What Southwest Airlines can teach us about running our own organizations

In an industry where its competitors have frequently gotten into serious financial difficulty, Southwest Airlines has maintained profitability every year for the previous 45 years. This is an amazing accomplishment. We will explore some of the strategies that Southwest Airlines has used to drive that success.

Southwest Airlines has only ever flown one type of airplane, Boeing 737’s. All its pilots, flight attendants, ground crews and mechanics are trained to work with every plane Southwest owns. Southwest must maintain a parts inventory for only one type of plane. I see two lessons to be learned from the strategy. The first is the value of simplicity. The second is the importance of sticking to your strategy. I am sure that over the years they were tempted at times to buy smaller planes to service smaller markets and to buy bigger planes to service foreign markets. Southwest did not yield to the siren call of chasing every potential customer. They would only pursue those customers who fit within their business model.

Southwest Airlines does not believe that the customer is always right. The late Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, said that the customer is not always right. “And I think that’s one of the biggest betrayals of employees a boss can possibly commit. The customer is sometimes wrong. We don’t carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say, ‘Fly somebody else. Don’t abuse our people.’” So, what does this approach do for Southwest’s customer service? My own experience is that Southwest employees have always been warm and gracious to my family and me. But for more objective evidence we will look at the Temkin Experience Ratings. Southwest has rated number one for customer experience among US airlines every year since 2011 except for 2015. Read Full Article.

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The Power of Simplicity

My father taught us, “If you want to be happy, simplify, simplify, simplify.” He loved the quote from the movie, Amadeus, in which the Austrian emperor told Mozart that his music had “too many notes.” My father did not agree with the criticism of Mozart’s music, but felt the quote was great for describing anything from cluttered architecture and art to overly complex solutions to problems. His house that he built from steel is pictured with this article. It is an expression of his design and artistic philosophy: clean, smooth, uncluttered, simple lines.

Albert Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” Steve Jobs surely met this definition as he brought us the power and complexity of computing through as simple a user interface as possible. He took the complex and made it simple.

We often find that we cannot complete all of the tasks that are already on our “to do” lists let alone other tasks and goals we should be adding. We can choose what is most important to us and drop some good things from our list that are standing in the way of our accomplishing better. Advice I received from the book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland, helped a lot. Give yourself a short deadline. I needed to write an application to the Texas Medical Board to start a hospitalist fellowship. It seemed to me like this should take several weeks to complete which I did not have so I kept pushing it down on my to do list. I gave one of my hospitalists and me two hours to complete the application. We were done, and the application was accepted. My inner OCD wanted to overly complicate the task. I needed to simplify. Read Full Article.

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A visionary leader is proactive

Reactive vs Proactive Leadership

I do a lot of reading on leadership. About 2 years ago, I read a book in which the author briefly contrasted reactive and proactive leaders. The author said that reactive leader does not seem to anticipate problems and does not see them coming until they are blowing up in his face. The reactive leader is constantly putting out fires. The proactive leader on the other hand sees problems just as they are starting to grow, or even before they begin, and calmly takes quiet and gentle steps to correct and avert so that the conflicts and disruptions are minimized or even completely prevented.

A reactive leader may be confronted with ugly contentions for any combination of the following reasons:

  1. Does not see the problem or consider that it might develop.
  2. Sees the potential problem, but does not want to be bothered over something that “might” happen.
  3. Sees the problem, but is afraid to act.
  4. Created the problem by misguided attempts to solve other problems.
  5. Enjoys contention and creates problems in part to create sparring opportunities or opportunities to assert dominance that are ego driven rather than leadership required.

The proactive leader does as Walter Gretzsky did and skates “to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” He has an eye to future disruptions. He sees the problems and is ready, willing and unafraid to act. He does not shy away from healthy conflict resolution, but prevents or minimizes unhealthy contention within his organization. He may disrupt his organization to move it where it needs to be to survive and thrive, but he will not allow his organization to be disrupted to no purpose.

