Visioning: The Last Thing an Enterprise Needs When Starting Up

A husband-and-wife couple approaches and asks a consultant for help in their business.

The husband-and-wife couple just started a business selling electrical devices such as relays and circuit breakers.  Demand was strong at the onset and the couple has found themselves working around the clock serving customer orders.  Maybe the consultant can contribute some ideas?

The consultant immediately advises the couple to set aside a few days to do a Vision, Mission, Objectives, and Strategy (VMOS) exercise with their staff.  The aim of the exercise is for the couple to set goals by establishing a common vision for their business.  The consultant would facilitate the VMOS exercise, of course. 

The couple agreed and after a few days, the couple’s enterprise had written a VMOS.  When the consultant collected his fee and left, the couple realised they still didn’t have any ideas on how to serve their customers better. 

A VMOS is the last thing an enterprise needs when it’s starting up.  This is because when an enterprise is just starting, it already has a VMOS.  It can be summarised in one word:  survival.  

The couple started their electrical device business precisely because they saw there was demand.  They just didn’t realise that there was a lot of demand.  They and their staff became overwhelmed.  They had trouble catching up with orders.  Customers were complaining and the husband-and-wife couple feared they were going to lose customers. 

The couple were concerned about their enterprise’s survival.  They needed solutions to address the higher-than-expected demand.  The last thing they needed was an elaborate VMOS. 

Many consultants (and bloggers) promote VMOS for businesses.  A VMOS can be good but by experience, it’s only useful long after an enterprise has started up and stabilised.  It might be a good idea for an enterprise to do a VMOS when it is at a crossroads, such as when its owners and management are debating strategies for new ideas or products. 

For a new business that is just getting off the ground, however, a VMOS is the last thing an enterprise needs. 

When the husband-and-wife couple went to another consultant.  They found a more down-to-earth consultant who advised them to review their product lines and focus producing those items that are selling briskly.  The consultant also advised the couple to prioritise selling to customers who were willing to pay cash; this would help in turning over capital which the couple could use to invest in increasing capacity to serve growing demand. 

A VMOS exercise is nice for enterprises that are stable but are doing some soul-searching for their future. 

A VMOS exercise, however, is not what an enterprise needs when it’s starting up and its immediate preoccupation is survival. 

Enterprise executives should also be careful in engaging consultants, especially ones whose agenda prioritise themselves and their profits over the benefits for clients. 

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Two Tactics That are Better than “No”

Most managers (and white-collar workers) face barrages of requests, if not directives, just about every day. 

Executives and peers ask managers to do many things such as write reports, attend meetings, do feasibility studies, pay suppliers, or test new products. 

Many managers would find themselves busy responding to these requests.  So much so that they’d not have any time left in a day to do what they should be doing, which is, managing. 

So-called time management experts would tell managers to just say no to requests that aren’t relevant to their jobs.  Saying no would demonstrate proactivity, the power to choose from one’s own perspective of priorities.

Unfortunately, saying no doesn’t work outright in the real world.

When I was a manager of a shipping department, I and my team were asked to work through a holiday weekend.  I and several of my subordinates had plans to for that weekend, but executives “asked” us to shelve those plans and work because the they wanted us to deliver pending orders to meet the company’s monthly sales target.  Executives wouldn’t accept a “no” and didn’t want to listen to our reasons (which generally was to take a break from work).  We ended up working through the weekend, met the monthly sales target, but didn’t get any praise or reward (except for some free pizza which the executives sent while we worked over the weekend). 

Executives don’t like no’s especially from subordinates.  This is because executives perceive any “no” as an affront to their agenda.  Executives see “no” as defiance and therefore will not take “no” for an answer. 

When a boss makes a request to a manager, it’s really a command done politely.  A request from a boss can be translated as “I’m asking you nicely to respond but if you don’t, I’ll tell you to do it.”   Executives don’t allow much room for compromise when it comes to their directions, everyone in the supply chain must march to the same beat. 

