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A bust for management fads

Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value. — Albert Einstein

OK, I admit it – I read Dilbert. Mr. Adams on rare occasion has some keen insight on common business failures, but more frequently just bitches about corporate life under the guise of comedy and says nothing more meaningful than Zeb saying to Joe Bob “It’s just the rich a gittin’ richer and the poor a gittin’ poorer.” Still, I read it, and occasionally it’s funny. Even though I like to complain as much as the next guy, I think that all the serious problems with business are resolvable with a little insight and some pruning and planting – but not with any hell spawned fad business process.

Last year it was Synergy. The year before it was the Quality/Team shuffle. This year there’s a lot of rubber cheese running around. All of these fads have common traits. The story they tell is no different than Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” They all claim insight that if copied will produce fantastic business results. Mostly, though, they fail to deliver.

Before I start to sound like a whiny customer service rep, let me say that popular management processes have saved business in the US many times over. That was not a misstatement. I didn’t mean “saved businesses,” I meant “saved business.” Changing markets brought us the product life cycle. Mergers and acquisitions brought us strategic planning. Customer focus and core competencies are management ideas that have little intrinsically wrong with them. Both keep businesses from overreaching and should be applied in earnest – but often are not. In fact, most of what is wrong with management fads is simply that they are applied only to T-shirt logos and marketing posters. The new buzzwords are bandied about by sales and marketing with great enthusiasm, but the company’s intrinsic failings somehow never get addressed. Additionally each generation brings us ideas that are clearly sour apples from the start, but are unfortunately not rejected out of hand – Matrix management, zero based budgeting, cultural climate, restructuring (or “new debt is your friend”), and of course the age of Aquarius born “T-Groups” that give HR circles so much role playing fun.

Dale Carnegie suggested that if you cared about your clients, they would buy from you. “A new way of life,” he called it. He proceeds to give hundreds of examples throughout the rest of his book of salesmen with a quick ear being opportunistic bastards, pouncing on the psychological needs of their clients. Salesmen know that being an opportunist can make sales, and that has nothing to do with caring about a client, only with pretending to for a short time.

My company’s current “seize the cheese” propaganda seems to be based on the book “Who moved my cheese?” which deals with adapting to change in the corporate world, comparing simple minded mice trying to find food with corporate peons trying to find self worth. The book teaches us that it is good to flee from things that don’t seem to be panning out. It teaches us that analysis is bad and change is good. It teaches us that human failings such as “self image” don’t produce the best results for the party ..err.. the business. Large companies should be afraid of this book because if its principles are applied, everyone will leave the company when the going gets rough and seek headhunter agencies and E-business wannabe startups. To say its message is mixed is an understatement.

I think my company, which was recently purchased by a larger one, is distributing the cheese propaganda to try to offset two sets of fears, one rational and one irrational. The rational fear is that the new company will find out either that their job adds no value or that someone else would be better at it. Personally I say let people with those fears leave your company – their heart wasn’t in their job so clearly very little value was being added anyway. The irrational fear is that we are being thrown into an 80s style conglomerate, nothing more than a glorified stock deal. That fear is irrational because not only have those conglomerates long since gone out of style, but our two companies could actually complement each other and create real synergy rather than the “1 cup water + 1 cup popcorn = 2 cups soggy popcorn” abortions of synergy that are all too common. In either case, the consolation is unneeded. Enlightened, productive employees are immune to propaganda, and the rest of your work force you don’t want anyway – not at a tech company. If this were a manufacturing or retail industry, I’d have a different set of premises.

So, what’s the bust to management fads? A simple set of rules that all have the same premise: work your problems out and give them specific attention, and “the answer” won’t be found in a management textbook or the latest new release at Barnes & Noble. However, all the little answers were one’s you knew already.

1 – Don’t get feedback from people who want your job.

If you are in upper management, people in middle management want your job. I think that is a foul way to live, but to each his own. At any rate, if you are in upper management, the reporting that you receive from middle and lower management will be rose colored. Your customers are happy, your employees content, another quarter or two and profits will skyrocket. Oh yes, and their personal contribution was crucial.

If you want to know how your company is doing, you’re going to have to troll. Throw the surveys out and pick up a phone and call the customers yourself. What don’t they like about your products and services? Are customer service and sales responsive and knowledgeable? Talk to the people who talk to your customers. Are they trained well? Do they know about software bugs that developers don’t admit to? Is there a flaw in your QA group?

Get feedback personally from an outside expert. Your program talks to databases and modems? Have someone familiar with one or the other (anyone who says they are an expert at both is lying to you) use the program and give you feedback. Be a customer yourself. Use your products and services. Call your customer service for help when you need it. If you can’t get it working, neither can the people who pay your salary.

Understand the customer experience. Your products and services and the care customers are given from your sales force and customer service team determine the success or failure of your company. Don’t take it for granted because you see it as grunt work.

2 – Morale problems are usually based on business problems.

