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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Forge Ahead

When the economy is at a standstill, it’s critical to keep moving

Published: Thursday, September 16, 2010 - 06:30

The economy is uncertain, pessimism is rife in businesses, and many are standing around waiting for things to happen. However, complacency does not send a positive message to customers, colleagues, and employees. It is also not conducive to getting workforce input and buy-in to move in new directions. Consider the following story:

Long ago, in China, there was an old monk going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. Aged and weak, he was treading the long dusty road alone, seeking alms along the way. After many long months, one morning he gazed upward and saw the majestic mountain in the distance. By the roadside, there was an old woman working the field. “Please tell me,” he asked, “how much longer must I proceed before reaching the Holy Mountain?” The woman just looked at him, uttered a guttural sound and returned to her hoeing. He repeated the question a second and third time, but still there was no answer.

Thinking that the woman must be deaf, he decided to push on. After he had taken a few dozen steps, he heard the woman call out to him: “Two more days. It will take you two more days.”

Somewhat annoyed, the monk responded, “I thought you were deaf. Why didn’t you answer my question earlier?”

The woman replied, “You asked the question while you were standing still, Master. I had to see how fast your pace was, how determined your walk!”

This tale reminds me of business leaders I’ve met throughout the years. Some lament that employees do not provide them with any input, and others complain that their work force doesn’t even recognize them. And how about the suggestion-box initiative? Did that ever really yield anything substantial in your organization? If the answer is “no,” why do you think that is?

How often during your early years in business did you make a recommendation and never hear of it again? Your suggestions fell on apparently deaf ears and you stopped putting in your two bits. As a business leader, do you now receive suggestions, never do anything about them, yet wonder why creativity and innovation from your employees has stopped? Perhaps the above parable will provide some insight.

The strategic planning process is also subject to this phenomenon. A vice president of strategic planning recently shared that she does not really do any strategic planning per se; she merely follows what the company president tells her to do. In the past, she had tried to make positive change but did not see any movement in the organization. Not knowing if any of her suggestions will get anywhere, and not being given any direction about how the president wants to move, she now takes the easy road and just follows what the president says is the organizational strategy.

Not knowing if you will be listened to, or not knowing in which direction (or how fast) the organization is moving, makes it difficult to come up with a credible strategy. Superimpose these constraints against the current economic environment and it becomes almost impossible to forecast. In most organizations, strategy development is based on trends observed over three to five years and viewed in light of the expected future business environment, coupled with the rate of change. The absence of either of these puts the credibility of any strategy at risk.

However, despite such challenges, there are those who forge ahead, whether in their overall strategic goals or by following their quality policies. They not only have a clear vision of where they desire to be, but also show direction and movement toward that goal. These leaders do not sit around wondering what direction to take. They perform the due-diligence activities, acquire market intelligence, conduct business analysis, take calculated risks, involve their teams, put together a plan, and forge ahead. Their team knows where they are headed, and by understanding the pace, they reach their goals.

Parables teach us lessons, and the one above shows us that inaction makes it difficult for anyone to gauge the pace and the determination of an organization or its leader. Basic high school physics also has imparted to us the wisdom that it is easier to change direction when already in motion vs. from a standing-still position.


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.