a tire manufacturing supplier of OEM equipment, they saw they needed to increase their offerings, and they wanted to see if in-line 2D and 3D automated visual inspection machines, flouroscopic / ultrasonic / X-ray / infrared analysis inspection machines would improve their standings with Akron’s tire manufacturers and keep them at the top of their game. If it did, their new STRATEGY would be to offer end-to-end in-line equipment to meet the needs of rubber and tire manufacturers. That end-to-end (or turnkey) approach, I was very familiar with from my work at Davy McKee on processing plants.
What is real “strategy?”
The purpose of hiring outside engineering and strategy consulting firms is to allow them to deeply analyze potential future actions to see if it will increase profitability and/or extend the life of the organization until new economic conditions can yield growth. Growth strategies in good times are to expand and improve positioning of resources to yield better demographics, territories, technologies so as to optimally serve more customers in a more valuable way. Engineers analyze with a deep dive of how technologies are designed and applied in real-world situations. Their feedback and recommendations will either improve the technologies, or make recommendations specifying some other course of action would be more appropriate. Those are the essence of shaping a good strategy. Once the strategy is in place, the tactics (plan or execution) will dictate the degree of success an organization will have.
How did this relate to my and The Xavier Group’s experiences?
My newly acquired exposure to visual inspection automation and robotics would drive myself, and The Xavier Group, from then (1981) to the present day. Think about it. McNeil’s machines (before inspection machines) were using chemistry to shape, mold, cure, vulcanize, and create tires on a mass produced scale. They wanted to add inspection equipment to the in-line process to provide “automated” quality controls (QC) and quality assurance (QA) … and to create a turnkey offering to manufacturers.
From a sheer technology experience the OEM machines to be analyzed were:
- McNeil Akron’s existing OEM line of rubber processing equipment
- McNeil Akron’s potential OEM line of inspection processing equipment
- 2D high-resolution, high-speed visual inspection machinery
- 3D high-resolution, high-speed spatial visual inspection machinery
- Flouroscopic X-ray analyses inspection machinery
- Ultrasonic sound wave analyses inspection machinery
- Thermographic Infrared light analyses inspection machinery
- Thermographic Infrared LIDAR analyses inspection machinery
- How that processing equipment would work together in a Goodyear tire manufacturing facility
- How the automation equipment was to be “networked” together
- How the network would collect and use data in a “turnkey design”
In understanding the machines, one had to also understand (in 1981 technology):
- High-resolution cameras and optical lenses
- Camera placement to yield 3D virtual imagery
- Flouroscopic X-ray imaging processes (silver print emulsions)
- Picture-taking focusing and manual and automatic exposure dynamics
- Ultrasound camera imaging processes (digital screen and paper readouts)
- Ultrasound osilliscope/oscillograph soundwave readouts (amplitude and frequencies — and what they mean)
- Thermographic Infrared camera imaging processes (including FLIR)
- Thermographic LIDAR camera imaging processes
- In-process Conveyor Systems
- Process Controls, Statistical Process Control (SPC), Quality Management
- Sensing technologies
- Process line software and Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS)
- Inspection Equipment Software
- OEM Equipment Software
- CAD, CAM, CIM, CNC Machinery and Software
- Electrical and Electronic Components
- Mechanical and Engineered Design Components
- Chemical and Mixing Components and Formulae
- Networked in-line Controllers and Switches
- Enterprise and Information Technology Architectures
- Machine-to-Machine Communication Technology Architectures
- Human-to-Machine Communication Technology Architectures
- Human-to-Human Communications Theory and Practice
- Problem-Solving Theory and Practice
- Operational Governance and Business Operations Modeling
In understanding the McNeil Corporation business model to develop a strategy and make a decision regarding the Inspection Technology one had to:
- Perform a company Situation Analysis
- Perform a company Financial Analysis
- Perform a company Marketing/Industry Analysis
- Perform a by Market Economic Outlook Analysis
- Perform an Industry Outlook Analysis
- Perform a Stakeholder Analysis
- Perform a Resource Allocation and Positioning Analysis
- Perform an ITI Merger and Acquisition (M&A) Analysis
- Perform a Customer and Customer Outlook Analysis
- Perform a Technology Outlook Analysis
From these, The Xavier Group would then be able to provide cohesive and detailed recommendations to McNeil, Michelson, and Meadows on how they should best proceed; and for The Xavier Group (the results could dictate whether or not McNeil should enter the next phase) with Tactical Plans and Executibles.
The 1982 Goodyear installation and testing subcontract experience
One intriguing upside to this process was that McNeil senior management had already closed a deal with Goodyear’s CEO Charles Pilliod Jr. to install the inspection equipment on a Goodyear Tire line to see how well it would work. (It appears that Goodyear, at that time, was formulating a strategy regarding their future and facilities as well!) This meant that in addition to providing strategy consulting services, Xavier would be subcontracting on engineering services regarding the installation and implementation of the inspection technology equipment, which would thus be providing the advantages of real-time field data and information collection to support solutions, recommendations, and improve conclusions regarding the project.
We began the project in the summer of 1982. Over the winter, I, and The Xavier Group team and its contractors prepared ourselves for the task by preparing and pining over reams of analyses, and engineering on-site work at both McNeil and at Goodyear to see how the equipment would work, and how it would be installed at the facility. We also deep-dived into research regarding the science that was behind the new technologies; while our financial team prepared its M&A and P&L papers regarding the backgrounds and culture of Goodrich’s Inspection Technologies Inc. to see whether or not the purchase would be a “good fit” for McNeil. We wanted to be ready and prepared to fasttrack our capabilities as McNeil’s subcontractor, when we were asked to execute. In that stage, preparation and persistence are much more valuable to the outcomes than other aspects. We, as spring blossomed, began to mimic “dry-runs” on all the procedures we would be involved in — and time-sequenced them to optimize our productivity when we were in the field. Those dry-run practice operations were also key in helping us come up with metric procedures to help collect the right kinds of field data when the pilot program was turned on and we were receiving realtime data from the in-line process and machines. These runs also helped us define better questions to be asked, and allowed us to draw up the kinds of meaningful information feedback loops that would optimize the characteristics of the working final product. (I’m not sure if today’s organizations truly understand the value of such preparation — though I do know that it is still done by most competent outside contractors.) I must note here, that these should be done as standard operating practice in all industries and organizations or businesses from start-ups through Fortune 100 multinationals.
It took only a few months to compete the project within budget and under deadline in 1982. It turned out to be a successful installation. As for McNeil’s purchase of Inspection Technologies Inc. we provided them with our recommendations regarding the purchase, as well as plans for the implementation of the new strategy should they adopt the recommendations. I don’t know how things transpired after that, because I understand that Goodrich and the French venture capitalists involved complicated the financial side of the project. It was my understanding from ongoing discussions with Michelson and Meadows for the few years after that project that McNeil Corporation (as it had then been renamed) did, in fact, use many of the strategy recommendations moving forward, and did eventually increase its OEM offerings in the area of non-destructive testing inspection machines and equipment.
A reader of my blog posts has requested that I select and share a story or three from my days when I was earning my experiences as a strategy consultant. In the early ’80s, I arrived in Pittsburgh and started The Xavier Group Ltd. (1981). I started the company with experiences that centered around the personalities of three significant individuals — three of the first seven companies for which I was a young strategy consultant: George W. Tippins (founder/owner of Tippins Machinery Company, owner Allegheny Ludlum Steel – now Allegheny Technologies, and Tuscaloosa Steel, Alabama); Donald H. Jones (founder/owner of Control Systems Research, Technology Recognition Corp., Who’s Who in Technology, International Cybernetics Corp., Automation News Network, Industry.Net, and Draper Triangle Investments; Jones was also was adjunct faculty at CMU’s Tepper School of Business (where he founded the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship)); and finally Edward George Sr. (founder of The Tangier Restaurant (5-stars) and Vegas-style Cabaret/Nightclub), West Akron, OH. It’s hard for me to single out a single story, so instead I will publish a few stories in the next few blogs.
I arrived in Pittsburgh, PA in the early spring of 1981 from Akron, OH where I had been a creative-director at Quadrathought, a business-marketing services company (until it was forced to close just months after I had joined it). Before Quadrathought, I worked for a Fortune 500, Davy McKee, Cleveland (Independence), OH, as a director in senior management. Davy McKee Engineers and Constructors had been the sixth largest such firm in the world. Davy McKee was a merger between Davy Ltd., constructors and engineers of processing lines in multiple industries, as well as shipbuilding. It was based in Birmingham, England, UK, and Arthur G. McKee, Cleveland, engineers and builders of steel plants worldwide (including most of them in Cleveland, Chicago/Gary, Detroit, and Pittsburgh). I had been hired on at the onset of the merger process (during legal/financial analyses — before they merged or began reorganization).
When I left Davy McKee, during its post-merger reorganization, I had contacted executive search firms throughout the region, as suggested by Davy McKee’s human resources team. One week later, the Quadrathought creative-director position opened, and I thought that might be fun, so I took the job mainly, because it was close to home and felt it would add some unique experiences to my background.
During the months I worked at Quadrathought, I was approached by numerous executive search recruiters who felt I may still desire a job more closely-related to my backgrounds in chemistry and engineering. When the tax man came, and closed Quadrathought, I called the elderly and experienced recruiter in Pittsburgh who had said he had five interviews I was highly qualified for. Most, he said, were in the steel industry — an area in which I had become quite knowledgeable (including advanced technologies), while employed at Davy McKee.
I set up a few days to go on five interviews, booked a cheap motel room (Knights Inn), and within two weeks, all five had made distinctive offers for my employed services. Not knowing much about the firms, I asked the recruiter which firm he thought would be the best match for my job skills. He said, “They’re all world class.”
Then he asked me the question that changed my life. He asked,”They all want you so bad based on my exit follow-ups, have you ever thought of going into business for yourself?” I was young in my 20’s and energetic — but being a self-employed entrepreneur wasn’t something I had ever considered. He added, “You should think about it. Opportunities like this are rare.” It got me thinking of the possibilities — and the dangers ….
