Changing Organization Silos

What do you do when you have a great idea, and it hits the wall of “silo indifference?”

Silo indifference – my term – is the difficulty of engaging your company’s functional or regional groups in new business initiatives that offer the prospect of significant gain but disrupt their traditional operations. Here’s an illustration.

Several years ago, my group at MIT held a workshop on customer service for executives of our affiliated companies – companies that support our activities and host thesis research. About thirty top managers gathered in Cambridge for a full-day session.

We shared our latest research findings, and invited top managers from Ritz Carlton Hotels, Disney, and a few other customer service leaders to share their insights. At the end of the day, I led a session in which the executives discussed their thoughts and experiences in turbocharging customer service.

Turbocharging customer service

I started the session by asking “What is customer service?” My straightforward question drew a variety of more-or-less expected responses: line fill, case fill, answering the phone in 30 seconds, no telephone tag, fast order cycles, and others. The thread that linked these responses was that they all were operating measures.

More importantly, they all were internal operating measures. After all, what good does it do to have high fill rates if the customer has too much of the wrong inventory? Or if the customer is ordering twice as often as is economical? Or if the customer has a quickly answered phone call about a very disruptive service problem that should not have arisen?

The customer service measures that really count are those that reflect what the customer is actually experiencing, not what you are experiencing in your operations. It is a very common false assumption to simply equate the two. Not only that, but what counts even more is the customer’s perception of service, which again managers often simply, but falsely, assume reflects actual service.

In fact, customers’ perceptions of service are strongly determined by their worst experiences. Even if a customer’s really bad experiences are very rare, those will be the most memorable. Just think about the one time you had a really bad meal at a restaurant – did you go back? (For more on this see my blogs, Stumbling on Customer Service, and Demand Management Disney Style.)

Your worst nightmare

After the MIT workshop executives had developed a long list of internal operational measures, I asked a very different question: “What could your competitor do that would be your worst nightmare?”

At first the group was silent. After a few minutes, the discussion gathered steam and moved in a very different direction. The answers varied in form and content, but they all had the same underlying message: “If my competitor could coordinate internally to really improve my customers’ profitability, business processes, and strategic positioning, I would be in deep trouble. If my competitor really could do this, my customers would abandon our relationship and run to the competition without looking back.”

This was the customer service prospect that really concerned and worried everyone in the group.

So I asked the logical next question, “If this is the ultimate win strategy, and we now know the secret to competitive success, why don’t we do it first? It seems we have a golden opportunity to secure our best customers and take away our competitors’ prime business.”

The answer to this query still echoes in my mind. In essence, everyone in the group said in so many words, “We can’t. We just can’t.”

Why not? “Because,” the conversation continued in essence, “we can’t get our functional departments to coordinate around really innovative customer initiatives. They are too focused on their own departmental objectives and metrics [like the internal operational measures the group focused on initially].” Certainly, managers can get limited cooperation, but all too often this is overshadowed by the momentum of the mainstream business.

Here we had a textbook definition of “silo indifference.” Not a malicious lack of cooperation – just counterpart managers in other departments naturally focusing on their traditional “mainstream” activities and measures.

And, in most cases, these counterpart managers in other silos are appropriately focusing on the objectives they were given by top management. They are responding to the measures top management has told them are most important, and for which they are being held responsible.

What’s at stake? Massive competitive success.

The Apple problem

I thought about this customer service workshop when I had an opportunity to work with a group of top marketing executives of major financial institutions a few months ago.

I led a session on market innovation, in which I showed how a number of very innovative companies, ranging from Southwest Airlines to Apple, had entered tradition-bound industries, and revolutionized them with powerful new value propositions and compelling new go-to-market strategies. In their wake, numerous strong incumbents wound up reeling and a surprising number simply went bankrupt.

As I discussed the innovators, and explained how the industry incumbents had failed to respond effectively, I heard a familiar frustration. The marketing executives saw the need for fundamentally new, innovative approaches to take advantage of the massive changes beginning to sweep through the financial services industry, but they felt an almost insurmountable roadblock in engaging their counterpart managers, who were too busy operating and improving their “traditional” business activities.

These managers hit the wall of silo indifference. Just like the MIT workshop executives.

But the financial services managers faced a problem much more pressing and troubling: the impending presence of world-class innovators like Apple, Google, and others – all with massive resources, far-reaching creativity, and powerful go-to-market machines – and all taking aim directly at the sweet spots in their industry.

