Union Pacific, Turner, Fed Express

1990 MVP AWARDS

January 07, 1991|By Tom Peters | Tom Peters,1990 TPG COMMUNICATIONS

Drum rolls. Flashing strobe lights. And noowww . . . my Sixth Annual Most Valuable Player Awards.

Corporate turnaround. Forget Chrysler. (It seems to have turned around its turnaround.) Try the Union Pacific Railroad: Bureaucracy has been hacked away. The front line "owns" the action. And reliability and profitability have soared. Hats off to CEO Mike Walsh -- and UPRR's union leaders, too -- for a not-so-minor miracle in Omaha. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!

Most Valuable Company. Turner Broadcasting System wins the MVC. As the ads say, Gorby, Bush and the world's intelligence agencies tune to CNN when they need to know who's on first; Ted Turner and company have rewritten their industry's rule book, and set the tone for the information-driven 1990s. Federal Express joins TBS as co-MVC. The Baldrige quality award was finally given to a service company, and Fed Ex deservedly took Prize No. 1.

Most Valuable Player. The MVP accolade goes to President Jon Simpson of high-tech hose producer Titeflex. Again: bye-bye bureaucracy, hello worker autonomy. The Teamsters have bought in, business processes have been monumentally simplified, and what were recently six-month custom jobs for clients are now often completed in four or five hours.

Sow's ear to silk purse. The product was an industrial commodity. Discounting was fierce. And then Ingersoll-Rand JTC introduced the Cyclone Grinder. The new air-powered grinding tool is a premium product, never discounted: Superb industrial design made it easier to use, far more comfortable to work with -- and downright attractive to look at. Sadly, even in 1990 such an abiding concern with design is rare. (P. S.: Speed is a big part of this tale, too. The industry's normal four-year dream-to-market cycle was shrunk to one year.)

Top idea: I gave speed a nod in my 1988 year-end stars column; but so few got the message that I'm determined to say it again. Our winners at UPRR, TBS, Fed Ex, Titeflex and Ingersoll-Rand have a common denominator: stunning time-savings. "Time-based competition," as Tom Hout and George Stalk Jr. call it in their book "Competing Against Time," is the idea for the '90s. Begin now by measuring how long you take to perform critical tasks: A recent straw poll by me found less than 1 percent using time as a principal business performance indicator. Dismal.

Closet revolutionary: Du Pont is among our oldest companies. Yet revolution is in the air in Wilmington, Del. Chairman Edgar Woolard has streamlined sluggish decision-making processes at the corporate center; set the audacious goal of "zero pollution" for the chemical giant; put customers squarely atop once-arrogant Du Pont's agenda; and dramatically increased, virtually overnight, the number of women and minorities close to the apex of the outfit.

Clean and rich. In the face of recessionary fears, environmental issues took a shellacking in the November 1990 elections. But make no mistake, clean-and-green is catapulting to the top of the corporate priority list. Most companies are playing defense. A handful see the environmental issue as an unparalleled opportunity.

3M is a matchless example of the latter. Its Pollution Prevention Pays program has reduced waste by 50 percent, saving a billion bucks along the way. Now, via Pollution Prevention Plus, the company's aiming for a 90 percent reduction in the remaining mess by 2000.

Taking advantage of tough times. The environmental challenge can become a big-time opportunity. So can a recession. Nucor Corp.'s management is the rare breed using recession to underscore commitment to employee involvement and world-class quality. By doing so, the steelmaker is not only minimizing the downside of the contraction, but also buttressing its long-term corporate strengths.

If we resort to habits of the past, panic, and promiscuously slash, burn and run roughshod over employees in the face of a downturn, our hard-won gains of the '80s will be wiped out in a wink. Early signs are anything but encouraging.

Book of the year. Car dealer Carl Sewell gets the nod. With the help of Inc. magazine's Paul Brown, he's given us "Customers for Life." It's a homespun tale, rich with anecdote. It's also a buttoned-down, sophisticated saga of measurement systems, pervasive incentive schemes, and Japanese factory techniques adapted to an American service business. Buy a copy for every employee; it'll be the best New Year's present you can give yourself.

Worst book of the year. Speaking of books, Pat Choate's "Agents of Influence" wins my vote as biggest waste of trees in 1990. The Japanese are no saints when it comes to trade. But it's equally absurd, and far more dangerous, to paint them as sinners aiming to subvert our electoral process and pollute the minds of American schoolchildren.

Choate's diatribe would be laughable, were it not for the attention it's gotten from populist politicians in breathless pursuit of a smarmy issue.

Happy '91.

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