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And This Too Shall Pass

February 13, 2012 1 comment

Have you heard the story behind the phrase “This too shall pass”?  Here is one version of the folktale:

One day Solomon  decided to humble Benaiah ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister.  He said to  him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me.  I  wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”

“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will  find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

“It has  magic powers,” answered the king.  “If a happy man looks at it, he  becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”  Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring.  On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem.   He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.  “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it.   When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.

That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.  “Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?”  All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”  As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face.  The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band:  _gimel, zayin, yud_, which began the words “_Gam zeh ya’avor_” –  “This too shall pass.”

At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.*  (http://www.wscribe.com/parables/index.html)

The story I am more familiar with goes like this:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations.  They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” * (Wikipedia)

Why do I recount these stories about that phrase?  Because that phrase, while applicable to life in general, is all too true specifically when applied to business.  Where once businesses thrived and brought great joy to customers, investors and employees alike they now close their doors.   Management teams once considered “masters of the universe” have become vulnerable and uncertain – vulnerable to the changing winds and uncertain about what they need to do next.

What changed over the years?  Many of us can remember back to the 1950’s and 1960’s when the US was the dominant industrial power.  Fresh out of WWII, there was huge global demand for consumer products and America was the world’s supplier.  America was flush with cash since it exported far more than it imported.  While there were struggles in life, there were also some comfortable certainties.  At that time people graduated from high school, got a job in the local factory, married their school sweetheart and raised a family.  Kids played unsupervised until dark and neighbors watched out for the safety and behavior of all the kids on the block.

All of that has changed.  American industry is no longer ‘the only game in town’ and the US is far from being flush with cash.  Global demand remains but Americans are competing with low-cost labor from many growing economies.  A life-long job with a local employer is not a typical scenario.  It is more likely a worker will change jobs and professions multiple times during their careers.  And kid’s activities are so organized in many cases they don’t know how to just go outside and play.  People don’t just drop in to visit any more and the parents of neighbors don’t raise their voices to other people’s children.

You may wonder how we got to where we are.  We did it just like we do most other things – one unintentional step at a time.  Our culture did not change over night.  It has morphed relatively slowly but has been doing so for such a long time that it is bearly recognizable in some respects.  How many of you have ever had a puppy?  You were completely delighted to have that cute little bundle of love and energy.  Every day you would play with it and you never really realized how much it was changing until someone who had not seen it would stop by and exclaim surprise at how much it had grown.  When you are there every day you don’t see the tiny changes.

Same can be said about our culture and the expectations of customers.  Look at the automotive industry in its early days.  First came Henry Ford who was willing to sell a car of any color - as long as it was black.  Then William C Durant formed General Motors and offered the environment a variety of styles and colors.  GM was so successful by tapping into those customer wants that Henry Ford had to close his doors and retool in order to compete with the new set of customer expectations.   Today we are talking about mass customization where a customer can pick and chose options for his/her car and still have it delivered in a couple of weeks.

The changing competitive environment spells disaster to those companies that can not adapt.  Obsolete products and processes mean shrinking market share and reduced profits.  Senior executives with established companies are experiencing sales and profit problems and are uncertain about how to sustain their existing business let alone grow it over the next few years.  These are companies that started years ago, had success, grew and then over time saw the bloom fade off their rose and now know troubled times are at hand.

The problems these companies are facing are not due to a lack of effort or intelligence by the management teams and the employee workforce.  Quite often some of the hardest working people are busy in companies that are under performing.   You could say that it is precisely for that reason that those people are working so hard.  They are trying to bail out the water in their boat faster than it is coming in lest it sink them.  The end result is that they don’t have enough time to do non-urgent and important activities (quantrant II in Steven Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).  These dedicated people cannot do the long-term planning because they are too busy fighting the short-term tasks at hand.  They are consumed by the daily tactical cycle of putting out fires and  never having quiet moments to figure out what problems are at the core of the business and what solutions have to be put in place.

A frantic work pace becomes the norm.  The thinking of management takes on a more critical view of their workers.  Those employees who go home at the end of the scheduled work day are looked down upon.  Apparently they don’t share in the ‘sense of urgency’ felt by others.  The business leaders firmly believe that the people who really understand the situation and how important work is stay late because they share their concern for the survival of the business.

