Continuous transformation or a transitional approach, which path do you prefer?


Janet Yellen Testifies House Fniancial Services Committee

Earlier this week, Janet Yellen told the House Financial Services Committee that no decision has been made, but shared the Federal Reserve Bank‘s expectations via the Wall Street Journal.   “The economy will continue to grow at a pace that is sufficient to generate further improvements in the labor market and to return inflation to our 2% target over the medium term, and if the incoming information supports that expectation, then…December would be a live possibility. ”

Wow, lot’s of room in those statements.  Both US Stocks and bonds slipped following her remarks. It’s become commonplace to link Fed Chairpersons’ remarks to the rise and fall of the markets.  I’m not so willing.

Maybe because my thoughts of late were influenced by a conversation hosted by the Becker Friedman Institute I attended last week.  Entitled The Role and Impact of Monetary Policy in an Uncertain Economy  and included Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve  and nobel laureate Lars Peter Hansen.

First, I’m with Plosser in sensing that it’s foolish to expect that  the Federal Reserve’s control of the money supply and interest rates can be used to effect both inflation and domestic employment.   Second, we need to be cognizant, as Hansen advises, that models can be very helpful but are not exactly the same as direct relationships.  Politico made a similar point. “The Fed and its staff, like any good economists, rely on past patterns as a guide to future outcomes. And now, those patterns are no longer working…:

In fact, it’s the latter thought the differentiation between modeled certainty and certainty deserves more attention.  I’ve been unpacking and exploring this in a variety of ways .  Here’s one:

I know with certainty the relationship between the gas pedal and the degree of pressure applied by my foot and the acceleration of my car.  Janet Yellen and the Fed no matter how experienced and accurate the input data, the econometric models relationship to the economy remain uncertain.  It’s why changes in pressure they apply to expand or contract interest rates have a fuzzier relationship to the economy, and the measurable results more complicated and less consistently understood when compared to my car’s observed speed when I hit the or lighten up on the gas.

Modeled certainty when it fails produces uncertainty but doesn’t mean stop, or does it?

I only watch the dashboard in my car.  I used to have a ticker list of stocks I followed, but no more.  I also rely on the weather app on my phone even though it’s not very accurate. Why? Well it’s useful to be prepared for forecasted conditions, even though several are beyond my control. Yes the weather is uncertain inspite of models who do their best to assure us.

I’m not alone in my struggle to understand and interpret the signals around us, especially the indicators of the health of the American economy and the global economy.  For one, its more complicated than the working of my car, which I also don’t fully understand. The dashboard guides me, it reminds me that the gas tank needs refilling or that in a particular area I may need to reduce my speed, or if the other lights go on I should get a mechanic to take a look.

Today the growing interconnections between sensors, and communications technology make makes it possible to funnel more information to me in real time than ever before.  So, what value do additional indicator really offer? What does knowing more change? The answer is it changes everything, but not necessarily in a predictable way.

Experience, does affect how we process information. Our brain uses experience to filter out commonplace or the “usual” details in our midst. Organizationally, experience used to model and plan the allocation of resources and assure us with forecasts based on different decisions.  The bigger the organization, the more careful and challenging the coordination and planning activities.

When I was a kid, I heard the expression “As goes General Motors, so goes the country.” I didn’t know the first thing about economic indicators, or inflation rates.  My family bought GM cars, so when my grandpa bought a new Buick, things were going well. Conversely, things were going less well when my father continued to drive his Pontiac long after a small hole in the floor board  appeared spurting water when we’d hit a puddle.

GM of course was until recently not just one of the world’s automakers, it’s activities were deeply embedded into the economy.  A report by US Auto Alliance , quantified the importance of the automotive industry in the U.S. economy  claiming:

  • more than seven million private sector jobs and $500 billion in compensation,
  • drew foreign direct investment (FDI) currently valued at $74 billion—approximately 3 percent of all FDI in the United States.
  • And collective investments of almost $46 billion that expanded and retooled U.S.‐based facilities since 2010.