I recently read an online article that presented reactive and proactive leaders as two equally valid leadership styles.i The reactive leader is presented in this article as strong in the surprise conflict, but weak in anticipatory leadership and the proactive leader as strong in long-range planning, but weak when called upon to “shoot from the hip.” I could not disagree more. A reactive leader is responding to whatever hits him and cannot have a firm hand on the tiller of the organization. For the proactive leader, the ability to extrapolate likely future scenarios and to predict human nature and act with vision and foresight does not make one unable to act upon the present urgencies and emergencies. Indeed, a proactive leader who has an eye to the future will be able to craft acute conflict resolution that is long lasting and strengthening to the organization.

Now, here is the part that stuns me, yet I have seen time and time to be true. This unknown author says that the reactive leader is often seen as the stronger leader, because he is often seen with guns blazing at a terrible dragon he is slaying for the organization, even if he is the one who fed and nurtured that dragon. The proactive leader is too often seen as weak or irrelevant. Why is he even needed? The organization seems to run itself. He often addresses problems discretely allowing key stakeholders to save face in front of the rest of the organization while bringing them effectively back on track. So much of what he does is unseen so it is assumed that it is not happening.

iPROACTIVE OR REACTIVE LEADERSHIP, WHICH IS MOST EFFECTIVE IN THE WORKPLACE? VICKY BAILEY, 2016-12-02

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Congrats you got the job! Read before you sign.

A physician who I greatly admire and respect once took a job as a hospitalist in a small town. She was told that she would have a guaranteed salary. But she did not read the fine print in her employment contract. The guarantee was actually an advance against future production, or collections. She was required to meet a certain level of collections to support her salary. If she did not meet that level of collections, she had to pay back the deficit. There was a hospitalist outside of and competing with her group. One of the emergency department physicians really liked this hospitalist. If he determined that the patient had good insurance, he called the outside hospitalist to do the admission. If he determined that the patient did not have good insurance, he called my friend’s hospitalist group. They were providing a tremendous amount of care to the patients in the hospital. They were just not getting paid. The longer she worked there, the deeper in debt she was getting. One of her partners did the math and simply left. My friend stayed out of a sense of integrity and fairness to give them time to find her replacement. She was not repaid in kind. And who was going to come and take over for such a terrible deal? She ended up in court and had to pay everything that the hospital was demanding of her. The judge said that it was a terrible contract, but a legally binding one and that she was a big girl and should have read the contract. Her partner who left early made the right decision in that she paid much less to the hospital.

When I was in medical school, we had a medical legal course which consisted of about 10 hours of lectures. One of the things that we were told was to read very carefully anything that we put our signature to. We were particularly cautioned to read employment contracts. I have followed this advice, and it has served me very well. I know of some stories where physicians were badly injured for not having read their employment contracts.

The first question is, “Will I be paid as an employee or as a contractor?” If an employee, then the employer pays half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. If a contractor, then you pay all of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. If paid a salary, you will get a set amount of money, usually every two weeks or every month. Most people who are paid a salary are expected to work significantly more than 40 hours per week, because there is no additional cost to the employer for extra hours that you work. Many job offers will sound like salaried positions, but close examination of the contract will reveal that all or a significant portion of the payment offered is contingent upon one or more performance metrics. These metrics may include collections, relative value units (RVU’s), quality & efficiency. These may be based on individual performance, group performance or some combination of both. Collections is how much was actually paid for the care you delivered. Usually, a percentage of your collections is paid to the group or hospital for overhead. RVU payment is based not on collections, but on billing. This system is often used by organizations that serve the underserved as it encourages physicians to deliver care regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. Increasingly large portions of physicians’ compensation packages are only paid if the individual and/or group meet certain quality and efficiency metrics. Whether you are actually in control of a metric, the manner in which the metric is tracked & calculated and the thresholds to qualify for the metric all can have significant impact on your actual compensation. Benefit packages can also have significant impact.

