Solving Problems, Cultivating Ideas Together

I worked for Procter & Gamble Philippines in the late 1980’s.  I was a production manager who oversaw the food packing lines of the company.  As production manager, I was invited at times to join the food brand team meetings led by marketing managers, who were responsible for their respective products’ success. 

P&G is famous for its brand management approach.  Introduced in 1920’s by Neil McElroy, who later became P&G’s president, brand management focused on individual products rather than the overall business.   Every product would have a brand manager who would be accountable for its market share and profitability. 

The brand managers of P&G formed teams represented by different functional members from all over the company.  These included people from product design & development (PDD), finance, sales, market research, and manufacturing. 

For the two (2) food product brands, my senior manager boss of food manufacturing was the member of both brand teams but the brand team at times would invite me to join meetings in cases where they needed some technical input. 

Brand managers delegated problems with their ideas to respective team members to solve.  PDD, for example, was charged with solving product design issues.  Finance was accountable in forecasting profits and presenting costs.  Sales made sure they got customer orders and that the product was distributed in all trade segments and geographic markets. Manufacturing was expected to provide time and resources for PDD’s test runs of product prototypes and to ensure volume targets were met when the product was launched. 

Brand managers would press brand team members to solve problems especially when there were tight deadlines to meet.  The careers of P&G brand managers depended on the successes of their ideas; failure was not an option.

This caused some friction between departments in which brand managers had to work harder to get supportive commitments from team members.  Some did and became successful.  Some didn’t and they left the corporation.   

One factor to why brand managers were unsuccessful was that they overly delegated problems to team members, to the point of blaming them for failures.  These brand managers misplaced delegation with teamwork. 

As much as there may be individual inventors who bring their ideas into realities single-handedly, successful idea-creators see the need to work with problem-solvers. 

Ideas and problems are not mutually exclusive.  Neither idea nor problem is worked on separately.  Problems are not obstacles to ideas and ideas should not be seen as unpleasant disruptions that lead to problems.

We should welcome both ideas and problems.  Ideas are the “a-ha’s”, the insights that are foundations of creative concepts.  Problems are the challenges that can provide us opportunities. 

When we encounter problems while inventing from an idea, we should try to seek opportunities from them, as much as we may try to overcome them as obstacles.  Problems can lead us to better ideas, as much as ideas can lead to problems. 

Team leaders therefore should not delegate as in pass problems with accountabilities to other team members.  Telling a team member to do a job and to do it correctly or else is not delegating; it definitely isn’t teamwork. 

Delegating is about entrusting and empowering a team member to do a job rightly and excellently.  It doesn’t exclude the compelling need to work with people. 

When an idea for a new product is created, a brand team should cultivate it together.  Team leaders and product design experts should tinker with new product ideas together.  Leaders should study profitability with finance experts together.  They should plan roll-outs to the trade together with the field sales people.  And they should test products and observe production runs together with manufacturing. 

The key word is together.  Teams are there together for a common purpose and when it comes to ideas and problems, they should tinker with them together to attain success. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

How Sales & Supply Chain People Can Work Together

Customer inquiries and quotations have long been seen as traditional jobs of sales professionals.  Field sales representatives visit customers and strive to get orders from them.  When customers inquire, sales professionals are expected to answer with accurate information. 

Trouble starts when sales professionals have no adequate answers to give.  Sales professionals may know prices, terms, and promotions.  But they may not know how much inventory is available to promise and when deliveries can be scheduled.  They also may not know how to cater to special requests and instructions regarding product specifications and deliveries. 

Sure, their superiors would have given field sales reps guidelines and information.  Sales reps may also have fixed allocations of how much they can promise to deliver.  But once they are in conversation with a customer, these guidelines and allocations may not be enough for a sales rep in discussion with a customer.

Sales reps have a lot of responsibilities.  They have territories to cover and targets to meet.  They promote products and negotiate contracts with customers.  They seek and open new accounts and they are expected to submit sales reports.  They also have to deal with complaints or worse, customers wanting to cancel orders or return products for refunds.

Sales representatives therefore expect their enterprise supply chains to deliver orders as promised.  The last thing they need is late, incomplete deliveries or pending orders that never get fulfilled. 

There’s a lot that’s been said about forecasting and managing demand, and a lot more about delivering orders.  But not a whole lot about what happens in-between: when customers inquire about products, what are available, and request for quotations (RFQ). 

In the many business meetings I’ve sat in, executives often ask what demand will be or how many orders are pending.  They don’t ask much about what customers are saying or asking.  Either they wait for their marketing people to mention anything or they just make conclusions on their own

In the retail business, store owners usually inquire from their suppliers about the availability of specific items, ask how much the prices would be, if the item can be delivered by what date, etc.  In short, the store owners inquire and expect the suppliers’ sales people to answer.

Whereas demand forecasts offer projected sales of items in cumulative numbers for an upcoming time period, inquiries from customers tell enterprises what they are looking for.  These inquiries can be and are valuable nuggets of information that can generate additional sales for an enterprise. 

But from what I’ve seen and heard, this information never really reaches the enterprise’s executives.  Either the information is forgotten or ignored.  What reaches executives are reports that have filtered the feedback from customers.

I’ve observed there are five (3) stages to demand creation and fulfilment:

  1. Inquiry
  2. Quotation
  3. Order
  4. Delivery
  5. After-Sales Service

Sales usually works exclusively on the first three.  The supply chain typically works on the last two. 

But the divisions of labour and accountability are more of formalities than realities in many cases. 

