Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background. (Outgoing GM CEO Fritz Henderson and his failed predecessor, Rick Wagoner, both worked their way up from the company’s vaunted Treasurer’s office.) But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”
How did we get to this point? In some sense, it’s the result of broad historical and economic forces. Up until World War I, the archetypal manufacturing CEO was production oriented—usually an engineer or inventor of some kind. Even as late as the 1930s, business school curriculums focused mostly on production. Khurana notes that many schools during this era had mini-factories on campus to train future managers.
After World War II, large corporations went on acquisition binges and turned themselves into massive conglomerates. In their landmark Harvard Business Review article from 1980, 'Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,' Robert Hayes and William Abernathy pointed out that the conglomerate structure forced managers to think of their firms as a collection of financial assets, where the goal was to allocate capital efficiently, rather than as makers of specific products, where the goal was to maximize quality and long-term* market share.
By the 1980s, the conglomerate boom was reversing itself. Investors began seizing control of overgrown public companies and breaking them up. But this task was, if anything, even more dependent on fluency in financial abstractions. The leveraged-buyout boom produced a whole generation of finance tycoons—the Michael Milkens of the world—whose ability to value corporate assets was far more important than their ability to run them.
The new managerial class tended to neglect process innovation because it was hard to justify in a quarterly earnings report, where metrics like “return on investment” reigned supreme. 'In an era of management by the numbers, many American managers … are reluctant to invest heavily in the development of new manufacturing processes,' Hayes and Abernathy wrote. 'Many of them have effectively forsworn long-term technological superiority as a competitive weapon.' By contrast, European and Japanese manufacturers, who lived and died on the strength of their exports, innovated relentlessly
The business schools had their own incentives to channel students into high-paying fields like finance, thanks to the rising importance of school rankings, which heavily weighted starting salaries. The career offices at places like Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago institutionalized the process—for example, by making it easier for Wall Street outfits and consulting firms to recruit on campus. A recent Harvard Business School case study about General Electric shows that the company had so much trouble competing for MBAs that it decided to woo top graduates from non-elite schools rather than settle for elite-school graduates in the bottom half or bottom quarter of their classes.
No surprise then that, over time, the faculty and curriculum at the Harvards and Stanfords of the world began to evolve. 'If you look at the distribution of faculty at leading business schools,' says Khurana, '“they’re mostly in finance. … Business schools are responsive to changes in the external environment.' Which meant that, even if a student aspired to become a top operations man (or woman) at a big industrial company, the infrastructure to teach him didn’t really exist.
If business schools did little to teach about manufacturing, they did almost nothing to teach about health care. But at the same time the finance people were taking over manufacturing, health care organizations were pushed to turn over their leadership to business people to improve efficiency and break the physician's "guild." Would there be any reason to expect that a finance background would be better preparation to run a health care corporation than to run an automobile company?
For the latest thought- and wince-provoking example of how leaders of health care corporations seem to know almost nothing about the actual health care their companies provide, see a DailyFinance interview with Mr Kent Thiry, CEO of DaVita, a for-profit corporate provider of dialysis services. According to the company web-site, "prior to working for Vivra, Mr. Thiry was a partner at Bain & Company, an International management consulting company. He earned his BA degree, with distinction and Phi Beta Kappa, in Political Science from Stanford University in 1978, and his MBA, with honors from Harvard Business School in 1983" So he got his MBA from an elite US business school at the time in which finance was becoming dominant as described above.
Asked to explain his business model, Mr Thiry responded:
Most of us have a couple of kidneys. These kidneys are amazing organs -- some of the most complex, sophisticated organs in the human body, which is why they've been so difficult to replicate compared to other organs like the heart and lung and others. And when the kidney fails, you need to go on dialysis, unless you're one of the fortunate few to get a transplant. And we operate the centers that people come to if their kidney fails and they can't get a transplant.
And what we do in our centers is take care of these people typically three times a week -- four hours each time -- where we take their blood out of their body, clean out all the toxins that they would normally clean out themselves through the act of urinating. But you don't do that anymore once you've lost your kidney function. And we take that part out, take the toxins out and then put the blood back in with some other nutrients.
To be charitable, I do not think that would merit a "C" on a high school biology test. [Medical science cannot "replicate" hearts or lungs. Kidney function is not the same thing as "urinating." The functions of the kidney are far more complex than "cleaning out toxins."]
Does it make any sense to put someone who obviously understands so little about kidneys in charge of a kidney dialysis company? (On the other hand, see this post on accusations that DaVita's ruthless business practices treat patients like "dialysis dollars.")
So, if putting finance people in charge of automobile companies turned out to be a recipe for bankruptcy, why should we expect from putting finance people in charge of dialysis companies, or hospitals, or drug, biotechnology or medical device companies, or health care insurance companies, or health care information technology companies?
The CEOs of big health care organizations, most of whom have business, not health care backgrounds, have mainly been good at paying themselves and their cronies well. (For example, according to the 2009 DaVita proxy statement, in 2008, Mr Thiry owned over 2 million shares of stock, 1.9% of all shares outstanding, and received more than $11 million in total compensation. Clearly, he was not paid according to his knowledge of kidney biology.) Meanwhile, health care costs rise, access falls, and quality degrades.
If we really want to reform health care, maybe we should take a lesson from Toyota. Put the car guys and gals in charge of car companies. And put the health care guys and gals in charge of health care.