In such a short article, I cannot tell you everything to look for. I would advise you to look closely at the exit clauses. When you go to work for a new employer, you have great hopes and even expectations that things are going to go very well. But they may not. I heard of a physician who, within two months of joining a new group, learned that his partners were engaged in and engaging him in activity of questionable legality. The exit clauses in his contract were onerous, and it was very costly for him to leave so early. Issues that may hit you with early separation can include repayment of sign-on bonuses, repayment of moving stipends and noncompete clauses. I was once invited to sign a contract that said I could not work for two years in any hospital anywhere in the United States owned by any company or organization that had a contract with this large physician staffing company (which had hospital contracts in many states).

So how do you go about reading an employment contract? Of course, you are not going to receive a copy of the contract until after you have been given an offer of employment. The contract is usually sent as a PDF. You can either print it out and use a highlighter and an ink pen or, if you can get it into an editable format on your computer, you can go through the document using track changes. You are now going to sit down and read every single word of the document: slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. You will go online and look up the definitions of any legal terms that you do not understand. You can write those definitions in the margins. You can make notes about things that you understand and want addressed and about things that you do not understand. After fully digesting the document, you will either decide to walk away from this job or you will think that this might be doable if the potential employer is agreeable to reasonable changes.

If you wish to go forward, you will now hire an experienced physician employment attorney and will send him or her a copy of your highlighted document with all its notations. You will discuss your concerns. Your attorney will review your document and schedule a follow-up discussion. Your attorney may advise you simply to walk away. Or he may give you a list of items that need clarification or correction. Some issues you identify and some of your attorney’s recommendations will be deal breakers meaning either these changes are made, or you refuse the offer of employment. Others may be that it would be nice if you could get them, but are not that important. With the help of your attorney and your spouse or significant other, if there is one, you will formulate a plan for seeking necessary and desired changes in your employment contract that are reasonable and fair to both parties. Your attorney will help you express your concerns in a language that resonates with the attorney working for your potential employer who will have to give the final approval on any changes to the employment contract.

I will walk you through how I approach these negotiations. I schedule a phone meeting with the individual designated by the potential employer to be their face for the negotiations. My tone is very pleasant and reasonable. I start by saying that my wife and I have carefully read the contract. I have sought the advice of a very competent attorney experienced in physician employment contracts. From these discussions, the following concerns have arisen. If the concern is coming from me, I do not hesitate to say so, but I consider it a good strategy to point out when the concern is coming from my wife or from the advice of my attorney. This is called an appeal to higher authority. It may seem like weakness, but it is a very powerful tool. Used properly, it can tremendously strengthen your position as nothing they say to persuade me will have any impact on how my wife feels about it, especially when it is an issue that is recognized as a reasonable concern for the employee’s wife. When appropriate, I ask for clarification of language in the contract rather than outright changes. Everything that I am asking for needs to be laid out in this first meeting. If you keep coming back with new demands, they may tire very quickly and look for another candidate.

You likely will not get everything you ask for. Just make sure that you get everything you need.

You likely will not get everything you ask for. Just make sure that you get everything you need.

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Flexing your anger muscles at work

Early in my career my father shared with me the following advice: “Leave your emotions at home. Do not take your emotions to work.” He was not talking about positive emotions. He was talking about the negative emotions that get so many of us in trouble at work. Chiefly he was talking about anger.

Many people believe that anger is like a boiling, caustic liquid inside of them that can be purged by expressing the anger. They think that they can blow up and “get it out of their system.” But that is not how anger works at all. Anger is like a muscle. The more we express our anger, the stronger it becomes.

Solomon is revered as an extremely wise king. Here is what he had to say about anger. “The discretion of a man defereth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” * “A soft answer turns away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” ** “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” ***

Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” The regret can be for the harm we have done to others and the harm we have done to ourselves. Anger can do great harm to very important relationships. Sometimes we are able to completely restore the relationship. Sometimes we can only patch it. Sometimes we are left with an irreparable breach. Regardless, our efforts at mitigation may require the expenditure of great effort and political capital.

Our anger can decrease our allies and increase our workplace foes. Whether at work or not, we can never have too many friends and even one enemy is a luxury that we can ill afford. In a large and complex work environment, we may find that we cannot always give everyone everything they want. People may choose to be our enemy in spite of our best efforts. It would be foolish indeed to recruit additional enemies with unbridled, unregulated anger.

