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May 2023

‘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.

UK Economy: Signs of Hope or Doom?

Like many Western nations, the UK economy remained resilient through the worst of COVID when many workers were ill or otherwise sequestered in their homes, unable to work due to various lockdowns. The lockdowns seemed a wise precaution for the times — even though Britons disliked being forced to stay in their homes for weeks or months.

But just as COVID has relaxed it’s hold on our lives, it suddenly occurs that Western economies begin to underperform…

Some days you just can’t win.

New UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and New Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng Ordered Tax Cuts for Wealthy Britons

Which, if you know British politics, is standard operating procedure for Conservative-led governments. No matter the economic ailment, it seems that the de rigueur prescription is tax cuts for the rich.

On balance, that prescription boasts a decent success rate. Over the past 122-years, various UK governments have imposed tax cuts to stimulate the economy and it’s worked more than not. However, there’ve been times when it hasn’t worked, and this is one of those times.

“Always worth a try?”

I guess. But when tax rates for the wealthy are already low, further tax cuts don’t impress the wealthy, nor increase government tax revenue, nor stimulate the UK economy.

And this is the problem… politicians don’t understand economics well (nor do they understand military matters, but that’s a story for another day) but by taking some sage advice to heart, new Prime Minister Liz Truss could still salvage an economic win out of a (forgivable) misstep early in her premiership.

It’s early days, and no doubt, they’re feeling the pressure to act. The PM and Chancellor tried to improve the economy and their first attempt failed.

No worries, there’s a window of time to get it right. But not too much time, or any remedy they apply will arrive too late to have a meaningful effect. And that could cost the Conservatives at the next election.

Their Second Attempt to Help the Economy: Printing More Money and Government Buy-back of UK Bonds

Better. But not perfect.

Which necessitates a larger government deficit, morphing into more government debt. Just what the UK economy doesn’t need is a larger deficit and even more debt. Neither helps the market, nor the government’s credit rating, nor the UK’s long-term economic picture.

It’s too soon to see if this plan will work. But it works in other countries, and it should work in the UK, with the caveat that the privilege isn’t abused by future Chancellors as a sort of ‘silver bullet’ that will solve every economic problem. It’s not a magic bullet.

Printing money and buying back bonds will have a small, but positive influence on the overall economy. Likely, both the PM and the Chancellor now realize that it should’ve been the first step in a 6-step programme to address problems and provide solutions to the UK’s present economic challenges.

Five More Ways to Lift the UK Economy and Prevent (or limit) a UK Recession

ONE: Working people pay more tax than unemployed people. It’s a fact. Ask any economist.

Therefore, the government should spend serious stimulus money (even though it’s borrowed money) on ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects. But it shouldn’t spend on projects that can’t begin construction within the next 8-months, because that’s too far in the future to fix what’s broken now. ‘Shovel-ready’ means ready to begin digging within weeks. Not years.

TWO: Companies that export goods or services, bring ‘new’ money into the economy, thereby stimulating the overall UK economy.

The domestic economy in the UK is pretty sophisticated so there’s little room for improvement — but there’s plenty of room for improvement in regards to exports. The UK’s track record on facilitating an export-driven economy is dismal when measured against such exporting superstars as Germany and Japan. To correct this, the UK government must provide a tax advantage to companies or individuals that export goods or services. I politely suggest an 8% tax break on exported items. Five per cent won’t incentivize companies enough to make exporting a priority, and ten per cent would make it difficult for the government to recover the lost tax revenue over a number of years, no matter the increase in exports over the short-term. This 8% tax advantage could be raised or lowered annually, thereby providing the government with yet another lever with which to control (adjust) the UK economy as necessary. Priceless!

THREE: Citizens earning less than £25,000. per year contribute little to overall UK government revenue, so there’s little loss for the government to forego taxing them.

