Forget the MBA. All you need is common sense

BOOK REVIEW

It has become fashionable of late for business people to quip that the latest management fad is anti-faddism. After years of suffering total quality, customer service, business process re-engineering and the rest, they seem to be relieved by the thought that none of this stuff really works and that they can therefore call off the hunt for the Holy Grail.

But that, of course, is to misread the signals. The point is not that re-engineering or quality is total nonsense; it is just that neither can solve a company's problems in isolation. Just as managers should not adhere rigidly to the texts devoted to each idea, so they should not dismiss them out of hand.

After all, much of the content in these theories is based in solid common sense. Of course a manufacturer should make good-quality goods rather than shoddy ones. Of course businesses need to not just satisfy but delight their customers. Of course they need to constantly re-evaluate how they do things as the prophets of re-engineering insist. Where they typically go wrong is in putting all their energies into, first, one idea and then another and so on.

Smarter companies that are not particularly associated with any one of these ideas do not ignore them altogether, but pick and choose from them what they feel is appropriate. As an executive with one such organisation said recently: "I think we've tried just about everything over the years."

In recent years, various gurus have tried to explain why these businesses seem to have more staying power than those that appear to be forever chasing rainbows. And most have come to the conclusion that it is all about vision and sense of purpose. But, while this may be true, a new book suggests it may be due to something far less complex: making the right choices.

Quinn Spitzer and Ron Evans, authors of Heads You Win (to be published by Simon & Schuster at pounds 15.99 on 9 September), reckon that if you strip away all the complications created by management fads and their proponents, business comes down to four critical thinking skills: the ability to solve problems, to make decisions, to anticipate future trends and opportunities and to sort through complexity.

Pointing out that the founders of some of the most successful businesses of the century - for example, Dave Packard of computer company Hewlett- Packard, Akio Morita of electronics company Sony and Sam Walton of Wal- Mart - never received an MBA, they argue that this supports their contention that there is something "more fundamental at the core of organisational success than the theories found in business schools, management books and consulting reports". These executives, they add, were "not just people of action, but people of thought - critical thought". And it can be concluded that the critical thinking they brought to their businesses was more effective than that of their counterparts elsewhere.

Of the numerous examples that pepper this book, one of the most compelling is the story of how the US motor manufacturer, Chrysler, dealt with a problem in the sun visors of its popular Jeep Cherokee model.

Finding that the padded visors had started splitting soon after delivery, the company's product engineers resolved to re-engineer the whole sun visor, until company president Robert Lutz intervened. Under hisquestioning, the engineers realised the defect was a recent problem and perhaps had a simpler solution than an overhaul that would have meant the defect continued while the process was completed. Inquiries of the supplier produced the information that the problem was simply a result of wear on the tool doing the stitching: fix that and you fix the problem.

The authors, consultants with Kepner-Tregoe, a firm specialising in this area, recall how British Airways under Sir Colin Marshall emerged from the financial crisis created by the Gulf War. While many got stuck in a downward spiral of cutting costs to respond to fresh threats, BA forced key executives to examine opportunities at a time of disaster. The result was the spectacular marketing campaign billed as "The World's Biggest Offer" - essentially a seats give-away that apparently catapulted the company into better financial shape than it had been before the war.

This is a lot more inspiring than ploughing through the pages of data and difficult-to-fathom graphs that characterise many management books. But in the end, the authors risk letting themselves down by falling into the trap that their organisation, too, has names for these basic concepts and if the reader would just sign up he or she could join the pantheon.

Roger Trapp

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