If the incumbents failed to act quickly and decisively, they would be in severe danger of failing to use their natural first mover advantage to secure the most profitable portions of their market – their islands of profit – and being left with the unprofitable portions. Just like the incumbent firms in industry after industry that failed to act.

Yet, there was an almost irresistible temptation for some participants to shift the conversation to comfortable topics like how to tune up the on-premise customer experience.

Nevertheless, a number of participants continued to drill into the core question of how to be an effective innovator, how to overcome the roadblock of silo indifference. And this led to a very productive discussion.

Accelerating change

All companies face the problem of accelerating change, overcoming silo indifference. Most fail to act decisively and effectively, putting themselves in danger of being overtaken by more capable, focused competitors.

How do the most successful innovators do it?

Consider this recent New York Times article (July 26, 2012).

News Summary: Google’s Fast Internet for $70/mo.

FAST SERVICE: Google says it will charge $70 a month for its long-awaited, ultra-fast Internet service in Kansas City.

THE SIGNIFICANCE: The service is intended as a showcase for what’s technically possible and as a testbed for the development of new ways to use the Internet. Bypassing the local cable and phone companies, Google has spent months pulling its own optical fiber through the two-state Kansas City region.

OPTIONS: For another $50 per month, Google will provide cable-TV-like service, too. There’s also a free, slower option, though households have to pay a $300 installation fee.

What is Google doing?

Two things.

First, Google is learning by doing.

The project is framed specifically as a “showcase” and as a “testbed for the development of new ways to use the Internet.” Since this involves changes in consumer behavior, Google couldn’t just survey the public. The cardinal rule in market research is that you can’t do market research for a product that doesn’t exist because the customers have no experience of it. The services driving Internet usage today weren’t even conceived in the early days of the internet. The only way to find out what will happen when Google offers service speeds that are 100 times faster than today’s service at comparable prices is to prime the pump and learn by doing.

Second, and very importantly, Google is wisely laying the foundation for a frontal attack on silo indifference. The best way to overcome this pervasive roadblock is to develop a showcase project that demonstrates clear, compelling value. With a clear, practical pathway to clearly superior new value, the counterpart managers throughout the company will migrate to the new value proposition. The wonderful thing about a successful showcase is that the managers throughout the company can actually come see it. They can “kick the tires,” and actually talk to the customers.

This is the fastest and surest way to accelerate change, to overcome silo indifference.

Why the phone company failed

Contrast this with the case of a regional Bell phone company about twenty years ago. This very strong, successful company was a regional powerhouse with ample resources. It was deciding whether to deploy broadband/video capabilities, and if so, how to deploy them.

The obvious path was to conduct a study, which naturally showed that the customers were generally interested, but not enough to pay a compensatory price.

At the same time, however, an alternative proposal was offered to conduct a limited showcase project by wiring a small upscale community of about 30,000 with video, and linking the community’s “communities of interest” (i.e. schools, sports, clubs, etc.) through the network. This would give the customers an opportunity to forge new communications pathways and to develop first-hand a sense of the potential value.

In essence, this could have been a forerunner for many of the Internet-based services we now take for granted, and would have catapulted this company far in front of its competitors.

The company had ample resources. But the innovators in the company failed to gather support from their counterpart managers. In the end, the Finance Department killed the project, noting that it could not convince them that it offered returns comparable to those that flowed from the existing operational program of replacing old switches. Silo indifference in action.

What happened to the company, at the time a very well-respected industry giant? It languished and ultimately disappeared, merged into another regional Bell, then both into another.

Effective Showcases

How can an innovative management team create effective showcase projects that overcome silo indifference? Here is an old family recipe that really works.

  • Just do it. The cost will be very low, often trivial – frequently involving a few well-selected customers or suppliers – and the results can be transformative. There is no downside.
  • Do it all the time. Set up showcase projects in all areas of your company, especially those that are involved in customer and supplier relationships. What do you have to lose? A minute fraction of your revenues and resources are involved, and the upside is enormous.
  • Keep doing it. Very often the most important findings only emerge after the showcase evolves over time (perhaps a year or so). The second- and third-order changes are the most powerful. Remember that very few successful business ventures wind up pursuing their original business plans, but rather the key to success is to learn from experience and to evolve rapidly. The most successful venture investors understand this well.
  • Select the most favorable conditions for innovation. Many companies select important customers or suppliers for showcases. Big mistake. There is too much at stake and the innovations necessarily will be incremental and tactical. Instead, look for a relatively small customer or supplier that is very innovative, where the CEO has “fire in the belly” to do new things, the company knows how to partner, and the operational match is great.
  • Involve your counterparts early. Get your functional counterparts from the other silos involved from the beginning. Let them help shape the project, and in the process they will become champions. The project will almost certainly benefit from their perspective and capability, and the outcome will have the highest likelihood of being adopted.

