Saturday, 31 March 2007

Working Together

THERE seems to be something about the sport of rowing that makes it look like an endeavor meant only for intelligent individuals.

For a start, it requires perfect motor coordination from the participants— with each stroke by every member of the team timed to exact precision—so no amount of precious energy is dissipated, and everything is channeled towards making the craft move speedily and steadily forward.

Secondly, it requires careful strategic thinking. How many times have we seen it before in Olympic races–rowers starting very fast, only to fade away in the homestretch—with the eventual winner usually the team that is able to maintain a sustained pace all the way from start to finish.

Third, team selection is of utmost importance. A bunch of muscular athletes does not a good rowing team necessarily make. Abilities have to be complementary, as well as supplementary. Each member’s contribution has to be measured in terms of its effect on overall team performance, rather than on individual brilliance alone.

Come to think of it, this is probably the reason why rowing is the sport of choice for esteemed institutions of learning like Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. It just makes perfect sense—it is a sport for intelligent and thinking individuals.

For me, rowing is the perfect metaphor for how an effective organization ought to be intelligently run.

It has all the same elements that a business needs to have in order to be successful. Let us take each of them in turn.

PERFECT COORDINATION. We remember well the debacle of the American superstars in the last Olympic basketball championships. Despite an enormous wealth of individual talent, they were not a cohesive and coordinated team, with the acrobatic exertions of the gifted players sometimes actually getting in the way of the other members’ performance.

In rowing, there is no place for this. If one side rows faster than the other, the boat will start to spin and go around in circles. Even the slightest hint of an imbalance in effort is enough to hinder forward progress significantly.

TEAM SELECTION. As we have noted, pure brawn is no guarantee for success. In fact, it is a surefire recipe for failure. Selection is therefore geared towards making sure that team members’ strengths are properly matched to others’ weaknesses, so that any individual disadvantage is effectively neutralized.

How many times have we witnessed organizations where key individuals are constantly at each others’ throats, either vying for power supremacy or seeking economic gain?

Sometimes, this is disguised by organizations as embracing diversity, by allowing disparate-minded individuals to work together in a team. Sometimes this is true, and in certain cases beneficial. But uncontrolled diversity could easily degenerate into total chaos, and most teams are probably unaware which side of the diversity divide their own lies.

STRATEGIC THINKING. Of course, no team wins consistently without an effective strategy. The dominance of the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics in the 1980’s, and that of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s was no accident. It was not even due to good players primarily, though the fact that they were there helped a lot. It was mostly down to the strategic abilities of Pat Riley, KC Jones and Phil Jackson.

Without the genius that these coaches had in ensuring that their team’s skills were balanced in both attack and defense, and that they had the right complement of players to last the entire campaign to begin with, no Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson would have been good enough to win as many times as they did.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, March 31, 2007 (

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Pulling Apart (Part 3)

ISN'T it funny how the things we write about are also the ones that invariably turn up soon after in our own work situations? It almost feels a bit like imagining a song in your head, only to hear someone close to you start singing exactly the same tune.

In the last couple of weeks, we have been looking at a common problem that plagues most businesses today — that of their component parts striving to achieve improvement in their own little areas of responsibility but failing to better the plight of their entire organizations in the process.

This past week, one of the country managers of the region I look after excitedly asked me to his office. He started talking about how our costing routines don’t properly reflect the true cost of making products in our factories. Without commenting on his epiphany, I just let him continue. He went on about how the way we allocate costs to products are not applicable to our other factories in the region, and therefore we do not really know which place produces things more economically than another.

Right that instant, I heard the song I was singing in my head being loudly sung in front of me. Here was a person, looking after the commercial health and viability of an enterprise, saying exactly the same things which we said were problematic in terms of trying to better manage an organization. Here it was, and there was precious little I could do about it, at least in the short term.

There were a few things not quite right with his observations, for a start. The costing system he was talking about, though adequate for valuing the cost of inventory, never stood the chance of being remotely useful in providing comparative information that allowed for comparisons with anywhere else. For a start, the costs it produced did not even reflect the “economic value” of products made in its own factory, let alone provide any meaningful benchmarks with another business.

The factory he was referring to was still allocating non-variable costs to products by means of a single plant-wide driver — direct labor hours. How does that give any indication of value when shifting people around could easily cause such wide fluctuations in the “profitability” of products? The answer — it does not.

An even greater problem that relates to our immediate subject matter was the desire to “improve” the quality of our costing system, by looking at better allocations of costs to our products. Apparently, doing something wrong better makes it right? Or perhaps I was missing a point here?

There were no points I missed, of course. Everything I heard was consistent with what we were saying all along – the fact that many organizations believe that creating little improvements everywhere in their organization eventually translates into benefits for the whole.

Granted that the costing system was accurate — which it wasn’t — non-variable costs were still minuscule in relation to the total in any case — no more than seven percent of total product costs were “fixed.”

So why concentrate time and effort on “properly allocating” the seven percent to the rest of the 93 percent? What fvalue does this add to our understanding of the business?

Something is surely at fault here. That something is preventing (or at least not helping) organizations focus on their real issues, and spend their time and resources where the results matter most.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, March 10, 2007 (