On the Road Again

Tom Peters

Labor Day has come and gone, and I’m on the road again lecturing. And listening. The following seem worthy of sharing.

* Two CEOs. A captain of industry (mid-Atlantic states) pulls me aside after a talk and lectures me on business strategy. He talks in metaphorical terms, then sings the praises of pursuing vulnerable opponents in forgotten markets. Fine. Except that in a 15-minute monologue he never once shows the slightest interest in his products or people. He’s animated, to be sure, in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as Dr Strangelove.

Then I spend a couple days with a group that includes Hal Rosenbluth, chief executive of Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth Travel, a family-owned outfit he’s built from peanuts to $1.5 billion in just a few years. Hal can’t find it in himself to talk about anything but his excitement about people and the revolutionary services he offers. Don’t get me wrong, Rosenbluth is a shrewd strategist. Yet his passion is anything but calculated; it is thoroughly human. (His book, The Customer Comes Second, is a gem, by the way.)

Whom would you bet on? Whom would you rather work for? Whom would you rather your son or daughter work for?

* Time. Sometime ago I decried a “service” provider (GTE) couldn’t promise me when someone would show up to do some work. Most readers applauded my ire; a few said I was a jerk (a member of the cultural elite, no doubt) for expecting such pampering. Washington State University Professor Denney Rutherford sees it my way. “If I want my refrigerator to stop gurgling (or) the ghosts to be busted from my TV,” he writes, “I have to make a seven-hour window in my professional day to be home when the service representative … deigns to show up.” By contrast, he applauds a local dentist who mainly serves loggers. Mondays, the doc stays open until 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, he schedules patients starting at 6:30 a.m., then closes early. Hats off to that doc; to Maine-based Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, that guarantees delivery of its fine furniture within a two-hour window (and rain or shine, usually arrives within 15 minutes of the appointed hour); and to the handful of others who understand that modern workers-as-customers need more than arrogant, Neanderthal scheduling practices.

* Where to go. It’s a good-news story—mostly. Driven in part by the business benchmarking craze, execs and others are looking beyond their walls for new ideas and models of top performance. I applaud the urge and think “strategic visitation” ought to be near the top of their to-do list.

Unfortunately, managers’ field trips often reveal a lack of imagination. Visit the best plant in your industry, at home or abroad. OK. But the world is heading toward knowledge work, temporary alliances, quick-change artistry, an emphasis on the intangibles. Those unmistakably suggest your itinerary ought to include the likes of MTV, CNN, Arthur Andersen, EDS, Chiat/Day/Mojo—and several days, if not weeks, on location with a movie production company or a touring rock band. These very unconventional outfits (by Ford’s or DuPont’s standards) have been doing tomorrow’s work for decades, it turns out.

Better yet: Take three months and be a camp follower—or a bag carrier—for that movie production house. Experience its pursuit of total quality and creativity—all done on the fly, with a group that’s never worked together before, under extreme budgetary and time constraints. If you don’t learn enough in such a setting to start a revolution back home, then you ought to do yourself and your colleagues a favor: Resign.

* Overstatement? “Three months ‘off’ to visit a movie company?” you say. “Resign if you don’t learn anything from it? Is that a serious prescription?” Hey, Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazil’s innovative and successful Semco, does it. He religiously takes off for 60 to 90 days each year. Moreover, he purposefully heads to places where neither the phone nor Pony Express can follow him—e.g., a dog-sled trip, a few years ago, to the North Pole. Semler claims these activities (1) unfailingly renew and (2) are a wonderful spur to the development of managers back home (in his absence). When I goad you to be similarly bold, Semler is my model.

And more. At ABB Asea Brown Boveri, CEO Percy Barnevik slashed corporate staff from 4,000 to 100 (in a $30 billion operation); at high-tech hose maker Titeflex, President Jon Simpson cut custom-order lead time from a dozen weeks to, in a pinch, a half-dozen hours; computer pioneer C. Gordon Bell once told me he’s rarely seen a job being done by a “team” of 500 engineers that couldn’t be done better by 10.

So Barnevik “teaches” us that headquarters staffing of three people per $1 billion in revenue is possible. Simpson “teaches” us that a 99 percent reduction in cycle time is within reach. Bell “teaches” us that engineering overstaffing of 50-to-1 is not uncommon. Such conclusions are a dramatic reminder of just what sort of improvement is possible. Overstatement? Not on your life!

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.