Jim Collins: How the Mighty Fall – Business Week

I am a big fan of Jim Collins. His book Good to Great outlines attributes that I have seen in every successful organizational transformation.

Now he has a new book out. I haven’t read it yet, so I am not going to offer a review, just tell you about it. But the title and premise is intriguing:
How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In

There is a great article and excerpt of the book on Business Week online, including  a video of Jim Collins describing the stages (preceded by a short advertisement).

In short, Collins’ research shows that a great company can fall, and when it happens, there are five stages of decline. According to Collins, Stages One through Three are invisible from outside. The company looks great, but it is rotting from within. It is only at Stage Four that things visibly go south, and they do so very quickly. But there is also good news: The company can recover and return to greatness from any of the stages one through four, but not five.

While this whole story is fascinating, it is the nature of Stage Four that brings things into pretty sharp focus for me.

The stages are:

Stage 1: The Hubris of Success. Things are going great, and the company acquires a sense of entitlement for that success. “We deserve this success because we are so good!” In Collins’ words:

When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow.

I think this idea of “penetrating understanding and insight” is what characterizes the idealized Toyota Production System. It is also seen in every example that Steven Spear covers in Chasing the Rabbit.

When an organization shifts away from questioning its own success as thoroughly as its failures, and begins to assume that its continued success is simply a matter of continuing to do what they have been doing, the seeds of decline are sown.

This ship is unsinkable.

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More.

Companies in Stage 2 stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both.

This one really struck me. Is this the what Toyota went through in the last 5-7 years in their pursuit of #1? Clearly they overreached, even they say so. Even as early as 2003 they were seeing eroding of the TPS discipline in their North American and European plants. They shored that up, and continued their aggressive expansion of production capacity, got into big trucks, and in general seemed to bypass their traditional patient-and-relentless growth strategy.

Other industries suffered this as well. The last few years saw unprecedented (and it turned out, artificially generated) growth in sales across sectors. As one of my friends put it “When times are this good, everybody’s a genius.” Put another way, when there is more demand than supply, even a “supplier of last resort” gets great business, and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is because “our products are great, and customers like us.” It is possible to carry that belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – like customers telling you to your face that they bought your stuff because they couldn’t get it from your competitors.

Inventories start to grow, quickly, as nobody wants to miss a sale; factories are expanded, quickly, for the same reason. There is almost a fear of failure here, but it is fear of failure to get more rather than failure to succeed. If success is taken for granted (see Stage One), this one follows pretty directly.

We are going to set an Atlantic crossing speed record.

Here is a question: Who didn’t experience this to some degree over the last 5 years?

Things get interesting next.

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril. There are warning signs of over-reaching, that things are not going to go this way forever. But what struck me more was the cultural aspect: Shutting out the truth.

In Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.

When leaders start suppressing dissenting views, when they equate disagreement with disrespect or unhealthy conflict, they start insulating themselves in a cocoon of denial.

If the organization is pre-disposed to avoid conflict to begin with, then this stage is really easy to slide into. Vigorous debate is part of sound decision making. When that stops, or is never allowed to surface in the first place, the organization is self-centered and vulnerable.

When leaders start attributing the warning signs to anomalous, one-time, temporary factors – and believing they are exercising that penetrating understanding and insight when, in reality, the “analysis” is no more than the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion they have shifted from rationality to internal belief-based decision making. (also called “wishcraft.”)

Reports of ice ahead.

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation.

The cumulative peril and/or risks gone bad of Stage 3 assert themselves, throwing the enterprise into a sharp decline visible to all. The critical question is: How does its leadership respond? By lurching for a quick salvation or by getting back to the disciplines that brought about greatness in the first place?

So things have gone to hell in a handcart, and the leadership starts looking around for how to get out of the spin. They have ignored all of the warning signs up to this point, but now they are undeniably in trouble. What to do?

As I said, this is where it gets really interesting from a personal / professional level.

There is no doubt that, at this moment, the proverbial “burning platform” exists. There is clearly a sense of urgency… Pick your clichés from “change management” literature here.

“Hey – I just read this book about lean. Let’s bring in this hot-shot consultant to lean us out.” And so it begins. The Search for the Silver Bullet – the magic that will fix everything. And it doesn’t have to be “lean.” It might be x-Sigma (put your favorite buzzword in place of the ‘x’). Maybe everybody reads The Goal and starts looking for constraints. Or the leaders leap from “program” to “program” looking for the solution. While each “initiative” is kicked off with great deliberate fanfare, in reality the leaders are panicing.

They fail to see that leaders atop companies in the late stages of decline need to get back to a calm, clear-headed, and focused approach. If you want to reverse decline, be rigorous about what not to do.

Here is my take on this. These leaders who leap from “solution” to “solution” are still in hubris and denial. They are still looking outside of themselves for the problem, and the solution.

My last post, How the Sensei Teaches, describes leaders who teach by being students. This requires humility, something totally incompatible with hubris. If they want to bring in that hot-shot consultant, they need to tell her “We really need help up here, please teach us” rather than “Go teach our people how to be lean.” They need that consultant to be a true sensei, not just a technician.

Oh – what is Stage Five? Collins calls it Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.

My words are “The boat sinks.”

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