The recruiter, himself, was the retired CEO of a large Pittsburgh firm (Ketchum Communications). He had great connections. He instructed me step-by-step on how to approach all five and see if they had even “ever considered” using a ‘contractor’ as an alternative to outright hiring. After mastering the “pitch” delivery approach, he sent me back out, explaining that if any are interested, then I could decide whether it would be better for me to become self-employed, or better to take one of the other offers and become a senior manager again. I went out to all five, and all five liked the ‘contractor’ approach to the hiring alternative. In fact, one of them, Tippins Machinery Company, Etna, PA — who had me interview with the founder/owner George W. Tippins — suggested that “contractor or employee,” he (George) wanted me “on the job at 8 a.m. the next morning.” As a contractor, Mr. Tippins said, I would “receive double the pay of an employee if I chose that approach.” (It was his demeanor and nature that made me decide to form my own company and go the contractor route from there on!)
I went back to the recruiter, told him my decision, and he went out of his way that day to get me the professionals I needed to file the right paperwork and become a legitimate sole proprietorship (and all of this before I even had a permanent physical residence in Pittsburgh, or had become a Pennsylvania Commonwealth citizen). The recruiter explained that Mr. Tippins was a “dear friend and former associate who’d saved my [his] ass a few times over the years,” and he wanted to make certain everything would work out between us, because Tippins was one of his best search customers, and (he felt) his reputation was on the line. “You’re nothing,” he said, “if you lose your reputation.” That was good advice that I followed as I entered self-employment.
When I arrived at Tippins at 7:45 am the next morning from my “luxury one-room economy suite” at Knights Inn (on the day after I switched from day room rental to month-by-month rental), I announced my arrival to a sleepy receptionist who said that “George” (it seemed part of the culture to call Mr. Tippins by his first name if you knew him) wanted to brief me on what he had in mind, and would come down to take me up to his office soon. I sat there and read about the history of the company.
Founded by Leon H. Tippins (George’s father), in 1923 as Tippins & Springdale Inc., Springdale, PA (about six miles north on the Allegheny River), Tippins originally was a small machinery-refurbish-resell company that bought and sold coal power plant and coal mining machinery.
In 1946, George Tippins who returned from the military with his electrical engineering degree from Yale, took over the company his father started in 1923, and began to transform it from a company that refurbished coal mining equipment to one that refurbished, designed and built rolling mills and other equipment for the steel and metals industries. In 1961 he renamed it Tippins Machinery Co., and moved it into the old Spang & Company facilities in Etna.
Tippins, president and owner of the Tippins Machinery Company, who I was about to meet with, was by then a gregarious multi-millionaire, and well-known throughout the tiny borough of Etna (I had found from having lunch in a nearby restaurant when I first interviewed there). The restaurant owner said that it was not uncommon that each morning, often before 7 am, to find Mr. Tippins stepping out of his engineering and design offices — a renovated bank building and adjoining retrofitted cinema building down Butler Street from the Spang facility where his machinery workshop was — to walk six blocks down the Butler Street hill to get a cup of coffee and two morning papers — the Pittsburgh paper and the Wall Street Journal, and then to return the six blocks up the hill. Often, I was also told, he would return at lunch time for a “quick bite,” and was very friendly with the local “regulars” who he would often discuss steelmaking subjects with him. I found these stories added to my understanding of the man and to his aura as a relatable individual.
A few months before I visited Tippins, though, George had stunned the steel industry world, when he helped save the multinational Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp., now part of Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) from being sold to Texas financiers who had intended to close it and sell it piecemeal to the Chinese. It was in late December 1980, that he provided a $60 million certified check, the cash needed to support the 80% management-led buyout of the specialty steel business of the former Allegheny International Inc. led by Ludlum’s CEO Richard P. Simmons. Tippins served as board chairman and majority owner of Allegheny Ludlum from 1980 through 1986. By 1986, the company had a successful financial turnaround and was growing to become a world leader in the stainless and titanium steel markets.
As I’ve stated, George Tippins held an electrical engineering degree from Yale University and later, in 1963, earned a graduate degree in industrial administration from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) while operating Tippins. He had also been a commissioned lieutenant in the Navy Reserves, serving stateside during both World War II and the Korean War.
From his Navy experiences, he had come to believe that there was going to be a growing market in the 70’s and 80’s for thicker and wider steel slab (which would then be turned into flat sheet and rolled steel). He was right! He spent the next 25 years from 1963 coming up with both the company and the means to service that new sector of the industry.
By the time I had met him, George Tippins already held more than a dozen patents for machines and metals processes. His designs were leading the concepts in the steckle and rolling mill markets a quarter of a century before his nearest rivals. “His innovations really helped his U.S.-based company compete with all the “biggies” in the industry throughout the world, particularly companies in Germany and Japan, who became George’s primary competitors,” George Knapp, a lawyer and president of Tippins Industries Inc., a holding company for other Tippins family interests would later explain.
Mr. Tippins, I found, was also an avid reader and liked to envision where the world of steelmaking was heading. By the mid-60’s, there were many voicing concerns about how Electric Arc furnaces and a new concept called “mini-mills” would eventually replace big steel and the basic oxygen furnaces that created steel from scratch using iron ore, coke, and other alloys. As he had explained it to me, most of the other companies were “in lockstep” with what US Steel, Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and LTV Steel were preaching regarding the future of steel. But, he had thought, as early as the mid-60’s, that these two new steel developments would make the steel giants vulnerable, and allow new companies to produce steel from used scrap in mini-mills. He seriously believed these new technology companies would eventually jeopardize “big steel’s” hold on the industry and overtake it. From what I had analyzed at Davy McKee, I had to agree with his forecast! George wanted to be the leader in providing steel machinery and rolling mills to all the markets — both the traditional “big steel” (by selling machinery that could produce bigger and thicker slabs), and by catering with special “packages” to the new mini-mill markets. I had learned about this shift when I worked at Davy McKee, and would later experience it in 1983 when the bottom fell out of the Pittsburgh steel market.
George Tippins envisioned being the “one-shop stop” globally for steel production equipment. He had the focus and foresight to transform his family’s machinery business into an “end-to-end” mill producer — what the industry called a “turnkey approach.” Turnkey meaning “from conceptualization, through engineering and construction, to where it could be turned over fully operational to the customer — who could then turn the key and it would start.”
When he took me up to his office that day, it was precisely that “end-to-end mill producer concept” that he was ‘contracting my services’ as a strategy consultant for. He had seen my work when I was employed at Davy McKee, as George was a customer and provider to Davy McKee, and he said he wanted “to create a strategy and marketing approach that took his company from being well-regarded as a traditional major supplier of new and rebuilt steel and metals equipment” to be seen globally as a well-established inventor and innovator of proprietary rolling mill equipment, and an engineering firm of turnkey facilities.”
Though it sounded like more of a marketing job than one of strategy, in time, while I contracted there, I came to realize it WAS a strategy consulting project. Mr. Tippins had me become immersed with his patented designs and the engineering, fabricating, and sales operations of Tippins Machinery (in 1982, we changed the name to Tippins Inc. to better reflect the new turnkey strategy that was being deployed and executed throughout the operations. The advantage, I found, of being a contractor was that I had many other companies that were catering to the primary metals and advanced automation manufacturing markets among my original customer-base, and the synergy and interrelatedness of many of the concepts helped me both as a strategist and in early sales.
The Xavier Group eventually created this flowchart (see image) of our “Total Solutions Approach” to project management as a result of our five-year stint working alongside George Tippins to help the world see that helped improve this company into becoming a premier turnkey developer and provider of important advanced and cutting-edge technologies for the steel and metals industries.
In 1984, George Tippins founded Tuscaloosa Steel Corp. in Alabama, based on his patented design that more efficiently produced steel plate in continuous-casted coils.He had developed the company to showcase his innovative approaches to the mini-mill markets, and Alabama had provided a tax abatement to get Tippins to build the facility there. Later, Tippins sold the company in the early 1990s to British Steel.
By 1986, when I left Tippins, it had grown to become a business of 300 employees and over $115 million in machinery and turnkey “package” facility sales.
Upon George Tippins’ death at 79 from cancer, Charles Queenan Jr., senior counsel of Pittsburgh’s leading Kirkpatrick & Lockhart law firm, a longtime friend who served on the board of Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. with Mr. Tippins said, “George Tippins was a significant force in the steel industry both in Western Pennsylvania and around the world, who had innovations that were really ahead of their times.”
I’ve been a successful strategy consultant since 1981. I’ve worked with Apple. I can tell you Steve Jobs (postmortem) is practically idolized for creating customer-driven strategies for Apple. I can also say, Apple’s Steve Jobs would’ve told you, “never build your strategy based on low-hanging fruit.”
First of all, many so-called internal strategists “feel falsely” that strategy is all about achieving goals and/or favorable outcomes, solving problems, building on strengths, and overcoming competitive weaknesses, Too many times they say, “What’s your plan?” I’ve also heard many of them first ask me or other strategy consultants about SWOT charts (strength/weakness; opportunity/threats); or discuss a ‘problem’ by asking for a ‘program proposal’, or a plan to resolve that MAJOR problem (and/or problems like that). I hear organizational presidents explain that their “strategy” will be to ‘listen’ to what’s happening on the front lines in the field, and then respond, (react), as things change, based on what their competitors/rivals do. This was recently even copied by the President of the United States in regards to Afghanistan policies going forward. NONE OF THAT IS STRATEGY! It may be ‘tactical.’ It may work for short-term gain. It might even be a very sound field tactic. It is NOT STRATEGY. What it really deals with is usually only the most superficial low-hanging fruit, and as a matter of policy — should be being taken care of by good operational practices and governance already! It isn’t strategy.
