Saturday, 30 June 2007

Changing of the guard

MOST of us who have been to London will have seen, or at least, heard of it.

The changing of the Queen’s guard at Bucking-ham Palace is probably one of the most British of institutions, and a spectacle that people think of first whenever they hear the word “London.”

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Last week, however, a much more significant changing of the guard took place, not too far from Buckingham. By the banks of the River Thames, and under the shadow of the venerable Big Ben, an era in British politics finally came to pass.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the last decade, had — true to his word —finally stepped down as leader of the Labor Party, and in so doing gave up the post of head of the government of the United Kingdom to his successor, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Spanning the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George Bush, Tony Blair’s long tenure in office —mostly coinciding at a time of relative prosperity in the United Kingdom —is eclipsed only by the reign of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who led the Tory government of the 80s and early 90s for 13 long years, just four short of former President Marcos’ 17-year grip on Philippine politics.

The Blair years will hopefully be remembered as one of Britain’s finest moments. The UK economy is one of the strongest in the European Union today, a testament to the former prime minister’s faith in the power of the free market, as opposed to his Labor predecessor’s disdain for the ideals of laissez faire economics.

He has also succeeded in finally solving the sectarian strife that haunted Northern Ireland for as long as anyone in British politics today can remember.

Had it not been for one single decision which many in the UK think was the wrong thing to do – Tony Blair would certainly have secured a prominent place for himself in British politics as soon as he stepped out of 10 Downing Street. As it is, he will have to wait until history has passed its judgment on his legacy.

Iraq. Yes, that’s the word that will forever taint his image, the remaining question being only one of degree, i.e. will it be all that people will remember of him? Or will they at least have memories of the good things that he has done?

Tony Blair was a firm supporter of the war in Iraq, staunchly convinced that the effort was definitely a positive step in the fight against global terrorism. His close relationship with America’s leadership made sure that his conviction would not be in opposition to that of his trans-Atlantic allies. Unfortunately, the Iraq campaign has degenerated into a bloody quagmire that no one seems to be able to solve. Unfortunately for Blair too, this meant that his name would forever be associated with this monumental failure of foreign policy.

And yet there is one major difference between a leader like Blair, and many of ours who have governed our country less auspiciously. The man sincerely believed he was doing the right thing, and was guided by what he thought were the real interests of the British people. That his judgment turned out to be wrong in the end is another story.

This is something I cannot remember any leader of the Philippines ever possessed — a genuine passion for doing the right things, without regard for any personal gain or advancement. For most of our leaders, any decision always has to be preceded by the question — “What’s in it for me?”

Blair may yet become a man tainted by the judgment of history, but our politicians could do well to learn from his example.

Published by the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, June 30, 2007 (

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Playing Nero (conclusion)

AS we in management know only too well, while it is the soldiers who fight the battles, it is the commanders who win the wars.

Winning a single encounter on the battlefield can sometimes be a matter of luck, or pure chance. However, to win an entire campaign takes strategic genius — knowing exactly when to attack, which time to retreat, what weapons to deploy, selecting the battle formations to employ, and choosing the people to do the fighting. That is why victorious leaders are often credited for being strategically brilliant.

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Often the “winningest” or most victorious generals are not the ones with the most resources at their disposal. While they may be strong in some areas, there will be others where they will be weaker than their opponents. The skill that sets them apart is their ability to tell exactly which of their strengths they can turn to superior advantage, and how they are able to reinforce their weaknesses to make them less vulnerable to counter attacks.

Less emphasized but clearly vital, victorious leaders are pragmatists and realists. They are never so proud as to deny that they or their organizations have failings and shortcomings.

Armed with this knowledge, they can then set about and conquer those that stand in the way between them and victory.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Well not quite. Because even the best of them sometimes falter. Perhaps egos get in the way, and the feeling of invincibility from winning too many encounters can bring about the complacency that could sometimes lead to a false sense of security.

Armies and business organizations share a lot in common — and what we have been describing in the earlier paragraphs apply equally as much to winning wars as they do to conquering markets. Leading a winning business organization in today’s global marketplace is as much a huge strategic challenge as winning a World War.

As we discussed earlier, trade-offs in critical situations need to be addressed correctly. Clearly, when an army is focused on building trenches and fortifications, it cannot, at the same time, advance and attack enemy positions. Likewise, one that prefers defensive fortifications cannot be mobile and quick on the counterattack.

As with many things, the outcomes of wars often depend on the choices commanders make.

