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The trigger factor - II.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on coming up with ideas for new products. Titled "The Trigger Factor," it discussed how an obvious set of circumstances that thousands of people are aware of can be overlooked by the multitude and yet, for one person, can be a trigger for a revolutionary new product idea.

While working with a client recently on an organizational structure decision, lightning struck a second time. It occurred to me that the trigger factor isn't limited to creating ideas for new products; it pervades the entire management scene. It relates to the ability to recognize opportunities for change, for improvement, in every aspect of business. In fact, the lack of a trigger-factor curiosity and mentality can be a significant contributor to corporate mediocrity.

The Trigger Factor at Work

The trigger factor is a reason why outsiders often make many changes when they are brought into a top job; they can see things that were under the previous management's nose but which they couldn't see. The incoming executive brings a new, and perhaps only vaguely formed, template to his job. Just as an engineer uses physical templates to design tangible things such as products, so do executives use mental templates to design more intangible things such as organization structures and relationships. Thus many things that the former office holder perceived as being in mesh with expectations are seen by the successor as gaps to be filled, as opportunities for improvement. Recognizing management situations that could benefit from new approaches can be just as much an exercise in creativity as in coming up with an idea for a new product.

Think back to the last time you made a major job change. You probably recall that, in the first few weeks or months in your new role, you could see all kinds of things that you questioned, that you felt could be done in a better way. They didn't measure up to the template in your mind. You saw many of these deltas as potential opportunities for change, for improvement. Then, by the end of your first year, things looked much better. Why did they look better? Did they look better because most of the change, the improvements, had been accomplished? Or did they look better because your template had started to take on the configuration of the status quo?

Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgi observed: "Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different." Isn't' this exactly what the new executive does? He looks at the same set of circumstances as did his predecessor, but he thinks differently about them. But what happens as time passes? Unfortunately, too many people succumb to what Roger von Occh describes as "becoming prisoners of familiarity." Thus their templates adjust to take on the shape of their world.

The increasing attention devoted to the concept of "benchmarking" in recent years is a de facto admission of the declining level of trigger-factor sensitivity. Benchmarking involves targeting processes that the organization wants to improve, and then identifying other organizations that perform similar processes with excellent results. The outside organizations are then put under a microscope to uncover their secrets of success so that they can be emulated.

However, the organizations that possess the true trigger-factor sensitivity are the ones that are being studied. After all, they were the originators of the improved level of performance, they are the ones that were perceptive enough to recognize the initial trigger factor.

Improving Your Trigger Factor

So, what separates the men from the boys as far as trigger factor cognizance is concerned? How can you improve your ability to see trigger factors? By definition, a trigger factor is something that someone sees as a candidate for change, for improvement. Thus, to become more aware of such possibilities requires undergoing a major attitude transformation. It requires abandoning the attitude of accepting every happening, every event, every transaction, at face value and adopting a questioning attitude. It requires seeing and using that magic word "Why?" in a new light. Yes, it is that simple, and it is that difficult.

Peter Drucker has reported that the extremely successful opening of Disneyland outside of Tokyo has led major Japanese companies to conceive the concept of Zero Defects Management (ZDM). A leading Japanese industrialist observed, "We all knew that it would take Disney three years to work the bugs out of this huge undertaking. Instead, it ran with zero defect the day it opened." Perceptive Japanese executives responded to this unexpected happening with, "Why?" The answer: extensive and intensive computer simulation of every single Disneyland operation to engineer it, and train the people associated with it, to the point of perfection. Thus was born ZDM to replace Total Quality Management (TQM), which the Japanese now see as outmoded and inadequate for the competitive challenges of tomorrow.

Let's step back for a moment and reflect on this scenario. What are those who are adopting ZDM doing but benchmarking Disney. What is now being dubbed ZDM exists because many years ago Disney executives looked at every happening, every event, every transaction relative to running a theme park and asked, "Why?" They then proceeded to create a new template.

Thomas Watson is reported to have plastered IBM offices with signs that said, "THINK!" Perhaps the counterpart here is to put a big sign on your desk that says, "WHY?" And then, to get into the swing of it, after you've read the first letter, report or memo that hits your desk tomorrow, or taken your first telephone call, lean back and reflect on what you've just ingested. What are all the standards, norms, expectations, or whatever, that are contained or implied in the message? Dig in to uncover those that are hidden, that go beyond the obvious. Ask yourself why they are as they are, what could be improved?

Use "Why?" On an Ongoing Basis

"Get serious," you say, "I can't afford the time to do that with every piece of paper that comes across my desk, with every telephone call." Maybe you don't feel you can afford the time to do this, consciously, with every information transaction of your day. But if you force yourself to do it with, say, the first five information transactions each day, and then perhaps with the first ten, who knows what this could eventually lead to. Who knows, such a modus operandi just might become an automatic, almost subconscious element of your personal management culture. If might prevent your templates from adjusting to the status quo. It just might increase your ability to more readily recognize trigger factors.


WILLIAM J. ALTIER, CMC, a Certified Management Consultant, is president of Princeton Associates Inc., a management consulting firm which specializes in participative-process consulting. Headquartered in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, the firm works with major corporations in North America and Europe. Mr. Altier earned his MBA degree at Pennsylvania State University.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Management Roundable; management strategy
Author:Altier, William J.
Publication:Business Forum
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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