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Dead horses on the company lawn.

For some time, the Japanese have contended their business success stems from management by consensus. The Japanese CEO's job is to push and tug and compromise and arbitrate until everyone agrees (or appears to agree) on a strategic course.

Most Americans feel this is going too far. Nonetheless, in the interest of greater efficiency, we've also taken steps to flatten the management hierarchy by adopting participative management or people empowerment. Employee involvement is in. Autocratic, dictatorial, hierarchical management is out. Managers tend not to boss, but to "coordinate." We now have work units, or even complete plants, where virtually all of the operating decisions are made by the worker bees without direct executive approval. And we have entire companies where the harshest directive is a question: "What do you think we should do about this?"

Similarly, our companies have a whole wave of young managers who were raised permissively by their parents and went to progressive schools. They are only criticized occasionally and, certainly, never overruled. Schooled to believe in the power of participation, these managers take care to involve everyone in the decision-making process. And many times this team approach does the job. A United Airlines team solved a circuitry problem in 747 jets. Atlanta's Georgia-Pacific, a lumber products concern, now turns a profit on a manufacturing byproduct--sawdust--which used to cost the company $25,000 to remove. Company teams brainstormed and then hit on the idea to sell the debris to local nurseries to use as mulch.

Despite these success stories, in some cases and places, I suspect we go too far in our quest to get everyone's opinion, seek too much information, appoint too many committees and task forces, and overanalyze our problems before the decision is made.

I tell a folksy tale to illustrate this when I teach Professor John Whitney's class in Turnaround Management at Columbia Business School.

"You have been asked to manage a troubled business unit. You notice a dead horse lying on the front lawn. It has been there for a while. There is no need to blow air into its lungs to see if the horse will gallop away. You don't need to review the life history of the horse or hire a consultant to appraise alternative actions. Your job is to get rid of the dead horse and get on with the business."

Every company has dead horses on its lawn: Obsolete products, unprofitable customers, unproductive people, useless reports, leaky systems, antiquated procedures, dead-end agreements, accidents waiting to happen.

Supervisors usually know who and where the dead horses are, but they say, "I haven't had time to study the problem yet, and I'm not sure everyone agrees on what we should do." And so, they drift along, often until someone else is called in to take charge.

I am something of a fan of most participative management programs, and I also think a well-run empowerment program is the best way to run a railroad. With our flatter organization charts and the fast tracks we run on, we have neither the people nor the time to act as deliberatively as we might wish. We must delegate authority.

Managers and workers must be adaptable if this system is to work. Also, it helps if everyone in the organization is on the same wavelength throughout the decision-making process. Parallel thinking and parallel actions, on the part of everyone in the organization, make for sound decisions.

When a CEO pushes decision-making authority down in the management ranks, he pushes the process closer to the workers with the necessary expertise and those it affects most. Thus, the workers decide on the purchase of machinery or a software program, the price to a customer for an added service, the selection of a new employee.

CEOs are CEOs because they have proven to be good decision makers themselves. However, they must also prove they can teach young managers to create an effective blend of participative management and clear-cut decision making. Otherwise, they may be simply delegating the authority to form more task forces and to conduct more analytical studies--but at a lower level in the organization.

Most of our business processes--particularly those that deal with product development and modification--must be accelerated to gain or maintain a competitive position in global marketing. There is a concomitant need for Total Quality Management, of course, but the thrust today is on speed and efficiency. Fast action demands fast decision making in every stage of the process.

There is no time to mollycoddle those who can't keep up with the parade. There is no time for messing around with dead horses on the company lawn.

I once worked for a tough old CEO who was fond of saying, "The committee has met and I have decided..."

Not a bad starting point for the democratic process in your company.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Chief Executive Publishing
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Speaking Out; fast decision making by avoiding a tendency to overrely on a participative or self-empowered approach to management
Author:Lear, Robert W.
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Words:806
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