Tag Archives: Enron

How Milton Friedman Got It Wrong

Add Nobel Prize winner, economist Milton Friedman to the list of smartest guys in the room who said, did and taught the dumbest things.

Just what did Friedman say in 1970 that American leaders in 2015 have become so infatuated with?

Here it is. Word for word.

“When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the ‘social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,’ I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are — or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously — preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Friedman actually said this stuff about businesses having no social responsibility. And American leaders believed it, and then acted on it.

The result?

It took 45 years, but American leadership finally created for today’s knowledge workers– but not themselves, of course — what University of Massachusetts Professor William Lazonick refers to as “profits without prosperity.” The problem isn’t just the fox guarding the hen house. This is the fox in the hen house, waiting for the chickens to come home to roost.

Sadly, both for American employees and for Friedman, the well educated economist’s theory has for years replaced the golden egg (continuously improving people and process, which should have come first) with the smell of rotten eggs (the remnants of command and control). The evidence: America’s all-time-low employee engagement, our virtually stagnant economy and wage deflation.

American leadership’s hen house now appears, instead, to be more of a dog house.

Let’s face it, we can’t compete globally because modern leaders have failed to capture and engage man’s curiosity and creativity. Because if they had, we would have exchanged our arrogance for our humility, and listened to learn rather than tell. We’d be continuously improving people, because learning comes from people, and improvement comes from learning. Which, in turn, comes about from the detection and correction of errors in our thinking. And we’d be using that employee knowledge to show leaders where wasteful activities exist,  destroying the American people, their personal productivity and their well-being.

I suppose it was easier for Friedman to assign blame to the “intellectual forces…undermining the basis of a free society these past decades,” rather than teach executives the true human value of respect and continuous improvement. Especially when today’s executives earn 300 times more than those they serve.

Who could successfully argue that paying executives so much money doesn’t make their companies better?

Maybe Japanese executives like CEO Akio Toyoda of Toyota, who in 2013 earned just $2.9 million on $18 billion of profit. Respecting people; improving people; and improving process and wasteful activities that affect people. And, of course, selling cars to — of all the crazy things — more and more people.

Seems like people do matter, Mr. Friedman. They’re called customers and employees, fathers and mothers, friends and family.

The Japanese circle of Kai and Zen — the art of making change through continuous improvement — is something we need more of in America and throughout the world.

Let’s stop turning to pontificating prognosticators: today’s Tarot card readers using computer-driven analytics. The kind now used to determine people’s job security and personal productivity, especially average people when the time comes for their annual review.

Let’s stop teaching children, employees and, sadly, future leaders, the wrong things about man’s intrinsic motivation.

Let’s stop sending the message to society that man’s intrinsic value is irrelevant. An unnecessary component in improving this strictly extrinsically valued society.

In a 1991 article written by Alan Robinson from University of Massachusetts and Dean Schroeder from Valparaiso University paid close attention to the effective use of employee suggestions. Turns out, man’s intrinsic value in other cultures and countries is extrinsically valuable to leaders and stockholders.

Japanese employees turned in 32.5 suggestions per person. American employees turned in 0.11. American leaders implemented just 37% of the employee’s recommendations, while Japanese leaders implemented 87%.

American employers were too busy to listen, and employees too disengaged to contribute.

Meanwhile, America was losing the luster on her once global competitiveness crown, and she didn’t understand why.

Perhaps emphasizing our need to nurture man’s intrinsic value over his lifetime, not just nurture his extrinsic net worth quarter by quarter, still makes sense. Especially if we’re going to improve one another, ourselves and our ability to compete in the global economy. And in that distinct order.

The results of America’s inability to compete today are simply the consequences from the consistent leadership message sent to the willing workers of today and yesteryear: We have little value for your mind, your heart or your soul. Your value to corporate America is, strictly speaking, only from the neck down. Don’t speak or think; we know what’s best for you.

A message better understood by reading Steven Denning’s, Forbes 2011 article, titled, “The Dumbest Idea In The World — Maximizing Shareholder Value.

Or, if you are really ambitious, and enjoy learning from history, read Out of The Crisis. The anti-gospel to today’s American rhetoric on economic and management theory.

The author, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, railed against American leaders, who, way back beginning in the 1940s, assigned regularly occurring production variances to employee failings. This while leaders continued to miss the true causes behind increasing production costs and poor quality. Deming assigned blame for this directly to American leaders, calling for a radical transformation to how America leadership conducts business.

Deming knocked on American leadership’s door but couldn’t come in. Friedman’s puppets had dead-bolted it shut; double locks; top and bottom.

The unlimited asset of human capital Deming talked about — once free for the asking — has now all but dried up.

Will the first country that really wants our human capital please come forward?

As Professor Lazonick points out in his Harvard Business Review article, “Profits Without Prosperity,” during the previous 45 consecutive years, real wage increases, (wages adjusted for inflation) have not increased more than 2% in any three consecutive years but once. And that was during the Internet bubble of 1997, 1998 and 1999.

To put this in lay terms, my 24-, 22-, 20- and 18-year-old children now earn substantially less per hour for the same job that I performed in 1984. And even when I don’t adjust for inflation.

Got milk?

At least recently?

Mine’s going sour; seems I can’t afford a new gallon.

So what can we do differently to improve America’s ability to compete domestically and abroad?

Let’s turn to history and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Taichi Ohno and the millions of other leaders and customers who collaboratively helped Japan become the second-most productive nation in the world, very shortly and efficiently, after World War II ended.

Rebuilding a nation ravaged by war, but then greatly improved upon by humans — and almost exclusively from the customer’s point of view — Japan used human capital and man’s intrinsic creativity and curiosity to compete on a global basis. Adding greater and greater value to the products American consumers frequently told the Japanese they wanted more of, by putting their money where American leadership’s mouth once was.

What did Gen. MacArthur demand American leaders (working in Japan to re-build the country and the culture) do with the Japanese’s people’s curiosity, creativity and craftsmanship after WWII ended?

He demanded leaders use the people’s intrinsic cultural talents to create sustainable, corporate and societal advantages. In fact, MacArthur required the culture of Japan — one of a highly curious, creative and respectful people — not be challenged, changed nor interrupted by American occupiers. He feared that creativity — Japan’s cultural backbone — could be lost forever.

Sorry, Mr. Friedman, you were wrong in 1970, and you’re even more wrong today.

People matter. All of them.

3 Keys to Achieving Sound Governance

Of the many definitions of governance, the simplest ones tend to have the most clarity. For the purpose of this piece, governance is a set of processes that enable an organization to operate in a fashion consistent with its goals and values and the reasonable expectations of those with vested interests in its success, such as customers, employees, shareholders and regulators. Governance is distinct from both compliance and enterprise risk management (ERM), but there are cultural and process-oriented similarities among these management practices.

It is well-recognized that sound governance measures can reduce the amount or impact of risk an organization faces. For that reason, among others, ERM practitioners favor a robust governance environment within an organization.

A few aspects of sound governance are worth discussion.  These include:  1) transparency and comprehensive communications, 2) rule of law and 3) consensus-building through thorough vetting of important decisions.

Transparency 

Transparency lessens the risk that either management or staff will try to do something unethical, unreasonably risky or wantonly self-serving because decisions, actions and information are very visible.  An unethical or covert act would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Consider how some now-defunct companies, such as Enron, secretly performed what amounted to a charade of a productive business. There was no transparency about what assets of the company really were, how the company made money, what the real financial condition actually was and so on.

Companies that want to be transparent can:

  • Create a culture in which sharing of relevant data is encouraged.
  • Publish information about company vision, values, strategy, goals and results through internal communication vehicles.
  • Create clear instructions on a task by task basis that can used to train and be a reference for staff in all positions that is readily accessible and kept up to date.
  • Create clear escalation channels for issues or requests for exceptions.

Rule of Law

Good governance requires that all staff know that the organization stands for lawful and ethical conduct. One way to make this clear is to have “law abiding” or “ethical “as part of the organization’s values. Further, the organization needs to make sure these values are broadly and repeatedly communicated. Additionally, staff needs to be trained on what laws apply to the work they perform. Should a situation arise where there is a question as to what is legal, staff needs to know to whom they can bring the question.

The risks that develop out of deviating from lawful conduct include: financial, reputational and punitive. These are among the most significant non-strategic risks a company might face.

Consider a company that is found to have purposefully misled investors in its filings about something as basic as the cost of its raw materials. Such a company could face fines and loss of trust by investors, customers, rating agencies, regulators, etc., and individuals may even face jail time. In a transparent organization that has made it clear laws and regulations must be adhered to, the cost or cost trend of its raw materials would likely be a well documented and widely known number. Any report that contradicted common knowledge would be called into question.

Consider the dramatic uptick of companies being brought to task under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for everything from outright bribes to granting favors to highly placed individuals from other countries. In a transparent organization that has clearly articulated its position on staying within the law, any potentially illegal acts would likely be recognized and challenged.

How likely is it that a highly transparent culture wherein respect for laws and regulations is espoused would give rise to violations to prominent laws or regulations? It would be less likely, thus reducing financial, reputational and punitive risks.

The current increase in laws and regulations makes staying within the law more arduous, yet even more important. To limit the risk of falling outside the rule of law, organizations can:

  • Provide in-house training on laws affecting various aspects of the business.
  • Make information available to staff so that laws and regulations can be referenced, as needed.
  • Incorporate the legal way of doing things in procedures and processes.
  • Ensure that compliance audits are done on a regular basis.
  • Create hotlines for reporting unethical behavior.

Consensus-Building

Good governance requires consultation among a diverse group of stakeholders and experts. Through dialogue and, perhaps some compromise, a broad consensus of what is in the best interest of the organization can be reached. In other words, important decisions need to be vetted. This increases the chance that agreement can be developed and risks uncovered and addressed.

Decisions, even if clearly communicated and understood, are less likely to be carried out by those who have not had the chance to vet the idea.

Consider a CEO speaking to rating agency reviewers and answering a question about future earnings streams. Consider also that the CFO and other senior executives in separate meetings with the rating agency answer the same question in a very different way. In this scenario, there has clearly not been consensus on what the future looks like. A risk has been created that the company’s credit rating will be harmed.

To enhance consensus-building, companies can:

  • Create a culture where a free exchange of opinions is valued.
  • Encourage and reward teamwork.
  • Use meeting protocols that bring decision-making to a conclusion so that there is no doubt about the outcome (even when 100% consensus cannot be reached).
  • Document and disseminate decisions to all relevant parties.

During the ERM process step wherein risks are paired with mitigation plans, improved governance is often cited as the remedy to ameliorate the risk. No surprise there. Clearly, good governance reduces risk of many types. That is why ERM practitioners are fervent supporters of strong governance.