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 Guest Editorial by Theodore Kinni

Get Back to Basics

by Theodore B. Kinni

    Maybe a lot of us would be wise to forget about
    trying to make sense of all the chaotic demands
    that spin around us all day, every day.

A nightmare of sorts visits me from time to time. It's like being a character in a cartoon: I'm walking around, or sitting at my desk, or doing whatever I do in the middle of a full-fledged tornado. Madly swirling around me are all these "icons" (this is an Information Age cartoon), and each icon represents something else that is demanding my personal attention, my time, my energy. This tornado never moves on, and it never dies down. That's the nightmare!

When I was a kid, my mother warned me about reading or watching too many cartoons. But I don't think that's my problem. For I was discussing this distressing self-portrait with a colleague, and he laughed along with me. He seemed to think that everybody else feels exactly the same way -- over-rushed, slightly out of control. It's the way the universe is these days, he advised.

He suggested that there are two ways to deal with this psychic tornado. One is to try to tame it by jumping into the tornado at maximum swirl and grabbing each demanding icon one by one and beating it to death (or at least into submission). This is not recommended: Picture yourself twirling around madly with all those icons battering you furiously.

The other, the recommended path, is to stay in the eye, motionless but clearly focused on just a few essential icons. Find the most important demands upon your life and deal with them fully and completely. Control these icons, and let everything else twirl away.

This confessional has a moral: Maybe a lot of us would be wise to forget about trying to make sense of all the chaotic demands that spin around us all day, every day. Maybe if we just re-embrace the basic elements of success and work at these few things, everything else will fall into place of its own accord.

Ironically, the clarity and focus that my friend suggested I should practice in my own life is exactly what I had found during a six-month search, studying and writing about 62 world-class manufacturing plants, all winners of IndustryWeek's "America's Best Plant" award. All those plants, all those companies, were clearly focused on three core strategies: customer focus, service and product quality, and agility. They may have let a lot of other stuff twirl, but not these core essentials. None of them let these three ultra-important business success factors slide. And all 62 have been, to say the least, highly successful.

If this brief confession leads you to decide that I'm master of the obvious, I, for one, won't argue. The longer I watch and participate in business, the more I'm convinced that it's pretty easy to excel. What's so tough? Figure out what your customers want and need, create it fast and continuously improve it. Then, do it again. And again. And again. It's basic stuff, right? It's obvious, right?

The strange thing is that the majority of companies are unable -- or unwilling -- to remain focused on the basics of business success. You've seen them -- or maybe you work at one of them: They're constantly jumping into the tornado, riding the latest marketplace icon or business fad around and around in circles. Then, before success is ever in hand, they're leaping mid-air onto yet another icon or fad. It is a wild ride, but it doesn't go anywhere.

Maybe a lot of managers and leaders need to forget about trying to control all the chaos that spins all day, every day. Maybe if more business leaders would re-embrace the basic elements of business success and work at them, everything else will fall into place of its own accord. The lessons of the 62 "Best" that I studied showed that there is no better way to turn management nightmares into long-term success.

About the author

Theodore B. Kinni is Quality Digest's book reviewer and the author of America's Best: IndustryWeek's Guide to World-Class Manufacturing Plants (John Wiley & Sons, 1996). He is also an occasional contributor to www.mgeneral.com, a Web site for weekly commentary on managerial leadership.

Send comments to tkinni@qualitydigest.com.


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