On the subject of enemies, I will say that over the years I have had a few people who have chosen to be my enemy. I have never accepted their invitation to join the conflict. When I speak of enemies, I speak of those who bear me ill will, but I am determined to be a friend to all, even those who are my most implacable enemies. I may distance myself from them and take steps to prevent them from injuring me further, but I will not move to injure them out of spite or revenge. It has been said that the best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend.

Often our anger prompts us to tell people what we think. We would be most foolish to reveal our innermost thoughts to people who are truly our enemies. They have no right to know what we think. Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Often our anger is prompted by a distortion in our perception rather than an unacceptable reality. Once we began working off the script of our perception, the victim of our anger will often perceive the barrage as a personal attack, whether it is one or is an attempt to resolve a problem. It is a natural, although often not helpful, response to respond in kind in defense.

Conflict is good. Contention is bad. We do need to resolve conflicts. We do not need to do so in a contentious way that disrupts our organization. I highly recommend the book, Crucial Conversations, for learning how to resolve conflict without contention. This book is so jampacked with valuable knowledge that it should be read, reread and studied to fully master its principles. It has the potential to transform our careers and our personal lives.

Conflict is good. Contention is bad. We do need to resolve conflicts. We do not need to do so in a contentious way that disrupts our organization. I highly recommend the book, Crucial Conversations, for learning how to resolve conflict without contention. This book is so jampacked with valuable knowledge that it should be read, reread and studied to fully master its principles. It has the potential to transform our careers and our personal lives.

* Proverbs 19:11
** Proverbs 15:1
*** Proverbs 16:32

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The recipe for creating value

When I was in college, the church that I attended had a booth every year at the local fair. We made a pastry called an elephant ear. I have seen at fairs funnel cakes which are made by pouring a liquid batter into hot oil and frying it. The elephant ear dough was mixed in a huge mixer. It had eggs in it. The dough was allowed to rise. It was then punched down, weighed out into balls and set on large cookie sheets to rise again. Volunteers sitting at tables would pat the balls into flat disks. These were fried in hot peanut oil and then covered with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. In the mid-1980s we sold these for two dollars apiece. They sold like, well, hotcakes. Many people would pay to get in the fair solely to buy elephant ears. There was always a line. If people saw that the line had gotten short, they would run to get in the line. We could sell as many as we could make.

I was in the booth one Saturday morning patting out elephant ears when I noticed Brother “Jones” handling sales. He was a very kind and pleasant man but age was upon him, and he was absolutely overwhelmed with the task. He had before him a line of people who were eager to get elephant ears and behind him stacks of elephant ears growing cold. I spoke to the team leader and asked him if he could arrange for Brother “Jones” and I to exchange positions, of course, handling it in a way that was not hurtful to Brother “Jones’s” feelings. The team leader declined to have us exchange positions but asked me to assist Brother “Jones” with sales.

We began to quickly make sales, and the stacks of unsold elephant ears got much shorter. Soon Brother “Jones” was at one of the tables patting out elephant ears. This was not a terrible place to be. There was always lively and pleasant conversation at the tables, and the task was ideally suited to his capabilities. I now had helping me another brother who was young, like I was, and energetic. We found ourselves waiting for elephant ears to be produced so we could sell them.

A new problem became apparent. The elephant ears were coming out of the vat and were stacking up waiting to have cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar applied. I spoke to the team leader who moved someone to assist with this task. Each time product piled up at a certain point in the process, I would ask the team leader to add or exchange human resources to speed the flow of product through the production chain.

The following day was Sunday. It was announced in church that the elephant ear booth averaged about $11,000 per year in sales, yet the day before we had sold $4000 in elephant ears. The fair would run each year for 11 days. We were not open on Sundays so we would run our booth for nine days each year. This gives us a daily average just over $1200. While Saturdays had more people at the fair than weekdays, demand always exceeded supply even on weekdays. We had tripled our sales that day by simply using our available resources more efficiently.

