Confessions of a Quality Manager  

Being the adventures of four jet-setting quality consultants who like to talk shop even more than they like good food and drink.

This is fantasy consulting. For the real thing, go to Fell Services' Quality pages.

Among all those books on how to negotiate internationally, somehow the subject of half a caterpillar gets overlooked. Here's the situation in a nutshell - well, a lettuce leaf. You are in an expensive Milanese restaurant, your hosts are upholding the honour of their country and, incidentally, having a really good meal on someone else's expenses. The portions are huge, even to someone who didn't have to get up at 3am and endure such a bumpy flight that changing at Timbuktoo, Wellington and Dublin would almost have been preferable, followed by hours of negotiation over each paragraph, phrase, word, punctuation point in a sweaty, smoky room. Perhaps this was a subtle form of knockout - would I fall flat on my face before or after eating the entire seabream and forest of side salad? But there was the honour of my country to be taken into consideration, the honour of my firm and the background voice of long gone parents who could barely afford the food and whoalways gave children priority. So I ate it all until the penultimate mouthful. That was the half caterpillar.

So is the proper thing to do:
a) Kick up a fuss in the hope of getting a free lunch at some stage in the far future when you may possibly feel hungry again?
b) Kick up a fuss in the hope of gaining competitive and moral advantage from the fact that your hosts are so barbaric that they take you to a restaurant that serves insects?
c) Kick the caterpillar under the table and make sure you don't tread on it?
d) Look imploringly at the waiter and ask him to take that thing away and give it to the people's dispensary for sick insects?

The decision was taken out of my hands. A far too efficient waiter whisked the plate away, leaving me with a knife, but wresting the fork and thing, wriggling in its death throes, and before I could say, well that's tough luck, folks, I know that vegetarianism is relative, but ... another portion arrived. Bigger, more opulent. The restaurant could only forgive its chef (no doubt being suspended by his toes for such an insult to a foreigner) if I was to eat it. My hosts would never live it down if it was known that they had such poor taste in restaurants. Now, as a woman, I would normally have just batted my eyelids and said how li'l ol' me couldn't manage something so big, could they just put it in a doggie bag or whatever the Italian equivalent is. But as a team member, a tough superhuman negotiator and a member of the (justly) feared quality inquisition, my options were limited. Either I could lose face or I could gain weight.

The only good thing was that we could have a long, leisurely series of espressos afterwards and talk about anything but work. So we talked about catchphrases, instead, and what happens when you outlive them. If the original word which caught the world's imagination was re-engineering, then the answer is simple. You take your own advice, accept that what was once unusual is now a fundamental concept of business and move on.

Hammer and Champy get the credit for being the big players back in the 1990s. Some people mention Davenport and Short, personally, I don't. There were aggressive phrases like "don't automate, obliterate" or "question the status quo, now", which don't give any indication that the technical definition of business process re-engineering, at least according to Hammer and Champy in 1993, is "a fundamental rethink and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic imporvements in critical conteporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed". Put more informally (more understandably?), it's wiping the slate clean and starting again, using modern technology and lateral thinking.

The Condor model, designed by a consortium of European construction companies, gives a model for business process re-engineering, which is remarkably similar to Shewhart's PDCA cycle of continuous improvement. From the vision cames an understanding of existing processes, the identification of processes to be redesigned, the implementation and evaluation of new processes, and, of course, the magic words of ongoing continuous improvement. It all sounds very good on paper, the benefits are sound (the usual increased competitive advantage, improved profitability through more efficient processes and so on) ... so why do 70% of businesses trying this technique fail with it?

Hammer could - and does - say that there are many improper uses of the concept. Champy would - and does - say that the sectors most in need of the concept are banks, which are afraid of change and don't know how to handle it. Another problem - sorry, I should have said "challenge" - is that managers today are under permanent and continuous pressure to present short term results, yet the very nature of business process re-engineering (because it inherently involves changing the corporate culture) is long term.

"It's all very well being academic about these things," Julio interjected, as he got up to get his 70th (surely not, perhaps it only seemed like that) espresso. He turned, his face pleading: "Give me examples, hard evidence!" (and he rolled the "r" of hard so much, if it had been a toffee, it would have rolled over and begged for mercy).