The impracticality to say “No”, however, isn’t the end to a manager’s hopes.    Managers still have two (2) ways to push back.  They can procrastinate and negotiate

Procrastinate

In the various management positions I held, I always had plenty of work to do.  Memo requests I received were often marked urgent or rush and whoever wrote them asked for immediate responses.

When I received such requests, I would categorise either as Will do or Will Not DoWill Do requests were those I’d be willing to do because I judged them as consistent with the needs of the workplace I was managing.  Will Not Do requests were judged the opposite, as in not helpful or relevant to my job description.  I’d place the memos on their respective piles but I didn’t throw them away.  (This was in the 1980’s so there weren’t any e-mails or chat groups yet.  But I do the same categorisation today via my computer and devices). 

I wouldn’t tell the sources of the Will Not Do tasks that I won’t be doing what they asked me to do.  I’d wait to see if they would follow up.  If they didn’t, I’d just leave the request sitting in that pile of Will Not Do.  If they did follow up, I’d still not do the task.  I would procrastinate. If the source comes back and follows up repeatedly and frequently, only then would I consider moving the task to the Will Do group, otherwise it stays in the Will Not Do pile.  I figure a request would be important only when the source spends significant time asking (or telling) me to respond.   

Negotiate

But even if I consider converting a Will Not Do to a Will Do, I would still push back.  I would ask the source why the request is important and why I should do it.  Maybe the source can delegate the request to someone else?  Or the source can review whether the request is worth the work?  I’d negotiate.  I would finally agree to responding to a request after I’d be satisfied with the argument of the sources and their justification. 

Or I’d finally agree to respond if the source is a superior who stops asking and starts commanding me to do it.   And even if it comes down to a command, I’d still ask the superior source politely to put it in writing. 

I learned not to commit immediately to requests.  I’d acknowledge them but I wouldn’t make promises.  I would if the sources press me to but only after I’d do some procrastinating and negotiating. 

By experience, I have found both tactics to be simple but effective means to filter the urgent and important from those that aren’t.  Many requests have turned out to be trash or withdrawn after procrastination and negotiation.  And it has saved me time. 

For managers, doing these two tactics can make a difference in how their time are spent and getting to meet goals that they fully feel are more important. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Solving the Supply Chain Mystery

I once met a regional sales manager of a large consumer good company at Davao City, the biggest city on the island of Mindanao, 978 kilometres (608 miles) south of Manila, Philippines. 

As I was introduced, the RSM looked at me for a moment and smiled broadly.

“You’re a supply chain consultant?”

Before I could say “yes.”  He says: “I’ve seen marketing consultants, sales consultants, and organisational development consultants, but this is the first time I’ve ever met a supply chain consultant!”

“Welcome, welcome!”  He shook my hand vigorously.  “I hope you can help us.” 

“You see,” he continues, “the supply chain is a mystery to me.” 

“Every time I submit a customer order, I never know what happens after,” the RSM said. 

“I don’t know when stocks would arrive.  I don’t know what and which products would arrive. And I don’t know how many would arrive,” the RSM said. 

He pointed to a few shipping container vans just outside the warehouse office where we were meeting and shared: “container vans like those would just show up and I wouldn’t know what are in them.” 

“I wouldn’t know if the containers have the products I ordered.  At the end of the month, five or more containers would arrive at the same time and I wouldn’t know which container would have the products I need the most.” 

“I’d spend much of my time calling the logistics office in Manila to tell me what’s coming and when but I never get a clear answer.  I spend a lot of time following up the deliveries of products I need when I should be using the time selling to customers.”

“As this is the first time I’m meeting a supply chain consultant, maybe things can change.  Maybe you can solve the supply chain mystery!”  The RSM said.

On the surface, the problem had a straightforward answer.  The consumer goods company’s logistics office just had to share shipping schedules with the RSM to tell him what’s coming and when.  That would right there solve the problem.

The problem, however, goes deeper. 

Why isn’t logistics sharing the information in the first place? 

Why is logistics not communicating with their sales counterparts? 

And aside from logistics, are other departments even communicating with each other?  Do the consumer goods company’s executives communicate with vendors, customers, 3rd party providers, and stakeholders?  Or are they too preoccupied with other problems they consider urgent?