In the last post, I discussed a concept for X-Celerator Labs™. In that post, I discussed how local venture capitalists chose the “better-branded” TechShop™ instead, for this Pittsburgh region. Whether, their supposed strategy was based on ‘branding,’ or based on ‘other things –market share? …profits? … the competition? …customers? … sales volumes? …units sold? — I don’t know. What I knew then, and will repeat, is that the health-spa-style membership sales model used by TechShop (and many other “me-too” maker facilities use) was NOT a sound business (or association, or non-profit, or start-up) model — as the primary means of revenue-building. In Pittsburgh, the TechShop membership model has failed (TechShop announced they are departing Pittsburgh in September 2017), and it was not for lack of “maker interest.” Health-spa-membership models are built upon three bad premises: 1) They are based on moderate-to-high volumes of unit sales to rapidly gain market shares and operating revenues; 2) They are based on non-committal, ‘in-the-moment,’ ‘feel-good,’ urge-buying of the membership to satisfy a desire rather than evangelizing and satisfying customers in a manner that drives a long-term, retained clientele; 3) They are based on ONLY DESIGNING for a 20-30% regular usage by the total membership to save on costs. (When more than 30% use the facility, at any one time, there is lack of access to equipment and it leaves the member dissatisfied with their experience. I should note here that hospitals, and health care providers often also fall into the traps of health-spa memberships when dealing with patients, or establishing a patient-driven medical approach.) TechShop, in my professional opinion, chose the wrong business model (a model built on quick short-term returns, and rapid/consistent membership churn). TechShop provides a valuable and needed community service (just as health care providers do); but, it cannot function if in every month it loses money. What, then, should TechShop have done? What numbers should your strategy use to determine its success? TechShop’s initial strategy assumption is that they will only grow revenues/profits if they grow market-share. Is that a good assumption? There are many companies that follow this mantra as if it is always the fact by which one should set up an organization. But is it a true assumption?
Successful strategies are not always about solving problems, or making comparisons to understand how to attack your real or potential rivals. Sitting in MBA classes, graduate students often look at case studies. One that was presented in my school was the strategy of Samsung vs. Apple in regards to smart-phone roll-outs. Over 85% of the class came to collective agreements during discussions that Samsung was beating Apple in smart phone strategies because their profits “were almost equal with Apple’s” and Samsung and Android were “dominating in market share.” (This, by the way, is much of the rationale of how pollsters often get their studies of markets/customers wrong as well.) To those majority of students, it was only a matter of time before Apple would lose its leadership, to be replaced by Samsung. Their recommendations, as business’ future strategists were to look at this, the arguments, the SWOT analysis, and other analyses — and state unequivocably that Apple needs to rework its strategy in advance of the impending threat of Samsung. Were they right? What if they were wrong?
What made everyone think that Apple’s strategy was the same as Samsung’s? Is strategy based on the same things in every case? Is it based on market share? …profits? … the competition? …customers? … sales volumes? …units sold? …units retained? To understand strategy you have to determine what it is based upon. To understand how to correctly compare your strategy with your rivals, you have to understand what their strategy is based upon, what conditions are present, how you’ve both positioned similar resources, how you’ve positioned different resources, and how you and your competitor has protected intellectual and proprietary properties. (After reading this, you may even wonder if all of this is necessary. Harvard’s Michael J. Porter would answer your question multiple ways that would probably state its value — and through that, reply ‘yes’; I would answer your question regarding strategy as, “It depends.” — both of us would see the tremendous value of and possibilities that came from knowing your rival.) Does market share, greater profits, etc. ‘Put a Dent in the Universe?’ … then, it is probably just someone discovering solutions, strengths, opportunities, threats — based on low-hanging fruits — essential for daily operations and tactical successes — but NOT (really) a strategy.
Applying my over 36 years of strategy consulting to this, I would say that probably one of the first great acid tests (acid tests: a rigorous and conclusive test to establish worth or value): “If the perceived strategy can ONLY resolve issues, or overcome competitive positions by tackling short-term low-hanging fruit problems — then it may NOT BE a strategy.” I stated “only,” because a good/great strategy is inclusive of resolving low-hanging fruit issues WITHOUT compromising its real purpose.
In 2007, The Xavier Group, Ltd. conceived a concept to be built within the Greater Pittsburgh region for a new collective workspace facility called X-Celerator Labs™. X-Celerator Labs™ was to become a for-profit, do-it-yourself mixed-use laboratory, engineering and fabrication center — an Advanced Rapid Manufacturing Start-up Accelerator.
A slideshow overview of X-Celerator Labs™ Accelrator/Incubator (Click on image to begin)
X-Celerator Labs, (as envisioned), was intended to be an exciting new hybrid concept that acted as a collective facility to provide tinkerers, makers, inventors, entrepreneurs, businesses, R&D project / innovation teams, individual artists, hobbyists, engineers, students, and others access to their own advanced rapid manufacturing operation with the intent to accelerate prototype and pilot concepts into the marketplace.
In 2010, when The Xavier Group was securing venture capital to build this facility and to also line up major Pittsburgh region manufacturers to build X-Celerator Labs, some of the Venture Capitalists we originally approached opted instead to go with a franchise operation of San Francisco’s TechShop™. That franchise was partially funded by a grant from the Veteran’s Administration of the Obama Administration, and President Obama toured and spoke from the facility when it opened. In the past few months, as the presidency and White House Administration changed, TechShop lost the VA support and so TechShop announced they were closing the Pittsburgh-based franchise.
For The Xavier Group, it was a sad concept that VCs opted to support Tech Shop rather than X-Celerator Labs, because it pulled other supporters and major corporations away from us. X-Celerator Labs was a more advanced and prominent concept than TechShop, I believe.
For example, unlike TechShop™, which was founded by TV Reality-show Mythbusters Jim Newton and Ridge McGhee in 2006 in Menlo Park, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, X-Celerator Labs was NOT ONLY to be based on revenue streams from user memberships — who would pay (as TechShop promotes) to be able to use the collective machines to work on their personal maker projects, or to resolve the frustrations associated with lack of access to the latest specialized and commercial-grade equipment.
Rather, X-Celerator Labs was going to be designed based on three older Xavier Group models: First, for a 1987 model of a Micro-Teaching Factory, “a flexible computer-integrated manufacturing microfactory facility.” Micro-Teaching Factory was designed in the late 80’s in Monroeville, Pennsylvania for Kinkade Inc., a value-added trainer and distributor associated with Anilam Electronics Corp. Micro-Teaching Factory was a certified school to train manufacturers in the axiom of motion and bring them closer to the age of CNC,CAD,CAM,CIM, as well as in production quality outputs. Second, for a 1986 model of a Virtual Technology Incubator/Accelerator also designed in the late 80’s and based in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania to teach and incubate start-up businesses that would use “flexible cross-platform computer-integrated engineering, virtual reality, and new media business groupware concepts” (this center was owned and operated by The Xavier Group). Third, a 1978 model of a Shared Executive Office-Suites concept developed by KOS & Associates by Booz and Allen alumni Thomas Kos in Pittsburgh’s North Hills in the early 80’s (The Xavier Group used their offices.)
Like Kinkade’s Micro-Teaching Factory, The Xavier Group’s Virtual Technology Incubator/Accelerator, and KOS’s Shared Executive Office Suites, X-Celerator Labs was deisgned to draw in people with varied interests but common outcome goals.
X-Celerator Labs was to have multiple revenue streams that included memberships to hands-on use and training in the mixed-use laboratory, engineering and fabrication areas; a trainer and distributor OEM VAR showcase/demonstration and training area; training and maker programs provided in conjunction with local trade schools and community colleges; special rate professional and virtual assistance services; seed and venture capital connections; business incubator and accelerator areas to expand accelerator ideas; and shared executive offices and work areas or suites (designed to operate as they do in MIT’s Media Lab) functioning separated but integrated with the X-Celerator Labs.
The idea for X-Celerator Labs came about like this:
In talking strategy with many individuals over the past 37 years, I heard many express both hopes but also fears about where the flexibly automated economy would eventually drive their businesses. Even in the early 80’s I heard this.
So, we at Xavier, began to create a viable storyline about this …. Suppose you want to own (i.e. start-up), or do own, or manage a small entrepreneurial business, or you manage an existing fabrication or machine shop. In school, you may have taken IT courses and learned the basics of using a computers for word processing, web searches, data base and spreadsheet use, art and design, playing computer games, and communicating with other through networks and the Internet. How do those skills apply to your needs now? How should they be updated?
If you have an established business, your organization may already use a computer system for all the above uses plus accounting, cost-estimating, job-tracking, resource management, and customer relations on your own sites, or on cloud-based sites, or through social network channels. You may also be advanced and use computers at your business for computer numerical control (CNC) of your machinery, computer-aided engineering (CAE), computer-aided-drafting (CAD) computer-aided drafting and design (CADD), computer-aided-manufacturing (CAM), computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), as well as many of this century’s new uses for the digitization of our lives. How are these integrated into your enterprise? How is the managing architecture designed so you can get the most optimal approach out of them with consistency? What needs to be updated to make it happen?
You’ve also probably heard and use apps on your smart-phone, or tablet, beyond desktop computer uses — but, unless you’re in the IT Department or are a trained software programmer, if you have any problems you probably delegate those problems to others to be solved. How are these technologies adding to your operation? Should they? What needs to be updated to make it happen?
What about your fears and concerns? Do you have these fears (really) because you are not very friendly with computers, and in the past you never really needed to be. What keeps you up at night? What can you do to ease those concerns and fears?
People, by 2020, need to feel at home around computer technologies.
Today, we may be facing a world that in a few years it will be very different from what we’ve grown accustomed to. The future of manufacturing may look completely different from the way you may have been envisioning it from a time in the golden age of 20th Century mass production, when here in Pittsburgh coal and primary metals were king. Instead, we feel the new manufacturing will take place clustered around vibrant tech and education center hubs that can draw from an educated class and from world-class schools of higher learning, where creative individuals have pretty-much unrestricted access to cutting-edge technologies in fields ranging from robotics/automation to high-speed Internet and human augmentation with artificial intelligence, to advanced and additive manufacturing, to micro- even nanotechnology. A place where the creative types can freely mingle and share ideas, and where organizations can send individuals to work separately on disruptively-innovative ideas and breakthroughs.
As you immerse yourself in better undertsanding of this, you may now wonder whether or not you personally, or your company — could benefit more greatly from leaving behind things you’ve become accustomed to, and grow profitably by moving on to items that will shape the near-term future, and the 21st Century — for example, some of the newest applications that have something to do with the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning and artificial intelligence advancements, big data and big data analytics, 3DPrinting/additive manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, smart factories and other new applications.