Compelling results

Showcase projects offer the shortest distance between you and effective change. They are limited in scope, so you often don’t even have to ask permission, but the results are compelling. They are the ultimate change accelerators.

Why not try it?

The Strategic CIO

The role of the CIO is evolving at an accelerating pace. The most effective CIOs are shifting their focus from inward-looking operational issues to an emerging set of outward-focused strategic opportunities that are central to their companies’ financial and competitive success.

I call these new opportunities “customer-integrated systems,” a new class of critical systems that link a company to its customers. The most effective customer-integrated systems embody a service-differentiated design, with the CIO insightfully tailoring systems linkages to evolving account relationships.

Three CIO eras

Over the past decades, the CIO role has moved through three eras.

First, CIOs developed horizontal systems that automated and linked their companies’ core functions, like accounting, human resources, and inventory control. I think of this as the era of the Operational CIO.

Second, CIOs helped deploy a range of vertical systems that essentially tuned up these core functions in a variety of ways. I think of this as the era of the Tactical CIO.

While many of these vertical applications were important, they tended to be minimally-integrated with the overall business. All too often they amounted to a series of localized, uncoordinated improvements, each of which required significant organizational change.

This caused a big problem because the gating factor in IT systems effectiveness is a company’s ability to absorb change. Even if each application nominally offered a positive ROI, all too many of these systems failed to achieve their promise – not because they were technically deficient, but rather because the organization was not able to make the changes needed to reap the benefits. CRM systems provide a well-documented example.

The Strategic CIO

Today, CIOs are facing an immensely important opportunity to develop systems that link their companies with their most important customers. These emerging systems are ushering in the era of the Strategic CIO.

These customer-integrated systems form the essential infrastructure for the company to secure and grow its islands of profit, and to convert the accounts in its sea of red ink from marginal performance to solid profit contribution. Strategic CIOs are becoming key players in creating and driving their company’s most important business relationships, making them critical to their company’s profitability and strategic future.

New business era

The source of this emerging CIO opportunity is rooted in a major change that occurred over the past 30 years in the way we do business. We have moved from one era of business into another without realizing it.

The Age of Mass Markets spanned most of the 20th century. In this era, the win strategy was clear: maximize production volume to gain economies of scale and lowest costs. This meant distributing product as widely as possible through mass distribution fueled by mass marketing.

Companies simply dropped their product at their customers’ receiving docks, so distribution processes and costs were relatively uniform. Pricing was relatively uniform as well, so it was reasonable to manage both sales and operating activities separately from each other.

In this era, companies had little need for systems that comprehensively integrated them with their customers. It was entirely appropriate for CIOs to focus on horizontal systems, which automated their companies’ core internal processes, and on vertical systems, which essentially tuned up these core processes in a variety of ways.

Customer-integrated systems

Today, all this is changing. In the current Age of Precision Markets, companies form very different relationships with different customers – some arm’s length, some highly-integrated, and some between. These relationships have very different operational processes and cost structures, and at the same time, pricing varies widely from customer to customer.

This means that CIOs have to shift their focus toward developing a new set of customer-integrated systems that appropriately link their companies with their customers. Importantly, the nature of these links varies greatly from business segment to business segment, depending on the account relationship. And, in many cases, the nature and quality of the inter-company IT links will actually drive the profitability and share of wallet of the customer relationship.

The problem is that CIOs traditionally focus IT on internal processes and linkages. In all too many companies, these new externally-focused customer-integrated systems are largely off the radar screen.

Certainly, most companies today have elementary links such as web-based ordering and portals that display order status, but the true promise of customer-integrated systems is much more sweeping.

For the most important customers, customer-integrated systems will provide actual integration of selected functions between customer and supplier, creating very strong mutual benefits. For other customers, they will enable the flexible “showcase” projects that provide powerful new business initiatives. When well conceived, they will both reflect and accelerate a company’s critical business relationships, improve profitability, and provide enormous competitive advantage.

