Halftime in America, Part 1

The author offers some analysis surrounding some of the recent leadership challenges facing America and the federal government.

One of the more memorable commercials for me during the 2012 Super Bowl was the Clint Eastwood narrative on behalf of Chrysler, the auto industry and America titled It’s Halftime In America:

It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.

It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting.
And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.

The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.

I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And, times when we didn’t understand each other.  It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.

But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.

All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win?

Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.

Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.

In the context of one of the most popular entertainment events in the world, the narrative captures the essence of the American character: Our desire and ability to meet challenges, “act as one” for the common good when we need to, innovate, take risks, and learn (sometimes) from the past.

The commercial represents an apt metaphor for the auto industry, government and the American people. It reinforces the critical need to accelerate the inevitable transition to an improved leadership model. The essence of leadership has always been to reduce variation – that is, reduce the gap between the ideal and current situation. Reducing variation is required in striving toward achieving the ideals expressed in the vision for America contained within documents that include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance:

A Republic representing One Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all where its citizens are committed to taking action to support the individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that continually results in a more perfect Union.

Some opponents of the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler (Ford declined funding) criticized the commercial because they believed it reinforced and promoted an expanded role of government. The alternative to the bailout was to allow the bankruptcy process to resolve the issue.

The debate over the role and size of government is as old as the Republic itself. The American system of government was designed to provide checks and balances on power and to support decision-making at the individual, state and local levels. Columnist David Brooks, in his New York Times article “Step to the Center“, reinforces the Hamiltonian alternative for government to centralize goals but decentralize the means needed to achieve the goals.

A Healthy, Balanced Public-Private Partnership

In “Capitalism, Version 2012“, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman also reinforced the need for a more optimal balance of power between government and business:

America’s success for over 200 years was largely due to its healthy, balanced public-private partnership — where government provided the institutions, rules, safety nets, education, research and infrastructure to empower the private sector to innovate, invest and take the risks that promote growth and jobs.

Super Bowl 2012 was hosted in Indianapolis and represented a successful example of a partnership between business, the community and government. Hosting the Super Bowl was one of the results of a long-term and bi-partisan vision for the city to embrace sports as part of a growth strategy for rallying the community and attracting conventions as well as international and national sporting events. These events helped to promote the city, support the local economy and attract new businesses.

U.S. Auto Industry

As was reinforced in my previous articles, the new paradigm for managing variability is the foundation for a new leadership model. This paradigm was developed in 1924, classified during WWII, and then declassified and expanded worldwide after the war.

The paradigm was rediscovered in America in 1980 when W. Edwards Deming was highlighted in the NBC documentary, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” Deming summarized the paradigm as a chain reaction: When leaders improve quality by doing the right things (reducing variation), they decrease costs, improve productivity, capture the market because they’re offering better quality products or services at a lower cost, stay in business, and provide jobs and more jobs. Deming remarked that if he had to reduce his message to management to just a few words, it would be: It all has to do with reducing variation.

After the documentary aired, Deming was besieged by U.S. corporate leaders who sought his insight and advice. Donald Peterson, then chairman of the Ford Motor Company, was a leader who embraced the paradigm, which was reinforced in the motto “Quality is Job One”. A Eureka moment for Ford executives was when they developed a trend chart of customer-reported complaints from 1976-1984 that compared U.S. built cars to Japanese built cars. Ford was the best of the U.S. manufacturers but was significantly behind the Japanese manufacturers in improving quality. Ford discovered that the variability in the quality of individual components was significantly less in Japanese cars, with the result being fewer problems, happier customers, higher profits and greater market share.

U.S. Government – Moment of Truth?

The U.S. government’s experience with embracing the new paradigm paralleled that of the auto industry. This failure to understand and apply the technology (defined as the practical application of knowledge) needed to continually reduce variability in government services has contributed to the debt crisis and dysfunction in American politics. The political polarization brings to mind the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who would remind us that: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Reducing variation requires aligning the vision for America with national goals, identifying solutions, selecting what you and others think might be the best solutions, making the changes, assessing results, and then repeating the cycle until the expected results are obtained. “What’s new” is adopting a new standard for managing variation to assess when change results in improvement. The paradigm was developed by Walter Shewhart and reinforced by Deming in his work and books, which include Out of the Crisis and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education.

A Way Ahead – Out of the Crisis II

Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes that the most significant threat to our national security is our debt. This sentiment can be expanded to include the fact that the debt also represents a significant threat to our quality of life. The USA Today article “U.S. Funding for future promises lags by trillions” estimates that if the government was required to use the same accounting standards as the private sector, the national debt now at over $15 trillion dollars, would also include unfunded liabilities estimated at over $61 trillion dollars.

The Global Post article “Who owns America? Hint: It’s not China” analyzed who are the debt holders. “We the People” are identified as the largest holders of American debt.

Part 2 of this series will highlight the crisis as outlined by the Debt Commission in its report The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: The Moment of Truth. It will also include an analysis of the projected impacts of the debt provided by the Congressional Budget Office. The debt has a direct correlation to individual financial security and the value of contributions made to retirement plans and social security. The debt is also driving budget reduction in federal agencies which will require a renewed emphasis on quality, productivity and innovation.

Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.

Part 3 of this series will identify what we as individuals can do to support the transition to a better system for making needed changes. This approach assumes a shared vision for America and that citizens will work together in reducing variation that will result in a more perfect Union.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark retired from the federal government with 35 years of service. He is a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He retired at the rank of Colonel, with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S. Army, National Guard and Army Reserve. He is a strategic analyst with the American Center for Quality Leadership and is active in economic and community development in a small rural county in Indiana.