Routines


Routines take the same route to work each day, to see the same familiar faces and tasks waiting when we get there, and to collapse into the same easy chair after the day is done. Although routines in themselves are harmless, the inertia they cultivate can interfere with our ability to cope with new stresses. Unless we actively fight back, there is a natural human tendency to divide our lives into two discrete periods: our learning years and our earning years. The former period ends, many think, when the later begins.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, and my Lectures.

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Economic Truths


Although there are few truisms that apply universally in the business world, there are four related economic truths that are valid in every business situation:

  1. Over the long term, it is absolutely essential to be a lower cost supplier or profit margins will erode.
  2. To stay competitive, inflation-adjusted costs of  producing and supplying any product or service must continuously trend downward.
  3. The true cost and profit picture for each discrete product/market segment is often obscured by traditional accounting practice.
  4. Real business winners concentrate as much or more on cash flow and balance sheet strength as they do on reported profits.

These points have always been valid, but they are far more serious today because there is much less margin for error in our more turbulent environment.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, and my Lectures.

The Profit Economics


The following information is required, at a minimum, to understand the profit economics of a business:

  1. How many dollars of assets are committed in each stage of each product/market business (e.g., R&D, materials, plant and equipment, finished stock, post-sale support)?
  2. What is the fixed/variable cost relationship for each product/market business, that is, for each dollar of sales, how many cents are attributable to bedrock fixed costs, how many to structured or discretionary costs, and how many to out-of-pocket costs?
  3. How do costs and profit change with swings in volume?
  4. What is the break-even point at current volume and what actions could be taken to bring that break-even point down should volume potential decline?
  5. What is the rate of incremental profit on each added increment of volume? What are the volume points where new increments of structured cost must be added?

A net profit and loss statement (after all allocations) and a balance sheet for each product line are essential for generating answers to these questions. Despite their claim that “we know all that,” very few managers actually have this information readily available.

Actually, most accounting systems are not designed to provide these kinds of statements and the accountants will argue that you can’t get them because many products run over the same machines, a lot of indirect costs can’t be allocated, and so on. To which we say, baloney! Shared fixed and indirect charges often represent the most serious cost problems in business situations where a cost disadvantage exists. And they are impossible to attack in the aggregate. They must be broken down and assigned to a discrete business unit even if done arbitrarily. Then a manager with hands-on responsibility can argue about fairness and whether there is value received for the costs involved. Although this is obviously not a precise exercise, it is effective and essential. Without full cost profit and loss and balance sheet statements managers cannot really understand the profit economics of their business. Further, they can’t make the types of intelligent business decisions and plans so important in today’s environment.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Lectures, Line of Sight

Realigning the Organization


Organization or reorganization schemes have been proposed ad nauseam as solutions to many business problems. As a general rule, organizational changes, especially those that simply reshuffle the same names into different boxes on the organization chart, don’t improve anything. This does not mean suggesting some new organization approach that is better suited for these turbulent times. However, many organizations are too top-heavy, over-structured, and over-satisfied to be responsive to market needs and too costly to be competitive. The structure and staffing of any organization must be rigorously challenged to ensure it is really geared to accomplish the fundamental objectives of the business in as cost-effective a manner as possible. An honest evaluation of the answers to the following critical questions will provide a good function for action.

a)        Is the organization structured to serve markets or simply to manage functions and sell products? Have priority markets been identified? Does someone have primary responsibility for ensuring that the product/service package is tailored to each target market? Do mechanisms exist to ensure cross-markets? Is there any kind of a market focus in the selling organization?

b)        Are there enough discrete profit centers? Do enough managers feel the burden of full profit responsibility? Is the business unit larger than its most successful smaller competitors? Are there any big cost centers that are not assigned or allocated to someone who has a profit and loss responsibility?

c)        Are there corporate group or division staff redundancies? Do the same titles exist at different levels (e.g., corporate controller, group controller, division controller, plant controller)? If so, does it make sense? Can staff position or groups show how they actively contribute to profit results? If so, do line managers agree that these functions are worth the cost?

d)        Are there too many layers? Are there more than five layers between the business unit manager and first level workers? Are there managers with assignments limited to managing one, two, three or four people? Why? Can any of these activities be combined under one manager? Why not?

e)        Is the ratio of supporters to actual results producers satisfactory? How many people actually make a direct contribution to results (e.g., first-line sales personnel, direct hourly workers, sales order engineering and order entry workers, handlers of incoming materials, and storing and shipping personnel)? How many managers, staff, and support personnel are cheering them on? If there is more than one support person for every two producers, what do they do? How do they contribute to profits?

The questions are not new, but the answers are more important now than ever. Traditional or experience-based answers are probably wrong because conditions have changed so dramatically. Moreover, it is doubtful whether existing management can or will ever come up with the right answers, because they have vested interests and the changes needed are simply too tough for them to swallow. These organization structure questions are not as serious for many small to medium-size companies since they are not as likely to be troubled with highly structured, functionally focused organizations lacking a dedicated market orientation. However, even managers in these companies must constantly fight the natural tendency to become more structured, bureaucratic, and lethargic.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Policy Structures


One of the major purposes of organizations is to relate and coordinate individuals and groups separated by task and space. The authority structure helps accomplish this by defining, at least partially, who can tell whom to do what, and who has the authority to make what kinds of decisions and to take what actions. This authority structure is supplemented with a structure of explicit and implicit policies, procedures, methods, and rules, which channel and direct many decisions and actions.

