The Devil is in The Details

I was reading the San Jose Mercury News one morning while staying with my brother during a visit some years ago at San Mateo, California, USA and I noticed that the front page of the paper featured a repair of a road culvert. 

The culvert, a canal by the side of a main thoroughfare, was eroding and needed repair.  The news article talked about what the engineers assigned to the repair job were going to do and it included a schedule of when a lane of the road would be closed. 

It was fascinating that a big city newspaper like the San Jose Mercury News would put a story about a problematic road culvert as its main headline for the day, much bigger than other national and international news. 

I then thought, “Why not?”  Why not showcase what the local government is doing about roadwork and how it would affect those who live in or near San Jose City who in the first place probably make up the majority of readers and subscribers to the newspaper. 

And why not write in-depth about the roadwork so that people will know the details, such as what’s the roadwork timetable and how it may affect traffic in the area? 

The devil after all is in the details. 

The idiom, the devil is in the details, points out the need to take into account the nitty-gritties of a plan or solution.  It describes what happens when we find it harder than we thought to implement an idea or execute a strategy. 

Some enterprise executives decide on solutions without considering the ramifications.  They would say they did especially if a task force that recommended the solution studied a lot about it. But given the fact we live in a complex world, there would often be something left out, something that the executives and managers didn’t expect.

When the Coca-Cola Company attempted to reformulate their flagship soda in the 1985, many consumers complained and rebelled.  Coca-Cola had done a taste test study that showed consumer receptiveness to the new formula but they didn’t ask consumers whether they’d buy it.  The new formula was a failure and Coca-Cola revived the old formula by calling it “classic.” 

When a multinational food corporation changed the plastic lids of its margarine containers to a cheaper material, it didn’t foresee how fragile the lids would be on the production line.  Many lids broke during packing such that the productivity losses overrode the cost savings.  The product research group who tested the lids ignored workers’ comments about the breaking lids, and instead passed the problem to manufacturing management. 

What the devil is in the details teaches us is that for every initiative we start, we should pay attention to the nitty-gritties that would be involved. 

A lot of times it has to do with logistics; 

  • A purchaser would buy tons of a commodity to avail of a bulk discount but doesn’t realise there’s no more space in the warehouse;
  • A wholesaler offers discounts for customers who buy at least a million dollars of goods a month but it turns out there aren’t enough delivery trucks when orders come in on the last day of the month;
  • A manufacturing executive directs a production line to run on three shifts to build up inventories of finished product but finds out aren’t enough pallets to store the items at the warehouse;
  • A laboratory manager requisitions for state-of-the-art testing equipment but doesn’t stock up on the imported reagents needed for the testing procedure that comes with the new machine, which results in delays in releasing products for shipment. 

Details always start small but mushroom into big issues when they are not addressed.  Experienced executives don’t ignore details and embed themselves into the issues before they get out of hand.   They take control and put things in control. 

No one has demonstrated this more than Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex, the brand behind Zara, which has 1,854 stores in 96 countries.  Despite being a multi-billionaire and retired, Ortega “has never bothered with an office.”  He “prefers to sit on the floor of Zara’s women’s department.” His daughter, Ortega Perez, who has emerged as an active Zara executive, emulates her father’s hands-on management style.  Ms. Perez, just like her father, very much manages the details of the business.  

It’s easy to have ideas.  It’s another thing to make them come true. 

Because the devil is in the details. 

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