A dose of reality to improve business systems: certainly better than an MBA from the Harvard Business School

Tyra Banks with her controversial Harvard Business School wallpaper

Tyra Banks with her controversial Harvard Business School wallpaper

Yesterday, we saw an announcement in a business paper about an upcoming workshop on improving work systems, to make manufacturing and services more efficient: this is for Lean Sigma Six. If you want to be certified to be a consultant or to do lectures for this particular way of approaching quality control and efficiency analytics, they have different grades, black belt being one of the highest. Wow. What caught our attention was the mention that on the area of service efficiency, a vice president of one of the biggest banks is there to talk about how to delight and serve the customer. It caught our attention because every time we are asked to deposit money in someone’s bank  account, say a travel agency in an emergency to book plane tickets and hotels, we always dread it when the name of this bank comes up.

Their branch in Ortigas may yet qualify as one of the longest lines in Philippine banking (yes, some hyperbole, but some reality there as well) with only three, at times because of the lunch-hour break each of them deserves, only two tellers, even one when someone is sick or is needed in the vault to process the entry of cash from the armored van. Our office is in a business center of Metro Manila (Ortigas): you can imagine how chaotic it must be in other business centers like Makati, Binondo, and Cebu. The same top bank just had its president retire to high accolades; a bright, popular, certainly a nice guy who has an Ateneo de Manila University undergraduate degree and a Harvard Business School MBA tucked under his belt. Never mind the Management Man of the Year Award. This same bank has a cutting-edge leadership program for its executives, tie-ups with Harvard Business School, a resident Caucasian-American to just provoke and challenge the way things are done.

 

But in the end we realize: all that does not mean anything. “Culture,” according to Peter Drucker, “eats strategy for breakfast.” And unless there is a massive overhaul of its culture in this bank, all the Michael Porter-photocopied reading materials on strategy and competitive advantage, all the right diplomas plastered on the walls, all the right sound bites won’t save it from the bad service it offers customers. Why they cannot figure it out and us geniuses here in Sunfu Solutions can? The bank’s size alone protects it from having customers flee in droves, as its branch network is one of the most extensive in a country of islands.

 

Is it simply because, as legendary editor Tina Brown said: “It’s really, really difficult for the old behemoths to stay nimble in an era of such disruptive innovation. Elephants can’t tap dance” ? We doubt if it is that easy. To say what Brown said is to buy into the mantra that corporations are by default slow, wasteful, and unresponsive to customers. Organizing corporations is easily justified because of its ability to get massive undertakings executed, but supposedly in an efficient and timely way. You can’t get to build an oil rig or hospital building without a massive organization. Sunfu is able to detect the flaw in the Bank of Philippine Islands because it is small, nimble, always desperate for time? We think it is because senior managers are expected to routinely, even if only occasionally, as part of our company exercise to  do the work of its most junior staff. Meaning our senior management people go to the bank, pick up a customer from the airport, and join in equipment installations in far-flung provinces (Palompon in Leyte anyone?), as a management rule in making sure we face reality and not just face the balance sheet, we do not just meet long-existing and happy customers, and we do not just drink the kool-aid we offer. Every time one of us senior managers do this kind of work, or exposure, or quality/reality check, inevitably something will come up in the next company-wide meeting about how to avoid complacency, how to serve the customer better, what equipment or systems need to be upgraded, what rest period a personnel will need from the daily grind of a routine. Knowing reality and experiencing it is definitely one of the most important management tools: certainly better than a piece of paper saying you have gone through the Harvard Business School. A doctorate degree holder in business management who happened to be a president of one of the biggest universities in downtown Manila once told us she had never taught a single class in this university where she was president. She did not see it as being part of her job. It was immediately our conclusion that it explained why the university she managed was in shambles. At times like this, in spite of our love for management books and management gurus, we get our very healthy dose of skepticism that they even help us at all in improving.