Company executives try everything they know without gaining the results they are looking to achieve.  Years have been invested in creating and trying to execute new strategies only to see little, if any, progress.  Now they may be willing to try something slightly different.

Sometimes the performance problem exists in part because the executives of these companies lack the understanding of what the overall competitive environment was like when the business was first started.  They don’t know the context of the company within the time when it was created.  Context is King.  Without knowing what it was like back then they will fail to understand just how much that environment shaped their business model design.  Now take that business model design, from those long-passed glory days, and insert it into today’s world.  Most of the product, process and organizational designs no longer work.  They have become irrelevant.

This is apparent in Tom Peter’s book “Re-imagine”.  Mr. Peter’s discovered that of the top 100 companies in the US in 1910 only 18 survived over the next seventy years and only 2 outperformed the stock market.  He further substantiates that point by noting that of the S&P 500 companies in the 1950’s more than 80% failed to exist 40 years later.

These statistics tell us that business model designs do indeed become obsolete.  What worked as recently as 40 years ago no longer provides what is needed in today’s world.  When customer expectations, competitor offerings or new materials change so must designs.  The question is not “how good is the quality of the design?” but instead “how good is the design in relation to the current environment?”.

The idea about quality of design in relation to the current environment must be applied to different levels of the organization.  Think of products / services, processes and organizations as unique parts of a business and take the time to realize that each one of those parts has a design.  The idea of designs being
relevant or obsolete needs to be applied to the parts of a business as well as its whole.

What determines if a process design is no longer relevant?  Some will tell you that it is strictly the customer and they like to use the term Outside In.  I happen to believe they are only telling you half the story.  Processes have to fulfill promises made to customers while at the same time contributing positively to the bottom line.

Promises to the customer can be broken down further into price, quality, lead time, and desirability (appearance, features, functions and options).  The term I like to use when referring to those promises is Value Proposition (VP).  We all look for great value before making a purchase.  If one particular product has the greatest perceived value (combination of price, quality, lead time and desirability) then people will clamor to buy it.
Interestingly it is usually not the least expensive product that becomes
the market leader.

Who gets to determine what the Value Proposition is for a particular product?  Certainly not the executives of the companies offering the product.  This is an important concept to understand and BPM ultimately plays a key role.  I can say generally ‘it is the market place that determines the value of a product’.  When I say market place I am referring to the sum total of all customers within a given market.  The market  determines: what is a reasonable price for a given product; it determines the level of quality it will accept, and it decides how long it will wait for the product to be delivered.  Additionally it is also looking for certain features, functions and options and a pleasing appearance.

It is very important for all executives involved with creating demand for a company’s products to understand the Value Proposition of the market place for those products it is offering.  The market’s VP is the baseline.  Next it is important to know how well a company is performing in relation to that baseline.  Are its products more or less expensive?  Is the quality higher, the same or lower?  How long does it take to supply products to the customer?  How well does a
company’s product stack up in its features, functions and options?

There is one other activity worth executing before moving to the next step and that is to take a look at the competition and how well they are performing in relation to Value Proposition.  This will give executive very good information on where their products are falling short and where they have a distinct advantage.

While executives do not get to decide the expectations of the market place they do get to decide what steps their company will take with the VP information they have collected.  They know market expectations, their company’s performance in relation to those expectations and how well the competition is meeting what the market wants.

The VP analysis helps executives know where to focus their time and energy.  It helps to think about this idea if you realize that three of the four components of the Value Proposition can be directly linked to BPM: price, quality and lead time.  It also helps to think about the VP as the performance requirements for any process improvement activities.  “Performance requirements for processes should not be arbitrary”.  BPM practitioners should take the time to determine what the performance requirements are for any process they are going to improve.  And then the BPM person must design processes where the performance capabilities are equal to or greater than the performance requirements.

If the BPM professional designs and implements a process that meets the requirements of the market (outside in) and the shareholder (return on investment) then that process will be relevant, for now.

Sustainable performance, at the business or process level, is only possible if the executives of firms adapt their existing designs to accommodate the new
performance requirements of the company.  As we look at the existing requirements of today’s environment we can rest assured that “this too shall pass”.

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