Have KPIs become a crutch for businesses?

Relying on Key Performance Indicators has become the norm in many business operations. And why not?  Properly defined and managed, KPIs help businesses focus on the right priorities and chart progress towards their goals.

But even well-designed KPIs have their limitations. By their nature, they’re not greatly insightful (they’re indicators, after all).  The problem is that very often, KPIs are used as if they are.

One of the attractions of focusing on KPIs is their simplicity. Managers love boiling things down to concise, action-oriented statements and phrases.  We hear it all the time from senior leadership.  “Give us the bottom-line finding,” they emphasize.

“Business by bullet-point,” if you will.

But here’s the thing: Because of their distilled simplicity, KPIs can lure many a businessperson into overestimating the insights that they’re able to provide.

KPIs do provide a jumping-off point, but the underlying “why” is often still conjecture or a hypothesis. It takes discipline to look for deeper insights and corroborating evidence to really understand what KPIs are saying to us.

Addressing this issue, Shiv Gupta, data analytics specialist par excellence and head of Quantum Sight, has noted:

“Anyone who has worked on developing KPIs knows that it is a game of balance and compromise based on business objectives. The need for actionable information battles with the desire for simple metrics.”

Database marketer Stephen Yu of Willow Data Strategy makes another great point when he writes:

“We all have seen many “death by KPI” [situations] when organizations look at things the wrong way. When someone is lost while driving, [to] keep looking at the dashboard of the car won’t get the driver out of trouble. In a time like that, one must turn on a navigator.  Different solutions call for different analytics, and popular KPIs – no matter how insightful they may have been – often do not lead to solutions.”

What have been your experiences in working with KPIs in your business? How have they helped … or not?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

“By any means necessary”: China’s Huawei Technologies flies close to the sun in its quest commandeer proprietary technology.

Not all-smiles at the moment … Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

In China, it’s difficult to discern where private industry ends and the government begins. At some level, we’ve been aware of that conundrum for decades.

Still … opportunities for doing business in the world’s largest country have been a tempting siren call for American companies. And over the past 15+ years, conducting that business has seemed like the “right and proper” thing to do — what with China joining the G-8+5 economic powers along with incessant cheerleading by the U.S. Department of Commerce, abetted by proactive endeavors of other quasi-governmental groups promoting the interests of American commerce across the globe.

But it’s 2019 and circumstances have changed. It began with a change in political administrations in the United States several years ago, following which a great deal more credence has been given to the undercurrent of unease businesspeople have felt about the manner in which supposedly proprietary engineering and manufacturing technologies have suddenly popped up in China as if by magic, pulling the rug out from under American producers.

Nearly three years into the new presidential administration, we’re seeing evidence of this “new skepticism” begin to play out in concrete ways. One of the most eye-catching developments – and a stunning fall from grace – is Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. (world headquarters: Shenzhen, China), one of the world’s largest makers of cellphones and high-end telecom equipment.

As recounted by NPR’s Weekend Edition reporter Emily Feng a few days ago, Huawei stands accused of some of the most blatant forms of technology-stealing.  Recently, the Trump administration banned all American companies from using Huawei equipment in its 5G infrastructure and is planning to implement even more punitive measures that will effectively prevent U.S. companies from doing any business at all with Huawei.

Banning of Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure isn’t directly related to the theft of intellectual property belonging to Huawei’s prospective U.S. suppliers.  Rather, it’s a response to the perceived threat that the Chinese government will use Huawei equipment installed in U.S. 5G mobile networks to surreptitiously conduct espionage for military, political or economic purposes far into the future.

In other words, as one of the world’s largest telecom players, Huawei is perceived as a direct threat to non-Chinese interests not just on one front, but two: the demand side and the supply side.  The demand-side threat is why the Trump administration has banned Huawei equipment in U.S. 5G infrastructure, and it has also publicly warned the U.K. government to implement a similar ban.

As for the supply side, the Weekend Edition report recounts the intellectual property theft experience of U.S.-based AKHAN Semiconductor when it started working with Huawei. AKHAN has developed and perfected an ingenious form of diamond-coated glass – a rugged engineered surface perfectly suited for smartphone screens.

Huawei expressed interest in purchasing the engineered glass for use in its own products. Nothing wrong with that … but Huawei used product samples provided by AKHAN under strict usage-and-return guidelines to reverse-engineer the technology, in direct contravention of those explicit conditions – and in violation of U.S. export control laws as well.

AKHAN discovered the deception because its product samples had been broken into pieces via laser cutting, and only a portion of them were returned to AKHAN upon demand.