Question is, how should you judge what you need if you’ve never tried it? How much does it cost to have, lease, or own and what options do you have? How do these fit into a strategy for the 21st Century? What are the criteria you need to be most knowledgeable about?
Studies in 2007, and again in 2010 and 2014, showed people and organizations could greatly benefit from the concept of X-Celerator Labs.
Let’s further suppose that you do a study, and results indicate that use could likely yield important and critical benefits toward your success. How do you go about implementing this relatively complex technology in the shortest possible time, in the smartest strategic way, with the least expense and pain? How much should you buy, and what are the lead times for proper installation and testing? (Wouldn’t it be easier if you could experiment with this offsite, at a collaborative facility where you could also learn from many others? Wouldn’t an offsite facility that could harness customers be able to provide a better capability to explore new concepts at much lower costs? And how do you maintain it and grow with it? How also do you keep from getting burned — either by getting resources you don’t need or want; or by having competitors use these beneficial aspects long before you do and drive you from the marketplace? This thought approach process is used to provide focus to this … and other projects — at our company, and we’ve been using it since 1981.
in beginning to formalize this, we understood that all products/services go through a lifecycle, and as I’ve stated in other blogs here, that the Product/Service Lifecycle in the 21st Century is shortening (now at just 7 weeks), because of technological advancements, global connectivity, and economic convergence. We also understood that society and jobs are becoming more mobile which are altering the roots of organizational theory, creating new open office concepts with “gig” workers, and flattening out the business models. Finally, we saw that many companies in the 21st Century are foregoing the purchase of needed machinery and equipment — and outsourcing much of the work — because research and development costs have become too expensive which has its largest impacts on start-ups and small-to-medium-sized businesses and organizations.
Further, we saw that any new concept needed to be formally created (ideation), protected (intellectual property patenting), designed and prototyped (engineering), and tested (quality assessed) — before it can be sent for manufacturing. Our experiences show that typically that process can run from tens-of-thousands of dollars to a few million dollars using traditional linear development methods, resources, and necessary equipment. (All these costs are accrued BEFORE the first product is sold.) We began to explore if there were cheaper ways to attain the same, or better results!
Our analyses of organizations since 1981 showed clearly that people and businesses that are inspired to make new products, are often limited by being stuck with legacy and outdated equipment and machinery; be further limited without access to the right combinations of machinery, resources, personnel, and training; or be limited without the right kind of educated staffing and support, along with the best, modern computer-integrated design and all the latest 21st Century fabrication tools. But, with the quickening changes and convergences — we examined the technologies most-often used — and found that because of disruptive innovations it is becoming less financially-sound to dedicate so much financials to machinery, equipment, and resources on items that may be obsolete in less than the time it takes to get back an ample return-on-investment from the equipment, materials, and resources provided. For those just starting-out the capitalization of the fabrication tools makes it extremely hard to begin a product company.
What we eventually came up with …
X-Celerator Labs™ initial mission was to create a duplicative clearinghouse collaborative environment — that developed and used a flexible comprehensive end-to-end facility and labs that, in turn, could be used by our customers (and members) to change and disrupt the worldview of how to best use advanced manufacturing for altering the business models of the 21st Century, to help drive innovation and creativity on the local levels in various growth regions. The Xavier Group felt that by designing a business incubator/accelerator, with multiple models for various vertical audiences, we could deploy a new micro-teaching-based business model that inexpensively brings the latest 21st Century approaches home for the rest of us.
We decided to envision a special kind of organizational incubator/accelerator as the core of our 21st Century facility
X-Celerator Labs is first and foremost a “business accelerator.”
Many are familiar with “business incubators.” They operate differently than accelerators because incubators cater primarily and only to new idea developments and early-based start-ups. Business incubators work with between 6-9 brand new ideas (concepts) for companies / products / services, providing facilities and support services so they can explore and formalize their ideas and “graduate” usually over a 90-180 day “incubation period” into an initial capitalization and growth stage. Business incubators also are designed to help the earliest stage businesses with an idea or formalized invention through the first stages of growth: conceptualization, start-up business planning, intellectual property and patent filing, prototyping, market research, pricing considerations, initial seed funding and start-up financing. But, once the incubation period ends and the start-ups are cut by graduating, most of such start-ups are left to their own devices to continue.
X-Celerator Labs will have an incubator dedicated to incubating such start-ups as a valuable component. The incubator component should also attract investors and capitalists.
On the other hand, business accelerators assist organizations who have attained the “next phase” (what’s referred to as second-stage through pre-mezzanine growth) of the product cycle. Often suited for businesses that have already attained some means of “seed” or initial financing, along with valid some term of sales and marketing results and metrics, who often have gone through intellectual property protection and often have patents pending on some intellectual properties, and finally, the organization has committed to passionate growth and therefore usually has an employed staff of at least three full-time employees, (but many times companies at this stage will have between 30-50 employees on the payroll).
Business accelerators also provide “shared and collaborative” facilities and services (like incubators), but the term to maturity often lasts for 1-5 years. A term is usually determined when the company breaks-even, becomes profitable and self-reliant. At the end of business acceleration, most businesses seek either “mezzanine” financing through traditional financial sources, crowdsourcing, or outright sale for remuneration. If they continue on their own, they are ready to move into their own facilities, or alter the usage of what they had in the accelerator, for further usage and development. The accelerator always attains a stock percentage of all businesses that go through the accelerator phase.
Business accelerators, like X-Celerator Labs, often CAN and DO provide many or all of the business incubation assistance services along with the acceleration services and environments. Incubators are specifically designed to help with taking a formalized idea, or prototyped/and test piloted (small lab and field test runs) inventions through the stages of ideation. Accelerators are specifically-designed to follow on to any ideation that’s in process, then carry the new development through the combining of process needs and industrial customization and pre-manufacturing (short production runs) to create a product or service, and also to deliver a useful design, engineering, planning, strategy, and tactics to implement and finally, to begin disruptive and innovative process production (the third stage of the product cycle) which should foster into a new money-making business.
Created like Edison’s Hyde Park, NJ Innovation Factory
X-Celerator Labs business accelerator is unique, because it will be designed to maximize the opportunities for the creation of disruptive technologies. Designed with a similar drive to that of Thomas Edison’s Innovation Factory in Hyde Park,New Jersey, X-Celerator Labs will add exploration into the newest technologies starting by harnessing the additive power of 3D Printing, sintering, and stereolithography. X-Celerator Labs will teach start-ups and organizations that use it how to effectively create a new invention every six months, and how to unleash 108 new disruptive technologies every year with at least two of them being significant.
The 21st Century is changing the way that all organizations conduct business. Some of the shifts that are just now becoming most evident, are that concepts of ‘mass’ production and ‘mass’ consumption to create jobs and improve the economic outlook no longer works in today’s societies.
Ever since World War II ended, the overcapacities in many industries led to lower cost usage of high-grade machinery, equipment, and resources that were created for rapid mass production. This greater usage allowed the creation of a well-paid middle class. But, as those post-war advantages grew older and eventually were outmoded, the legacy machines and equipment began to become a hinderance that resulted in mass layoffs, downsizing, sell-outs to offshore interests, etc. In addition, the outmoded materiel also become a larger polluter — endangering human life and existence on the planet.
Today, we face a similar and even more perdicious threats from the continued use of the old equipment. We are also still affected by the global economic trade we created by the 80’s and 90’s downsizing. To get back on the right path in the near future, we must again address this, but in a different way. X-Celerator Labs is focused on many of these new approaches! Watch the embedded slide show to find out more, or leave a comment and I will get back to you.
For most types of organizations, the telephone plays a major part in daily operations. It is for this reason I am becoming agitated with customer service phone representatives, call center callers, salespeople, suppliers, employees, and cold call solicitors and their lack of proper phone etiquette. It seems like no one is training staffers in the proper etiquette of phone use today. It has become so burdensome, I have decided to write this blog post about it.
The phone call done properly, opens a door of communication with customers by allowing them to contact the business at any time during its hours of operation. As important as the phone is, it is just as important that organizations know the difference between what is good and what is bad phone etiquette.
How individual callers interact with prospects, clients and business associates over the phone will either portray them in a positive light or a negative one. In the hands of a poorly trained employee, manager, or business owner, telephone use can have an extreme negative effect on the business. For this reason, it is important that companies properly train their employees on good and bad phone practices. It is important to understand that phone etiquette is important, and essential, on both sides of all calls, and in this day, is also a security hole that must be plugged or at least monitored. Good call etiquette builds brand, and strengthens organizational culture. Poor call etiquette harms public reputations, creates questions, and quickly deteriorates into a bad call and experience that affects long-term branding and reputations.
So, what should you do?
On the receiving end, a call should always be answered within four rings. If you’ve set up an automated call system, it should be set to four rings and (human) personnel that are supposed to be personally answering the phone should be instructed to always pick it up on the third ring. For small organizations that need to convey a more solid reputation, a manager should be the one answering the phone as this suggests better customer-driven values, and urgency.
All phone calls should be answered as follows: organizations — “Hello. (or “Good morning.” or “Good afternoon.”) This is [name of organization], how may I direct your call?”; businesses — “Hello. This is [name of business] – optional tagline – how may I direct your call?” individuals — “Hello.” (NOTE: Because of social phone phishing for identity theft and cyber attacks police authorities have recommended not to provide names at the onset of the call.)
On the calling side of the call: All callers should call as follows: “Hello. This is [personal first name] of [name of company, organization] may I please speak with [ name of person?” … you are trying to contact, or title of area to which call is intended]? ONE SHOULD NEVER BEGIN ANY CALLS WITH: “Hello, or worse “Hey” is “first name of person trying to be reached” — NEVER: Hello is John there? (Yet 96% of calls our business receive begin exactly this way — SAD.) ONE SHOULD NEVER HAVE IN ANY SEGMENT OF THE CALL MESSAGE: “How are you today?” … but if you actually know the person on the other end as a ‘regular’ acquaintance you may have some flexibility — BUT, NEVER ON A FIRST CALL OR COLD CALL.
Providing your first name AND the specific company from which you are calling or representing — is essential in this marketplace. Phishers for social identity theft, or shady solicitors (including credit and collection agencies) have a record of trying to provide as little information on themselves as possible.
