The Relentless Pursuit of the Obvious

Tom Peters

The adventurer who said he climbed the mountain “because it was there” may have been one of the wisest folks ever. That occurred to me as I pondered three seemingly random, distinctly pedestrian events:

* My bulky Random House Dictionary of the English Language lay on my bookshelf. I’d use it when absolutely necessary, perhaps once every two weeks. Then I moved it to a table next to my desk and got into the habit of leaving the dictionary open to the last word I’d looked up. Now I consult it at least once a day—and invariably end up spending a few minutes studying the etymology of several words unrelated to the one I’d been searching for.

* I submitted a very long book manuscript to my publisher. A few weeks later my editor arrived at my doorstep, suitcase in hand. She proceeded to loom (she also worked). Cowered by her presence, I ended up slashing my own dear manuscript, five years in the making, by 50 percent in the next three weeks.

* About a month ago, I shifted my daily run to a steep hill. The day before yesterday, I returned to an old run up a milder grade. It was much less steep than it had been before.

I contend that these vignettes, trivial or not, encompass about 90 percent of what you need to know about life—whether it’s relations with a spouse or significant other, getting ahead at school, or doing business in the hotel or semiconductor industry, in America or Japan. To wit:

* Attention is all there is.

* If you’re determined to spend time on something, make sure you have to trip over it five times a day.

The business application of these truths is straightforward. I maintain there’s no more potent force for change than shifting your locale. Want to get “Pacific Rim oriented”‘? Move to Tokyo or Singapore or Taipei or Guangzhou (Canton) for 12 eye-opening months. Want to get focused on customers, if you’re a division boss? Move your office, lock, stock, and barrel, to a district sales office for six months. (Bob Townsend, of Up the organization fame, became chief at Avis and found he’d inherited a messed up financial system. So he canned the controller, officially appointed himself to the job, and moved into the controller’s office. Several months later, he had a grip on finances—and went back to his original office.) Want to expand your vocabulary? Put a big dictionary someplace where you literally bump into it 10 times a day.

(I’m none too gently implying the opposite, as well: If that editor isn’t looming, and looming 20 feet away, you’ll never nuke the manuscript—i.e., rip it in half.)

An East Coast friend, who also happens to run a major enterprise, continually complains at his lack of feel for Asia. I asked him how many times he’d been there in the last couple of years. “Oh, I spent two weeks in Seoul and Tokyo in late 1988,” he replied in earnest. You don’t need an advanced degree from MIT or Cal Tech to figure out why he’s not “an Asia hand.” Another executive pal, who owns a string of retail shops (about four dozen), was antsy about “all the letters about rotten customer service I’ve been getting lately.” I asked him how many stores he’d visited in the last month. He said—bragged?—he’d been to a pair just a few weeks ago. (I’m not sure he appreciated my laughing in his face or reminding him that busy Walmart execs still manage to get out three days each week.)

All of these “sagas of the obvious” can be turned into basic business strategies:

* If you want speedy and imaginative product development, take sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, and distribution people, and put them together with distributors, customers, and vendors to work on new-product development—all in the same place, all at the same time, hanging out together, intensely.

* If you want your business to get “close to the customer,” very close, then let those who are already closest to the customer solve any and all customer problems without second guessing from above, and let them spend big bucks doing so if necessary.

* If you want lots of folks to pay lots of attention to quality, measure quality 20 different ways, reward quality, promote for quality, and then let those closest to the minute-to-minute operations of the organization have the final say in quality issues.

* If you want rapid decision making, get rid of most or all of your middle management layers and co-locate the rest of the gang in human-scale, multi-function units. “Suddenly” they’ll start making better decisions, faster. (At ABB Asea Brown Boveri, Chief Executive Officer Percy Barnevik cut corporate headquarters staff from 4,000 to 100. Now things at the front line happen faster. Why? Hold on to your hats: ’cause there are scarce few interlopers left to slow things down!

Back to that dratted hill I’ve been running up lately. I’m about 50 years old, and I still have a thing or three to learn. I just learned one: If you really are determined to get better at running up hills, run up hills. Why didn’t I think of that before?

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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