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Marginal: First-Rate Thinking

In an environment when everyone is trying to get ahead, it is better to get smart.

It seems that sometimes when pairs or groups of people write best-selling books, one name gets attached to the subject and the other fades.

It seems that sometimes when pairs or groups of people write best-selling books, one name gets attached to the subject and the other fades. For example, Tom Peters is certainly associated with In Search of Excellence. But Bob Waterman? Or think of that auto-industry favorite, The Machine That Changed the World. There are two authors of that book with the given name "Daniel." Can you name either of them, or does the name "Jim Womack" simply come to mind? (BTW: the other two are Jones and Roos.) Reengineering the Corporation was certainly a startling book when it appeared in 1994. It even carries the subtitle A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Manifestos are things written by people with surnames like Marx, and not by good stalwarts of the business section of bookstores. But there it was. And given that one of the authors has the last name "Hammer," it really seemed as though this was a book that sounded the tocsin for change. But who was the other thinker who joined Michael Hammer in that exploration of taking out intermediaries and other non-core functions? Jim Champy. In the case of many of these people who haven't gotten quite the same number of lumens, their ideas are no less valuable or notable. I can still remember asking Waterman years ago what it takes for a company to commit to change. And his answer was simple and seemingly irrefutable: "A crisis."

If there is a condition that is pervasive in the auto industry today, crisis is certainly a word that describes it. Whether it's at Toyota or a Tier Three supplier known only by close family members and the purchasing person at the Tier Two, crisis is the order of the day. The litany of challenges-from rising energy and raw material costs to increasing competition from China, India, and low-wage countries that aren't on many radar screens at the moment but which will start showing up with increasing brightness in the days ahead-are well known. The litany of solutions, however, hasn't been widely codified or recited.

Which brings me to a book by one of those "number-two" guys, but a man who certainly exhibits first-rate thinking. Given that he's chairman of Perot Systems consulting practice and the head of strategy for the firm and had previously been the chairman and CEO of CSC Index, the consulting arm of Computer Sciences Corp., Champy is someone who has had more than his fair share of challenges vis-à-vis addressing the need for business change in a variety of industries. He has created a series of approaches to how companies can compete and crystallized them into a book titled Outsmart!: How To Do What Your Competitors Can't (FT Press; $22.99). This is a book based not on Champy's thoughts while kicking back in a corner office somewhere. Rather, it consists of a series of profiles of a variety of companies and their leaders-from Smith & Wesson to Shutterfly-that go to substantiate his points on how to be competitive. And to cut to the chase, the eight methods that he explores are to compete by:

  • Seeing What Others Don't
  • Thinking Outside the Bubble
  • Using All You Know
  • Changing Your Frame of Reference
  • Doing Everything Yourself
  • Tapping the Success of Others
  • Creating Order Out of Chaos
  • Simplifying Complexity

More to the point, it is about doing a better job of serving customers ("Companies that outsmart competitors focus on how they can better serve customers; incumbent companies focus on their competitors")-and, importantly, by having people throughout the organization doing it ("The point is to always be inclined to action"). Champy notes, "strategy is best shaped by a company's collective wisdom, not by the occupants of the executive suite alone. Strategy rises organically from whatever happens on the front lines and everywhere in between." And that implementation is a matter of doing, not saying or exhorting: "in my experience, lectures and rope-climbing exercises are too far removed from the real work people do to effect sustainable change. To change the culture in your business, get people off the ropes and on the firm ground of doing real work inside your new business model as quickly as possible." Oh, and then there is one more thing: "And if you don't trust your people to adapt, you have the wrong people in place." No one said this is going to be easy.

It is rough and tumble. It is hard and it isn't going to get any easier. But Champy makes a point that you shouldn't lose sight of: "success belongs only to those with the courage to stand by their convictions and risk failure all the way. Even in an imperfect world, the good guys do win. So keep your faith as well as your head." Keeping your head down and hoping that this blows over, however, is not the smart move. 

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