July 14, 2009

My two cents worth on competing with Management Initiatives

Ah... We are nearing the end the Msc dissertation, I have noticed how my blogging activity have dropped dramatically after modules were completed

Laziness?

Perhaps

At first I thought this is because no more class= no new stimulation to the brain = no reflection

But surely I must be learning lots by now from doing all the research??

Admittedly up until few days ago, I was still struggling with the direction of my project

"What question am I trying to answer?"

"Is there really an answer to this question?"

Huh... I guess I was totally confused, and when I am confused, I find it hard to reflect

.

.

However.....................

I am begining to think that the most difficult part is over, no more confusion!!!

And I can begin to relate what I have been reading, to what I already knew

What do I mean?

For example, one of the things I have been thinking about is "Business"

What is their goal? Why is there one Management Initiatve after another? TQM, BPR, KM, Six Sigma, DFSS. Lean Six Sigma, organisational learning, learning organisation ... ... ...

And I think I am begining to have clarity, it is still hard to explain at the moment, I will try putting this down in pens and paper

One of the thing I have come to realise is the idea of competitive edge

Business exists by out-competing one another

Throughout history, business compete by having something that the competition lacks

This something is of many things. It could be how much money business have, what technology, machinery, government relation... and so on

In the 80s, the competitive challenge was Quality. There was a  Japanese threat on quality. So this gave rise to TQM, Quality circle, worker empowerment, SPC...

In the early 90s, people realise having quality is not enough. Business need to change all the time. So the notion of learning organisation was coined. Sadly, the term learning organisation is a rather miscontrued usage because it bear little relationship to the organisational theories on organisational learning that began in the 1950s. Confusing ? Definately!

In the mid 90s,  people are through with quality, product quality is on par with the Japanese make. Then people realise they need another competitive edge. Hammer and Champy wrote an article in HBR and then a book on Business Process Reegineering BPR. It was thought, we need not only quality, but quality at lower cost! People realise business relate to customer through its actvities. Value adding activites are Good while Non-value adding activities are Bad! BPR then is about re-drawing business so that business consist only with value adding processes.

Nearing the end of 1990s, and the begining of 2000, there was a revival of quality- as Six Sigma. Similar to its earlier ill-fated brother TQM, it too focuses on Quality and Cost. But it claims to be better than TQM. How? Well from what I can gather, the language is different (more jargons), the way it came to dominance is different (look at successful stories from GE, Motorola, Honeywell!). But fundamentally, it is based on the same principles + tools of TQM that started 30 years ago. Where TQM failed, that its meaning have since became lost with the broadening of its concept, Six Sigma claims to have succeeded.  Through a clever packaging of quality principles (PDCA, Variation control, team based problem solving), and a business-like language to navagate your around all the nitty gritty details, it somehow became a paneacea for all your business problems.  If you want a "Complete idiot's guide to quality control", then Six Sigma is your answer!  Of course I am kidding myself here, there is more to Six Sigma than I what I have described but the point I try to make here is that history often repeats itself. After a while , when the Six Sigma hype has subsided, people begin to wonder "Hey ! why hasn't it worked for me?". Usually, people blames it on the culture, the people, and the resistance. A "learning environment" it seemed, was a pre-requisite for success. But the same kind of problem existed long before Six Sigma came along. The Quality gurus, like Deming, Juran, and Ishikawa have discussed these issues which some have categorised as 'Soft TQM". Somehow, the Six Sigma advocates choose to neglect this (You'll be surprised to find how little reference to Quality history in Six Sigma books). The reason TQM lost its meaning is two fold. First there is a large divergence in the writing between quality gurus and little reconcilliation in a single all encompassing framework. Second, when it gets to the "Soft TQM", that is where the difficult part begins. Leadership, knowledge, people, trust, culture, continuous improvement and so on means different thing to different people.  It is like IQ, or handsomeness, or beauty, you either have it or you don't. It's exact meaning is ambiguous. In business and in life, ambiguity is problematic. There isn't exactly a 'complete idiot's guide" to leadership either. Getting the the Soft issues right is hard work and people don't like hard work, especially when they don't know when it is going to pay off. Consultants too find it much harder to sell 'leadership' than something tangible, logical, rational & tool-like solutions.

Now the latest management thinking appears to be 'knowledge management'. This arise from the notion that in today's world, neither quality, cost, or even processes give you the competitive edge you need. What is needed is people and the knowledge that rest in people. This fit well with the idea that only innovation will enable business to outlast its competition.

By now I think all of us can begin to see a pattern here. All these initiatives, while the core ideas are good in itself (quality, process, knowledge are all important), but it is being approached in a solution like way. Somehow, there is this "THIS IS YOUR ANSWER!" mentality. Perhaps this is caused by heavily solution oriented culture of business environment. But the reality is, there isn't always an obvious solution to business problems. Getting the people problems right, requires hard work. Not just in business, in family, relationships, and between nations.

Succession of management initiatives has often been refered to in a jeering way such as "Flavor of the Month", "Management fad" , or "Keep your heads down, it soon will pass".  Despite this, has there been progress? I should think so. Everytime a new idea come along, it is based on a particular symptom common the everyone in the industry. Management fashion gets everyone's attention on the problem. Even though like other new ideas, the initial phase is always filled with confusion, ambiguity, and many lost dollars and cents. With time, as business gain greater clarity, they will learn to cherry pick the parts of 'package' that are useful and build it into their organisational routines. This is what moves organisations forward. This is organisational learning. After the business innovation has been completely exploted beyond recognition, another will rise to replace it.

So is there an end to this ? Will there be the next something after knowledge management?  I should think so. Some ideas gaining popularity seem to be the environmental issues (Sustainability !) which is already gaining currency in the literature (and advertising!) . We will see :)


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