Trees and wood
Enhancing products and services is to be applauded, right? Well, yes except that sometimes, products and services get enhanced to the point where they lose convenience or usability. The number of options becomes so great that it gets difficult to understand what to do to simply make the thing work - at a simple level. You can't see the wood for the trees. This is true of many consumer electronic goods (I know that there is a cliché about only kids understanding video recorders, but there is some truth in that - many people get daunted by the instructions required for simple timer programming), computer software, and now even websites. Complexity is the enemy of usability. When enhancing functionality, companies would do well to enhance the user interface at the same time!
Another example of the 'inconvenience of progress' is the continuing need to change formats for recording media. Many of us 9of a certain age) have had to spend a lot of money switching our record collection from vinyl to CD. Now, we are told we should be using an 'enhanced' version such as SACD or DVD-Audio for the tremendous boost it will give to quality. At the same time, we are told that we should lose some quality and move to MP3 so that we gain flexibility. I know that it is relatively easy to move digital files across various media but all I want to do is to play some music! And don't talk to me about recordable video ..
Put the shoe on the other foot
I have recently been designing a website. The important thing about such an activity is that it gives you an insight into what others have been doing on their websites - you start to see why websites are designed in particular ways and you also spot some of the glaring howlers perpetrated by others. This is especially true where website designers have gone for the 'look' (lots of Flash animation, bright colours, etc) over 'content'. It is only content that brings people back to your website - and if they can't access that content quickly and easily, they won't bother. The bigger lesson that this activity reminded me of was that it is important to put yourself in others' shoes and to evaluate how others will react to certain things. This is particularly true of, for example, customers and employees. If what you are going to do has some impact on them, think carefully about how they will react. So my slogan for you to remember for the next month is : Assess reaction before taking action.
The Power of the Press
The memory of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother is still vivid. The scenes that greeted both the lying-in-state and the funeral itself were remarkable for the sheer numbers of people that 'took part' and expressed their 'respects'. This was, of course, in a modern, cynical country where Royalist views are seldom voiced. Whatever one's personal views on the institution of them monarchy, it is clear that there is still much sympathy for the people within the Royal Family if not in the monarchy itself - but I'm not sure that the great mass of people aren't still essentially royalist. Reading the press makes one think the country is moving towards republicanism - but the people who write for the press aren't 'the people'. It's a moot point as to whether the press creates public opinion or mirrors it. In this case, the demonstrations of public respect suggest that on this issue the press may be out of step with (in front of?) the populace. I hope they noticed and adjust accordingly. The lesson - which is why I'm mentioning it here - is that 'the public' (our customers) will be led and go quietly for so long, but they tend to re-assert themselves just when you're not expecting it. If you get too far out of line, you're in danger.
People are people
I read recently of a 'survey' conducted in London on information security which asked people in the street to divulge their office computer passwords. Only one third of those questioned refused to reveal their password. This is a little surprising - in terms of the percentages involved - but also quite heartening - for me at least. It reminds me that people are people, and that people are generally very trusting. I know such attitudes make it difficult to protect valuable information - but, hey, let's protect the essential goodness, trust and innocence of the human race as well!
There seems to be a 'movement' afoot to (re-) introduce ethics onto the business agenda. Recent scares and scandals may perhaps suggest that there is a small minority of unscrupulous - and unethical - people around in the business world, but surely this was ever so. Surely, also, the percentage of unethical people in business is broadly the same as in other walks of life. (There is no shortage of scandal in other arenas - even that of the church.) So, do we need a new impetus, new indoctrination or training, or can we just assume that these things (scandals) have always happened, and always will. Then the rest of us can go on about our (ethical) business without having some 'nanny' lecturing us on our behaviour.
Recently, the organisation was persuaded - against my wishes - to invest in a new piece of software. The functionality was right and the price was attractive. However, since we have been using the software, there have been some version/price changes which make it look somewhat less attractive, and the users are suggesting that the software really needs an administrator to support it - and perhaps some more training, and perhaps additional technical support. Its too easy to say "I told you so" but I do wish my organisation - and I suspect quite a few others - would pay more attention to life-cycle costing. Buying software is always (relatively) cheap. Supporting it rarely is!
In the UK (and I think elsewhere) there has been a move towards the promotion of 'corporate responsibility' and improved 'corporate governance'. I have no problem with that but I don't like the mood with prevails around this 'movement'. It is as if companies are to be treated as inherently naughty children - and that all companies must be bad unless proved otherwise. My experience is the opposite - mot companies, most businessmen are inherently honest and decent - tough, yes but not dishonest. Treating them as otherwise is likely to be counter-productive.