However, changing the income tax threshold so that workers who earn under £25,000. per year don’t pay any income tax whatsoever, can make a huge difference in the lives of those workers! It’s the difference between a presently unemployed person being able to afford to take the train to a job every day, or not. It’s the difference between a presently unemployed tradesperson being able to insure his work van, or not. It’s the difference between a presently unemployed worker being able to afford daycare for her children so she can apply for a job, or not. It’s the difference between a presently unemployed person moving to another city for a job, or not. In so many ways, this change represents a small change in government tax policy and revenue — which results in a large change in the employment situation for presently unemployed workers. The UK workforce needs to be firing on all eight cylinders, not the present five-out-of-eight cylinders.

FOUR: The UK should harmonize it’s Corporate Tax Rates and policies with Canada, which has an attractive and simplified corporate tax structure.

And it works. Throughout the entire subprime market crisis and subsequent recession, Canada’s economy was the strongest of all G7 economies and Canadians only knew about the recession playing out in the United States and Europe by watching American news channels. The reason Canada sailed through the recession is precisely because of their low-ish and simplified corporate tax rate structure. Many Western companies moved to Canada in the 2008 to 2011 timeframe in order to take advantage of those low corporate tax rates — and in so doing — saved their companies from insolvency. Some returned to the United States following the economic recovery, while some remained in Canada. You can’t buy advertising like that! Recessions occur approximately every 25-years in the Western world, and the next one is almost upon us. Now is the time to make the UK’s corporate tax rate as favourable as Canada’s, and reap the benefits thereof. Doing it after the looming recession hits, means that the UK must wait for the next recession 25-years hence, in order to reap the benefits and bragging rights of lower and simpler corporate tax rates.

FIVE: The UK government should finance 10 Solar Panels on every UK rooftop (via loan guarantees to banks) to add capacity to the national grid, to provide significant energy cost savings to energy users, and to allow for increased energy exports to the continent.

Almost every UK rooftop could host 10 solar panels and thereby add plenty of electricity to the grid during the daylight hours — which, happily, is when the grid faces it’s peak demand. Because rooftops are everywhere in the country, it won’t matter if some northern panels are covered with snow, or if London happens to be covered with a layer of fog — because the rest of the country will still receive sunlight and contribute huge amounts of electricity to the grid. Ten panels per rooftop means that homeowners can (automatically) sell their surplus electricity to the grid via a net-metering connection. Whether private homes, farms with several outbuildings, schools, retail businesses or industrial buildings, placing 10 solar panels on each rooftop in the country could save energy consumers astonishing amounts of money annually, and add significant capacity and stability to the national grid, and allow MANY GIGAWATT HOURS worth of surplus energy to be exported to the continent.

So there’s the low-hanging fruit. There ARE WAYS to improve the UK economy, not by giving tax breaks to the wealthy — who, it turns out, don’t want them because they’ve all the tax breaks they need — but by strengthening the parts of the UK economy that are presently weak, and could be made robust via simple changes to existing policy.

I’m proud of the new Prime Minister and her Chancellor, because, facing a looming crisis, they decided to actually DO SOMETHING! as opposed to just hiding until the storm passes.

Full marks on that, Liz and Kwasi! It’s easy to see that you both care about the country and about how its citizens and businesses are faring.

If you continue to be responsive to the peoples’ needs, I’m confident they’ll respond favourably to you, and your poll numbers will prove that statement true as time rolls forward.

Wishing you every success as you craft policy appropriate to the times in which we live and seek to pass it in the UK House of Commons in a timely manner for best effect.

Written by John Brian Shannon

Iraq Once More at the Precipice

With the sudden resignation of Iraq’s preeminent cleric and political leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq is once more plunged into ruin.

We’ve seen this time and again. A country torn apart by conflict begins to get back on it’s feet — and somebody, somewhere, makes the brilliant decision to have the leading figure in that country step down in order to ‘create a more democratic body politic’ — as if creating a functioning democracy out of years of chaos can be done as easily as baking a cake. My God, people! That’s never worked and it never will.

But what did occur instantly and with utter predictability was thousands of Iraqis converging on the centre of Baghdad upset over the loss of the one politician who assiduously worked for them, with two-dozen protesters killed by Iraqi security forces on the first day, the Iraqi Army announcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew later in the day, and a milieu of opinions on both sides beginning to form inside a gaping power vacuum.

