July 14, 2010

Samurai II: The Sequel

My wife and I were at the checkout counter in a large department store awhile back. The girl behind the counter was, at most, 20 years old. Midway through the transaction, the overhead speakers that had been accompanying our entire shopping trip with various “light hits” began blaring the 1978 Player classic “Baby Come Back.” 

The clerk stopped dead in her tracks and started singing the chorus softly under breath. Reliving fond memories of our college days, my wife leaned over to me and said, “Wow, this takes me back.”
At which point the exuberant clerk chimed in, “Yeah, I know. I love that ad on TV. Y’know, that Swiffer thing with the mop?” 
Startled from my daydream by the realization that my mistaken sense of youthfulness was separated from this young woman’s plane of understanding by a generational chasm, I immediately began trying to explain to her that it was really a pop song from the 1970s, at which point my wife tapped me on the arm. 
“Don’t bother,” she said softly. “The more you talk the older you look.”
She was right, of course. But it made me think about how everything seems to cycle back in our society. And it’s not always the good things. Colors come and go and come back in style (even those we wish would just go away). The ties I wear, like the bottom hem of my pants, get wider, more narrow, and wider again. Hollywood remakes of old movies and TV shows play to packed audiences in movie theaters. Even politics, like everything else it seems, swings left and right, back and forth as the years go by.
So what doesn’t change? What are the constants in life that we can hang on to? And why don’t they change? What can we do to help maintain some sense of stability over time—especially in our work lives?
Are Management Ideas Timeless? 
Just over 15 years ago I suggested (Beck, "The Samurai or the Cowboy?" Business Officer, 1994) that the (then) popular trend of borrowing management techniques from the Japanese would not, perhaps, bring the kind of long-term benefits nor the wide acceptance in practice that we all wanted to see in higher education. Instead, I suggested the incorporation of ideas and philosophies that had been successfully guiding American ventures for generations and, even more important, were inherent in the culture of colleges and universities. For lack of a better name, I called it a “cowboy model,” and I hadn’t thought of it much in the last decade or so. 
Trite as it may have been, however, I picked-up that article the other day and was astounded at how much of it again seemed very timely, in light of the current state of our country’s economy and business climate. I’ll refer the reader to the original document, where I noticed I spent a lot of time building the case for a truly “American” model with a lot of literature citations. That was, after all, the primary goal of the piece. 
By the end of the article, however, the characteristics of this proposed “model” were stated but, as I read it now 17 years later, not fully expressed nor developed . It was as if I finally reached the point where I could really get down to the constructive points to be made and the article ended. 
The good news is that it’s this expanded look at the characteristics of the model that appear to be most intriguing in today’s environment.  Since the early 1990s, the terminology has changed. The euphemistic term “quality,” for example, is now more accurately termed “effectiveness” or “efficiency.” Even so, a restating of the summary points in the article has an unusually fresh ring to it. For example:
  • Anyone wishing to affect change must understand the sometimes subtle and unseen personality of the organization. Simply applying someone else’s solution to your particular set of problems isn’t the answer. University of Maryland professor Matthias Ruth said during a training session we hosted a couple of years ago, "Reinventing the wheel is important sometimes. If all we do is follow each other we lose diversity of ideas. Someone has to be willing to step out of line and make mistakes."
  • Employees at all levels (not only managers or—gasp—consultants) should be charged with identifying the problems, proposing solutions for improvement and implementing those solutions. Like the old psychoanalyst joke about being able to change a light bulb only when it (the bulb) is ready to change, excellence for an organization must come from within.
  • All must recognize that a single, successful solution is only gained through the expression, consideration and patient (and sometimes painful) coalescence of a wide range of disparate opinions. This breadth of thought and talents, coupled with the wisdom to guide our energies in a common direction, is one of the things that made America great. Competition itself engenders the best solution.
Characteristics of a successful work team
  • Everyone must focus on the same, single goal. Individuals make their own choices, but with a common focus, those choices will benefit the team, not the individual. It is as much what you do as how you do it that counts. University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ chairman Clifford Kendall is often heard saying, "Effectiveness comes before efficiency. I know too many people who do things efficiently, but they're the wrong things.
  • Flexibility should be embraced. The goal never varies, but everything else may (and often does) change. There should be a balance between practiced reflex responses to stimuli (e.g., always doing “A” when “B” happens) and encouraging thoughtfulness and, surprisingly, intuition or “feeling” in getting the job done. I once worked doing telephone interviews (in Japanese) to trade magazine subscribers in Japan using a script and memorized dialogue. The idea was to get readers to divulge some of their preferences regarding products and/or services advertised in the publication. An even harder task was confirming address and contact information for future mailings. It was tough to get people to open up--especially to a foreigner. Fortunately, my supervisor allowed me some flexibility and I began diverting from the script and simply conversing with the people on the other end of the phone. Soon I had all the answers in the right context and had often gained a new “friend” in the process. I enjoyed the work much more and the people on the other end of the line hung up their phones with a more positive image of the publication I was representing.
  • Everyone must understand (at least in part) what other team members do and be prepared to jump in and assist a colleague. Individual skills are honed to perfection while cross training allows familiarity and competition among team members. Everyone must do their share of the work.
  • Everything about the organization is focused on the job itself and supporting the members of the team. Leaders must respect and appreciate the efforts of the team, while taking some responsibility for its successes and failures.
  • Teams should be led, not managed, by individuals who have three important qualities: credibility, foresight, and a blatant lack of ego.

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