For managers, wisdom is where you find it

ON EXCELLENCE

October 19, 1992|By TOM PETERS

Labor Day has come and gone, and I'm on the road again, lecturing. And listening. The following seem worthy of sharing:

* Two CEOs. A captain of industry (mid-Atlantic states) pulls me aside after a talk and lectures me on business strategy. He talks in metaphorical terms, then sings the praises of pursuing vulnerable opponents in forgotten markets. Fine. Except that in a 15-minute monologue he never once shows the slightest interest in his products or people. He's animated, to be sure, but in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as Dr. Strangelove.

Then I spend a couple days with a group that includes Hal Rosenbluth, chief executive of Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth Travel, a family-owned outfit he's built from peanuts to $1.5 billion in just a few years. Rosenbluth can't find it in himself to talk about anything but his excitement about people and the revolutionary services he offers. Don't get me wrong, Rosenbluth is a shrewd strategist. Yet his passion is anything but calculated; it is thoroughly human. (His book, "The Customer Comes Second," is a gem, by the way.)

* Time. Some time ago I decried a "service" provider (GTE) that couldn't promise me when someone would show up to do some work. Most readers applauded my ire; a few said I was a jerk for expecting such pampering. Washington State University Professor Denney Rutherford sees it my way. "If I want my refrigerator to stop gurgling [or] the ghosts to be busted from my TV," he writes, "I have to make a seven-hour window in my professional day to be home when the service representative . . . deigns to show up." By contrast, he applauds a local dentist who mainly serves loggers. Mondays, the doc stays open until 7:30 p.m. On Thursdays, he schedules patients starting at 6:30 a.m., then closes early. Hats off as well to Maine-based Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, which guarantees delivery of its furniture within a two-hour window (and rain or shine, usually arrives within 15 minutes of the appointed hour), and to the handful of others who understand that modern workers-as-customers need more than arrogant scheduling practices.

* Where to go. It's a good-news story -- mostly. Driven in part by the business bench mark craze, executives and others are looking beyond their walls for new ideas and models of top performance. I applaud the urge and think "strategic visitation" ought to be near the top of their to-do lists.

Unfortunately, managers' field trips often reveal a lack of imagination. Visit the best plant in your industry, at home or abroad. OK. But the world is heading toward knowledge work, temporary alliances, quick-change artistry, an emphasis on the intangibles. Those unmistakably suggest your itinerary ought to include the likes of M-TV, CNN, Arthur Andersen, EDS, Chiat/Day/Mojo -- and several days, if not weeks, on location with a movie production company or a touring rock band. These unconventional outfits have been doing tomorrow's work for decades.

Better yet, take three months and be a camp follower -- or a bag carrier -- for that movie production house. Experience its pursuit of total quality and creativity -- all done on the fly, with a group that's never worked together before, under extreme budgetary and time constraints. If you don't learn enough in such a setting to start a revolution back home, then you ought to do yourself and your colleagues a favor:resign.

* Overstatement? "Three months 'off' to visit a movie company?" you say. "Resign if you don't learn anything from it? Is that a serious prescription?" Hey, Ricardo Semler, chief executive officer of Brazil's innovative and successful Semco, does it. He religiously takes off for 60 to 90 days each year. Moreover, he purposefully heads to places where neither the phone nor Pony Express can follow him -- e.g., to the North Pole by dog sled. Semler claims these activities unfailingly renew him and are a wonderful spur to the development of managers back home (in his absence). When I goad you to be similarly bold, Semler is my model.

And more: At ABB Asea Brown Boveri, CEO Percy Barnevik slashed corporate staff from 4,000 to 100 (in a $30 billion operation); at high-tech hose maker Titeflex, President Jon Simpson cut custom-order lead time from a dozen weeks to, in a pinch, a half-dozen hours; computer pioneer C. Gordon Bell once told me he's rarely seen a job being done by a "team" of 500 engineers that couldn't be done better by 10.

So Barnevik teaches us that headquarters staffing of three people per $1 billion in revenue is possible. Simpson teaches us that a 99 percent reduction in cycle time is within reach. Bell teaches us that engineering overstaffing of 50-to-1 is not uncommon. Such conclusions are a dramatic reminder of just what sort of improvement is possible. Overstatement? Not on your life.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)

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