When confronted about the matter, Huawei’s company officials in America admitted flat-out that the missing pieces had been sent to China.  AKHAN enlisted the help of the FBI, and in the ensuing months was able to build a sufficient case that resulted in a raid on Huawei’s U.S. offices in San Diego.

The supply side and demand side threats are two fronts — but are related.  One of the biggest reasons why Huawei kit has been selected, or is being considered, for deployment on 5G mobile networks worldwide is due to its low cost. The Chinese government, so the thinking goes, “seduces” telecom operators into buying the Huawei kit by undercutting all competitors, thereby gaining access to countless espionage opportunities. To maintain its financial footing Huawei must keep its costs as low as it can, and one way is to avoid R&D expenses by stealing intellectual property from would-be suppliers.

AKHAN is just the latest – if arguably the most dramatic – example of Huawei’s pattern of technology “dirty tricks” — others being a suit brought by Motorola against Huawei for stealing trade secrets (settled out of court), and T-Mobile’s suit for copying a phone-testing robot which resulted in Huawei paying millions of dollars in damages.

The particularly alarming – and noxious – part of the Huawei saga is that many of its employees in the United States (nearly all of them Chinese) weren’t so keen on participating in the capers, but found that their concerns and warnings went unheeded back home.

In other words – the directive was to get the technology and the trade secrets, come what may.

This kind of behavior is one borne from something that’s far bigger than a single company … it’s a directive that’s coming from “China, Inc.”  Translation: The Chinese government.

The actions of the Trump administration regarding trade policy and protecting intellectual property can seem boorish, awkward and even clumsy at times. But in another sense, it’s a breath of fresh air after decades of the well-groomed, oh-so-proper “experts” who thought they were the smartest people in the room — but were being taken to the cleaners again and again.

What are your thoughts about “yesterday, today and the future” of trade, industrial espionage and technology transfer vis a vis China? Are we in a new era of tougher controls and tougher standards, or is this going to be only a momentary setback in China’s insatiable desire to become the world’s most important economy?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

Boeing: Late to the reputation recovery party? Or not showing up at all?

Debris field from the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash (March 10, 2019).

It’s been exactly two months since the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 Boeing plane that killed all 157 passengers and crew on board. But as far as Boeing’s PR response is concerned, it might as well never ever happened.

Of course, sticking one’s corporate head in the sand doesn’t make problems go away — and in the case of Boeing, clearly the markets have been listening.

Since the crash, Boeing stock has lost more than $27 billion in market value — or nearly 15% — from its top value of $446 per share.

The problem is, the Ethiopian incident has laid bare stories of whistle blowers and ongoing maintenance issues regarding Boeing planes. But the company seems content to let these stories just hang out there, suspended in the air.

With no focused corporate response of any real coherence, it’s casting even greater doubt in the minds of the air traveling public about the quality and viability of the 737 planes — and Boeing aircraft in general.

Even if just 20% or 25% of the air traveling public ends up having bigger doubts, that would have (and is having) a big impact on the share price of Boeing stock.

And so the cycle of mistrust and reputational damage continues.  What has Boeing actually done in the past few months to reverse the significant market value decline of the company? Whatever the company may or may not be undertaking isn’t having much of an impact on the “narrative” that’s taken shape about Boeing being a company that doesn’t “sweat the small stuff” with proper focus.

For an enterprise of the size and visibility of Boeing, being reactive isn’t a winning PR strategy. Waiting for the next shoe to drop before you develop and launch your response narrative doesn’t cut it, either.

Far from flying below radar, Boeing’s “non-response response” is actually saying something loud and clear. But in its case, “loud and clear” doesn’t seem to be ending up anyplace particularly good for the Boeing brand and the company’s

What are your thoughts about the way Boeing has handled the recent news about its mode 737 aircraft? What do you think could have done better?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Ruling the roost: Poultry is poised to become the world’s most consumed protein.

This 2015 projection of protein production published by The Wall Street Journal has been upended by the spread of African swine flu; poultry will overtake pork this year instead.

In the United States it seems hardly news that poultry is the most-consumed protein. In recent years poultry consumption in America has grown while beef consumption has stagnated, weighed down by high prices at the consumer level.

At the same time, the National Pork Board committed an unforced error earlier in this decade when it abandoned its longstanding (and doubtless highly effective) tagline “The Other White Meat” in favor of the mealy-mouthed platitude “Pork: Be inspired” – a slogan that convinces no one of anything.

Persistent reports from the medical community that red meat is less healthy than consuming poultry and fish products haven’t helped, either.

But poultry’s prominence in the American market hasn’t necessarily extended to many parts of the rest of the world. But that’s now changing.

In fact, according to reporting from a recently-concluded International Poultry Council meeting in the Netherlands, poultry is poised to become the most consumed meat protein in 2019.

The precipitating factor is African swine fever, which is now affecting pig herds in 15 countries on three continents. Pork production losses this year are expected to represent ~14% of the world’s pork supply – and that’s just the minimum forecast; the losses could go higher.

Interestingly, African swine fever’s most significant initial outbreaks were in Russia and Eastern Europe, but now East Asia is being affected most significantly. The first cases were found in China beginning in August 2018 but now have spread rapidly throughout the country.  For a country that is responsible for nearly half of the world’s supply of pigs, that’s a very big deal.

The swine fever is spreading to the nearby country of Viet Nam as well – which is the world’s fifth largest producer of pork.

The problem for pig growers is that African swine fever is the quintessential death sentence: The disease has a 100% mortality rate, and no vaccine has been developed to guard against its spread.

According to global food and agriculture financing firm Rabobank, China is expected to experience a ~30% drop in pork supplies this year, which in turn will mean a decline in total world protein supplies. The twin results of these development:  an increase in prices for all proteins … and poultry will overtake pork this year as the world’s most consumed protein.

Until such time when an effective vaccine against African swine fever is developed, we can expect that production of other proteins like poultry, eggs, beef and seafood will rise. So, it seems as though poultry’s presence as the world’s most-consumed protein will likely endure.  Poultry’s position as the protein leader may have stemmed from a different impetus in the United States than in the rest of the world, but everyone has ended up in the same place.

For PCs, a new lease on life.

There are some interesting results being reported so far this year in the world of “screens.” While smartphones and tablets have seen lackluster growth — even a plateauing or a decline of sales — PCs have charted their strongest growth in years.

As veteran technology reporter Dan Gallagher notes in a story published recently in The Wall Street Journal, “PCs have turned out to be a surprising bright spot in tech’s universe of late.”

In fact, Microsoft and Intel Corporation have been the brightest stars among the large-cap tech firms so far this year. Intel’s PC chip division’s sales are up ~16% year-over-year and now exceed $10 billion.

The division of Microsoft that includes licensing from its Windows® operating system plus sales of computer devices reports revenues up ~15% as well, nearing $11 billion.

The robust performance of PCs is a turnaround from the past five years or so. PC sales actually declined after 2011, which was the year when PC unit sales had achieved their highest-ever figure (~367 million).  Even now, PC unit sales are down by roughly 30% from that peak figure.

But after experiencing notable growth at the expense of PCs, tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad and various Android products have proven to be unreservedly solid replacements for PCs only at the bottom end of the scale — for people who use them mainly for tasks like media consumption and managing e-mail.

For other users — including most of the corporate world that runs on Windows® — tablets and smartphones can’t replace a PC for numerous tasks.

But what’s also contributing to the return of robust PC sales are so-called “ultra-mobile” devices — thin, lightweight laptops that provide the convenience of tablets with all of the functionality of a PC.  Those top-of-the-line models are growing at double-digit rates and are expected to continue to outstrip rates of growth in other screen segments including smartphones, tablets, and conventional-design PCs.

On top of this, the continuing adoption of Windows 10 by companies who will soon be facing the end of extended support by Microsoft for the Windows 7 platform (happening in early 2020) promises to contribute to heightened PC sales in 2019 and 2020 as well.

All of this good news is being reflected in the share prices of Intel and Microsoft stock; those shares have gone up following their most recent earnings reports, whereas all of the other biggies in the information tech sector — including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Netflix and Texas Instruments — are down.

It’s interesting how these things ebb and flow …

China-bashing is taking its toll.

Over the past year, Americans have been fed a fairly steady stream of news about the People’s Republic of China – and most of it hasn’t been particularly positive.

While Russia may get the more fevered news headlines because of the various political investigations happening in Washington, the current U.S. presidential administration hasn’t shied away from criticizing China on a range woes – trade policy in particular most recently, but also diverse other issues like alleged unfair technology transfer policies, plus the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea thereby bringing Chinese military power closer to other countries in the Pacific Rim.