Too many leaders in business today make too many poor choices. While the critical areas are somewhere else, they expend their valuable resources addressing those that are less significant. Either by ignorance or lack of creativity, they do the things they like to do, rather than those they have to do.

Often because of their backgrounds and skills, they are focused on areas where they feel comfortable in, rather than where the business needs in order to succeed.

Which brings me back to where I started with this series of articles.

Business leaders often do the things they feel like doing, not those that really need to be done. While the enemy outflanks them and attacks their unguarded rear, they insist on spending their time digging deeper and deeper foxholes!

Not so different really from the ones in my friend’s organization. While the demand for their products was shrinking rapidly, they turned all their efforts in making sure it costs them less to make them. Even my friend, who is an operations manager and knows little about the demand side of the business, knew only too well that their leaders were playing Nero, while their entire business was burning to the ground.

Published by the Star Daily, Saturday, June 23, 2007 (

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Playing Nero (part 3)

WE have all heard of window-dressing. For people my age, the years of the Marcos rule chiseled a vivid mental image of its definition into our consciousness, it is impossible to ever forget what it means.

Which is probably the reason I don’t like it much!

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I remember how the old first lady used to preach about the importance of beauty in our lives, and how all the grandiose mega projects she did in its name were meant to improve the lives of our impoverished countrymen for the better. Well, they never did. The fact that they built the country on the shifting sands of beauty are today largely responsible for the dire straits that the Philippines is in.

The Marcoses were masters at it. And so are many of the politicians who have followed them since their downfall. Presenting a false facade of everything good while inside the true face of decay and poverty remains hidden. Remember the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nation) convention in Cebu?

Window dressing is easy. No effort at all. No need to address the real problems, just mask the underlying causes of the problem with an acceptable face and we are off the hook.

But only for a short time.

In the end, the fundamental issues inevitably rise to the surface. And when they do, it will be more difficult to address them properly, all we can do is windowdress them all over again.

Call it corporate raindancing. Call it snake oil salesmanship. Call it what you will. But windowdressing is a favorite activity in most business organizations.

Managers taking the easy way out and masking the real problems in their organizations with easy solutions that offer no long lasting benefits, but arguably bring about irreparable damage.

Ever notice how in kids’ football games, everyone always ends up wanting to be the striker? Even defenders who are supposed to keep their opponents from approaching their goal inevitably decide to abandon their posts and try their luck in attack. And who can blame them? Scoring goals is a lot more fun than preventing your opponents from doing the same.

Or perhaps you have seen a group of young girls baking in home economics class? Ever wonder why everyone wants to be the one to put the icing on the cake? You guessed it right. Because it is the easy thing to do. Not only that, it gives the impression of having completed the whole task from beginning to end.

Managers are no different from kids, no sir. In many ways, managers are still kids in the way they behave – doing things either because they appear to be the most interesting, or look to be the easiest. Never mind that they are not really the fundamental concerns of their organizations. Somebody else can take care of that.

Our example last week about the Toyota wanna-bees is a case in point —it is now all too easy to implement efficiency projects with all the documentation available on how to do it. But what if it is not what your company needs?

Never mind, seems to be the answer for many managers. Fundamental problem or not, they will do it anyway. Because it is easy, and it gives the appearance of actually doing something.

It is bad enough if managers fall into the trap of taking the easy or interesting way out. But what if the leaders of the business are themselves similarly inclined?

More on the subject next week.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, June 16, 2007 (

Saturday, 9 June 2007


All I can say is – blame it on Toyota.

Yes, blame it on that carmaker of carmakers, the company from a very small corner of the world that is now poised to take over as the world’s largest auto manufacturer for the first time since Henry Ford starting making cars.

If not for Toyota’s relentless pursuit of manufacturing excellence, if not for its single-minded drive for efficiency and zero waste, if not for its ability to sell cars that seem to run forever – then many companies today would not be in such a bind.

Yes, just as kids in the 90’s used to sing “I want to be like Mike,” so have companies been trying to emulate Toyota’s cutting-edge manufacturing systems for at least the last couple of decades, if not longer.

Kanban, Just-In-Time, Zero Defects, Quality Circles – these are just some of the concepts pioneered by the carmaker that have been zealously adopted not only by its competitors, but also from admirers in industries as diverse as consumer goods, utilities and financial services. Just as kids wanted to be “like Mike,” companies from all over the globe aimed to be “like Taichii” (Ohno, Toyota’s legendary leader during its period of rapid growth).