When customers inquire (1st stage), they ask not only about price, promotions, and product features, they also ask:

  1. How many items do you have available?
  2. How fast can you deliver?

And when the sales person gives a quotation (2nd stage), the customer will ask again:

  1. How long will it take you to deliver?
  2. When will the items be delivered after I place my order?

And when the customer decides to order (3rd stage), he or she will ask the sales person once again:

  1. When will the ordered items arrive?
  2. How many will arrive? 

It’s the same questions repeated at least three (3) times in those three (3) selling stages. 

Sales people naturally wouldn’t be able to answer those two (2) questions without foreknowledge of what the supply chain will do when the orders are received.  I’ve therefore observed that it’s common practice for sales people to call someone at the supply chain to get answers to those two (2) questions. 

That someone can be anyone.  It could be the one receiving the orders, the one who allocates items for delivery, the production planner, and any supply chain manager, or even all of these people all at once. 

In many cases, the supply chain people the sales people call don’t have the answers either.  And even if they did, they can’t or won’t guarantee the time and quantities of what would be delivered. 

Sales people would press whomever they’re talking to for some answers which they then can provide to their customers.  And in many times, the answers aren’t reliable or in the first place, aren’t authoritative. 

The easy way out of this quandary is to formalise the participation of supply chain operations in the first stages of selling:  inquiry, quotation, and order.  This can be done via:

  1. Assigning people from the supply chain who’d know the answers to liaison with the sales people;
  2. Establishing a system to already reserve items that customers want quoted and allocate them when the order arrives. 

It sounds hard and it will take quite some work to do #2 above.  But given that there probably is an informal system of allocation working already between sales and supply chain, the enterprise would do well to just get it set up and running. 

Note that in stages four and five, delivery and after-sales service, both supply chain and sales should still work together.  Even as the supply chain would have a higher accountability in serving orders and providing some after-sales services (e.g., warranty services), sales should be in communication with customers about the status of deliveries, getting feedback, and collecting payments. 

When sales and supply chain people work together in the five (5) stages of selling, they gain more confidence in responding to customer inquiries and requests.  They learn what customers need as much as they find ways to improve serving orders and fulfilling demand. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Five (5) Lessons from Frescoes

The Sistine Chapel is a highlight for visitors at Vatican City in Rome, Italy.  Located adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, the relatively small chapel attracts thousands of tourists who wish to get a glance at its frescoes especially the ones painted by the renowned medieval artisan, Michelangelo, from the years 1508 to 1512. 

The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

In a time where there was no radio, television, Internet, or magazines, frescoes, sculptures, and paintings served as the media of imagery in Europe.  For the not-so-wealthy people, the artworks were mostly found in churches.  People who entered a medieval church would be awed by the masterpieces painted on the walls and ceilings of churches and chapels. 

The beauty of medieval art in churches is that the message they convey is timeless.  Even in the 21st century, gazing at the painted ceiling and walls of a church built during medieval times, such as those found in the Sistine Chapel, one still sees the message.  One sees how each panel’s small picture connects to its counterparts to form a very big picture of a religious teaching. 

Most frescoes in medieval churches told stories from the Bible.  A row of frescoes painted side by side in a row for example may tell the story of Christmas.  Another would narrate the story of the Crucifixion.  The aim was to supplement the teachings the priest would preach from the pulpit.  

And it worked successfully.  The Roman Catholic Church became the dominant religious (and even political) authority through most of the medieval ages.  The Church’s faithful followers flocked to the churches.  All were awed by the frescoes, housed in church buildings with ornate architecture and complemented with sculptures.    

Fast forward to the 21st century, where exposure to media is everywhere.  Streaming videos, podcasts, social media posts on top of traditional radio and television programming besiege our smart-phones, tablets, and desktop computers.  Media imagery is virtually available to our senses with or without our permission. 

The frescoes and artwork of the medieval churches have long lost their monopoly of people’s attention.  But even today, they still attract thousands of tourists who continue to be awed by the timeless masterpieces and the common message they convey.   The Roman Catholic Church, despite the competition of the Information Age, still manages to flourish thanks partly to the preserved artwork in their old but sturdy medieval churches.   

The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and those in other Catholic churches teaches us a valuable lesson about conveying a message.  One best way to communicate a message is to tell a story.  And when telling the story, a good way to do so is via small pictures that altogether form a bigger picture. 

And when drawing a picture, make it a masterpiece.

Catholic Church leaders in the medieval ages engaged the best masters of art. Aside from hiring Michelangelo, who was considered one of the best, if not the best, artisan at the time, Church leaders also engaged architects and other famous painters (e.g. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Cosimo Rosselli) together with their teams to design the interior of the Sistine Chapel and paint the walls and ceilings which weren’t included in Michelangelo’s scope of work. 

Hiring Michelangelo and other famous painters immediately brought reputation to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.  It added to the attraction which brought many to visit the chapel and admire the frescoes even to the present-day. 

The masterpieces of the frescoes were both influential and innovative in that they told stories via pictures and they told stories from artisans who had a far and wide reputation of making great art. 

So, not only did the Catholic Church send their message by telling a story and making masterpieces.  The Church also told their story via the influential and highly reputable masters of art whose works everyone wanted to see.   Not only the Sistine Chapel but also many medieval churches conveyed the Catholic Church’s message via frescoes and supporting art and architecture throughout cities and small villages in Europe.  It was a successful strategy in marketing, one that helped prop the Catholic Church as the largest religious institution through the centuries.   

  1. Tell a story;
  2. Do it by small pictures that together form a big picture;
  3. Make each picture a masterpiece;
  4. Get someone talented and influential to make the masterpiece;
  5. Duplicate it at different locations. 

That’s how the Church of medieval times conveyed her message.   And it worked.    

About Overtimers Anonymous