It take a reasonably long time to build a car, but people don’t buy them very often, so supply can generally keep up with demand. If we use GM as a litmus test for the economy there’s some wise and prudent parallels becasue there’s a lot of interdependencies between larger sentiments and people’s financial capabilities.  In contrast, fast food offers a set of alternative indicators to measure the pulse of the economy. In May of 2015, US news speculated about the inverse relationship between the two in an article entitled “McDonald’s earnings slide could be a function of economics. Besides, McDonald’s is the 2nd  largest employer in the country, trailing WalMart. Not surprising given its 14,300 restaurants –4.6 outlets per county.  (I plan to explore this idea more fully in a post I’ve drafted called  McDonald’s a truly American Story).McDonald's Workforce, 2005-2014

See http://fortune.com/2015/06/13/fortune-500-most-employees/

I only point to these two companies becasue I think it’s important to notice the difference between government actions and companies responses to changes in external conditions.

BCG put it this way:

“To compound matters, the diversity of the business environments—in terms of growth, rate of change, and harshness—that global companies face is expanding in a multispeed world. So it is not surprising that many companies find their strategies and business models increasingly out of step with their environments.

Many companies get caught in a “boiling-frog trap,” where they fail to recognize the problem and delay efforts to remedy it, thus necessitating a painful and risky step-change transformation.”

Is that what you want the Federal Reserve Governors to do?  I hope not.  It’s why I don’t envy them nor am I ready to second guess them.  In reality no one should let uncertainty about monetary policy and interest rate hikes hold up your planning, I would encourage you to take a harder look at the relationship between the micro as well as the macro trends in your industry. You don’t need a data scientist per se to create an elaborate model, but it can’t hurt.  The trick is to merely face the realities.    Try to imagine how your customers adjust and see if these factors are included in your own models, you might fill in a few more gaps..a sustainable path is up to you.

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Pushing 60, McDonalds needs more reinvention than its latest face lift


Successful change initiatives often result from a deeper understanding of the problem than the questions that initially emerge when something that should work doesn’t.

For example, Does McDonald’s need an activist investor? This question posed by Parke Shall  today suggests McDonald’s may be in need of a more in-depth analysis. One that   looks beyond the basic data level and requires capabilities and alternative perspectives than those currently at the helm . This deeper thinking would take stock, examine the array of assets tangible and intangible as well as the various factors or flows in order to depict the present working dynamics that produce the present situation. For example, the following conceptual view by Donnella Meadows  and her corresponding outline of effective leverage points offers one such perspective.

State of the System

From Meadow’s perspective, data happens to be one of the least effective leverage points and big data is no exception.  After all data alone merely describes what is, was,  or what may result when applying particular assumptions.

Parke Shall isn’t the only one wondering what McDonald’s can do to appease its investors after a year of declining sales. The complexity of managing and formulating strategy have proven difficult for the chain whose market capitalization and earnings exceed those of several small nations.  It’s precisely why internal decision-making and long standing alliances may require more leverage points and even the most effective in changing outcomes a complete paradigm shift.

I’m Not Lovin' Itif it were up to a few active social media savvy shareholder and mommy bloggers, the changes begin with focusing less on appealing to children’ts natural weaknesses and interests.  When the executives got caught up denying that Ronald McDonald’s visits schools only to recall seeing him present, she had to ask a question that resonates with analysts and shareholders alike:

Are the executives at McDonald’s completely out of touch with reality?

It’s just one of a series of signs that suggest the leadership team and operating  executives appear trapped.  Their understanding and sense of how to make necessary changes that may put  their business on a more positive, sustainable path seems to be stuck in time and experience that no longer resembles the present or the future.

The signs

Millenial challenges reported by the Wall Street Journal in August 2014 tops the list of signs that McDonald’s seems to have lost its relevancy with a key demographic.  Ad Age reported that among Millenials McDonald’s didn’t even make it into the top 10 list of restaurants, though overall they remain the #1 fast food chain. For millenials eating patterns wsj 2014McDonald’s there’s significant impact not only across their 35,000-plus global locations, but its flat or falling sales of the past year for restaurants open at least 13 months, this hurts the US hardest where 40% of its locations exist.

