Saturday, July 9, 2011

An invitation to smugness

American ‘exceptionalism’ is also an invitation to smugness when just the opposite is needed,” editorializes USA Today, as the US celebrates July 4th, its 235th anniversary. “The nation does not hold a monopoly on wise policies. Far from it, as evidenced by our shrinking manufacturing base, underperforming schools and dysfunctional health care system.

Rather than reveling in our greatness or turning up our noses at other countries, American leaders should be studying the best practices abroad and bringing them back home.”

This brings the writer back to a similar time when a similar sense pervaded corporate America: We must learn Japanese manufacturing! The writer has seen America ‘stumble and fall’ . . . and not just once, e.g., the periodic recessions that would highlight the shortcomings of a supposed superpower. And he has participated in what the editorial is conveying and experienced how America had to stand up, reminding him of the movie, Kung Fu.

It was with the same sense that the writer took on the call for volunteerism following 9/11, and from a president he never warmed up to and in fact criticized, and found himself in Eastern Europe. And he thought one month was good deed enough. But he sensed the Eastern Europeans had more than stumbled and truly wanted to stand up, and so he committed to share with them a piece of the American experience, albeit miniscule. In the beginning they simply expressed lack of understanding and pumped the writer for “rules”: How do they do this in the West? But beyond the rules he wanted them to appreciate the principles behind them – because they needed to embrace and be anchored in what makes free enterprise tick.

And so at times they found themselves conflicted. Their pride in the products they had created made it difficult to see their downsides. Yet it was important for them to understand the imperative of competitiveness – that product development is both art and science (e.g., technology and innovation), and that a robust product pipeline is key; and that absent healthy margins sustainability is at risk, i.e., global players could drive them to extinction. But they first had to learn the fundamentals of product architecture modeling – which in its simplest form is translating Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs into segments or the value-chain of products for a specific product category, i.e., a product idea is a response to a human need. [It is encouraging that in the Philippines, PhilDev has introduced the imperative of innovation and entrepreneurship, emphasizing innovation and healthy-margin products. This can’t happen overnight, and presupposes shedding our parochial instincts; and being more demanding, demanding word-class products even from local enterprises, who in turn would equip themselves to take on the bigger regional, if not global, market? And successful Philippine businesses can lead the new thinking?]

But there were other “rules” that they immediately embraced. For example, “integrity is what we are”. They would tell the writer that they resented the abuse that came with the powers of the hierarchy. And so they differentiated themselves from “the Communists” – they were ‘the anointed’, by the Soviet rulers. And the resentment continues today against those who successfully gained ownership of businesses simply because they were the anointed – i.e., the transition to democracy was not all milk and honey.

It appears we, Filipinos, are beginning to recognize that we have more than stumbled? Now we must be bent on standing up? It will not happen if unwittingly we believe in our individual successes and rely on them because it is in nation-building, the common good, where we have failed miserably? For example, integrity as a nation is imperative and it cannot be achieved if we can’t turn it into a culture? Competitiveness is another and it cannot be achieved if we can’t make it part of who we are? And it is not about perfection but continuous improvement – a lesson Americans learned from the Japanese. Like in Christianity, no one can claim perfection because it is a journey – and it is not easy because the path is straight and narrow? But we can dig deep into our hearts for the human spirit – so that we can stand up every time we stumble and fall?

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