Phone call security
On the receiving side, police authorities explain that you should never answer “yes” to anything (as in, “Is John there?”) until you’ve found out who is calling, from where, and what is the intention of the call. It turns out that an affirmative response is now being used heavily to illegally access financial, health, and personal records for scamming and identity theft purposes. It is for this reason that callers must always provide name, name of company, and reason for call to create a transactional and successful call.
For those companies who for whatever reason are afraid to provide their company name because they can be hung up on — shortened names can suffice — as long as the caller is also ready to describe in detail, if questioned, what is the real purpose of the call.
Once the essential information has been provided (and if necessary, confirmed on the receiving end) — then the conversation can begin. Try to smile when you talk as that emotion does project through your verbal words. For clarity, the phone receiver should be at a distance of two fingers from the mouth, and one should always speak in a clear voice with full enunciation.
If during the conversation, someone must be placed on hold, be polite and always ask permission first and take time to hear their answer. If someone they are trying to reach is not there, or the incoming call is a priority, ask the caller if they can leave a message in voicemail and ensue them that the intended party WILL receive that message, and get back to them. When taking them off of hold, ALWAYS thank the caller — to show that their time is respected.
Always return phone calls if a return call has been promised. If a time frame was given the caller must make every attempt to return the phone call as quickly as possible within that frame. If it is necessary to transfer a call, inform the person on the other end before doing so. It is also important to explain the need for the transfer. Before transferring a call, confirm that the person to whom the call is being transferred is available. This person’s name should be given to the party who is being transferred.
When ending a phone call, do not hang up the phone without a positive closure such as “Thank you for calling,” or “Have a Good Day.”
The method that you choose to communicate within a call should be appropriate to the audience, situation and nature of the message that needs to be communicated. It should also be concise and to the point — a minimalist approach — recognizing that if the other side asks for additional information, and you provide it, it adds to the call. Always begin the meat of the phone conversation as a caller by asking the person you are discussing things with, “Is this the best time we should go over this? … and suggest that to make it brief, you can follow-up with instant messaging or email. (Sometime the person in receipt of the call may actually prefer that method of contact.)
My dad was an interesting, though busy man. A Mercury-Apollo and Viking-Mars rocket scientist, heat-transfer, nuclear and boiler expert (later nuclear power and cooling systems), hypersonic aircraft researcher, advanced gyrostat design for space attitude control systems, inventor, mechanical/aeronautical engineer, naval aviator, F4U Corsair
nightfighter section leader, golfer, distance runner (captain of the cross-country team), farmer, church leader, little-league coach, 4H leader, catechism teacher, and colonel in the US Marine Corps, he still found quality famiy-time for extensive vacation travel, tractor-rides, sledding, ice-skating, bonfires, and multi-family cookouts. My dad was the son, one of four sons, of two immigrants who after travelling to Ellis Island to avoid the wars in Europe, settled in the Detroit area. They spoke no English when they arrived, and took unskilled labor jobs at the local chemical factory where they met each other and married. His favorite line to me from a very early age was, “Always keep your nose to the grindstone … stay passionately focused, and remain out-of-trouble.”
My mom, was no less interesting. She was one of the first women in the US to study law at Buchtel College, an education that landed her as an executive secretary for the Coast Guard and for Goodyear. During WWII
she served as a Navy WAVE and Army WAC, she also worked on riveting Corsair fuselages in Akron. Working on aircraft made her join the Ninety-Nines (Organization of Women Pilots) after she saw the first record-setting flights of Amelia Earhart. Mom met Eleanor Roosevelt at the Biltmore Estate (when she was managing a food service for Marshall Fields there– she loved to bake and can fruit and vegetables) and they wrote each other when Roosevelt was in the White House, when she was not coaching girls softball, flying, selling real estate, gardening, or cooking and baking. Mom still had the time to spend with her two sons, dogs, farm animals, vacationing, ice-skating, dancing, playing music, singing, and entertaining. My mom encouraged me into entrepreneurship, to read and practice cursive writing and art, to garden, partake in cub and boy scouts, join the boys choir, act in school plays and work for extra money (for the next Depression-of course). Mom was one of three daughters of immigrants who travelled from Europe to avoid the wars landing on Ellis Island and settling in the Akron area. They spoke little/no English when they arrived and my grandfather (who had owned a lumber company in Europe) eventually ran a general store in Akron until he died at an early age, while my grandmother ran a boarding house. They also found initial jobs at the rubber factory where they met each other and married. Her favorite lines to me from a very early age were, “Don’t EVER be afraid to explore or create. If you ever get too self-centered, take a reflective walk in the woods or on the beach. If you ever feel overwhelmed, or too self-important/proud — go outside at night and ponder how small you are when you look toward the stars.”
I eventually moved away, went to college, and studied to be a scientist, but also double-majored in English (with aspirations to be a science-writer). I remained okay through my early career life — having been nurtured in strong family-life, religious beliefs and morals, and a strong-sense that I would eventually succeed. I NEVER forgot the life lessons of my parents and what those words meant to me. I even passed them on to my son, so that future generations can grow in that same wisdom.
It wasn’t always that way. During grade school and high school I was chastised as a loner who didn’t fit in exactly right with my peers — and who was picked on for my height. Later, in career life, I fell upon some very harsh times. But, through it all … like a beacon from my past, my parents lessons for me kept me on the right path.
The point of this blogpost was NOT to just profess a little about myself. Human Resource Executive Magazine now says that one of the top six questions asked of interviewees when they are applying for a job is to “tell the interviewer the most important lessons they learned from their parents, and why.” For me, the lessons are so much in the forefront of my brain, it’d be no problem to provide an answer.
Keeping your nose to the grindstone means that you probably have a good work ethic. My dad would’ve agreed — and I do think that was the point he was making.
Never being afraid to explore and create is a must in 21st Century society, and my resume appears to back that up quite well. The other comments my mom made were to do three other important things: 1) Find a way to be humble (even if you are proud). 2) Don’t let life go by without taking some personal time to smell the roses and re-engage with nature. 3) Always stand in awe at the size of the universe, and think about how small and meaningless everything we do is in relation to it. (Time is short — Carpe Diem!)
And, with that … I hope you also have a good day.
When I took a Directorship job at Cleveland’s Arthur G. McKee & Company in 1979 (soon to be Davy McKee — International Engineers and Constructors – 14,000 employees in 32 countries worldwide – A Fortune Service 300) at 22, I was told in the first week to come up to the Executive Suite by one of the Senior Vice Presidents of the Company. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, he invited me into his office, sat me down, and told me I had personally been selected for “fast-tracking” into their “professional development” program. He explained that the program was intense and that I’d be studying strategy, business, finance, management, analysis, research, development, communications, marketing and sales. (To my knowledge, they don’t have such extensive professional development programs these days in organizations,)
As part of this pre-professional-development-program interview, he handed me two items and told me to study them closely, because in his mind they were the essentials to “becoming a professional executive within the company.”
The two items were: 1) An essay written in 1967 of: “What is a professional.” … and (2) the following 1958 McGraw Hill Advertisement that he said appeared in Business Week magazine:
He told me as he handed it to me that McKee wanted me to write Sales Proposals for multi-billion dollar processing plant projects — sold around the world. But, he also said, “Selling is much more than ‘just sales and marketing.’ Selling starts by being able to sell yourself and your ideas to your customers/clients, your superiors, to your staff and peers, to your suppliers, to the board, the officers, the executive suite, and to your subordinates. NEVER FORGET THAT, BECAUSE BASICALLY YOU CAN’T ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING HERE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITHOUT BEING ONE!” (It stuck with me since.)
The ad also stuck with me all this time because it drives home a special sentiment that is meant to humble and fact-check who you really are. I mean, if you cannot answer all those questions about your organization — or for that matter — yourself — every day of your life — then you really do have NO REASON to ever consider yourself a “PROFESSIONAL!”
As the Sr. VP concluded, he explained that in building an organization’s strategy, the process INTERNALLY must begin by having solid — BUT ALSO PASSIONATE (from the heart, as well as the head) answers to EVERY ONE of those comments. He said this was also the basis of a “Situation Analysis,” which I’d learn more about when I delved into strategy as a part of the PD program.
The short 1967 Essay on “What is a Professional?” which the senior vice-president said he had picked up at a training program when he worked in New York City, was even more helpful. (Since 1983 I had searched for a similar discussion of “What is a Professional” so I could hand it out to staff at The Xavier Group — but was never able to find one that was as clear and appropriate as that one.) Finally, in 1986, I wrote a new “What is a Professional” paper to hand out to The Xavier Group staff. I am providing it to you here so that your generations may pass it on if you’d like to your staffs:
What is a Professional and Why Does Being One Matter?
Welcome to The Xavier Group, Ltd. As our literature which plays upon all of the bridges in the Pittsburgh region says, we were founded in 1981 to “Bridge the Gap between Creativity and Communications” to derive better strategies than our rivals, so that our customers don’t get broadsided by something they didn’t expect. To do that passionately, enthusiastically, and correctly, I expect EVERYONE who works for, or with, Xavier to at all times conduct their behavior as consummate professionals, highly-skilled perfection-seeking, trustworthy, honest, ethical members of an exceptional team. That TEAM … or company, will only succeed if we meet, or EXCEED, all customer expectations.
Now, I understand you come from varied backgrounds and educations. Many of you may not know exactly “What a professional really is, or why being one matters.” That’s okay. As a part of your interning, or your probationary, period — you will all partake in our proprietary professional development training where we will provide you the means to hopefully carry on the traditions of being a professional by yourselves — so that when you graduate you will conduct yourselves with dignity, honor, integrity and passion.
“Being a true professional is much more than ‘just doing things to make your company and your customers happy.’ Becoming a professional starts by being able to sell yourself and your ideas to your customers/clients, your superiors, to your staff and peers, to your suppliers, to the board, the officers, the executive suite, and to your subordinates. NEVER FORGET THAT, BECAUSE BASICALLY YOU CAN’T ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING HERE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO ALWAYS DO THAT THE RIGHT WAY, AT THE RIGHT TIME, FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE! In other words, your reputation –integrity — and the only way you’ll ever earn the respect you cherish rides on how well you become a professional, and understanding that, ‘It does really matter!'”
