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‘Getting Stuff’ vs. Creating a Culture of Excellence

by John Brian Shannon

For some people, life is about obtaining one square mile of pure gold and consequently being able to purchase anything (or anyone) you want.

For others, it’s about getting into the room with the big, shiny buttons — you know, the room where you make all the important decisions, where you have all the power, and you get all the glory. You, you, and more you!

It’s a free world and people can desire all kinds of things. I’m not here to crush anyone’s dream. If one of the above motivates you to reach for the stars, then good on you. More power to you!

But shouldn’t a person’s life be about something more high-minded than ‘getting all the stuff’ or ‘owning the power suite’?

The corporate world brings clarity to this question because corporate data is so carefully scrutinized, extrapolated, debated, gamed and summarized.

Therefore, we can use them to demonstrate various examples of ‘cultures of excellence’.

Some companies stand out for ‘all the right reasons’ while others stand out for ‘all the wrong reasons’

Ford Motor Company stands out for bringing affordable transportation to the masses in the form of it’s Model T Ford beginning in 1908  — and thereby, almost single-handedly creating the American middle class — at a time when there existed in the USA only a tiny ‘wealthy class’ of American aristocrats and the huge and mostly poverty-stricken American ‘working class’.

At least, until Henry Ford began paying his workers enough so that they could afford to purchase the cars his company manufactured.

Suddenly, it was a different America as other manufacturers were forced to match Ford’s wages.

Henry Ford’s dream to pay his workers well enough so they could purchase the cars they built was revolutionary at the time. Yet, the American economy, with it’s first in the world large middle class, set the domestic economic policy standard for the world since the first Model T rolled off the first in the world process-based, modern manufacturing production line, staffed by his first in the world well-paid workforce.

When economists consider the history of Ford Motor Company, they think of ‘innovation’. That’s product innovation, market innovation and employee remuneration innovation.

Volkswagen: The Case for Continuous Product Improvement

In Volkswagen’s case, the first VW ‘People’s Car’ or, as we know it, the Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ economy car, was mass produced from 1945 through 2003 — selling 21,529,464 Beetles over 58-years.

While the VW Beetle began as a very humble car, and not completely reliable, continuous improvements were added to the platform every year until it became a desirable car with a reputation for excellent reliability. In the last years of production, the Beetle employed the latest technologies — including components manufactured by Volkswagen’s own Porsche division.

Not only did the car improve over the decades, but VW designers and engineers changed the very nature of the car from an entry-level car (then available at an astonishingly low price) to a fun, sporty vehicle with it’s own vibe and cult following.

To this day, it’s impossible to get a negative comment from a former VW Beetle owner about Das Volksauto (the people’s car).

When marketing experts consider the history of Volkswagen, they think of ‘value’ — product value, ownership value and the value to the company of taking a basic product and moving it upmarket via constant improvements.

Why Land Rover Succeeds

Most Land Rover owners will never need to cross the Australian Outback, traverse the Gobi Desert, or scale steep and snowy mountains (sans roads) in Alaska. In fact, most won’t drive their Land Rover anywhere but on paved roads in their own country.

But isn’t it nice to know that you could if you wanted to?

That feeling of capability, of near-invincibility, and doing all of it with ease and panache, makes the high purchase price of a Land Rover worth every pence to some. We know who you are. You’re the rugged, self-made individual who will go where he/she wants, anytime he/she wants — and snow, rockslides, creeks, steep hillsides, outrageously hot or cold weather, or other obstacles, won’t be tolerated.

Nobody really needs this car, other than the Army. But it remains one of the most-desired vehicles in the world. How can this be?

Similarly, no one really needs a McLaren or Lamborghini. But the value proposition in the purchaser’s mind is what sells the car. It’s not about logic. It’s about how the car makes me feel! It’s about the engineering prowess. It’s about what it can do, if I let it! 

Chalk this example of excellence up to brilliant marketing minds mastering human psychology and giving them what they want. How profound. ‘Give them what they want and they will buy it!’ — works every time.

The Difference between Wealth Accumulation / Power Accumulation, and a Culture of Excellence 

However, in contrast to every Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen AG, Jaguar Land Rover, or other highly-ranked company, there are a number of ENRON’s and other companies that I won’t name (for legal reasons).

I can’t state categorically that every company that succeeds is an organization based upon the culture of excellence model. But along with this correlation must come a certain amount of causality.

Sure, some truly excellent products manufactured by excellent companies have failed. (Bad market timing, sudden recession, change in consumer preferences). And some truly terrible products/services/companies have succeeded. (Inexplicably)

But mostly, companies with a culture of excellence at heart, succeed and do so spectacularly. Names like Michelin, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Apple, Lexus, Radisson, Rolex, Levi Strauss & Co. and others succeeded because they FIRST created a culture of excellence among their workforce/investors/customers AND THEN began manufacturing their products or offering their service and selling in the global marketplace.

Had they chosen to create a culture of wealth accumulation (or power accumulation) FIRST among their workforce/investors/customers, they wouldn’t have succeeded and the world would’ve never benefitted from their products/service and example.

And these must be the questions for Britons in the 21st-Century: 

What kind of country do Britons want to live in over the next 76-years?

Do Britons want to be a country that only cares about wealth accumulation by any means? (Forget the environment! etc.)

Do the people want a country that only cares about accumulating evermore political power and GDP and use it to control other countries? (Regime change, anon)

Do citizens see the value of creating a culture of excellence centred around (a product, service, governance, etc) FIRST, and ONLY THEN beginning to manufacture a product or deliver a service, or create informed policies, and thenceforth keeping that high standard of excellence for the life of that organization?

Do ethics matter?

Does curtailing or outright banning of non-ethical investing improve the UK’s brand?

Is it right that a wealthy country of 69-million people tolerates an average rating on the UN Happiness Index, or an average ranking on the Social Progress Imperative ranking, or only slightly better than average Corruption Perceptions Index ranking?

Is the country that created the first and best universal healthcare system in the world doing well enough for it’s patients — falling from it’s normal 1st-place rank to 4th-place in 2021? (Read: “Mirror, Mirror 2021: Reflecting Poorly” published by The Commonwealth Fund)

Is it acceptable that UK GDP has fallen from it’s 5th-place ranking to 8th-place since 2000?

These, and many other questions need to be asked, researched and discussed. And in a spirit of mutual problem-solving, all stakeholders and policymakers must work together to facilitate solutions by re-adding the very necessary and time-tested component we call the culture of excellence — which, once upon a time embodied almost every UK company and institution.

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