I have read quite a bit recently about products from the likes of Cognos, Business Objects and SAS. They all claim to be offering 'business intelligence' products. Now, I ask myself whether the honest but tough businessmen I refer to above became successful on the basis of deep analysis of business intelligence data. I doubt it. 'Business intelligence' may even be an oxymoron - but its certainly something invented for diligent managers rather than entrepreneurial businessmen. Of course, its invented BY businessmen, hoping to sell in to a new marketplace.
I recently got a new calculator - as a gift. It is a fairly basic model but it has a wonderful cover over the display that opens at the touch of a button - smoothly and gracefully. I find it amazing that I can still be impressed - not so much by what it does, but by the simplicity and grace of the engineering. On reflection, I find it surprising but pleasing: there are some attitudes that should not leave one; and a simple appreciation of good, basic engineering is one. If I get too cynical to maintain that appreciation, my time will be just about up.
Hero or Villain
James Dyson, inventor of the eponymous vacuum cleaner, is a hero to many for the way he doggedly pursued his dream to bring his invention to the marketplace in the face of opposition and scorn from the established manufacturers. His was a winning invention - and swept the market. Now, he is moving his manufacturing base from the UK to a country with a source of cheap labour - and his adoring public is confused about whether this makes him a good businessman and/or a bad Briton. I have no great strong feelings but I can't help but think that someone without a strong sense of self-confidence bordering on arrogance and without a tough, even merciless streak would never have brought 'the Dyson' to market in the first place.
I met someone recently who - on retirement after working abroad for 15 years - chose to spend the first 3 years of his retirement visiting every household or business in England and Wales with the same surname as himself. There were 1,001 of them and he visited them all - except for 7 who refused to see him - in that 3 year period. It was a great way to get to know his homeland once again - but think about the personal passion and commitment that drove him to do it. You will not be surprised to hear that he had a distinguished and successful business career - fuelled by the same kind of commitment, determination and focus.
People or Process?
Which is the most important factor in improving productivity - people or process?
The phrase "Our people are our greatest resource" is often heard, yet the way in which companies act at times seem to belie that statement. Companies seem to have little regard for their greatest asset when times are hard - they seem to 'downsize' very rapidly, seemingly preferring to incur the wrath of (part of) this great asset rather than of their shareholders.
Similarly, we know that skilled labor is vitally important to organisations - and to the nation. Yet, we continually hear of skills shortages. Presumably those same companies - and the nation - cannot get their act together long enough to undertake the planning, and to make the investment, to ensure a ready supply of skilled labor. This is starting to seem like a rant - and perhaps it is.
What started me on this train of thought (can we in the UK have trains of thought any loner - or is it an inappropriate metaphor for a country whose rail system seems to be in terminal decline!) is reading "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. (This was a most welcome gift from Scott Sink, the President of the World Confederation of Productivity Science who used it as both a reward and a stimulus for participants in a strategy meeting of the WCPS held recently in New York.)
The book attempts to find out what separates the merely (!) good organisation form the great - where 'great' is defined as beating the prevailing market performance by a factor of 3 each year consistently over 15 years. This avoids 'lucky' short-term performance, and, for the most part, avoids the single inspirational leader who may not embed long-term success.
What Jim, and his research team, did - after identifying companies who met this tough criterion - was to compare them to a similar sized company in the same industry that we less than great (though some of them were pretty good).
The single most important factor that emerged - to me, anyway - was that its not mission, or vision, or strategy that drives such success (so tell those PR people writing your new mission statement to cool off for a while) . Its 'the people on the bus'. In fact, the quality of the team is so important, you should assemble the team (get the right people on the bus and, just as importantly, get the wrong people off the bus) before deciding where to go.
Jim sums this up as : "People are your most important asset" turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asses. The right people are."
So, where does that leave us productivity professionals? Are we wasting our time looking at process and procedure and working methods and . Of course not. I prefer to look at is as though someone (the boss, the management team, the HR department) is responsible for assembling the right people - appropriately skilled, motivated, empowered, rewarded. What they do is create potential.
However, that potential still has to be realised. And that's where - in part - we come in. we can make significant difference to the realisation of that potential - the potential for high productivity and high performance. Unless those right people are working within effective systems, processes and procedures their potential gets sapped, their energy declines, their motivation goes - and we have - at best - a good company, certainly not a great one. So, the bus has to be well-driven, properly maintained, regularly serviced and occasionally cleaned. Now, where are my overalls?
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