A professional takes pride in continuously cumulating specialized skills and knowledge that generally allow for better decisions, make the professional a recognized expert, and specifically allow for better performance in his/her job. He/she makes it a daily required practice to gain useful knowledge by independently and extensively acquiring it, chiefly from books. But professionals don’t hoard that unique knowledge — they share it. Professionals understand that their own reputation grows tenfold when they place others first, and share what they know. They also understand that coming to deeply understand and satisfy your customers and all organizational stakeholders (including peers, superiors, officers, suppliers, etc.) are the very cornerstones of a successful career as well as for the business you work for. Without them, there’d be no need for professionals.
Professionals engage in a process of constant and continuous self-, team-, operational-, and organizational-evaluation and improvement. A professional makes decisions, findings, and recommendations based on their consummate dedication to the craft; the science and technology behind the scenes; the systems, policies, processes, and instructions at play; and not the current circumstances that brought it to someone’s attention. The characteristic that separates the professional from the dilettante is an uncompromising continuous commitment to excellence – doing what is required to attain completion of a project or portfolio at its highest level, even when it becomes personally inconvenient. Professionals understand the concepts of the value of time yet they are never bound by a time-clock. Because of this, professionals are given wide latitude in their daily self- management and the chance to be self-empowered individuals. They are expected to manage their time and work habits on their own. A professional doesn’t abuse this privilege (it’d be against his/her nature). An unskilled laborer does a job as instructed, but little else. An amateur is capable of doing some things well under the right conditions, but rarely has the perseverance that is seen in a professional to attain excellence in his/her livelihood (this is true in work, sports, life, etc.). But a professional, as a matter of course, does it well regardless of the situation, and always meets or exceeds all expectations.
A professional is passionate, motivated, and punctual. A professional respects the respectable, but admires the inspirational. A professional is a seeker of knowledge but also a teacher and mentor. A professional is disciplined, religiously maintains the highest standards, and is engaged in the constant pursuit of un-attainable perfection. A professional is restless and never satisfied, always evaluating and re-evaluating where they’ve come and finding ways to do what they are doing better now, today, moment to moment. A professional is someone who masters an art or science, has the ability to deeply discuss and perform it at the highest levels with original creativity that often challenges the best of the best. A professional invents for the purpose of achieving solutions (material gain comes into play only if someone sees that as a valued add-on). Professionals are expected to produce results. They strive to complete deliverables before their due dates and under budget.
Professionals are committed to carrying out what they said they would. Because of that, unlike many sales amateurs, they ALWAYS clarify exactly what it is that they CAN DO. Professionals understand they should “engage their brain” before speaking — can you really do what you are about to say? If you can’t, professionals will never lie as that approach will catch up with them. When professionals are faced with something they can’t handle, they first see if there is time to both better assess the request AND to explore and discover if there are experts that can be drawn into the task that CAN do what is needed. Professionals will deliver on promises made (so NEVER make false promises).
Professionals always communicate effectively, taking time to explain the available options and clarifying each of them until other parties understand what is really being said. They take time to carry out sufficient research, in advance of promising anything, so that they’re able to convey crisply their findings and make their suggestions and recommendations. They compile clear and accurate proposals that state itemized costs (when needed) and always state and clarify total costs. They research and clarify through PERT or GANTT charting how a project will proceed under what timetable and point out specific key decision-points and turnover points — reviewing all aspects of the project before anything begins — and then again and again at the key decision points as the project evolves. They then (after all of this and ONLY then) promise a date when the work can be completed and agree among everyone on that conclusion. If, and when they do this — the professional feels empowered that everyone involved will make the right decisions, and do it the right way to satisfy everyone. But, a professional also recognizes that there will be times when it is better to walk away.
Professionals always appreciate, respect, acknowledge, and support those they work with, even when they’re rivals, or unable to act in the same manner. Professionals try to set principles that are not self-serving being humble and generous in praise of their peers. Professionals show good manners and proper etiquette. They have high ethical and moral standards that force honesty, fairness, and trustworthiness in all of their dealings with others. They don’t try to get around policies, governance or laws. They obey them (If they feel they are wrong, they bring objective evidence to support their reasons, and ask for corrections– usually because they’ll improve the organizations). Professionals always adhere to high values and principles.
Working with professionals is a pleasure. If you don’t feel that’s the case i your life, or in others — then you need to examine why — that’s what a professional would do.
Good luck in your professional development studies.
Frank X. Sowa, Chairman/CEO, The Xavier Group, Ltd.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Strategy
Napoleon Bonaparte’s commanders reported, that Napoleon was a genius of war strategy who had a unique ability to size up a situation with a “glance,” . Now you might think hearing that, like so many current organizational strategists and businesspeople (who rose to high-places as a result of the 20th Century Industrial Age), that “Napoleon” was so quick at coming up with strategy that either he was just egocentric and smarter than all of the military personnel around him — or that he came up with audacious strategies that won wars — merely on instinct, “flying by the seat of his pants.”
But, that was just NOT the truth.
Napoleon, it was stated many times — listened diligently and intensively to his field marsalls and commanders as they provided him with situation reports (sitreps). About these meetings Napoleon said, “I am never angry when contradicted; I seek to be enlightened.” After these sitrep meetings, he retired to a closed tent or room and spent further hours meticulously examining maps and other information, making mental notes and checking a small collection of books he carried with him (as seen in the picture above). When he arrived ready to partake in battle — it was only THEN that he quickly sized-up the situation with a “glance.” As for the remote possibiities that he operated “by the seat of his pants and/or was extremely lucky,” Napoleon’s drive for military expansion had won major campaigns for France in nearly every country that made up Europe, parts of Northern Africa, and in the Middle East. That could not have been sporadic luck. He was so successful, the French made him the first Emperor of France.
Napoleon understood at a very early age that good strategy in battle and in life required intensive and meticulous study of the strategic situation—the landscape, the rivals, available technology, the positioning of resources, the usage of battlefield plans/tactics/execution from maneuvering to mislead the rivals, similar situations from the past. Napoleon trained himself on this so that he could understand and respond quickly to ever- changing circumstances. Modern organizational strategists should find a lesson in that regarding, “What is Strategy?”
As for Napoleon, he was born on August 15, 1769, to Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramlino on the former city-state Genoan island of Corsica (off the coast of Italy). Corsica was turned over to France one year before Napoleon was born. His father, Carlo was a Tuscan-Genoan lawyer and diplomat who eventually rose to become Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI. The Corsican Buonapartes were descended from minor Italian nobilty of Tuscan origin, and continued to hold that nobility status when the French took over.
As such, Napoleon’s moderately affluent background afforded him greater opportunities to study than were available to a typical Corsican of the time. In January 1779, at age 10, he was enrolled at a religious school in the cloistered, communal Roman-Catholic monastery in Autun. The monastery was a repurposed Roman Fort from Caesar’s Roman Empire in Eastern France. His studies were focused on religion and the ancient societies and philosophies of Greece and Rome. Young Napoleaon took a liking of the readings of the glories and conquests of the first Roman Emperors.
Six months later, at the request of the Louis XVI court, Napoleon was admitted to a military academy at Brienne, France, where he began to hone his military training. He moved to the elite Parisian École Royale Militaire in 1784 where he trained to become an artillery officer. When his father’s died a year later from stomach cancer, it reduced Napoleon’s tuition stipend, so he was forced to complete the two-year course in one year. He did so successfully and graduated as a second lieutenant in the artillery at age 16.
Napoleon was so knowledgeable about his strategic situation that he was able to understand his opponent’s field positioning, and respond quickly to ever-changing circumstances, defending his flanks and center, alluring enemy into repositioning by making parts along the line appear weakened, and thrusting forward with strong attacks at the front, when the timing was exactly right!
It was said, Napoleon sought always “To proceed with at least two options.” He believed that in the dynamics of war, or life, a good strategy must always improvise, adapt, and overcome based on the circumstances at hand. He believed his best strategy would evolve “like a tree, extending out branches only when it was most prudent and optimum to do so.”
“What is Strategy?”
Which leads us back to the topic of this blog: “What is Strategy?”
What’s sad, is that if you research this subject matter, you’ll find thousands of opinions — and many of them will NOT be right. In my over 30-years as a strategy consultant —
I have found this definition to come closest to defining the practice of strategy:
Strategy is the envisioned direction that is specific enough to your situation that it can effectively guide and drive the scope of activities (tactics/plans/operation/execution) of an organization over the long term. Strategy achieves the advantage for the organization over potential rivals through the positioning and adjustments of resources within an ever-changing dynamic environment, so as to always to meet the needs of the markets and fulfill all stakeholders‘ expectations.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived at a good strategy if you can explain it in three sentences or less, down to a few words.
To assist your thinking, here are some characteristics of strategy:
- Concerned with, and its affect of/on the long term direction
- Designed to achieve competitive advantage, through selective positioning of resources
- Always concerned with stability/sustainability, expansion, and/or retrenchment
- Matches positioning of activities/resources/supplies/people within the scape(s) in which it is operating or will be operating; and sets in motion approaches to shift positioning as needed in real-time
- Builds on, stretches, or identifies innovatively disruptive resources and competencies to create new opportunities and capitalize on them
- Analyzes and Asseses when major resources need to be changed in direction or purpose
- Drives operational decisions, governance, and enterprise/business/unit models
- Assesses social responsibilities, ethics and moral decisions and sets corrective action in play as needed
- Provides the impetus for a set of commitments for a given situation
Strategy should be seen as the “ultimate decision to be made” — for yourself, your organization or your business. And, just as you do NOT make all decisions in the same way for every situation, a strategist will make different decisions in different ways … AND will make the same, or similar, decisions in diferent ways at different places and at different points in time.
So, how does one then derive a strategy? To make a decision and formulate a strategy, it is critical, first, to truly understand the determinants and their interplay with you and themselves as you focus your attention on making the ‘ultimate decision’ — historically these are what establish your particular “Situation.”