The drumbeat of criticism could be expected to affect popular opinion about China – and that appears to be the case based on a just-published report from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report is based on a survey of 1,500 American adults age 18 and over, conducted during the spring of 2018.  It’s a survey that’s been conducted annually since 2012 using the same set of questions (and going back annually to 2005 for a smaller group of the questions).

The newest study shows that the opinions Americans have about China have become somewhat less positive over the past year, after having nudged higher in 2017.

The topline finding is this: today, ~38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, which is a drop of six percentage points from Pew’s 2017 finding of ~44%.  We are now flirting with the same favorability levels that Pew was finding during the 2013-2016 period [see the chart above].

Drilling down further, the most significant concerns pertain to China’s economic competition, not its military strength. In addition to trade and tariff concerns, another area of growing concern is about the threat of cyber-attacks from China.

There are also the perennial concerns about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, as well as job losses to China; this has been a leading issue in the Pew surveys dating back to 2012. But even though debt levels remain a top concern, its raw score has fallen pretty dramatically over the past six years.

On the other hand, a substantial and growing percentage of Americans expresses worries about the impact of China’s growth on the quality of the global environment.

Interestingly, the proportion of Americans who consider China’s military prowess to be a bigger threat compared to an economic threat has dropped by a statistically significant seven percentage points over the past year – from 36% to 29%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans age 18-29 are far less prone to have concerns over China’s purported saber-rattling – differing significantly from how senior-age respondents feel on this topic.

Taken as a group, eight issues presented by Pew Research in its survey revealed the following ranking of factors, based on whether respondents consider them to be “a serious problem for the United States”:

  • Large U.S. debt held by China: ~62% of respondents consider a “serious problem”
  • Cyber-attacks launched from China: ~57%
  • Loss of jobs to China: ~52%
  • China’s impact on the global environment: ~49%
  • Human rights issues:  ~49%
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China: ~46%
  • Chinese territorial disputes with neighboring countries: ~32%
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan: ~21%

Notice that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t near the top of the list … but Pew does find that it is rising as a concern.

If the current trajectory of tit-for-tat tariff impositions continues to occur, I suspect we’ll see the trade issue being viewed by the public as a more significant problem when Pew administers its next annual survey one year from now.

Furthermore, now that the United States has just concluded negotiations with Canada and Mexico on a “new NAFTA” agreement, coupled with recent trade agreements made with South Korea and the EU countries, it makes the administration’s target on China as “the last domino” just that much more significant.

More detailed findings from the Pew Research survey can be viewed here.

3D printing: The newest market disrupter?

3D printing was in the “popular press” a few weeks back when there was a dust-up about plans to publish specifications online for the manufacturing of firearms using 3D technology.

Of course, that news hit the streets because of the hot-button issues of access to guns, the lack of ability to trace a firearm manufactured via 3D printing, plus concerns about avoiding detection in security screenings due to the composition of the pieces and parts (in this case, polymer materials).

But 3D printing should be receiving more press generally. It may well be the latest market disrupter because of its promise to fundamentally change the way parts and components are designed, sourced and made.

3D printing technologies – both polymer and metal – have been emerging for some time now, and unlike some other technologies, they have already found a highly receptive commercial audience. That’s because 3D printing technology can be used with great efficiency to manufacture production components for applications that are experiencing some of the hottest market demand – like medical instrumentation as well as aerospace, automation and defense products.

One the baseline benefits of 3D printing is that it can reduce lead times dramatically on custom-designed components. Importantly, 3D printing requires no upfront tooling investment, saving both time and dollars for purchasers.  On top of that, there are no minimum order requirements, which is a great boon for companies that may be testing a new design and need only a few prototypes to start.

Considering all of these benefits, 3D printing offers customers the flexibility to innovate rapidly with virtually no limitations on design geometries or other parameters. Small minimum orders (even for regular production runs) enable keeping reduced inventories along with the ability to rely on just-in-time manufacturing.

The question is, which industry segments will be impacted most by the rise of 3D printing? I can see ripple effects that potentially go well-beyond the mortal danger faced by tool and die shops.  How many suppliers are going to need to revisit their capabilities in order to support smaller production runs and über-short lead-times?

And on the plus side, what sort of growth will we see in companies that invest in 3D printing capabilities?  Most likely we’ll be seeing startup operations that simply weren’t around before.

One thing’s for sure – it will be very interesting to look back on this segment five years hence to take stock of the evolution and how quickly it came about.  Some market forecasts have the sector growing at more than 25% per year to exceed $30 billion in value by that time.

Like some other rosy predictions in other emerging markets that ultimately came up short, will those predictions turn out to be too bullish?