Well, Easyjet are a good example. Julio objected, on the grounds that they were at the top of their market, what need was there to re-engineer? Everyone else pointed out, a little sourly, that if IBM had re-engineered when they were at the top of their market, they might have stayed there. We didn't need to remind ourselves about Stelios Haji-Ioannou founding Easyjet on October 18, 1995 (Julio's birthday - that man gets into all the conversations going), or that Easyjet now operates 28 European routes. We were (unfairly) surprised that he had a BSc in economics and a MSc in shipping, trade and finance, and we were shocked rigid with envy that his load factor in October 2001 was 83.16% which is excellent by any standards. Easyjet had two motives for re-engineering: to look for ways to improve their core processes and to identify which processes should be outsourced. Sure, they brought in consultants, but they used the combination of specialists and staff to brainstorm after watching videos of the process of the day (or hour, or minute). It was a collaborative effort, cross functional, cross divisional and driven by a desperate and charismatic leader. With competitors like Buzz, Go and British Midland, Easyjet has to improve its turnaround time as much as possible and reduce its overheads (hence the paperless ticket system, the flight attendants who clean up the plane, the lack of booking seats). The main problem with the system is that by breaking the traditional link between travel agent and airline (and, also, losing the commission to be paid to the travel agents, which is a good thing, of course), Easyjet lost the channel of information on customers - and because they were competing with practically every other airline on cost grounds (if nothing else), they had no one to benchmark with. Julio suggested that Haj-Ioannou's well-publicised habit of flying on his own planes and asking other passengers for ideas of improvement may be one form of research. It's true: I had a friend of a friend of a friend of an ex of a friend of another ex who sat next to him once - or said she did - certainly, it's true that Easyjet do go in for extensive customer research.

Julio, who was feeling a little anti-British, suggested that British Airways could benefit from a touch of re-engineering. He was, once more, squashed, though the British Airways style of re-engineering has always put me off flying them. "Pah" protested a rather rumpled Julio, " What about your TSB, announcing a cultural change to encourage an achievement oriented culture, then making 5000 staff redundant?"

Ignoring him, we went back to discussing British Airways. Someone with a calculator reckoned that in 1981, British Airways were losing 200 a minute. The kindest thing anyone could say about it was that it was an old fleet and the journeys were uncomfortable. Yet by 1996, following a long period of business process re-engineering which re-designed employee attitudes and re-prioritised customer satisfaction, it was the world's most profitable carrier. We knew about Colin Marshall's "Putting People First" programme and the amount of his own personal sweat and guts he'd put into it. But our own feelings were that his re-engineering would have been better described as indoctination and where did the lateral thinking of the definition come in, anyway? Taking a formal quote, Julio, for once aligned with the feeling of the group, stated "The relatively high incidence of conflict throughout the period fuels doubts about a transformation in the culture of the company towards the mutual commitment model". And, anyway, it's all very well to quote 1996 propoganda, but what about the attempted strike in 1997 when BA staff, informed, by telephone at their home, that they had a duty to co-operate with their employer, suddenly had a mass illness (2000 people called in sick - 70% of flights from Heathrow were cancelled). Julio, who had had a British Airways girlfriend at that time, perked up and mentioned some of the things which had been suggested as ways of improving employees' morale - superglueing down the toilet seat, or putting eye drops in one obnoxious captain's salad. He said that he'd heard someone had put duvet feathers in an airplane engine. In 2000, British Airways announced losses of 224 million on its main business. The tailfin artwork introduced in 1997 to indicate that British Airways was an international airline, bombed, if that was the right word. If British Airways has any sense, it should be in the middle of another form of re-engineering right now, and not one which targets people's emotions. In the meantime, though, we decided to continue flying Easyjet ....

By this time, the restaurant was practically empty, the waiters were getting elusive and restless, and our stomachs were thinking that just a tiny snack might not be such a bad idea after all. Besides, we had to sign the contracts before we could go home and, speaking for myself, my stomach wanted to get back to plain Scottish food again.

  posted by Dovya R @ 8:54 PM : discuss

Monday, April 15, 2002  
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