Almost every conflict in history began on account of the power vacuum created by the (sudden) assassination or (sudden) natural death of a country’s leader, or from the (sudden) resignation of a powerful, populist, moderate leader, like Moqtada al-Sadr.

The mise en scène in Iraq today is every bad thing put together. The removal of Moqtada al-Sadr from political power in Iraq is as big as anything that’s happened there since Adam and Eve left ancient Mesopotamia, and there’s no one, not one person in the country, big enough to fill al-Sadr’s shoes.

It’s a catastrophe in the making. 

Day Two: (Now, Private Citizen) Moqtada al-Sadr, Calls on Protesters to Quit

And as soon as al-Sadr asked, the protesters left, and within a few hours the Iraq Army rescinded their hastily-enacted curfew.

How many Iraqi private citizens can claim that kind of power? For that matter, how many Iraqi clerics or politicians can claim that kind of power? The answer is: None.

There’s no one else in the country who could’ve saved the day and thereby prevent hundreds, or thousands, of needless deaths.

If there were such people, they would’ve used their legitimate political or religious reins of power and caused the protesters to disperse. Listen to the silence.

Day Three: al-Sadr Still Out of Power, Curfew Gone, Protesters Gone, but Widespread Sense of Unease in Iraq

All that won’t last for long. By about Tuesday of next week, the Iraqis will have talked themselves into (fill in the blank) and it won’t be good, because that’s human nature. Desperate people do desperate things.

But when they have a trusted leader, it’s simply a case of the protesters and non-protesters formulating their complaints and delivering them to that leader for his/her consideration. They know that he/she will care about their issues and that leader has about 60-days to show positive result on their issues.

Which is why, for the last year, we haven’t heard much from Iraq. Lots of issues being brought to Moqtada al-Sadr, lots of issues being dealt with.

What more can citizens ask of their politicians than that?

How Can the West be Part of the Solution for Today’s Iraq?

The Western media is an amazing powerhouse for good (or potentially, evil) depending how it’s used by Western governments.

There was a time (the interwar period between 1918 and 1939) that ‘the media’ couldn’t heap enough praise on communism (especially in the UK) and was the prime cheerleader for the trade union movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s, and popularized the idea of legalization for LSD and other powerful opioids.

Since then, the media has become more responsible, and it looks for every opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem in today’s world.

Let’s not forget that the media did many good things in the postwar era, such as extremely courageous reporting during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, countless tiny Cold War conflicts, they broke the Watergate Scandal, they helped America fight the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and later, the War on Crime, and now the global effort to reduce CO2 emissions which is sometimes combined with informing us about the progress towards social equality leading to social equity. (Let’s hope)

Although policymakers are elected to set policy, they can’t control public opinion. Neither can the media.

But how the media reports a story can inform the public in a way that helps to create an informed narrative, one that policymakers can’t easily detour around while they try to install their particular ideology (on a foreign country, for example).

Oh, Western Media; Please Help Prevent a Catastrophe in Iraq!

We need a major recap of recent Iraq history on our TV screens over the next days and weeks — and it should begin with George H. W. Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which set the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on his ear in 1990.

They weren’t able to remove him from power, but they did remove his power to destroy the Middle East, which seemed to be his plan. Not that the Middle East at the time was free of problems, far from it. But it was a work-in-progress, and seemed to be getting better with each passing year.

For the record, all countries are a ‘work-in-progress’ let’s not flatter ourselves, overly much.

Then on to the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, the apparent end of Saddam Hussein, Iraq torn apart by war, and millions of Iraqi refugees fleeing the country, many still haven’t returned to Iraq.

Interestingly, the United States and Sweden took in the largest number of Iraqi citizens when measured on a per capita basis. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still live in Sweden to this day. Very generous and honourable of both countries to do so, IMHO.

And more reporting is due on the departure of coalition forces from Iraq exactly one year ago, along with subsequent developments in Iraq, complete with every salient statistic and infographic from 1990 through to the present, including: annual GDP progression/regression, conflict deaths, other casualty counts, refugees, refugees who haven’t returned, birth rate, life expectancy, the economic cost of corruption, the economic cost of the war inside Iraq, the economic cost of the war to the countries surrounding Iraq, the economic cost to the global economy, the environmental cost of all that oily smoke billowing up into the sky, and fewer anecdotal (tearful, one person, or one family) stories, we’ve seen enough of that kind of reporting. It’s just too difficult to bear, and consequently, people turn off their televisions for a few months. (True, that).

