Gerstner’s Insights on Business

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Gerstner is known for turning around IBM, when many business experts thought it was headed down the tubes.  His book is useful as a report on what happened at IBM during his time as CEO, and also has some more broadly applicable observations.  I’ll mention a few of these in this and a few other postings in the next couple of weeks. 

It is interesting how many successful and important business leaders and experts have spent some time associated with the McKinsey consulting group, where Gerstner started his career.  One major McKinsey figure, Richard Foster, is a strong advocate and elaborator of Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. 

I wonder if perhaps some of the success of McKinsey is due to the firm’s embracing and applying Schumpeter’s ideas?

Those who oppose creative destruction emphasize the destructive effect that the process has on some workers.  In fact the effects on labor are seen by many (e.g., Thomas Friedman) who are otherwise sympathetic, to be the major drawback of the process.  As a result some of them (e.g., Thomas Friedman) propose paternalistic ‘safety net’ labor policies.

We usually think of government as the main implementer of such policies, but among firms, IBM’s labor policies were among the most paternalistic.  This is usually viewed as one of the positives about IBM.  But one of Gerstner’s insights is to suggest that some of those in the IBM work force were hurt by IBM’s paternalistic policies:

(p. 186)  . . . I came to feel that the real problem was not that employees felt they were entitled.  They had just become accustomed to immunity from things like recessions, price wars, and technology changes.  And for the most part, they didn’t even realize that this self-contained, insulated system also worked against them.  I was shocked, for instance, to discover the pay disparities—particularly in very important technical and sales professions—of IBM comployess when comapred to the competition and the industry in general.  Our best people weren’t getting what they deserved.

Maybe I should mention that I don’t endorse everything in the book.  For example, Gerstner seems to think that a desire to "win" is crucial to success in business.  But I think the analogy between business and competitive sports is usually taken too far.  Can’t one also succeed in business from a desire to innovate and to improve the world?

 

The reference on the book is: 

Gerstner, Louis V., Jr.  Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2002.

(Note:  in the quote, the ellipsis was added, but the italics was in the original.)

 

The Missing Pillow: A Lack of Incentives Leaves an Obvious ‘Job’ Undone


In late July, I had an appointment for a treadmill stress-test at Omaha’s Methodist Hospital.  They told me the process would be over in an hour, but it took about two hours, due to another patient having some sort of crisis during their stress-test. 

They had me put on a gown, they stuck an I-V "dye" drip in back of my hand, and they pasted about six electrodes to my chest, after shaving and applying something like sand paper to the parts of the chest where the electrodes were attached.  Then they had me lie on my side on a hard table, to wait.  It was very uncomfortable.  The first nurse said that there was supposed to be a pillow on the table, but did nothing to obtain one.  Every several minutes some technician or nurse would stop in to ask if I was ready for them.  (I was always ready.)  But it turned out that someone needed to do something to me first, and that person was, I guess, taking care of the crisis next door.  At least one of these visitors also mentioned that I was supposed to have a pillow, but did nothing to acquire one.  If memory serves, the first nurse came back in, and again mentioned that I was supposed to have a pillow, but again did nothing to obtain one.

These people were all pleasant and friendly.  For example, they had a lot of friendly chats amongst themselves, that I could not help but over-hear.  (One of them was pregnant with twins, but did not know the genders of the babes-to-be, and so had not yet spent the time to come up with names.)

But two hours later, when the whole process was over, I still did not have a pillow.

A week or two after the test, I received a several page survey from Methodist Hospital asking a bunch of questions about how I thought they had done during the test.  You see they really "care" about my opinion.  (They also run frequent, slick TV ads about how much they "care.")

Marketers, and management gurus, say that organizations need to invest in surveys and the like to figure out what the customer wants and needs.  And Clayton Christensen advocates spending resources to figure out what "job" the customer needs to have done.  And maybe, sometimes, it does take surveys and research.

But sometimes it is obvious that the customer needs a pillow.

What is missing is not a survey, or statistical analysis.

What is missing is the incentive for someone to go get the pillow. 

 

P.S.  You may wonder, then, if it is simply a mistake for the hospital to send out the survey?  I suspect that those who send out the survey are not making a mistake, but are trying to get a different job done than the one that appears to be intended.  It appears that they are trying to find out what customers want and need.  But maybe they already know that.  Maybe they are mainly sending out the survey so that if anyone asks if they are "customer-oriented" they can whip out the survey to prove that yes-indeed, they sure are.  In other words, the point of the survey is not to learn about customers; it is to cover rear-ends.


Tom Peters: Over-the-Top Schumpeterian


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Tom Peters became famous as the co-author of the business classic In Search of Excellence (1982).  His Re-imagine! is exuberant, optimistic, exaggerated, and stylistically over-the-top.  I find it fun, bracing, entertaining, and sometimes edifying.  If you like the prose of The Cluetrain Manifesto and Gilder’s Telecosm, then you may also like Re-imagine!