Several years later while in college, I read The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. This book is a business novel that describes the same process I did in the elephant ear booth but done in an air conditioner manufacturing plant. The protagonist identifies bottlenecks in the production stream by where product in process piles up and then eliminates the bottleneck by moving resources to that step. I highly recommend this book for business leaders.

The ideal value strategy requires no additional investment of resources but uses the current resources more efficiently to deliver quantity and quality, such as: a faster moving line delivering more and hotter elephant ears. We must not be afraid to make small investments when we know that there will be substantial return on investment. Large investments may be necessary and wise, but the larger the investment, the greater we risk, and the higher returns that are necessary to create a value result.

Read previous articles related to this topic:

Article 1: Your business’ future lies in an abundant strategy – not in scarcity

Article 2: Maximum Wow Strategies Lead to Scarcity

Article 3: Fat cutting from an organization can be taken too far – Are you starving your organization?

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Fat cutting from an organization can be taken too far – Are you starving your organization?

A maximum value strategy may involve cutting the fat from an organization, but a maximum economy strategy will cut the meat and bone. A maximum economy strategy has an excessive emphasis on cost-cutting so that it starves the organization of the resources it needs to sustain and thrive.

I will tell you the true story of the only hospital in a town of less than 100,000 people. I will not tell you the name of the hospital or the town to protect the innocent and the guilty. This hospital was sold to a national, for-profit hospital chain. Their emphasis was to pull out as much of the hospital’s gross income for corporate profits as possible. This left very little operating capital to run the hospital. They underpaid their doctors and treated them with contempt. They did not buy necessary equipment and supplies. Deferred maintenance on the building piled up. Many of the doctors moved away including surgeons who were very important to the hospital’s revenue. People in the community began driving to other towns to use the hospitals there. The average number of patients in the hospital each day fell from 75 to less than 10. They wanted it all and slowly they killed the goose that was laying the golden eggs. They wanted everything and ended up with a little bit higher percentage of much, much less.

They saw their market as static and limited. They saw increasing profit opportunities in decreasing their investments in people, operations and infrastructure. They took on a scarcity mindset. They starved the hospital of the resources it needed to thrive or even sustain itself. The hospital wasted away under this neglect and abuse.

Stephen Covey told a similar story in The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. A restaurant sold a delicious clam chowder that people lined up to buy. The restaurant was sold. The new owners were given all the recipes. They decided that they could make more money if they used cheaper ingredients. Over time people realized that the clam chowder was no longer as good. The lines got shorter and shorter. When the new owners realized their mistake, they tried to go back to the original recipe, but it was too late. The restaurant closed. They bought a maximum value organization and tried to convert it into a maximum economy organization. They shifted from abundance to scarcity and failed.

I am not saying that cost savings and efficiency are bad. If the restaurant owners were paying $3/pound for butter and found the same quality butter for $2/pound from a supplier who was just as reliable, that would be value neutral for the customers and value positive for the owners. But if they instead bought margarine for $1.50/pound, that would be value negative for the customers who are still paying the same price for a bowl of clam chowder. Now the question is, “How would buying cheaper margarine affect the value equation for the owners?” The new owners thought it would be value positive. They figured that they would pay less for margarine and get the same price for a bowl of clam chowder. But the customers stopped buying the clam chowder. The little bit extra profit they made buying cheaper ingredients was small compared to the income they lost from reduced sales. It was also value negative from the owners.

Here is an important take away. Be very careful about changes that you suppose will increase your value results while reducing the value results for your customers and other stakeholders. That is seeing your customers and important stakeholders as members of the opposing team instead of being on your team. And when they realize that you are not on their team, they will abandon you as soon as a viable alternative presents itself. Where the value equation really counts is in what you deliver to your customers and other important stakeholders.

A maximum economy strategy is a scarcity strategy. It is driven by pessimism and lacks vision. It is excessively focused on cost reduction without weighing the impact on quality. It will fail to deliver value (quality divided by cost) and will likely lead to weakness and failure.