Current CEO Don Thompson replaced the head of the US division effective October 15 with Mike Andres who in turn made additional changes in  the structure and leadership across the US.  The hiring announcement included appointing a new CMO and adding its first customer experience officer who quickly began to  usher new changes for the brand.  Beginning with Leo Burnett assuming their advertising responsibilities and refreshing a popular campaign.  Will these changes and renewed focus prove  significant  enough?  Today’s “lovin it” campaign launch hopes to earn back customers  and promote more positivity. 

Another traditional leverage point , McDonald’s long term relationships with key suppliers enabled mutual growth with product consistency and exclusivity.  Coca Cola, for example, has been a critical partner since 1955.  New York Times reported Coke’s contributions to a variety of successful promotions and innovations  McDonald’s introduced over the years, the smoothie being the latest example.   To what extent will suppliers participate in the extensive reinvention process? Given that Coca Cola has seemed to hit a sugar speed bump itself , this approach may be less advantageous.

This bring us to innovation at the menu level brings.  Widely acknowledged to prove challenging, the menu creep  throws off the rhythm of prep and compromises serve time, a key management metric and contributor to McDonald’s overall value proposition.  Expanding offerings such as  McCafe and McWraps, along with efforts to rebrand and position itself as more upscale may appease some consumers, but not clear these additions delivered sufficiently to slow if not deflect the falling sales.

Is McDonald’s too entrenched in the trappings of it’s 59-year old brand strategy?

The amount of  data  and analysts working on this task doesn’t identify a source or clear evidence of higher level strategic thinking.  A 2012  Booz & Company case study of Wendy’s strategy noted McDonald’s had sewn up three key competitive advantages. Brand name recognition for the golden Arches holds an enviable 88% visibility internationally, which helps it win over price-sensitive consumers who also focus primarily on convenience.

Its US location density  places a McDonalds franchise at the very least within 100 miles of every consumer.  This limits acheiving new growth by adding new outlets. It may be why McDonald’s has increased its innovation capabilities beyond what the Huffington Post reported in 2011 were evident in its Romeoville innovation center where it develops, borrows and systematizes operations innovation.  This effort enviable to most corporations prototyped the extensive experience facelifts ranging from re-architecture and mobile ordering.  Still not clear there’s enough in the pipeline to turn the tide against   longer term trends of lost relevance and eroding sales signals.

Among 32,000 consumer reports subscribers, McDonald’s hamburgers came in last when judged for its taste against 20 rivals. This suggests that it’s not just the millenials who no longer find the fast food’s burger offerings appealing, thoguh burgers and shakes continue to draw crowds to other fast casual restaurants at higher price points too.

Bigmac sticker shock Fortune 2014The problem of sticker shock doesn’t impact Chipotle or other restaurants among the ever increasing fast casual segment, but it sure has hurt McDonald’s. As Fortune reported, the growing gap between the dollar menu and higher price points continues to widen making the higher priced items less attractive.

Changes to help the struggling chain regain its growth may require either  McDonald’s board and.or its CEO to resolve deeper structural challenges characteristic of complexity.   It will require some serious assumption busting, re-framing of the definitions of success and aligning more attributes with those characteristic of open systems environment.  No pun intended.  I do believe ramping up prototyping activities in Romeoville and  live testing of customization such as those in sourthern California will also help.

The evident discrepancy between McDonald’s goals and its shrinking share of the markets in which it operates doesn’t only create unease among its various stakeholders (e.g. customers, employees, its board and shareholders. This contrary indicators also reflect the inter-related operating decisions that constrain and limit opportunity while at the same time provide effective command and control that enhance efficiency but at increasing opportunity cost vis a vis growth.  Some of these indicators affect competitors as well as suppliers,  impacting factors that compete and complement American eating attitudes and behaviors.

For example, notice the changes in attitude reported  over the last nine years by International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s “2014 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health.”

Healthy food attitudes surveyed

This data merely exemplifies the changes in attitude over time and supports or disputes assumptionsin evidence by decision-makers running McDonalds.  It also shows how little the major facelift and experience initiatives matched, let alone change pre-existing attitudes about McDonald’s on items  corresponding to what Booz *company reported as core strengths for the brand.