“Fun in the sun” day and teamwork initiatives won’t make people any happier if the business problems go untreated. From experience I would say that people have more gripes about their companies’ processes and products than about how much management loves them or how many breaks they get. Again I’m speaking only from experience in a tech company. When I delivered pizza it was quite the opposite, but in tech working conditions are far above reasonable.

If you want to address morale, address business problems. When the business problems are resolved, morale will improve. Morale will also improve if your employees know that you see a problem and are trying to get it fixed.

3 – Selling but not servicing is the same as not selling.

The idea that everything in life is sales is incorrect. The truth of the matter is that everything in life is customer service.

There are many reasons why sales forces have problems. They do not get the product training they need before being sent into the field. Their quotas are unreasonable. They have the turnover rate of a McDonalds in the hood.

I have no love of salesmen. If their lives are miserable because they can’t achieve the arbitrary goals set for them, I sleep a little better at night. This stems from growing up in North Carolina, home to such failed social experiments as Amway, pyramid schemes, and designer-imitation perfume. A tearful salesman to me is payback for being harassed in a parking lot by someone spouting nonsense like “excuse me, but do you like to smell good?”

With that said, a tech company still needs to employ people who are skilled at selling. As business trends get more net-centric, eventually that may not be the case, but for now we still have to live with them. Since we have to live with them, they need the same luxuries that customer service people take for granted – training and attainable statistics.

If you want to sell something, you should know as much about it as possible. You should be able to play with it, and you should be forced to listen to people support it and go through the same training offered to your customers. Without that, all you can do is quote the spec sheets and make up answers to questions, hoping they’re right, or admit that you don’t know a thing about what you want them to buy. On the other hand, if you are competent with the product you sell, you can do your potential clients an invaluable service by answering their questions thoroughly and honestly. Giving good answers is a service that your clients are buying in addition to whatever products you sell.

From a management point of view, giving salesmen reasonable quotas will allow them time to cross train so that they can sell better, and time to return calls from customers. Any first year shoe salesman knows that contact after a sale is the best way to get referrals. I can’t promote that kind of behavior for its own end, but if you can get a referral by genuinely helping someone you’ve sold to, I’m all for it.

4 – Being a real human being is more valuable than being a successful businessman.

This may seem like an odd thing to say in a discourse on management, but I think it fits right in. If your goal is to succeed, your existence will be miserable. No amount of daily affirmations, retirement investments, or butt kissing from ladder climbers will change that. The man driven to succeed is a mess both psychologically and spiritually.

Let me explain in the simplest way possible: The work you take home is time taken away from your children. When you are old and grey and sitting on the porch swing, what you will remember is not your keen business sense and how you broke away from the pack while crushing the competition, you’ll remember what you did with your family on vacation. You’ll remember your kid falling asleep in your lap as a toddler. You’ll remember the butterflies in your stomach the first time you kissed your wife. You’ll remember driving down the road with the windows down and what it feels like to be alive.

Don’t lose any of that. Don’t lose your humanity to become a business machine. Don’t think that business acquaintances are your friends, they are a pale substitute. If you have a little kid, don’t forget that all s/he wants in the world is a goodnight kiss and to feel loved. Be human.

When you are a human being and not a business machine, you will make decisions based on human reasoning. They will be better decisions. You will be easier to work for and work with. Customers will like you because you are genuinely at peace and not faking it for their benefit. If you can talk to people like they are people and not clients or obstacles, you are a better person. Success, like the ever illusive “cheese” of management fad fame, takes many forms.

Don’t neglect your business while you fly to Sri Lanka to discover yourself. Don’t cash in your 401k early to give to charity. Don’t sell the house and go live in the woods in a teepee. Just remember that you’re a person and so are the people around you, and everything else will fall into place.

5 – You can have adequate staffing and still make a comfortable profit.

To accomplish this, you need quality products and services. This will drive down the cost of servicing customers. Cutting corners in products to meet deadlines is suicide. The product will be deficient and fixing it will be costly. While it is being fixed, you are spending money servicing people who otherwise wouldn’t need help, and you are putting a strain on employee morale and the reputation of your company. Smokey the bear tells us that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Miss the deadline if the product isn’t ready. Make it right. Even if it is late, your savings outweigh any lost revenue every time.

If you see rising customer service costs, don’t try to cut back on spending without analyzing the situation first. In many cases the problem will be as simple as increased call volume due to product deficiencies. In this case you’ve already taken the hit, so it’s better to dig in and fix the real problem, not the short term budget problem. If you make the mistake of trimming your service budget, your experienced employees will print off resumes and go work for new companies eager for good people.

This is a case where scratching an infection makes it spread. Kill the problem at the source and the symptoms will take care of themselves. I am not saying let any insanely mismanaged service group waste all your money, rather know when they’re being wasteful and not simply trying to stay on top of a problem that is caused elsewhere.

Applying these principles will solve real problems in your company. If your company is in trouble, it is probable that these principles are not being followed. If so, trendy management tricks will not fix anything.

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