Simple Listening Is Not All That Simple

Tom Peters

My friend Dave audits operations activities at a big, complex and exceptionally high-technology company in the Northeast. What are an auditor's success traits?Suspicion? Skepticism? Technical brilliance?

Nope. Instead, Dave insists that the key traits include "humility, listening, trust, and a helpful attitude." An auditor as helper? But he explains, "I view my job not as 'catching people' but as helping them pass audits." The processes he audits are "way beyond my technical comprehension. If the technical people I audit wanted to stonewall me or any other auditor, it would be a piece of cake." Therefore, he views his role as "chiefly a listener. ... The company will be better off if [the group being audited] is getting high scores." What that means, then, is working together as partners, to clear up misunderstandings and help each side understand the others' objectives and constraints.

Dave is a great auditor—and a great listener. Most of the success stories that I chronicle in this column are, essentially, stories of great listening, such as Van Buren, Ind.-based Weaver Popcorn's success in Japan. The key to Weaver's triumph is listening to Japanese distributors—about local customs (for instance, patient learning of the intricacies of the Japanese distribution system), local beliefs (e.g., Japan's obsession with quality) and local tastes (they wanted orange, not yellow popcorn). The great quality and productivity miracle of the General Motors-Toyota joint venture, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUNNI), can be traced to several factors, but listening to previously empowered front-line workers surely heads the list.

During a late 1987 visit in England with the retail division of Grand Metropolitan (which, among other things, runs more than 1,000 pubs), one regional manager described how he pulled off a minor revolution in customer-service improvement. His secret weapon: working with (listening to, as he describes it) his most progressive pub managers, and then inducing them to listen to the previously little-attended bar men, dishwashers, et al., who had a host of improvement ideas, just waiting to be tapped.

So from audits to autos, from popcorn to pubs, "simple listening" is the ticket to vast improvements in quality and productivity. However, simple listening, in each of these or in any number of other cases, is anything but simple. It largely depends on two ideas, both somewhat abstract: respect and variety of sources.

At a recent seminar, a management team from an engineering services firm and I discussed numerous "devices" for listening to customers and employees, ranging from customer focus groups (both formal and informal) to an employee-edited newsletter and Tandem Computers' traditional, all-hands Friday "beer busts" (at sites around the globe). But one somewhat irate seminar participant pointed out that we were missing the essence of listening. "Look," he blurted out, "this is all so much form. The issue is respect. If you don't respect [customers and employees], really, really respect 'em, it's all a waste of time. You can dump all that beer down the drain for the value it adds."

He's right on target. If genuine respect is absent, then so-called "simple listening" is a bunch of baloney and a waste of time. Frankly, it can even backfire, because disenfranchised customers and employees see right through contrived efforts to listen, but not hear. Respect cannot be faked. Truly respectful listening, then, also means allowing the employee to act on his or her ideas. This is the magic of NUMMI, and the likes of steelmaker Worthington Industries and retailer Nordstrom.

The second listening trait, variety, is readily illustrated in the fields of market research and competitive analysis. In days gone by, it was fine enough to leave competitive analysis to a little ivory tower group, because markets changed much more slowly and, besides, you knew exactly who your competitors were. Ford was obsessed with GM, Gimbel with Macy's, Bethlehem Steel with U.S. Steel and, more recently, Xerox with Kodak.

But now we must move faster, act intuitively, and just plain do more competitive analysis. We need to watch out for little firms chipping away at profitable niches, as well as big ones. We must keep an eye on every corner of the globe, from low-cost producers in Malaysia to high-cost and high-quality providers of goods and services in Japan and Switzerland.

But in competitive analysis, as in employee relations respect is again the key. J.C. Penney's initial failure to appreciate The Limited, Chrysler's unwillingness to take Honda seriously and Xerox's blindness to Canon were only partly the result of a limited market intelligence capability. Mainly, their shortsightedness emanated from a lack of respect for these foreign and pipsqueak domestic competitors.

So if there is one "weapon" for the manager's arsenal, in any organization, it is listening. To listen, to listen with respect, to listen enough, and then to act fast upon what you hear, especially from tiny or foreign competitors and/or from formerly disrespected front-line troops, may be the ultimate expression of the art of contemporary management in turbulent times.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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