Situation Analyses are critical not just to the intial decisions, but also critical to the space, time and other variations on the follow-up choices. This is why it s so important that you understand and comprehend the ramifications of your situation at the onset of all strategy formulation activities. This is also why all great generals from Sun Tzu, to Napoleon, to Mattis today, always instruct their marshalls, commanders, and strategists to only take tactical actions AFTER it has been determined by meticulous study that the situation suggests that the victory has alrady been won. Ponder that for a minute, and below I’ll help you dive into that concept further.
Second, strategists and other people/stakeholders in your organizaions, can and usually do bring multiple and potentially conflicting processing goals (desired outcomes) to the strategy formulation decision. This can come from internal/external biases, feedback from the operations, or intelligence that has been gathered, for example. Historically, in the military, this is known as “the fog of war.” It is specifically also why “plans and goal setting” (except in their “passive” input — at this point, should have no place in “strategy.”
Strategy by design is NOT a plan, or an “execution”
The root cause of the problem, is often in this case, that leaders and managers have dismally failed to carefully distinguish between improving operations, planning, execution, attaining desired goals. PLANS, GOALS, EXECUTION are TACTICS — NOT STRATEGY! In the end — this difference is extremely significant to the success of strategy.
Strategy is often confused with other leadership and management activities, as well — probably because the tools used for gathering data for both “Strategy” and these “other activities” can often be used for both types of data collection and performance measuring criteria.
Some of these various management tools include: total quality management, agile management, lean six sigma, ISO 9000, management by standards, benchmarking, re-engineering, time-based competition, outsourcing, virtual prototyping, “no child left behind” standards testing, efficiency management, and partnering or strategic partnering. Strategies also have an open-ended “scope” — unlike projects or financial portfolio programs. Strategies DO go through a lifecycle of their own — similar to a product/service lifecycle … but, a GOOD strategy remains in place drive business and operational models, R&D, M&A, and multiple portfolio priorities before the Strategy Lifecycle reaches end-of-life.
Strategies are most often confused with these more temporally-driven tools (ALL TACTICS) — because the strategist and/or leadership NEVER really clearly established a strategy. So while tactics can and do often enhance and dramatically improve the operational effectiveness (OE) of the organization — often providing quick turnaround results; they fail to provide the organization with sustainable profitable and lasting results, that driving everything with a good strategy would.
Although both operational effectiveness and strategy are necessary for the survival and superior performance of an organization … they operate in different ways!
Operational Effectiveness (OE): Performing similar activities better than rivals perform them through better productivity, better throughput, better quality, and better efficiencies.
So, how does this relate in business and organizations?
Often when I’m making (or was making) my first free introductory visit to an organization who had wanted/wants to consider using The Xavier Group’s solutions; I’d
hear the executive say something like, “We’ve got this problem, and we need a solution from a consulting firm like yours.”
They then would either go into great subjective detail on what they consider “the problem” and I’d get some idea of their perspective in a “touchy-feely” way; or, they’d proceed to call in the hardcore analysts who provided feedback loop reductionist data at best — human reource polling/survey results at worst; and give me great metric details that attempted to isolate “the problem” from a managerial perspective. Few of the analysts ever were given the capacity to see over their particular silos, and/or units, and when questioned, few had ongoing deep-dive engaging relationships with floor personnel/automation/IT or much else (that I found was half of the cause of the real problem). On the other end of the “false perspective” the Executive Suite, leadership, and senior managers did everything they could to make their positions insulated from both the analysts AND everyone else in the organization — as is usually taught in te best business school curriculum today. The executives (also using MBA-business school techniques) had often delegated the development of “a strategy” to the “Strategic Planning Team” who then went about everything deriving an “organizational plan” based weakly on SWOT analyses, a mission statement, vision statement, goals/objectives (from which to manage the strategy by), and a descriptive “touchy-feely” plan that restates many of the executive staffs biased ideas — but in words so as to not offend.
They then follow that planning time with a statement, “Our strategy is to … increase market share …” or, “… internationalize.” or …”rebuild our profitability in this (new) area.” or, “eliminate waste, improve on variation, and attain six sigma results.” or “… have more meaningful and professional training to build consensus throughout our company.” or, “…set up an independent business unit to either spin off some of our assets, or to build a new area in which we can go.” or, “…become the largest innovation company in the United States.” or, from a military perspective, “…to win the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan by 2011.” … And the organizational executives and leaders feel they have done what was expected of them in terms of “Strategy.”
What they really did was restated the management / operational “objectives or goals.” They restated TACTICS!
These are major missteps away from “Strategy” and toward only “Managing by Operation Effectiveness Programs.” (I’m reminded of the “Show Me the Money” satirical skit in the movie “Jerry McGuire.”) Hey, I’m all for an entertaining MBO ‘flavor of the month’ approach (slurp) … but, really — if you’re not careful, you’re signing your organization’s death certificate. Some of these operational effectiveness approaches, depending on the traits of the industry in which they operate may actually be superb ideas or steps to move their companies forward — good management by objectives and performance practices if in the proper environment. BUT THESE ARE NOT STRATEGY — THESE ARE TACTICS.
As long as company executives are educated improperly in business schools about strategy and strategic management — they will continue to make this mistake.
And, don’t just take my word for it. Look at the U.S. profitability figures over the past 23 years — for most, they were flat or falling — a “lost couple of decades.” Look at the lack of non-profit accomplishments — we now rank 24th against other students in STEM areas from the rest of the world. Why is that do you suppose? Look at the 83% failure rate among entrepreneurial start-ups. Finally, realize that China is surpassing the U.S. as the number one manufacturing nation since 2011 — a position held by the U.S. since 1895. This is a serious issue!
So, let’s find out how an organization creates for itself a “real Strategy”…
There are actually three parts that make a strategy:
- A real Strategy is always based on “positioning advantage” — that is an executive should say, “Our strategy is to position (company, industry, product, service, department, etc.) in (such a manner) so that it provides competitive advantage (or advantageous conditions, etc.) If military planners would have approached their COIN initiatives in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan — they may have come up with better ways (objectives) of how to best accomplish subsystem missions.
- A real Strategy always requires “systems thinking.” Executives need to ask, “What ‘system’ are we operating in?” There are two macro areas and four micro areas that help answer this question. (I’ll get into that in a later post.) They also need to ask, “What sort of problem is this? Is it Simple? Complicated? Complex? or Chaotic??” Answering these questions will provide the key to unlocking the formless side of setting the right Strategy! The Xavier Group further tries to separate ‘systems’ thinking from ‘strategic’ thinking and/or ‘process’ thinking. Strategic thinking is a method by which to understand and implement a strategy. Process thinking is an understanding that systems move through a time-sequence of events. The events are managed by the ‘objectives.’ The changes occurring during the time-sequence between events is the ‘process.’ Both ‘objectives’ and ‘processes’ are tactical considerations. Systems thinking allows executives to understand how things ‘influence’ one another within the whole. To formulate any strategy and manage it you have to first understand the ‘influences that are affecting the system.’
- A real strategy always requires “ ‘futures thinking’ or ‘forward-looking prognosis’ and forecasts.“ — Just as if you are a ship captain steering a ship through a coral reef, an executive has to have his own “lookouts” to observe the environment for hazards, the competitors, rivals, the short-term and long-term changes in the terrain, and report back anything they see and hear — including attack and distress signals. With this forward-looking ‘intelligence’ in hand, an executive can proactively make decisions based on his ‘strategy’ to safely and smartly steer his organization to sustainable and secure waters.
An organization can outperform its competitors ONLY if it can establish a difference that it can preserve under ever-changing, complex, and often chaotic circumstances. It is for that survivalistic reason, that organizations MUST go through the process of developing, planning, deploying, and managing a sound strategy.
Managing an organization based solely on operational effectiveness is almost always ‘mutually destructive’ as its leads to wars of attrition, a reduction of assets (human, facilities, proprietary materials, capital, profits, sales) that can only be arrested by limiting competition!
NOTE: This was originally published as an article post on LinkedIn titled, “On Strategy: Positioning of Resources” by Frank Sowa on 2016/01/07
On Strategy: Positioning of Resources
The most effective military generals throughout history were successful because they knew how to make the most optimal use of the resources they had available to them, in the right manner, and at the right time. It was this understanding of the positioning and proper use of their resources that was perhaps the most essential key to their victories — the absolute core of their successful battlefield strategy.
In national and global military strategy, the means to defend and oppose real and potential threats to national security always is meted based on the strategic positioning of resources, and one of the major roles of the world’s intelligence agencies and analyses arms is to attempt the best ways and new means (not thought of) to achieve a superior positioning of resources and assets so as to always meet the competition (if confrontation sparks up) in a manner that will allow clear advantage.
Positioning of resources must be an ongoing and dynamic approach if you want a strategy to work
This key crux of strategic military planning and pre-battle placements should be the same in all measures of forming strategy — especially in business, and finance. Better control and optimal use and positioning of resources (materials, suppliers, marketing, product/services, employees, patron customers, facilities, contractors, automation and robotic systems) set against those of the rival competition will provide advantage and should affect the success or failure of how things play out. It also needs to be noted that as conditions change, or the “engagement” space changes — so must the decisions on positioning — if ANY strategy is to remain viable. Thus, on strategy — positioning of resources must be an ongoing and dynamic approach, if there is any hope of prolonging the sustainability and the potentials for ongoing success.
New breakthroughs and disruptive innovations in technologies should not change the core crux of why strategy always needs to ‘dynamically’ position its resources properly — thus, the value is met by realigning resources to best meet the changing conditions. And, with the product or financial cycles shortening in the 21st Century, there is a definitive acceleration of change in all facets of strategy creation. Those leaders (even those in start-ups) who recognize this and adapt with a knowledge-based approach that uses innovations in data analytics to make quicker, better, and smarter decisions faster — will provide their organizations with the best windows for success.
It should also be noted that all great generals and strategists going back to Sun Tzu always cautioned that while superior positioning was key to strategy — that a wise leader recognizes that in executing winning strategy, it should never be a foregone conclusion that any organization must do battle with its rivals to win. In fact, Sun Tzu explained that winning without battle (by superior positioning of resources) was a hundredfold better.