These new customer-integrated systems create huge opportunities for both revenue growth and cost reduction for both partners. But they also present important challenges for CIOs in three areas: (1) tailoring the customer-integrated systems to the evolving relationships; (2) developing the actual intercompany systems, often in coordination with channel partners; and (3) managing both internal change and change within channel partners.

For CIOs, this is exciting new territory that opens vast opportunities to produce huge, new, sustainable value.

Differentiated customer-integrated systems

One of the most important factors in designing and managing customer-integrated systems is the need to differentiate and tailor them for different business segments. In most companies, defining and building these differentiated customer-integrated systems is one of the biggest strategic imperatives.

Yet most companies today are implicitly viewing their customer systems through a one-size-fits-all lens. Instead, customer-integrated systems must be thoughtfully designed to differentially reflect the needs of different classes of account relationships.

Think about this service-differentiated account classification: (1) strategic accounts are major accounts with a willingness and ability to form integrated supply chain partnerships; (2) integrated accounts are large accounts, important but often somewhat smaller than strategic accounts, with less willingness to join in supply chain innovations; (3) emerging accounts are smaller accounts that are very innovative and generally fast-growing; and (4) stable accounts are smaller accounts that are generally reluctant to innovate significantly. Each account cluster requires a very different set of account relationships, supply chain structures, and customer-integrated systems.

Strategic accounts. These major accounts require a high degree of supply chain and planning integration, customization, and innovation. This creates the important need for a critical set of custom-tailored customer-integrated systems.

First, the supplier and the strategic account should develop an aligned, long-term business strategy. This typically involves a three- to five-year year shared strategic plan for the relationship, and joint long-range planning. The relationship should be innovative and involve shared risk. For example, one strategic account wanted to develop a process for picking up product at a major supplier’s factories, rather than having it shipped from the distribution centers. As another example, several major suppliers are working with their strategic accounts to develop RFID systems to track products as they move along the joint supply chain.

Second, the companies’ supply chains should be fully integrated. This should involve both supply chain processes and systems. Replenishment should be continuous, often involving vendor-managed inventory, rather than discrete orders. Some suppliers are pioneering efforts to develop new vendor management processes and systems that extend all the way to the retailer’s shelf, rather than to the distribution center. For strategic accounts, the supplier should dedicate cross-functional account teams and significant resources to understand the account’s structure and business.

It is essential for the Strategic CIO, in parallel, to devote significant resources to working with strategic accounts to design and develop coordinated, integrated customer-integrated systems with enough flexibility to accommodate rapid strategic innovation. Importantly, the Strategic CIO and the team on-site have to be capable of coordinated change management, not only with their customer IT counterparts, but also with operating managers both within their own company and within the customer. This is very complex because the Strategic CIO has to be adept at working with key channel partners who have their own IT priorities and agendas.

Integrated accounts. These important accounts warrant significant care and resources, but not extensive customization. This can be seen in two areas.

First, a major supplier and integrated account should develop in advance an aligned business plan and scorecard. The joint business plan will not be as customized as in the case of a strategic account. The plan should have a shorter time horizon, perhaps one year, and the relationship should be collaborative and trustworthy.

Second, the companies’ supply chains should be aligned and coordinated, but not necessarily fully integrated. The supplier should use existing internal processes to respond to orders from integrated accounts. Vendor-managed inventory systems may be appropriate for these accounts, as they are a cost-saving measure.

Here, the Strategic CIO faces a far more manageable set of challenges. While more traditional approaches like web-based ordering and order tracking may suffice for core activities, more complex systems support is needed for intercompany systems like vendor-managed inventory.

Importantly, integrated accounts have the potential to grow into strategic accounts, so it is important for the Strategic CIO to develop a strong set of relationships with his or her counterparts both in the customer IT group and among customer operating managers so they can be ramped up later. In many cases, strong coordinated customer-integrated systems can nudge an integrated account into becoming a strategic account, with the Strategic CIO directly driving major increases in revenue and profitability.

Because there is a long lead time in developing and installing coordinated systems, it is imperative for the Strategic CIO to map the IT terrain for integrated accounts as well as for strategic accounts.

Emerging accounts. These smaller accounts are very innovative and fast growing. They warrant significant supplier attention both because of their growth, and because they provide a low-risk opportunity for the supplier to develop new systems and processes. Yet, because they are small, there needs to be a limit to the investment.