Communication has always been a problem with companies, especially big companies.  Departments hardly talk to each other as they pursue pre-set goals or put out fires within their work boundaries.  If there would be any communication, it would be in the form of phone calls, memos, reports, or hours-long meetings.

Communication in the management sense, however, does not consist of meetings, memos, or phone calls.  Communication in the management sense is about rapport, i.e., active two-way connection between boss and subordinate, between peers, and between people from differing departments and separate enterprises. 

Communication enhances the flow of information in which individuals and groups constantly share pertinent important information with the purpose of meeting communal objectives for the mutual benefit of all concerned. 

So why aren’t companies doing that?  What’s the problem?  Why does a consumer goods regional sales manager have trouble getting in touch with people he sends orders to and waits for deliveries from? 

Communications within and between enterprises require support structures and systems.  Many companies, however, don’t have adequate structures and systems.  This is because these companies have been brought up on a culture of silos, in which managers and employees work in places that have goals and targets of their own. 

In the consumer goods company where the RSM works, there are performance measures and strategies assigned for every department: 

  • Finance seeks higher profits, more cash-flow, and higher rates of returns;
  • Marketing wants brand leadership, strong geographic distribution, and positive consumer acceptance;
  • Sales wants higher turnover, record-breaking selling volumes, and a high level of retail presence;
  • Manufacturing wants continuous uninterrupted production;
  • Logistics wants fewer pending orders and lower freight costs;
  • Purchasing prefers bulk purchases with large discounts on prices.

The consumer goods company’s organisational chart shows a hierarchy of managers and employees working in different functions with different scopes of work each with specific roles and goals.  The chart in itself lays out a plan of silos where individuals and groups work separately.

Separation means differences in priorities and interests.  What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.  Each to our own.  I mind my business; you mind yours.  These become the thoughts of people within the company. 

What more for those who are not from the company.  We’re inside; they’re outside.  Enterprises might as well be islands in an ocean and many are just like that. 

Organisational development trainers and executives have recommended and implemented many ideas to bring people within and even between enterprises together.  They’ve introduced radical solutions such as “flat” org structures that eliminate many layers of authority and they have encouraged “campus” work ethics where individuals from different disciplines work together in open-plan shared work spaces. 

The consumer goods company the RSM worked for had “brand teams” which had marketing managers lead groups consisting of representatives from sales, manufacturing, finance, and R&D.  The brand team would “own” a particular brand of the company and be accountable for its success.  It was a way to break down barriers between functions. 

Unfortunately, these OD and brand team initiatives have only shown limited success.   At the end of the day, the functional employees and their managers go back to their familiar places of work and focus on the priorities of their departments.  The gates of their workplaces close once again as they resume pursuing their own urgent individual targets.   

Supply chains offer a way out of silos.  Supply chains are grounded on relationships.  Relationships, in order for them to prosper, require communication. 

In supply chains, operating functions work with each other to transform and move materials and merchandise from one point to another, one process to the next, one step at a time.  Connections and communications are what makes a supply chain tick.  And for a supply chain to work, it must tick with every part in clockwork synchronicity. 

When the RSM doesn’t know what’s coming and when, the communications and connections aren’t working.  The supply chain link from the transportation of the product to the receiving warehouse is broken.  The supply chain in this sense is not working. 

Hence, the first thing I urged for the consumer goods company is communication.  Fix the link, establish the connection, make active the communication not only between logistics and the regional sales manager, but also between logistics and other RSMs, logistics and transportation providers, manufacturing and logistics, the inventory planners and logistics, manufacturing and inventory planners and logistics, purchasing to planners to manufacturing, purchasing to vendors. 

There has to be rapport.  Not memos.  Not meetings. Not once-a-month reports.  Not emails or text messages.  But active two-way communication of shared information, shared planning, shared direction, and shared implementation. 

It doesn’t take a world-class detective to solve the supply chain mystery.  Just taking the initiative to communicate would provide much of an answer.

About Overtimers Anonymous