Yet, in my over 35 years as a strategy consultant, why have I found in the start-ups, and in the Fortune 100’s I’ve worked and called upon, that so few sustain a business model that creates a dynamic means to position and re-position resources based on analytics? Why is it that most strategy approaches focus on static (dust-collecting) “plans?” Why is it that so many focus on the competition (as it was when they started the process — not as it really is today)? Why is it that strategy and coaching gurus focus so much on execution (which is only at best serving to efficiently hone in the low hanging fruit) and strangle most aspects and ideas that could sustain a desirable success rate? Strategy is NOT a program — and it is NOT a short-term or quarterly returns program. Stop making it one!
Is it any wonder that when it comes to strategy — well over 70% of businesses report they’ve had less than desired results?
This new blog is entitled, “PGH Strategy Consultant” because I intend to use it, to share with you some of the insights I’ve obtained since I started my strategy consulting work, via the founding and operating “The Xavier Group, Ltd.” here in Pittsburgh (PGH) in 1981.
The Xavier Group has existed for 36 years, founded on May 5, 1981 as a strategy consultancy to provide strategic thinking, research, planning, analytics, leadership and management services to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Xavier was set up to help organizations map out a course, and form consistent strategies that employ political, economic, social, psychological, and labor forces to achieve maximum support for decisions, policies, and methods — so as to meet the competition under the most advantageous conditions, at all times.
In 1981, the Pittsburgh region was facing major cutbacks and transitions in its primary metals manufacturing and general manufacturing roots. The region had been broadsided by changes in manufacturing in emerging countries and by the global economy. My intent, in founding Xavier, was to come up with an anticipatory science-based means to discover potential threats and then to formulate pragmatic strategies from which the threats could be diminished. What I eventually came up by the mid-90’s, with was something we called ‘Xavier Chronometrics’, an algorithmic-based trending software forecaster that allowed businesses to model various forecasts to see better how they would play out within each organization or place, based on specific internal and foreseeable external patterns. It had around a 79% accuracy rate.
Prior to founding The Xavier Group, I had worked as a senior-management director for a Fortune Service 300, Davy McKee Corp., Engineers and Constructors, (made from the merger of Davy International Ltd. UK’s largest steelmaking process plant manufacturer with Arthur G. McKee & Co. USA’s laregst steel processing, oil processing, and military plant facility manufacturer) where I learned with hands-on training how to perform both strategic analyses and establish/formulate some strategic directions for planning.
For the next 36 years, I honed those skills based on experiences in many different fields, with work from helping individuals with just a seed of an idea, to Fortune 300’s establishing new business unit strategies, to federal/state/local governmental and military agencies, to development in association non-profits and educational institutions. Today as the velocity of change has increased stresses on organizations to deliver better results, faster, and more accurately — The Xavier Group’s mission and creating a great and successful strategy have become more important than ever.
I currently remain the Founder/CEO of The Xavier Group. During the time of its existence, I have acted as its chief strategy consultant. As such I have provided strategy consulting services to over 740 companies of all sizes from start-ups who were coming into existence with a potentially patented idea, to over 40 large Fortune 300 Corporations, have worked with numerous state and federal agencies, the Department of Defense (DARPA), as well as many other institutions. Most of the primary services have been provided in the Eastern United States, but have had business in 39 states, two US territories, and 17 countries. I have also been heavily involved with skunkworks R&D operations and new product/service development ideation.
In recent years, I have become permanently-physically-disabled, and as a result, my personal visits to clients have been greatly reduced, but there is a lot of information I’ve garnered through my experiences and journals; and I’m hoping through this blog, you might come to understand many of the intricacies that help decision makers I’ve worked with in real businesses and organizations make better decisions that can and have lead to successful strategies.
As you read these blogs, if you feel you’d like further strategy consultant assistance, I am personally available, so don’t feel you can’t contact me directly. I can arrange to meet with you in person, and can remain in regular or hourly contact on a Virtual Private Encrypted Network (VPN-Tunnel) via Apple Facetime, or Microsoft Skype; or can stay in touch via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook. If you feel you need more comprehensive strategy services for your organization, and/or would like assigned expertise to help you on-site with some specific projects, contact me and ask me how you might hire the services of The Xavier Group Ltd.
Why would you turn to me, and/or The Xavier Group Ltd. over all the other “strategists” out there? I hope this blog answers that question for you, because my experiences have led me to look at strategy through an entirely different lens than almost all of the others — who see strategy as really just a tactic (a project), or they have great strengths in market strategy — but really do NOT understand “strategy” itself.
In fact, as you know, there are a lot of people who call themselves “strategists, strategy coaches, and so on.” In the Pittsburgh area we’ve identified 172 organizations that supposedly trade in some form of “strategy.” That 172 does not include all the unlisted independent freelancers, or those who hold such positions in local businesses or non-profit organizations. It is my sincere hope, though, that with this blog, I’ll be able to ignite my blog readers into understanding more of the complex choices that leaders really need to face when they are trying to develop a successful strategy for — business models, marketing, operations, enterprise digitization, human capital, resource and asset positioning and supply, governance, finance, and other domains; and therefore you can end up with a far better outcome.
So … Let me lay this out for you: First, I will tell you what this blog is about. Then, I’ll provide you with some information and some links to learn a little more about me, if you haven’t done business with me in the past 36 years.
First, THE BLOG:
Subject matter of this blog will fall into the following 10 major categories, as all of these need to be used in some form to create a viable and successful strategy:
- Strategy and Business
- Positioning, Strategic Management, and Strategic Plans (Tactics)
- Business Models and Strategy Execution (Tactics)
- Organizational Leadership and Management
- Enterprise Architectures and Deep Data Analytics
- Futures Studies, Forecasts, Predictions
- Anticipatory Design, Engineering, Advanced Sciences, R&D
- Human Resources for Executives, Advanced IT for Executives
- New Products/Services Development and Product/Service Lifecycle Strategies
- Venture Capitalization, Portfolio Management, Financial/Business Development
(If you’ve been thinking about “Strategy” — I’m fairly certain 95% of what you are thinking about falls somewhere in the above list. If NOT, I’d love to have you correct me.)
Second, ABOUT ME:
I have been a successful Serial Entrepreneur, Strategy Consultant, Futurist, and Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist since the late seventies. In 1981, I founded THE XAVIER GROUP Ltd., an international consultancy that provides strategy, leadership, analytics, and technology assistance for organizations including over 40 Fortune 500s, multiple government agencies and educational organizations, and over 700 small businesses, non-profits, and start-ups.
As a professional strategist, futurist, author, and speaker, I’ve been hired by local and national organizations and have done keynote talks for events like TED Talks, etc. I’ve done this to help others devise meaningful, effective strategies, that often focus on technology innovations that’ll impact their operations If they think about this right, they’ll get better results. I’ve also provided ideas and assistance to help them cope best with disruptive advancements, so they don’t get unexpectedly broadsided.
In obtaining some of my personal expertise, I worked for over 10 years with Marvin J. Cetron, Ph.D., America’s most well-known professional futurist and founder of Forecasting International. Dr. Cetron headed up the US Navy and Federal R&D labs and was a member of the White House Science Council from the Kennedy through the Bush Administrations. I assisted Marv for a decade through 9/11 in creating many of his forecast timelines, technology assessments, WMD / terrorist and foreign policy assessments for the White House, the Pentagon, NSA Cyberthreats, Homeland Security, NASA, Professional Pilots, World Future Society, Committee on Foreign Relations, Davos, CNN, Washington Post, Newsmax; and for Industrial, Manufacturing, Retail, Transportation and Financial Technological and Economic Outlooks for business customers.
I also had the opportunity to work on many projects with Theodore J. Gordon, Founder of The Futures Group, co-founder of the Millennium Project with Ray Kurzweil. Ted, a former RAND Corp consultant was also Chief Engineer at McDonnell Douglas’ Saturn S-IV, and Director of their space station, hypersonic vehicles, and deep space vehicle operations. I first met him in coming up with some strategies that dealt with discovering fluid flow variations in the engine nozzle of hypersonic spacecraft.
My comprehensive resume can be found here: Frank X. Sowa Founder/CEO at The Xavier Group, Ltd. — Strategy Consultant; Futurist; Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist
A few of the clients I’ve worked for since 1981: Apple, Microsoft, Google, FedExGround, BayerUSA, Lanxess, Vesuvius, RMI Titanium-(Now part of Alcoa), Alcoa, USX, Tippins Machinery Company, Allegheny Ludlum, ATI Technologies, Jessop Steel, Republic Steel, WESCO, Azko, Generalie Electrique (Belgium), Maglev, GE, GE Aviation, Boeing, Douglas Aircraft, Lockheed Martin, Grumman, LTV Steel, Bethlehem Steel, UPMC, Highmark Allegheny Health System, Cleveland Clinic, Marshall University Health System, Gascard Club, Kenny/King Oil/Gas Company, Pennzoil, Sohio-BP, Exxon-Mobil, Eaton, Reliance Electric, Goodyear, Loral Space Systems, Space Systems International (SSI) and others.
DEFINITIONS OF THE THREE SERVICES I’VE PROVIDED FOR 36 YEARS:
As a strategy consultant I work with top executives to help them make better decisions on their most critical issues and opportunities, convert those decisions into a pragmatic strategy that will drive actions and tactics to achieve the sustained outcomes they desire, and assist them with the execution of those strategies as a part of their business and operational models, so they can achieve making strategy, leadership. analytics, and technologies core to their organizations.
As a professional futurist since 1983, I have used scientific, algorithmic, and social science methods to systematically explore weak-signal patterning to see whether such patterns can evolve into trends that can be analyzed to make forecasts that weigh possibilities about how they can emerge from the present to make the future. A futurist explores all aspects of the future without constraint, starting with an analysis of likely technology developments and then figuring out likely consequences.
COMPREHENSIVE ANTICIPATORY DESIGN SCIENTIST:
As a professional CADS, I’ve attempted to apply my polymath accuracy to invention, development, and empirical research and proof in the areas of pure and applied science/technology all my life. I’ve tried to maintain an approach that follows along in the manner that Buckminster Fuller first defined it in the 1950’s.
Feel free to comment. I’d be happy to discuss these in more detail. You can comment here, so others can chime in, you can send me an email, or contact me on LinkedIn.
My email address are: firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com