Read previous articles related to this topic:

Article #1: Maximum Wow Strategies Lead to Scarcity

Article #2: Your business’ future lies in an abundant strategy – not in scarcity

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Maximum Wow Strategies Lead to Scarcity

See Previous post.

A maximum wow strategy is when a lot of money is spent on something grand, splashy and showy that delivers little or no value to the company or its customers.

A prime example of this is when a company builds an expensive and extravagant off-site corporate headquarters. When I was a young man, my father told me, “Son, beware of your ego. A man’s ego can get him into a lot of trouble and cost him a lot of money. Ego trips are very costly.” Many a company has been severely weakened by a CEOs ego trip of building a lavish corporate headquarters that often was not even needed. The offices they already had were serving the company just fine.

For a counter example I would offer Walmart. Walmart is the largest brick-and-mortar retail establishment in the world by a very large margin. Its corporate offices have for many years been in the top of its warehouses in Bentonville, Arkansas. Top corporate officers are in plain offices with cheap wood paneling and utilitarian steel desks. This proximity to its distribution centers gave corporate officers a profound and intimate understanding of the needs of its supply chain. Walmart developed the most sophisticated automated distribution centers of any brick-and-mortar retailer. These sophisticated automated distribution centers are credited with a large part of Walmart’s competitive advantage over other brick-and-mortar retailers. This is Sam Walton’s legacy. As wealthy as he was, he was a man without an ego. He was a form follows function kind of man. Good enough was good enough. We will save excellence for our customers.

If a competitor had wanted to destroy Walmart, instead of building a gleaming corporate headquarters in the downtown of a major American city for themselves, they would have built and paid for one for Walmart on the condition that they must house their corporate officers there. This would have isolated Walmart’s leadership from the needs of its supply chain and decreased the likelihood that they would have ever built their automated distribution centers costing them their current competitive advantage.

Value is defined as quality divided by cost. So how do we define quality? Is it a large towering building built of the finest materials and sitting on a piece of prime real estate? Or is it proximity, awareness, humility and engagement? I would argue that Walmart’s choice of its corporate offices was the value decision not just because it delivered at a lower cost but also because it delivered a higher-quality leadership engagement for the company.

A maximum wow strategy is company leadership writing big checks and taking on heavy debt to be paid for by the company for ego-driven projects that deliver low value to the organization.

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Your business’ future lies in an abundant strategy – not in scarcity

In Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, the authors make the point that technological developments and continuing innovation will bring to the world a future of abundance rather than scarcity, of increasing prosperity rather than increasing poverty. I believe that they are right so long as we can maintain freedom in general, free markets in particular, reasonable levels of taxation and relative peace throughout the world. As I pondered on the ideas they presented, it occurred to me that a business leader needs to have an abundance mindset in strategic development. An overall scarcity strategy cannot bring a strong and bright future to an organization. We cannot simply cut and slash our way into growth and prosperity. Nor can we simply spend our way into growth and prosperity. An abundance strategy is one of tremendous value generation.

My wife and I built a home using a general contractor who builds custom, luxury homes. I commented to him one day that it had occurred to me that there are three types of people who buy a custom home:

  1. Maximum WOW! These buyers do not care how much it cost. They want to upstage everyone else at any cost.
  2. Maximum value. Value is defined as quality divided by cost. These buyers are willing to spend more money if they get a good return on their investment relative to their experience living in the home and to their resale value.
  3. Maximum value. Value is defined as quality divided by cost. These buyers are willing to spend more money if they get a good return on their investment relative to their experience living in the home and to their resale value.

I told him that I thought that he could build homes for wow buyers and value buyers, but he could not build a home for an economy buyer to which he agreed.

At first glance we may be tempted to see a maximum wow strategy as an abundance strategy, but maximum wow and maximum economy are both scarcity strategies. Both strategies are low value generation strategies, and low value generation will sooner or later lead to scarcity. In maximum wow the cost is too high relative to the quality generated. In maximum economy the cost is low, but the quality generated is too low relative to that cost. The abundance future is in high value generation that comes in a maximum value strategy.

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