To Hurry Up, Slow Down

Tom Peters

As a consultant, I’ve worked on any number of huge corporate reorganizations. Typically, a steering committee toils for three or four months creating an overall organization concept. It takes another three or four months to flesh out the details. Bickering with top management absorbs yet another few months. At the end of about a year, the top 25 to 100 managers have finally agreed on a scheme.

Now it’s time to “sell it to the troops.” A slick, 30-minute slide presentation is put together, accompanied by a videotaped introduction by the chairman. The presentation is taken to 50 sites, and a one-hour question-and-answer session follows the show, overseen by a headquarters executive who was part of organizational planning process.

Senior management later wonders why the ranks were not brimming with enthusiasm for the new plan, why implementation was painfully slow—and in fact fell woefully short of expectations.

The answer: To hurry up, slow down. Many say the Japanese “take forever to make a decision,” consulting everyone in the organization from top to bottom. But implementation, after the thoroughgoing buy-in process, is accomplished in a flash. As usual, such an abbreviated characterization of the so-called “Japanese way” grotesquely oversimplifies. Nonetheless, there is much to be said for the idea, and there’s nothing especially Japanese about it. It’s just good—if often ignored—sense. Oddly enough, the new competitive emphasis on speed should force us to recognize the hurry up, slow down paradox.

Recall last week’s column on Ingersoll-Rand’s quick, new product-development system. I chose to underscore the “soft” aspects of the process. None was more important than going slow at critical junctures. Rather than starting with the usual engineering details, for instance, the product-development team spent “forever,” according to its leader, working out overall objectives, visiting distributors and customers. At another crossroads, a decision not to decide saved the day, and the project: By keeping two major design options open for several months, the team came to appreciate real differences between the two, and eventually achieved energetic consensus (from top management, the factory, customers, distributors, the team itself) for a “revolutionary” approach, before proceeding to final implementation and roll-out.

Another case in point: To become more responsive to the customer, the big, Appleton, Wisc., life insurance firm, Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), shifted to self-managed teams in late 1987. The time to perform activity after activity in support of customers has been slashed. For instance, processing an application often took 20 days; now it ordinarily takes five. Claims decision-making has been similarly hastened.

On the other hand, some decisions now often take more time to make than before. These invariably involve team dynamics, such as filling vacancies or scheduling vacations. In the old structure, the boss quickly dictated solutions.

The greater time investment in team processes is exactly as it should be, as I see it. Team members will wholeheartedly accept such new customer-responsiveness strategies, only if the team itself is “working.” And that inevitably means spending lots of time on the personal concerns and priorities of members. But the effort is repaid many times over in the long run, in this case by what AAL calls the shift from “five-stop shopping” to “one-team processing”: Rather than passing customers with queries from here to there and back again, the self-contained teams now know their customers, and serve them rapidly, accurately, and with personal attention.

This hearty expenditure of time on team dynamics will not disappear—or even be reduced—as a company becomes “better” at employee involvement (EI). Star veterans of the EI wars report that such team concerns are never “resolved”—they continue to absorb lots of time, year after year. Again, this makes sense. Times and personnel change, to begin with. And with each “small” change (there is no small when it comes to team affairs)—or large one—the wheel must be more or less reinvented.

Return, now, to my opening example. When changes to organization structure are on the table, there are no “trivial” decisions. The tiniest adjustment means perceived power gained by someone (or a group), lost by another. The 99 percent of employees who must make the new regime work day to day must first take their own ride on the emotional roller coaster that is part and parcel of any serious change process. Without “them” having gone for even a semblance of that ride, it is absurd to expect anything other than anger, frustration, and backlash following a 30-minute dog and pony show. (That hour of questions and answers following the briefing is packaged, of course, as “open dialogue and consultation.” “They” should be thankful for that, right?)

To dramatically speed up business processes—implement a new structure; shorten product development cycles; make decisions faster to better serve customers—slow down. Take your time when it comes to fostering and maintaining team/front-line engagement and esprit.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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