George slays the dragon of inefficiency

Roger Trapp
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:43

GEORGE DEVLIN is not the sort of manager who is usually written about as one of those "making things happen". But that could be about to change. The managing director and vice-president of the Scottish operations of Compaq, the computer company based in Houston, Texas, is one of the "heroes" of a book designed to turn on its head the notion that middle managers always block change.

True, Mr Devlin looks pretty senior. But the authors of Real Change Leaders are keen to point out that he is far from being the typical inhabitant of such a position and has not always agreed with his superiors. He does not have an MBA, is not an engineer and has little operational expertise. Having started as a line supervisor, he has attended a personnel course and, while at another computer manufacturer, has closed a plant. In short, says Marc Feigen, one of the McKinsey team that wrote the book, he has learnt from experience and mistakes, rising from being the first person hired for Compaq's Erskine factory, while it was still a field in 1987, to head the manufacturing operation there. While in the post he has rewritten the rules about the way things are done.

In particular, he has replaced the assembly line, once seen as vital to the company's success, with cells, or teams, of workers. Now that the change has improved productivity , the rest of the company s interested. But it took one individual to realise that "the approach of the company was wrong". In the words of Mr Feigen, he was re-engineering without realising it. "It was implicit rather than explicit."

The absence of buzzwords is typical of the "real change leaders" at other organisations, such as General Electric and Mobil Oil, identified by the McKinseyites as leading the way in demonstrating that leadership does not necessarily come from the summit. They argue that "these mid-level change leaders are every bit as essential to creating high-performing organisations as are the more visible and dynamic leaders at the top".

They are the "linchpins connecting three critical forces for organisational change and performance: top leadership asprations (what are we trying to become?); workforce energy and productivity (how will we climb the mountain?); and the marketplace reality (what do our target customers truly seek, and what can and will our potential competitors really do?).

"Making this linkage work is what separates the high-performing companies from the also-rans."

Mr Feigen, the associate director at the Change Center that McKinsey has created in order to increase its skills and knowledge in this area, says that the potential of these people has not traditionally been acknowledged because of the widespread belief that they are the ones most threatened by change.

At the same time they may have been held back by the idea that in business, just as in politics, "someone will emerge and help us".

Increasingly, though, middle managers are seizing the initiative and getting on with dealing with problems and issues before they are ordered to by top management. "It's about learning to manage in organisations that must change all the time. It's not an original, abstract thing. It's people up and down the organisation. Assembly workers understand; they know the world is changing," says Mr Feigen.

However, as he and his colleagues (headed by Jon Katzenbach) point out, just noticing that change is all around and setting out to manage it is not enough. In particular they say that "change - in and of itself" should not, as some managers appear to believe, be regarded as constituting high performance.

Instead, managers should respond to it by changing the way they behave and work. The most highly regarded companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, acknowledge that they cannot stand still but must be constantly improving. At Compaq, Mr Devlin at least realised that it was possible for someone to catch up with the company just as it had with IBM.

Mr Katzenbach and his colleagues hope that the book offers "some insight into how some middle managers have succeeded, as a help rather than a magic potion".

q 'Real Change Leaders' is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing at pounds 18.

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