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Don't push ... pull (gently)

Sun, 10th Oct 2004

THE GREAT Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath once noted that cricket was a straightforward game that people were constantly trying to complicate. 'The hardest part,' he said, 'is keeping it simple.'

The same is true of management. Not that management is any easier than getting your bat near, or yourself out of the way of, a 95mph ball. It's not. But keeping sight of the context is just as hard as laying bat on ball.

Do you hook the bouncer or not? That requires a simultaneous evaluation of the condition of the pitch, the balance of the battle between bowler and batsman and the state of the entire game.

Most management is a vast superstructure of complication erected on a small, simple base: the requirement to deliver a product or service to a customer at a satisfactory quality and price. But the superstructure is now so overgrown that it's almost impossible to see the true context.

When you get down to it, 95 per cent of 'management' is about managing complexity and 5 per cent about doing the simple things that really matter.

Hence the feeling of infinite regression so characteristic of the field: managers pounce eagerly on the latest dragon-taming device (usually IT), only to find that the 'solution' is as frustratingly distant as ever.

The answer wasn't IT after all. But nor is it marketing, strategy, HR or any other single element. It's to stop obsessively 'doing the wrong thing righter' (Russell Ackoff) and strip the organisation back to the original simple idea.

Think of simplicity as a strong force whose unifying principle is 'pull'. This is in relation to its opposite, the weak force of complexity whose governing principle is 'push'. Both are self-reinforcing spirals but traditional, complexity-based push management drives a vicious circle.

Most companies make a product or service and then sell it to the customer with a big sales push.

Because they're manufacturing a guess of what the customer wants, they have lots of product variants in reserve 'just in case'. This inventory now has to be stored and managed.

As well as IT to track their inventory, companies need computers, specialists and managers to predict demand, order materials and parts and schedule manufacturing for the products they guess the customers will buy.

When companies guess wrongly they must dream up incentives for both their salesforce and customers to get these expensively made and stored mistakes sold. These schemes often cancel out any profit and forced sales also obscure what customers really want.

Push is so ingrained that we don't notice it any more. Internally rather than externally mandated, it requires forced circulation through the system. Decisions (guesses) and commands about customers, products and quantities are pushed down from the departments where they are made. Communications departments are set up to circulate the information.

Jobs are pushed too, their shape determined by computer-derived abstractions that drive (another significant word) production.

So is much of the training on offer but, as psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, 'A job that isn't worth doing isn't worth doing well.' These jobs aren't worth doing well and people know it. So to smooth their edges and cajole performance, managers resort to incentives, palliatives and sanctions, administered by an army of human resources executives.

Now reverse the logic. Suppose the customer pulls the product or service required through your system. Because you're making what someone has actually ordered, you don't have to guess or predict sales and production. You don't have to add extra features or colours to tempt people to buy. If you're not making things on spec, you don't need the space, computers or people to store and track the inventory.

Within the factory, computers for complex scheduling and ordering are redundant because the work itself carries the necessary information. The order automatically triggers demand for parts the work triggers the next stage in the process. So jobs also have a clear and present focus: to do just what is needed to satisfy the next internal customer.

Because the information is validated by the customer and inherent in the work, companies need fewer managers to second-guess it or make arbitrary decisions and then correct them. Managers' jobs change from giving orders to helping others do the job of satisfying customers.

Another of Maslow's sayings was: 'If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.' People doing a good job don't take sickies, so firms working this way can do without absenteeism measures (absurd and disastrous bribes for people to turn up to work), nor do you need complicated incentives or other sanctions. Pull easily defines appropriate training, information and pay: whatever it takes to enable people to do a better job of satisfying the cus tomer. Decades ago, author and consultant Richard Schonberger termed this virtuous circle 'frugal' management. The more smoothly work is pulled through the system, the less wasted time, effort, space, inventory, rework, duplication, computers - and cost.

Oh, yes, and management too. As Peter Drucker once lamented, 'So much of management seems to be preventing people doing their jobs.'

A better aim for managers is getting out of the way. The best kind of management is no management at all. Simple, or what?

The Observer, 10 October 2004


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