The supplier should provide service that is both functionally excellent and flexible. The service must be efficient and largely standardized, or costs will quickly go out of control. However, the supplier often can justify meeting some unique needs, especially if the innovation can be scaled to the larger account base. These accounts are important because they force the supplier to push the innovation envelope.

These emerging accounts present yet another challenge for Strategic CIOs developing their customer-integrated systems. The core coordinative systems can be relatively standardized, like those of integrated accounts. But these accounts need a very flexible overlay of systems that enable coordinated innovation and continuous limited “showcase” experiments. These supporting systems can be ad hoc in nature, but they require thoughtful planning to understand how to scale quickly if the innovations are spread rapidly into the strategic accounts.

Stable accounts. These accounts typically cause a disproportionate amount of costs because many are unsophisticated and have idiosyncratic processes. For example, a stable account may order by fax rather than EDI, and may have unusual shipping specifications.

The key to supplying this group profitably is to offer a menu of service offerings, along with clear rules of engagement, such as minimum order sizes for various lead times, weekly ordering, and shipments to distribution centers only. In this way, the supplier can provide very reliable, consistent, cost-efficient service. This will ensure transactional efficiency for both the supplier and customer.

The customer-integrated systems objective for these accounts is to drive down costs by providing efficient means of transacting business. This is the area of customer-integrated systems that most companies have been focusing on recently because the pathway is clear, and the payback is compelling.

The danger, however, is to view these minimal cost-oriented customer-integrated systems as a one-size-fits-all solution sufficient for the whole account base. The most important accounts – strategic accounts, integrated accounts, and emerging accounts – require completely different types of customer-integrated systems. At stake are the company’s major revenue and profit streams.

One Strategic CIO’s experience

Here’s how the CIO of a major service provider has made the transition to Strategic CIO. He found that his strategic accounts are demanding exactly the types of integration described above, and this was pulling him to be extremely customer-focused.

This CIO now spends 30-50% of his time either in business development or working with existing customers. Customer-integrated systems implementation investments (software and personnel) have already become equal to or greater than the investment in internal company systems.

The problem he encountered is that the customer-integrated systems were so critical and fast-growing, the company’s horizontal and vertical systems couldn’t support them. Consequently, the CIO has been investing in parallel in strengthening the company’s ERP system, and pulling some formerly-independent vertical applications into the ERP system, putting them under direct IT control.

The key success factors: a solid internal data model, efficient core processes, and excellent mid-level IT managers who can take projects to completion while seeing the strategic big picture.

The three-dimensional CIO

Today, CIOs have an enormous new opportunity to shape their companies’ future.

Horizontal systems were essential to ensure that a company’s core activities were efficient, and vertical systems were important to tune up and enhance a wide range of company activities. I think of these as forming two important dimensions of the CIO role.

But the third dimension, customer-integrated systems, enables a company to construct its essential links to its accounts. Today, the Strategic CIO directly drives revenues, profits, and competitive advantage.

If the Strategic CIO is effective, the company’s performance and market positioning will accelerate. But if the CIO neglects this critical opportunity, the company will be left further and further behind. This is the most important challenge facing CIOs today.

The successful Strategic CIOs develop a new set of skills and capabilities in four critical areas:

  • Coordinating with counterpart managers within the company to develop and populate the service differentiation categories;
  • Tailoring the company’s customer-integrated systems to the account relationships;
  • Working with counterpart IT managers in accounts to conceptualize and develop the joint systems; and
  • Managing change, both internal and in channel partners.

We are entering the era of the Strategic CIO. Today, the Strategic CIO faces an historic opportunity to directly drive the company’s financial success, and to shape its strategic future.

In this era of the Strategic CIO, the company’s success depends on it.

Profitability FAQ

A year ago, my new book, Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink, was published. Since then, it was named a best book of 2010 by Inc, and many companies have purchased copies for their top management team. Here are fifteen key questions – with brief answers –  that managers have asked me.

Why is 40% of most businesses unprofitable?

All of our management information and processes were developed in a prior business era. Our accounting categories are too broad to see which accounts and products are profitable and which aren’t – so people simply assume that more revenues equals more profits. Some revenues are very profitable, and a surprising portion produce big losses. In virtually all companies, no one is responsible for monitoring and managing the interaction of revenues and costs at the grass-roots level to maximize profits.

How do top managers react to this?

