To Get Back to Business Basics, Find a Poet

Tom Peters

For many reasons, including the primitive infrastructure in transportation and communications, the typical Chinese factory can't predict when it will get a product built. With an avowed goal of becoming a big exporter to Japan and the West, this is a crippling problem.

To underscore the gravity of the issue, during my recent lecture series in China, I tried to explain to a group in the industrial city of Taiyaun about just-in-time (JIT) inventory management. (It is a system that puts unrelenting pressure on suppliers to deliver products, with heretofore-unheard-of accuracy—several precisely-timed deliveries per day from a single supplier are now commonplace in the best Japanese and American operations.)

But I had a problem. My translator, whose English was passable, was a poet. Neither JIT nor inventory made any sense to him. He had similar difficulties comprehending vertical integration, the conglomerate form of business organization, span of control, and even hierarchy (though the Chinese invented hierarchical structures several thousand years ago).

My first reaction, which lingered, was to be offended. I felt the visit was wasted because of lousy support. But then a strange thing happened. To explain JIT, I found myself filling blackboard after blackboard (I hadn't used blackboards for awhile) with simple diagrams. Explaining the difference between "sequential product development (the design function passes to engineering, engineering passes to manufacturing, and so on) and "parallel product development" (all crucial functions are simultaneously involved from the start) took even more blackboards. An explanation of the seemingly simplest of all, hierarchy, took even more boards—and left me covered with yellow chalk dust.

In the end, I may or may not have communicated well to my Chinese hosts, but I had learned a great deal. Just why do hierarchies come about? Why were steep ones, with lots of levels and narrow spans of control, developed by early Chinese administrators and used by Western industrial revolution factories? Why are flat ones, with few levels of management requisite today? My own understanding was growing by leaps and bounds, and my explanations, which, for instance, precisely related slowness-of-implementation speed to steepness of hierarchy, were far richer than they had ever been before.

In fact, it occurs to me that all technical experts—indeed all experts—could probably benefit enormously from being translated from time to time by a poet, in their own or any other language.

My revelation is hardly new. Michael McCaskey, now president of the Chicago Bears, used to teach at Harvard Business School. He once told me that every couple of years he would purposefully learn to do something new, such as take up water skiing. His objective was to re-attain the mindset of the novice learner. McCaskey claims it provided a powerful reminder to keep concepts simple and assume nothing. I dearly wish that the first person to teach me about hierarchy and span of control had been so thoughtful. Instead, I was taught in a U.S. Navy officer-training program: A steep hierarchy was right because it was right. And a span of control of six to eight non-managers to one manager was also right. And that's that, ensign. Now salute smartly.

Winchester, N.H., high school principal Dennis Littky constantly works with his teachers to help them achieve clarity. He uses the example of an eleventh grade biology course to explain three "tricks" (efforts to trick yourself, really). First, prepare the introductory lecture as if it were to be given to a fifth grader. Almost anything can be taught to anyone, Littky believes, and this exercise helps you keep the language and ideas simple and basic. Second, he asks the teachers to consider teaching a whole semester's course as just one lecture. (As a parallel exercise, managers might try explaining their business plan in one hour to a group of part-time or temporary workers on the night shift in the distribution center.) A third approach is to boil the entire course down to just five basic questions that you want all students to be able to answer with great facility by the end of the term.

In almost all business affairs, I find we are tripped up by not looking deeply enough at basic assumptions, assumptions that may have gone unexamined for years. Why do people buy a second or third car, rather than take a trip around the world or purchase a home entertainment center? How do different customers' purchasing departments actually make buying decisions? (What are the politics? Who is how important to the process under what conditions?) Are the data in this or that market research study about yesterday's wants, or does it somehow get at tomorrow's? And just why do most executives of my generation (or before) believe that only spans of control of 5 to 15 are allowable?

To return to my recent experience, let's remember that about 90 percent of the efforts of U.S. companies to install just-in-time inventory systems are failing. The supporting computer systems are usually OK. And the consultants' credentials (and bills) ensure that you're dealing with pros. But just-in time turns out not to be a technique. Instead, it's about basic relationships among functions and the distribution of power in the organization. It is also about your belief in the average worker's capability for assuming self-management. I more or less knew all that before my trip to China. But now I know it for sure, and will act accordingly—thanks to my poet-translator, who made me ask myself some long unasked (and therefore unanswered) essential questions.

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