We mustn’t forget how Moqtada al-Sadr became a household name in the West.

Remember when the coalition forces began to depart Baghdad? It occurred that they had forgotten to leave a security force around the American coalition control centre (called the Baghdad Green Zone) and Paul Bremner and his small contingent of diplomats and advisors were left inside, completely unguarded!

When an unruly mob (is there any other kind?) formed just outside of the Green Zone Headquarters with no good intent in their minds, it was the unarmed Moqtada al-Sadr who walked right through the middle of the mob, leading his armed escorts who then took up defensive positions in and around the compound in a valiant effort to protect Bremner and his staff. And it’s a good thing they were successful or history would’ve taken a horrible course change.

It was only one week in Iraq’s history, but it prevented an unfathomable catastrophe for Iraq — and America’s reputation as the leader of the free world and leader of the coalition still operating in, but preparing to leave Iraq at the time, was preserved.

“We’re Here to Protect You”

When Mr. al-Sadr first entered the Green Zone Headquarters office, the diplomats thought that he could be there to kill them or take them hostage. In the inner compound offices, they had no idea that their US Army guards had left and hadn’t yet been replaced by a fresh contingent of US soldiers — and that they were sitting ducks for anyone who wanted to enter the compound and do them harm.

Such was the cachet of the unarmed cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, that the mob parted for him and allowed him to pass unmolested into the Green Zone, and he walked unescorted right into Paul Bremner’s office and spoke politely to him, assuring Bremner that al-Sadr’s own security force would protect everyone inside the Green Zone compound!

However, the scene at the entrance to the compound did later turn ugly and Moqtada’s small protection force did suffer several deaths (including close relatives of al-Sadr) due to attack from the outside mob.

From that day forward, al-Sadr’s reputation as a stabilizing force in Iraq became known in the West because the Western media did a good job on reporting this heroic deed by the cleric and his men.

These are the kinds of stories the Western media needs to refresh our memories with — and with other stories about the horrors of war — which (wars) are always caused by power vacuums of one kind or another.

Therefore, the opposite of peace is *political power vacuum* which is merely another term for eventual war.

How Can We Support the Voices of Moderation in Iraq?

That’s what we want to do, because any other course will take us backwards to conflict, and ultimately, drag the coalition back into Iraq to re-stabilize the situation there, or so the conventional thinking goes.

It didn’t work the first time, why would it work now…

As Moqtada al-Sadr is the most powerful moderate voice in Iraq, it behooves us to support him, and if it makes some policymakers nervous because al-Sadr wants to have decent diplomatic relations with surrounding countries, they need to get over it.

It’s not al-Sadr’s fault that Iran is a powerful country that borders Iraq’s entire eastern boundary. It’s not al-Sadr’s fault that Iran’s army could take on and defeat THREE Iraq armies at it’s present state of capability. It’s not al-Sadr’s fault that the coalition didn’t meet all it’s goals in Iraq. Far from it! Moqtada al-Sadr risked his own life, lost family members protecting Green Zone diplomats, powerfully worked to quell viral rumour mills, unrest, provocations, and protests large and small throughout Iraq during and after the war.

Let us also be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem in Iraq — not by dropping bombs — but by constantly rewarding those who do ‘good’ and by ‘withholding’ money, assets, and political power from those whose goals in Iraq are anarchy or war. We need to be on this every day of the year.

The Western media is powerful in this regard. Although they don’t have the capability to make policy, they’re the ones who care to, and want to, inform us about the state of affairs inside today’s Iraq.

Which, along with a quick Iraq history refresher course on TV, can help everyone, including politicians to understand the today situation there… instead of everyone remaining ‘behind the curve’ and ‘drifting into war’ as has occurred many times over the past 110-years on planet Earth.


Written by John Brian Shannon

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