They strongly agree. In years of writing about this in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge e-newsletter and website, no one has disagreed. When I speak to top managers about this at MIT and in my consulting clients, no one disagrees. The problem is that they don’t know what to do about it, and they are rightly concerned that just “firing bad customers” (wrong thing to do) will hurt their stock price.

How can this be fixed?

Four building blocks: (1) the right information – granular (specific products in specific customers) not aggregated; (2) the right priorities – first, secure and grow the profitable business, then improve the marginal business, then reprice the money-losers; (3) the right processes – mostly coordinating sales, marketing, and operations to get things right; and (4) the right compensation, especially for sales – matching compensation to real profitability, not just revenues.

Why is your advice particularly important in our current economy?

Today is prime time for rapid improvements. Customers are desperate for new ways to get better, and they’re very receptive to trying new ways of doing things. Most competitors are frozen in the headlights trying to cut costs indiscriminately. The key is to focus on growing the 20-30% of your company that can give you high sustained profitability, and then get more high-potential business that fits. You’ll rarely have this great an opportunity to lock in the best business – just stop wasting good resources on business that will never generate profits.

Why are so many companies today meeting their sales targets but still losing money?

Because budgets are developed and performance is judged relative to history not potential. If a company is 30-40% unprofitable, and its budget aims for a 10% improvement, the company will still have a huge amount of embedded unprofitability. Everyone looks at the improvement and celebrates. But 10% better than last year, and just as good as the competition is simply not good enough.

What are the most common mistakes businesses are making that prevent them from being consistently as profitable as possible?

Three big mistakes: (1) assuming that more revenues means more profits; (2) failing to focus attention and resources on securing and growing the business that produces high sustained profitability –  this makes a company vulnerable to focused competitors and reduces reported profits; and (3) failing to put anyone in charge of maximizing account and product profitability at the grassroots level (in contrast with putting lots of people in charge of managing budgets).

What is “the age of precision markets” that we have entered?

In the prior “age of mass markets,” companies sought the economies of scale of mass production, coupled with mass distribution using arm’s length customer relationships. In that era, more revenues really did mean lower costs and more profits. In today’s “age of precision markets,” companies form different relationships with different sets of customers, each with different costs and profits. Yet, virtually all of our management information and processes were developed in the prior era, when all revenues really were equally desirable. This is the underlying reason why almost every company has so much embedded unprofitability and why so many managers fail to see and build their sustainably profitable core of business.

How should the role of the CFO change to adapt to today’s new economic conditions?

In these difficult and uncertain economic times, companies need broad-gauge, strategic CFOs. An effective CFO must be able to chart a course to sustainable profitability and growth,  and orchestrate the company’s functional managers to accomplish this objective. This process goes far beyond managing operating efficiencies, cash flows, and budgets. It involves three essential elements: (1) profit mapping – moving beyond our traditional, overly broad, aggregated accounting measures to construct a granular transaction-based picture of account and product profitability; (2) sustainability – identifying the 30-40% of the company that is unprofitable, and more importantly, the 20-30% that is capable of strong sustainable profitability and growth, even in tough times; and (3) driving performance – identifying and prioritizing the key initiatives that will cement and grow the sustainably profitable portion of the business.

Should your advice be adapted differently when we’re in a recession vs. when we start recovering?

The management to-do list is the same, but the distractions are different. In a recession, there is an overwhelming instinct to cut costs across the board and to hoard cash. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead managers should step on the gas –  identify and grow the sustainably profitable portion of their business by focusing their resources and investments on these customer relationships. When times improve and all ships rise on the incoming tide, the instinct is to cling to all revenue increases – no matter what the profit impact. Rather, managers should shift their resources to the business that produces high sustainable profits and growth.

How can a company’s sales force become more profit focused?

Four key elements: (1) know the score – both account potential and profitability; (2) know the priorities – secure the best (most profitable) accounts, then get more of the best business, then turn around the marginal business, and lastly reprice the remaining losing business; (3) know the company’s best practice – observe the president’s club winners’ best practices, codify them, and teach them to the others (especially the critical task of ramping up high-potential underpenetrated accounts); and (4) know how to link sales compensation to profitability, not just to revenues and gross margins. Note that these are top management’s responsibility – how can a sales rep maximize profitability if the company’s top managers don’t know how to do it?

How can you make your customers more profitable?

