Vande Mataram

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Understand the Business before you attempt to run it

I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review, about why Robert McNamara-the most talented systematic analytical thinker who lead Ford to big success-failed in Vietnam and at World Bank. The bottom line conclusion was that McNamara didn't try to understand the dynamics of fighting a war while leading the US Defense department. He thought systematic rigorous analysis of data would help in fighting war in a better way, but ended up counting corpses. His failure here was that he didn't understand the basic differences between fighting a war and managing a business.

In world bank also he had good intentions but when it came to managing operations, his results were not successful. The reason was that he was not experienced in banking and directing economic activities such as poverty alleviation, employment generation etc. Though one of the whiz kids of the post WW-II economic boom has done a lot of good to Ford, his skills and thought process were not compatible with running Government and Global political economy.

While reading this story, my mind reminded me of a not much similar narration by my friend, who works with the technical support of a leading computer manufacturer.He works with an outsourcing company of the MNC computer manufacturer. He has a manager who hardly understands the intricacies of the business this particular department deals with. The department my friend works with deals with legal issues arising out of technical support provided or lack of it.

When this manager took over he asked about Average Handle Time and asked these people to cut it short. Cutting short AHT is a welcome measure, if done through proper training of associates and prompt support of the issues they face on the call. But when you deal with potentially legal issues, AHT should not be a metric, and that was why the client did not consider that as part of the SoW. But this manager and his know-it-all superior officer were skeptical about not having AHT as a metric. "You can't run a call center without AHT as a metric, damn it!", was the know-it-all's response when my friend and couple of his colleagues who were with the department from the day one, attempted to explain the modus operandi to him.

After 9 months of analyzing various data in various forms with all the available six sigma, lean and other tools, the know-it-all manager concluded that not the per call AHT or the C-SAT responses from surveys are important, but stopping further legal/quasi legal escalations was the prime job of this department and the metrics driven by the client right from the beginning drove the people towards that goal. But it was too late when he realized that. Damage was already done. People who were trained to work towards the client centric metrics have either left the job or driven out for non-cooperation.

My friend and his colleagues were taken off important assignments they had already been handling and were asked to look after the data collection and repository, kind of a clerical job. My friend was about to slip into depression but was saved by his never-say-die father, who advised him to do the work given in a non-comittal manner, so that his health would not deteriorate further. Now my friend is looking for different options out of this business.

As a management student, I found this story interesting as we could learn some lessons atleast how not to manage a business. In down south of TamilNadu a business community would call such a learning as purchase of knowledge. I spoke a lot with this friend to find out the character of this know-it-all manager. I found out a lot of funny things about this person. He really would treat his subordinates as dimwits, dorks and dunces. This had made people with self-respect to feel slighted and gave them a sense of alienation. People who never had the intellect but came into the business by sheer luck or referrals, would call this man a go getter, but the client once was heard commenting off line whether this man could fit in for an FLA role.

The main draw back of this know-it-all manager was that he had got known a lot of things and had failed to determine which to apply where. He would apply lean, six sigma, ISO, CMM and TQM principles for a single operation, and would finally end up messing up the entire business since people would lose sight of the purpose and concentrate on data analysis. It was found out that he had taken all the ideas of the quality tools from his managers and show off as if he knew all of them. He was also heard of telling my friend and other team members to show respect to him in front of others by not questioning his ideas. This is evidence that the said ideas were not his.

I came to a conclusion that too much of analysis of available data by putting them in different formats, plotting the same numbers in different diagrams, perpetuating the process of data mining would not serve the end goal, since perpetuated data mining deviates the operations from the end goal and induces people involved to live with multiple forms and formats of data and coming up with different analysis irrespective of their relevance to the purpose.

Everyone know McNamara was a man of good intentions and had indeed made good the ailing Ford Motor Company, but was not as successful in Government and World Bank. We could come to this conclusion from his biography "In Retrospect." But with the know-it-all manager I was referring to, none would know whether he was a man of having go getter instinct or just a person who happened to talk to many people and know the jargon of the business critical tools and trying to implement everything he (half)learnt everywhere intimidating people with all the jargon and his infamous examples. Now my friend told me that this know-it-all fellow blames the client for not being intellectually capable enough in understanding his way of running (ruining?) the business and went off to a different company for a lower position.

Unless we get to know of this person's background, brought up and thought process, we could not conclude about his intentions. We may have to wait until this person writes his autobiography, (GOD!!!) but the bottom line would still remain that with his know-it-all attitude, which is much discouraged by every sane management teacher and guru, this person had ruined a business process of an already troubled business. Though this may make some soft hearted people flinch I have a saying that perfectly fits this person. "Tough times won't build character; they put it to (dis)play."

For such people, I would recommend just to read and understand the title of the famous book which means,"know the rules before you break it." Gentleman know-it-all! Understand the business, before you attempt to run it.