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 (