These attitudes are not independent of each other and reinvention will require exercising leverage that cuts much more deeply than switching out leadership and introducing additional menu changes.   In other words, the complex tasks associated with increasing growth will require fundamentally different approaches than those available to smaller competitors or innovators carving out new space and creating  new categories.  Will their investors be patient and have enough confidence to believe in their existing leadership, only time will tell.

Growth doesn’t elude those who connect to customers


Jeff Bezos and anyone else holding Amazon stock must be pretty happy this past week after seeing the stock shoot up 15 % as the last quarter revenue was up 34%.  Grwoth and performance are the cats’s meow in capital markets!  But Amazon is afterall just an internet company, right?  Steve Henn of NPR interviewed Ben Rose, president of Battle Road Research who offered a little perspective. 

 while Amazon made $190 million dollars in profits last quarter – McDonald’s, which is now worth less on the stock market, earned more than 1.2 billion. .. the reason so many investors are excited about Amazon is that it is growing – fast.

 

Fast growth means a lot to the street, investors as well as senior managegment.  The double hockey stick, or ability to repeat performance over time before hitting the point of stagnation sounds precisely in keeping with our expectation of CEOs and yet their inability to knock them out of the park consistently puts Bezos into a very exclusive class.  

The difference in earnings for  Amazon and McDonalds illustrate that there’s a lot more to the picture. Rapid growth requires more than stepped up demand, but an ability to also step up quality, supply and  delivery efficiency, generate positive experiences while sustaining your reputation increasingly matters.  

For years, McDonald’s strategy for growth emphasized opening more restaurants to reach more customers. The problem was that as the efficiencies from scale began to stagnate , flattening the upward  trajectory of the growth curve.  As masters of scale and efficiency and even quality, the price advantage certainly helped them during the recession but by their own standards of success they recognized they needed to do more.  They turned to their innovation team and began to set in motion a series of tests that not only allowed them to upp sales per customer but returned their growth rates to an upward trajectory.  Design helped them completely shift their thinking and relinquish some of the central control and dictates allowing the individual outlets flexibility to satisfy the local tastes and prefrences from menu items to the restaurant design itself. 

 

The shift from central to decentralized control  is not merely the return of the pendulum swing. 

 John Kotter, writing for Forbes,  observing the ever-increasing rate of change and the inability of many organizations to thrive, also observed that static management principles stymie timely transformations.  What stops organizations from adapting or flexibly responding to the larger dynamics at work in the market?  

20th-century, capital “H” Hierarchy (a sort of hardware) and the managerial processes that run on it (a sort of software) do not handle transformation well.

I read this comment and immediately began to understand something I had failed to grasp.  It’s easy as an outsider to recognize and empathize with the challenges of an organization whose leadership voice the words and know deeply they they need some of that innovation. I thought it was thier lack of vision, or their inability to appreciate and value the customer experience or a series of solutions that have been echoed in innovation circles by business strategy, design thinking  and change management professionals.  What I missed was a lesson I had learned and quickly forgotten because it was a painful chapter when I worked for Fortune 50 banks and found myslef the change agent.  Most managemetn teams are responsive up the chain, and in my experience the marching orders they followed were reinforced with clear rewards for delivering performance. 

Getting to the C Suite requires making all the right moves, delivering the results that were expected and that’s the system you know. The trend to outsource was an innovation to cost reductions and creating efficienciey when what mattered was being lean and oil was bad for your diet.  Consumers adapted becasue they never did know the difference between a local company paid customer service rep who spoke english and seemed to know the score and one paid by an outsource firm and could repeat the tasks for multiple companies.  

The price for that efficiency is the loss of control, the ability to truly be agile, nimble and responsive to shifts in the market. You may have surrendered to the forces that Joe Pine describes commodotized your business, swapping out tasks to experts while stepping up the your investment in the new new thing.  

The entrepreneurs who are running circles around the larger providers can do it becasue either they control every inch of their value chain, or the are able to begin by leveraging technology that is fully integrated, seamless and allows for transparency across the system. 

Its unclear how long Amazon will be able to keep up their growth rates by challenging new business sectors failing to make the transition.  Revisiting your structure and decision-making hierarchy certainly helps ….