If your operations managers can’t tell you what they would do to maximize a key customer’s profitability, they need to spend much more time in their customers – walking in their customers’ shoes. (Note that I said operations managers, not sales reps.) They need to work directly with their customer counterparts to develop three things: (1) great rapport, relationships, and trust; (2) a joint end-to-end understanding of the activities and costs of the intercompany supply chain – and an agreement on how to lower costs and increase asset productivity for both companies; and (3) an understanding of the political situation and attitudes of the members of the customer’s buying center. These three things will drive huge sales and profit increases, even in highly penetrated customers. Unfortunately, most managers incorrectly assume that operations managers should only meet with customers after a mature sales relationship is established.

How should supply chain management be adapted to be more profitable?

Supply chain managers should have a critical role but are in danger of being bypassed. Traditionally supply chain managers focused primarily on internal cost reduction, an artifact of the age of mass markets. Today, they have to shift focus to supply chain productivity, which involves four critical tasks: (1) understanding and maximizing the earnings of their assets, not just minimizing costs; (2) spending a large portion of their time with their counterparts in key customers (those capable of providing high sustained profitability and growth) in order to figure out how to drive sales by making the customers more profitable; (3) working with the sales and marketing team to develop a standard set of customer relationships (arm’s length to highly integrated), so they can fulfill each in a streamlined and economical way; and (4) teaming with sales and marketing to match customers to relationships.

How should marketing be adapted to be more profitable?

At budget time in many companies, the marketing group gets concerned about quantifying its value-added. Yet marketing is at the center of two critical profitability variables – customer relationships and product development. Customer relationships are the key to securing and growing profitable revenues. Marketing should lead the way in developing a standard set of relationships (from arm’s length to highly integrated), matching customers to relationships, and establishing relationship migration paths to deepen key account integration. The key to effective product development is to meet the needs of the customers in the core of sustainably profitable business, rather than designing products for the average customer. By excelling in these two critical areas, marketing managers can make a huge lasting contribution to profitability.

Does profitability require a different sort of leadership?

Yes, everyone has to manage at the right level. Vice presidents should spend most of their time positioning the company for the next 3-5 years – since that’s the time it takes to develop major new initiatives. Directors (department heads) should spend half their time coordinating with each other to manage the company’s profitability, and the other half directing the managers who report to them. Managers should run the day-to-day company. Instead, in many companies, everyone focuses primarily on the company’s day-to-day performance.

What are the first steps anyone can start taking tomorrow to make their business more consistently profitable in today’s economy?

A small team of managers can analyze the profitability of a multi-billion dollar company at a very granular level in several weeks using standard desktop tools. This is the first step. With this view, the management team can develop a highly targeted set of initiatives to secure and grow the best business, and to turn around the marginal business. Within a year, the company will experience a dramatic, sustainable increase in profitability.

Change Management: Paving the Cowpaths

Change management is one of the most difficult problems facing managers at all levels. All too often, managers focus primarily on defining the best end-state, and deal with the change process almost as an afterthought. If the end-state really is better, the logic goes, then people will find the vision compelling and migrate to it. Often this almost has the feeling of a “lay-down” hand in bridge.

This situation reminds me of the story of the math graduate student who woke up in the middle of the night and smelled smoke. He walked into the kitchen and saw that his stove was on fire. He looked at the water tap, looked at a bucket on the floor, said “a solution exists,” and went back to sleep.

Cowpaths

“Paving the cowpaths” is an expression often used to express disdain for weak change management programs.

The streets of downtown Boston are characterized by byzantine windings that seemingly defy logic – until one realizes that they trace the original cowpaths that cattle trod to skirt fields when ambling home from pasture in early colonial times. In downtown Boston, the streets are, indeed, paved cowpaths. In the newer section, Back Bay, planners had the luxury of laying out streets in a grid pattern on landfill.

The essence of “paving the cowpaths” is to point out the seemingly obvious folly of managing change by simply changing nothing of importance. Much later, the “reengineering” movement echoed this idea, noting that change managers should reengineer processes rather than simply automate them.

Yet managing programs of fundamental, sweeping change requires a unique process that is almost counter-intuitive. The reason is that change management most often takes place in a well-established organizational context.

Cowpaths revisited

I thought about the metaphor of “paving the cowpaths” this weekend, as I was reading a very interesting book, Wired For War, by P.W. Singer. This book is about the history of robotics, and the use of robots in warfare. The really interesting parts, however, are about the process of new technology adoption. This process seemingly defies logic.

