When grand schemes fail, plan may be the problem

ON EXCELLENCE

October 31, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Re-engineering guru Mike Hammer and Gen. Douglas MacArthur would not have gotten along. MacArthur said combat commanders must "never give an order that cannot be obeyed." Hammer, reacting to re-engineering's shortcomings, concludes in the Financial Times, "To paraphrase Shakespeare, 'The fault is not in re-engineering, but in ourselves.' "

Blaming the implementers is the last refuge of scoundrels -- and lousy military officers and arrogant management consultants. I've done it many times myself. Sometimes I am not ashamed. Usually I am.

Going back 15 years, the research Bob Waterman and I conducted that led to "In Search of Excellence" amounted to an internal audit by consultants McKinsey & Co. At the time, the company was preoccupied debating its theoretical approach to creating business strategies vs. the Boston Consulting Group's and Arthur D. Little's. Meanwhile, a few of us worried that clients were doing a crummy job of putting anyone's grand designs into practice.

By and large, the consultants chose to blame the shortfalls on wimpy leaders and demotivated employees.

Hammer did the same thing. CEOs, he wrote, aren't bold enough, tough enough, visionary enough, ad nauseam. Or at least it made me nauseous.

When Waterman and I hit the road to look at corporations that seemed to perform well year in and year out, we typically found firms that were neither marked by strategic genius nor commanded by legendary leaders.

Mostly they were outfits that paid obsessive attention to the front-line folks who did the work -- and to the customers who bought the product. Do those things, we concluded, and a strategy dreamed up by a shrimp will usually turn to gold.

To be sure, several companies we visited in 1979 (such as IBM and Digital Equipment) have been rocked by marketplace quakes. Mainly, their sin was ignoring the ones who brought them to the dance -- i.e., their customers.

Those who sustained (3M, Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, etc.) have rarely outwitted their foes; despite extraordinary growth, they've managed to keep it simple and focus on those front-line folks and customers.

The real issue, though, is about mortals and immortals. As I admitted, I often fall into the Hammer trap: I deify CEO Percy Barnevik at Asea Brown Boveri or Jack Welch at GE, then glibly ask an audience of 2,000 middle managers, "Why not you?" It's like screaming at a first-year college physics class, "Einstein understood relativity theory. What the hell is your problem?"

The simple fact is, if nine out of 10 don't implement effectively (re-engineering, TQM, whatever), the problem lies with the "genius" who invented the theory.

People criticized Ken Blanchard's "The One Minute Manager" as anti-intellectual. And despite incredible sales (187 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list so far), many have claimed Steve Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is a bit sappy -- nouveau Norman Vincent Peale ("The Power of Positive Thinking"), etc.

OK, I'll come clean. I've knocked Blanchard and Covey myself! But I was wrong to do so. Neither book provides the answers to all the business world's problems; you also need those grand designs (to wit, re-engineering).

Nonetheless, both books are worth their weight in gold. Literally. They give ordinary people (like me) practical things to do this afternoon to make the world of work a little better -- a little more efficient, a little more effective, a little more humane.

A few years ago, my wife and I started raising sheep on our Vermont farm. A month before the first batch of lambs was due, we bought a book on what to do. It began with a five-page list of the equipment we'd need to assist during lambing. We recoiled in horror!

The book's burdensome approach set us back two years. It was not inaccurate. But truth is (we eventually discovered), you can do just fine without 99 percent of the recommended gear -- and when you run into a serious problem, well, call the vet.

The sheep-raising guide is a bit like the high-priced gurus' stratagems: accurate, but not very useful -- and often, in fact, self-defeating.

In 1978, Carnegie Mellon Professor Herb Simon won the Nobel Prize in economics, essentially for adding one word to economists' vocabulary: satisfaction. Companies, he observed, rarely if ever optimize. Instead, they muddle through, make do with imperfect information, cope with internal politics, and try to get things done as best they can through normal people.

I'm all for leaders astride white steeds -- Churchill, Barnevik, tTC Welch. I also wish I was as clever as Einstein and as swift as Jerry Rice.

Not gonna happen!

Meanwhile, you could do far worse than to ask yourself what you're going to do today to make it a bit easier for your employees to do their jobs, serve their customers and grow a millimeter or two in the process.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536.

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