“Being Toyota” has taken on a strangely cult-like following in the corporate world. CEOs and corporate executives have taken to downsizing and cost cutting as young girls have to dieting and looking like their stick-figure supermodel idols. Slim is in -- as they say -- in corporate USA. And as well in many places beyond.

So what can be wrong with this? Is not a cost-conscious company also better placed to compete in its marketplace?

The problem with idols is that they never tell you why they do certain things. And for those of us who emulate them at every turn, sometimes we are unaware of the reason for what it is we are trying to copy.

Take supermodels, for example. What could be the reason why they take only lettuce leaves for lunch? Clearly not because they like to eat only lettuce leaves. And possibly not even just to look good for their friends and acquaintances. Most likely it is to land that high paying modeling contract in New York, Milan or London, for which they starve themselves almost to near-death.

Yet most young girls who wish to copy their waif-like physiques do so not necessarily for the huge financial rewards. They actually believe it makes them look good and feel accepted. They are taking the pain, without necessarily the gain that their idols are rewarded with. It’s like having no cake, and not eating it too!

Toyota’s main competitive advantage is not necessarily its operational excellence alone. Arguably, it is not even its operational excellence at all. Of course, being the very clever and consensus building Japanese company that they are, they wish to ruffle no feathers by telling everyone that they are heading for a one-way road to disaster if they blindly followed what Toyota is doing.

As a result, a management cult has been born, whose only mantra is an all-out war to re-engineer, downsize and cut costs. Every organisation in existence today has probably some kind of cost reduction exercise in place – whether it be regarding the way it makes product, sells it to its customer, or supports its business activities.
More on the subject next week.

Published by the Sun Star Daily, June 9, 2007 (

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Playing Nero

WHEN I was a young kid, my dad took me aside one day and asked me what I thought was a rather no-brainer of a question. It was—“how many senses do we have?”

Proud of what I had just recently learned from my primary grade science lessons, I quickly retorted “five” without even taking a second to think about my reply. “No son” he said. “We have six.” “Six?” I shot back in an audibly disbelieving tone. “How could we have six?”

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And then, I rattled off—“We only have our sense of sight, of smell, of taste, of hearing, and lastly, of feeling. Our teacher never taught us anything more than these, as far as I could recall.”

“Son,” my dad continued, “you forgot the most important one, and so did your teacher.” “OK, what did I forget?” “Please tell me, so I can inform my teacher that she was wrong.” After a slight pause, he said—“you forgot common sense.”

Ever the jokester of a dad that he is (when he was in his non-lawyer dad moods, of course), I never thought much about his seemingly trivial “joke.” Not until I grew up and gravitated to management practice, that is.

Today, I am of one mind with my father. Many of us management practitioners do, indeed, seem to have forgotten our sixth and most important sense.

Over a couple of beers last night, I was speaking to one of my expatriate friends in a Jakarta watering hole. We were exchanging goodbyes, since he was leaving to go to a new assignment in Africa, and I was off back to the UK, after completing an extended visit to Indonesia. He was telling me how busy he had been the last couple of months, fielding questions from his head office about costs in his factory. My friend is an operations manager of one of the large consumer goods companies in Indonesia.

Apparently, the recent “flavor of the month” in their organization is “cost saving,” not unlike the many who have staked the futures of their companies on the single-minded pursuit of efficiency.

Lowest cost per unit is their mantra, and all their efforts are focused on this single company objective.

Sensing nothing wrong with the drive to cut out waste, and after putting on my “management consultant hat,” I asked him a question. “So supply must be the constraint in your business, that’s why you are taking all these efforts to cut waste, and ensure that you can produce even more product for your customers, and make lots more profit for your business, right?”

“Not at all,” he says, “as a matter of fact, our market shares have never been smaller. For the last three years they have dropped in all but one product category, where we have just barely managed to maintain our share. And that’s what concerns me the most,” he says.

“For months now, we have been bombarded with queries coming from all directions. And it is all about costs. Add to that the fact that the accountants in my company are constantly telling me to spend what precious little time I have trying to ‘correctly’ allocate the costs of my factory to my products, and I am really now in total despair. Nothing of what we are doing makes any sense any more.”

On hearing that word “sense,” thoughts of that long-ago conversation of my dad, and his seemingly innocuous joke about our six senses suddenly seemed to make that much more sense (if that makes any sense to you?).

Maybe it is that in my friend’s company, their management is suffering from an acute shortage of our sixth sense.
More on the subject next week.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, June 02, 2007 (