For a number of years after robots were shown to be superior for certain uses, military leaders refused to embrace the new technology. For example, drone aircraft were demonstrably better at particular missions than manned aircraft. Yet because most top Air Force officers were former pilots, they rejected the new innovations and even used the new drone aircraft for target practice in training pilots.

It was not until relatively recently that external events created a situation in which the new robot technology began to be accepted. In the early 1990s, the tide began to turn. Singer notes that in the prior period, “It isn’t that the systems weren’t getting better, but that the interest, energy, and proven success stories necessary for them to take off just weren’t there.”  The situation began to change dramatically in the wake of the “Black Hawk Down” disaster, which generated a widespread public unwillingness to commit ground troops to the Balkans and Rwanda.

Not long after, the high injury and mortality rates experienced by our military personnel in Iraq caused a public outcry. The military responded in part by accelerating the deployment of robots in high-risk military missions, which enabled the new technology to break through the traditional military attitudes toward robots. This reversal led military leaders to convert the role of robots in warfare from one of “paving the cowpaths” to a much more sweeping role accomplishing powerful new activities –  like staying aloft for days doing surveillance – that simply could not have been done with manned technology.

A similar set of situations characterize the whole history of technology innovation. The moral of the story? Paving the cowpaths is often an effective first step in sweeping, paradigmatic change. The real questions are: (1) whether the initial formulation is flexible enough to support migration to a new system, and (2) whether the change managers have the vision and capability to create the conditions favorable for change, and to manage a multi-stage change process.

Business change management

Paving the cowpaths, in this context, is an important first step in major change. In fact, many successful IT system implementation projects start by mechanizing existing processes, but keep latent capabilities to support deeper change. Over time, as the organization experiences the benefits of the new system and as it becomes part of the company’s “plumbing,” change managers can roll out the more sweeping new capabilities. Because the system users experience the early benefits of the new system, they become much more willing and motivated to change their practices to take advantage of the powerful new possibilities.

The business school teaching case literature has great case examples of companies that instituted surprisingly sweeping change, by starting with piggybacking on current organizational processes and relationships. In my course at MIT, I teach one such case juxtaposed against another that features a sweeping change program implemented as a “big bang” all-at-once change. Not surprisingly, paving the cowpaths turned out to be the secret of success – enabling much more rapid and broad change when properly deployed and managed.

Profitability and change

One of the biggest problems –  and opportunities –  in profitability management is the scope and magnitude of the potential improvements. Virtually every company is 30-40% unprofitable by any measure, and 20-30% provides all the reported profits and subsidizes the losses.

Profit mapping, the core analytical tool of profitability management, shows the profitability of every product in every customer in a company. (I describe how to construct a profit map in my book, Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink.) Profit maps show exactly where profit is flowing and where is it lost.  The problem is that the sheer quantity of information can be overwhelming, and often leads managers to wonder where to start.

The most effective profitability management programs start with a degree of paving the cowpaths. The key to success is to prioritize the profit opportunities against the difficulty of change, and to develop smart ways to accelerate the organization’s pace of change. I think of this as the “view-to-effort” ratio.

View-to-effort ratio

When our kids were young, we used to take them hiking in New Hampshire. They complained on the way up the mountain, but they loved the view from the top. This led us to rate hikes by their “view-to-effort ratio. By starting with small hikes with nice views, we were able over time to sharpen their interest in great mountain views, and this in turn allowed us to increase the size of the hike.

In short, we started with a “pave the cowpath” approach, and moved forward from there. Through this process, our children learned to love hiking and enjoy nature. Today, they are hiking on trails that would leave us breathless. Had we not started incrementally, we would not have experienced this result.

Smart change management

One of the most important keys to success in profitability management is smart change management. It is also the biggest stumbling block.

The well-known inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil notes, “About thirty years ago, I realized that timing was the key to success….Most inventions and predictions tend to fail because timing is wrong.” Singer observes, “Kurzweil has found that the challenge isn’t just inventing something new, but doing so at just the right moment that both technology and the marketplace are ready to support it.”

The key to success is to craft a change program that starts with “paving the cowpaths.” This essential first step allows the organization to see the power and feasibility of the new approach, which in turn creates the essential conditions for more sweeping change.

Successful managers draw on their reservoir of wisdom and experience to craft the right formulation. This critical element makes all the difference between success and failure.

Page 1 of 3123