Here is an early, very brief passage: 


(p. 9)  My overall vision, in brief:  Business is cool. It’s about Creativity and Invention and Growth and Service.  It’s about Adam Smith’s "hidden hand."  And Nobel laureate Frederick Hayek’s "spontaneous discovery process."  And economist Joseph Schumpeter’s "gales of creative destruction."  At its best, it’s about building things that make life less burdensome than it was in medieval times.  About getting us beyond—far, far, far beyond—the quasi-slavery of the Middle Ages, the indentured servitude of the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution, and the cubicle slavery of the last three-quarters of a century. 

Yes, business is cool.

(Or at least it can be.)

 

The citation to the book is:

Peters, Tom. Re-Imagine! London: DK, 2003.

(Note:  the italics in the above passage appears that way in the original.)


Charles Koch Participates in Schumpeter’s Process of Creative Destruction

 

KochClharles.gif Charles Koch.  Source of image:  online version of WSJ article cited below.

 

I heard Charles Koch speak at the April 2005 Orlando meetings of the Association of Private Enterprise Education.  Part of his speech involved how he has tried to apply in his own business, Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction.  For a long time Koch has been a stalwart defender of the free market in word and deed.

Ideas seem to exhilarate him.  This no doubt explains in part why this professorial CEO delivers "dozens and dozens" of lectures around the country to his employees on these very topics.  But what does any of this have to do with explaining his company’s prodigious profitability?  Well, everything — he believes.  Mr. Koch contends that the key insight of his business career was melding these philosophical insights about the way the wealth-creation process works into a business operating system called "Market Based Management."  This system, which he has trademarked, enables every division of his business empire to operate as a separate, autonomous, profit-maximizing unit.  It is intended to reward employees who think like entrepreneurs.

"Long-term success entails constantly discovering new ways to create value for customers and building new capabilities to capture new opportunities," he instructs.  "In this sense, maintaining a business is, in reality, liquidating a business."  Mr. Koch likens the cycle to Schumpeter’s "creative destruction" — where the old and inefficient are ruthlessly swept away by the new.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

STEPHEN MOORE. "THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Charles Koch; Private Enterprise." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 6, 2006): A8.

 

“life is too short”

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The Cluetrain Manifesto is a thought-provoking, entertaining, uneven, overly-mystical, somewhat dated classic on the impact of the internet on business and life.  Here is the book’s startling start:

WE DIE.

You will never hear those words spoken in a television ad.  Yet this central fact of human existence colors our world and how we perceive ourselves within it.  "Life is too short," we say, and it is.  Too short for office politics, for busywork and pointless paper chases, for jumping through hoops and covering our asses, for trying to please, to not offend, for constantly struggling to achieve some ever-receding definition of success.  (p. 1)

Locke, Christopher, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Cambridge, Mass.:  Perseus Books Group, 2001.

 

 

Google Evolves

Gary Hamel has recently penned some thoughtful observations about what practices of Google have led to its success.  An excerpt from that analysis appears below.  (Hamel earlier wrote a popular book in which he makes extensive use of Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction.)

Only time will tell whether Google has succeeded in building an evolutionary advantage.  But consider:  Since it’s founding, it has repeatedly morphed its business model.  Google 1.0 was a search engine that crawled the Web but generated little revenue; which led to Google 2.0, a company that sold its search capacity to AOL/Netscape, Yahoo and other major portals; which gave way to Google 3.0, an Internet contrarian that rejected banner ads and instead sold simple text ads linked to search results; which spawned Google 4.0, an increasingly global entity that found a way to insert relevant ads into any and all Web content, dramatically enlarging the online ad business; which mutated into Google 5.0, an innovation factory that produces a torrent of new Web-based services, including Gmail, Google Desktop, and Google Base.  More than likely, 6.0 is around the corner.

Of course Google may ultimately fall victim to hubris and imperial overstretch as it takes on Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay, the occasional telecom giant and pretty much everyone else in cyberspace.  Or like Microsoft, it may simply become like every other big company as it grows.  But that’s not the way I’d bet.  Google seems to have grasped the new century’s most important business lesson:  The capacity to evolve is the most important advantage of all.

 

For the full commentary, see:

Hamel, Gary.  "Management à la Google."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., April 26, 2006):  A16.

 

 

 

And here is the information on Hamel’s most recent book:

 

Hamel, Gary. Leading the Revolution: How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life. Revised & Updated ed.  Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

 

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Welch: Importance of Taking and Spreading Best Employee Ideas

Sam Walton may have been the grand master of absorbing good ideas of others and then spreading the ideas across the company. Another master was Jack Welch:

 

(p. 383) Getting every employee’s mind into the game is a huge part of what the CEO job is all about. Taking everyone’s best ideas and transferring them to others is the secret. There’s nothing more important. I tried to be a sponge, absorbing and questioning every good idea. The first step is being open to the best of what everyone , everywhere, has to offer. The second is transferring that learning across the organization.

 

Source:

Welch, Jack. Jack: Straight from the Gut. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

See also pp. 197-198 for Welch’s description of the specifics of how Wal-Mart got this job done.

For even more details, see: Walton, Sam. Made in America: Doubleday, 1992.