A policy is a statement of intent that is made to guide others in their decision making without being so specific as to specify decisions. Theoratically, the top executives of any company, but especially the larger ones, necessarily determine policies that help guide the behavior of people within the organization. However, in fact, people at lower levels often have an important hand in fashioning policy. This happens in two ways. First, people at lower levels make recommendations to those at upper levels. Second, people in upper levels sometimes formalize policies to fit behavior patterns that have already emerged at lower levels. In the latter case, policy follows practice.

A frequent characteristic of policy statements is that they are vague enough to permit managers to select among specific decesions, depending upon the managers’ view of the specific conditions surrounding the decision.

In addition to policies, certain procedures and methods are usually designed to facilitate work. For example, there may be eight discrete steps in a particular work process, and a sequence established for each step. Step three might involve notifying two departments that the first two steps are completed. Such a suggested process is called a procedure. It tells people when they should do something. How they do it is the method they use. The method is formally prescribed in some cases and is left to the operant’s discretion in others. Anyone who fails to follow the prescribed procedures and methods is usually open to censure if problems result. Yet much of life in organizations involves evading required procedures and methods, or redesigning them, and again the reasons are usually people-problems rather than errors in the logic of the design of the procedures and methods.

Most organizations have rules and regulations to supplement policies, procedures, and methods. Rules and regulations say what one must do or not do and often specify penalties for infractions. “No one is to punch another’s third card” is an example. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It says “no one,” period.

So there is a sliding scale from guides (policies) to suggestions (procedures) to requirements (rules and regulations). Nearly all organizations include the entire svcale, but different companies may vary widely in their relative emphasis upon various parts of the scale. At the less specific end of the scale, there is more freedom but less certainty, and the reverse is true of the more specific end. Knowing where a particular organization stands on the scale is thus important in understanding how it functions.

Furthermore, there is wide variability between organizational units (eg., research division versus accounting department) in the reliance placed upon or the attention paid to the policy structure.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Antiquated Strategic Planning


At one time, the view from the top of most corporations was strongly influenced by their leaders planning doctrine. Executives were taught that the best way to plan for a complex company into discrete components, called strategic business units. For a time this practice provided a helpful way to unbundle the corporation and to select strategies most appropriate to each unit’s individual situation.

Companies were best thought of as a portfolio of individual businesses: some brand-new and unproven, some growing rapidly and consuming great amounts of cash, some growing rapidly and generating the cash needed by the up-and-comers, and some out and out losers.

Strategic planners eventually carried the idea one step further. They developed formulas that appeared to identify the contribution each business unit was making to the company’s overall stock price. Called value-based planning (as in shareholder value), its application, along with techniques such as junk-bond-driven leveraged buyouts, helped de-conglomerate many corporate dinosaurs in the financial go-go years.

These planning techniques are logical and quantifiable, descriptive as well as perspective. They provide a seemingly attractive way for the head of an enterprise to put arms around what might have become an increasingly diverse array of businesses. But thinking of a corporation as if it were similar to a portfolio of stocks or other investments can also be very limiting and one dimensional.

This kind of thinking tends to overemphasize the uniqueness of each business and often assumes that all the competition in which the corporation is engaged occurs when its business units do battle with their counterparts in other companies. It suggests that the role of top corporate management is either secondary or passive with regard to competition. It also implies that top management’s role is primarily that of a banker to the individual strategic business unit, concerned chiefly with financial resource allocation, and that it adds value mainly through “balancing the portfolio” by buying or selling the strategic business units that make up the company.

This approach encourages a “trader’s mentality” on the part of top management. Traders like to buy and sell, conglomerate and de-conglomerate. But they do not know how very much about how to grow the company from within.

Decentralization, sometimes extreme decentralization, is also encouraged, because each business is expected to stand on its own, containing most of the resources it needs for its operations. This simplifies the job of top management. It has only to focus on each strategic business unit’s bottom line and consider the details of its operations on an exception-only basis.

But this simplification comes to a great cost. Stressing stand-alone uniqueness and managing through the blinders of short-term earnings results in living, growing business entities treated almost as if they were fragments of the company’s stock certificate. The disease of the stock markets—perspective that seldom extends beyond next quarter’s financials—is passed along to the company.

There is another danger when strategic business unit framework dominates corporate decision-making. This is the tendency to grow redundant resources in the company as each strategic business unit, over time, builds up all the functions and staffing it feels it needs to operate as autonomously as possible. At times headquarters management tries to check the emergence of this costly duplication by mandating resource sharing across strategic business units, by using central service groups, or both. But these well-meaning attempts at cost containment send mixed signals to the strategic business units and they also can impose heavy coordination costs in terms of time and loss of flexibility.

Many intelligently managed companies led down the paths and took a seemingly attractive shortcut in their thinking. They confused a framework for planning with a basis for organizing power and resources. They used a perspective that directs to management’s attention to the financial scorekeeping aspects of the business at the cost of neglecting the underlying mechanisms that create value for their customers.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please contact www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight