Beyond Management Fads: Enterprise Fitness Builds Strength and Speed for the Long Haul
by John Covington

The "flavor of the month" may get people excited at the ice cream shop, but it's a downer in the workplace. For at least the past decade, it's been all but impossible for leadership to propose any new approach or system without it being categorized as the flavor of the month. And it's no wonder. In almost every corporation, employees have seen an array of supposedly ultimate solutions piped on board with considerable fanfare, only to sink into oblivion within a matter of months.

Remember Management By Objectives? Quality Circles? Empowerment? TQM? High-Performance Teams? Business Process Re-engineering? The fads in management systems rival women's fashions for the speed with which they move from obligatory to out-of-it. So it's no mystery that employees are somewhat jaded and cynical about marvelous new movements and cures.

But hold it just a minute! Are these initiatives of the last part of the last century really so contemptible and old hat? Look at what happened. By the late 1970s American companies realized they were being hammered by the Japanese. Yet fewer than fifteen years later, the United States had regained all its competitive strength. So those methodologies for improving quality and productivity actually seem to have worked.

None of them were the panaceas their advocates often claimed that they were, however, the limitations of each approach made them vulnerable to being toppled by some newcomer that emphasized some other dimension of the organization. A preoccupation with measurements could make an approach that focused on people seem dramatically different and exciting. A slavish devotion to goals could make processes suddenly seem seductive. A warm bath in organizational culture could make a good rigorous shower in Six Sigma certainly sound appealing.

And so it has gone for a quarter of a century. We've seen a parade of management philosophies that all have merit, but none have really become a way of life. We've seen an array of tools and techniques that are close to being timeless in their utility, but for the most part they have fallen victim to newer trends and been rendered obsolete.

I predict that in another twenty-five years it will be obvious that these philosophies and methodologies were not primitive junk to be discarded, but that they all contained a piece of the solution. That they weren't wrong, so much as they were incomplete. By then, I believe, we will have an approach to continuous learning and continuous improvement that takes into account all the dimensions of a business organization.

The beginning of this universal solution, I think, is an understanding that our human organizations are living organic systems. What that fundamentally means is that everything affects everything else. There are no firewalls between values, for example, and performance. There is no way you can change processes without affecting culture. A decision having to do with manufacturing has repercussions in design and engineering and sales and customer service, and so on. It'll all interconnect and it's all in motion.

When my colleagues and I try to get our client companies to understand their organizations as the dynamic living entities they are, we've found that the best analogy is the system closest to home - the human body. And as we've customized solutions to the challenges that they are facing, we've found that improvement in organizations bears a strong resemblance to improving personal fitness and health.

I don't claim that we have invented the universal solution, the panacea that every new management system is trying to be, but until such a solution is invented, I think that what we have named Enterprise Fitness makes a sturdy bridge. Enterprise Fitness is an approach that takes account of the living and dynamic nature of the organization. It draws principles and tools freely from the best management systems available, from the currently hot Six Sigma and Lean, to the less well-known Theory of Constraints, to the more global chaos theory, to the sometimes scorned warm fuzzy people-focused programs. The fashion analogy holds. Plaid shirts may not be the height of style, but they serve many people very well, year after year.

No Reading Glasses for Hearing Problems - Fixes That Fit

An enterprise fitness program begins just the way a personal fitness program does - with a physical examination. It starts with a baseline assessment of how a whole bunch of subsystems are functioning. The doctor puts the person on a scale, takes his blood pressure, listens to his heart, checks his vision and hearing, and so forth. For each of these functions, there is a normal range of what is healthy. A red flag goes up when one of the numbers is outside of that acceptable range. Similarly, in an organization, due date performance, customer satisfaction levels, and many other indicators are measured. Areas that are below par or diseased will come to light during the examination.

Typically, what has happened when a problem area is identified in an assessment of an organization, the flavor-of-the-month treatment, whatever that happens to be, is applied. So if the company has the equivalent of a hearing deficit, the treatment may turn out to be reading glasses. Furthermore, if the flavor-of-the-month fix is glasses, the entire focus will be on finding and treating vision problems. Heart disease, foot problems, and skin problems go undetected, spreading and doing damage below the radar.

No BandAids for Cancer - A Holistic View

Enterprise fitness follows the human fitness model much more closely. When it's a human being, and a hearing loss is diagnosed during the exam, the person will generally be referred to an ear specialist, and perhaps will be fitted with a hearing aid. But enterprise fitness practitioners try to be the holistic healers we all wish our primary care doctors were. Thus, if there's been a gradual hearing loss, they will look into which areas of the patient's life are affected. Maybe the irritability she is experiencing has to do with the fact that much of what she hears is confusing. Maybe she has stopped socializing because she's embarrassed about not being able to follow conversations. Maybe her insomnia and lack of appetite are symptoms of depression caused by the sense of loss. The enterprise fitness takes it for granted that many parts of the system are affected by disease and dysfunctions in any particular part of the system. Likewise, any cure or treatment to one part of the body is likely to have an effect on the functioning of the whole body, and it's important to know whether that effect is positive or negative.

Like modern medicine, modern management has a whole arsenal of interventions from which to choose. Many of these we would liken to organ transplants. Maybe that do-everything software system really could cure everything that ails you, but will the transplant take, or will your organization reject this alien new thing? What might you need to do first, to make sure that the living organism that is your company will be able to accept this change?

Enterprise fitness is a refined and more precise approach to improvement. There's no assumption that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Every organization is unique, just as every individual is unique. Some individuals demand antibiotics, others prefer to treat their ailments with herbal remedies and Reiki healing. The culture of the organization is a major determinant of what will work and what won't, what kind of change will be accepted and what will be rejected.

No Easy Come, Easy Go - Continuous Learning and Steady Improvement

Best of all, perhaps, enterprise fitness is a long-haul approach to increasing and maintaining organizational health and vitality. If Lean principles are working well for you, there's no need to chuck them when the next new methodology comes down the pike. All the management theories that have come along have their strengths, and it's usually better to stick with the tools that have proven effective than to jump on every new bandwagon.

But when there is a problem, the fitness approach allows you to apply a solution, right away, exactly where it's needed. You don't have to wait for Year Four of the TQM program to ease the pain. You don't have to wait until Six Sigma has permeated every part of the organization to fix the problem. Again, it's like personal fitness. If strength and endurance are what you need, you can start a weight lifting program today. You don't have hold off until your weight is ideal and your allergies are under control and your divorce is final.

At a pharmaceutical company, the enterprise fitness approach doubled the company's productivity in just one month. Here was a fairly typical situation having to do with how materials were flowed through the labs. In line with "flavor of the month" thinking, the company assumed that what was needed was a software solution, the purchase of a costly scheduling package that might be tweaked to meet their needs. In fact, a change in work behaviors, including the ever-popular "multi-tasking," was the solution here. With some Socratic training, the employees themselves identified the habits that were clogging up the works.

Understanding why and what they needed to change, the employees were quickly able to do it. Furthermore, the better ways of working they learned have wide applicability. Because of this new learning and these new habits the company as a whole became healthier.

No Marathons for Couch Potatoes - Time to Get Real

Finally, Enterprise Fitness is a philosophy that takes into account the fact that some organizations are lean and flexible and feisty, while others (sometimes even departments or units within the same company) are so out of shape they can hardly draw breath. Almost all the magic management systems that have come along in the past quarter century have ignored this truth. Many failed and were abandoned because the organization was not in condition to benefit from them. A certain amount of health and fitness is actually a pre-requisite for most improvement initiatives.

In our consulting engagements, we often walk into situations where people are thoroughly stressed out and demoralized. We often come into environments where chaos rules and fire-fighting is Job One day after day, month after month. We sometimes are called in when the picture looks so bleak that the owners just want to get the company in good enough shape to sell. Putting in a new software system doesn't help in these situations. The people issues have to be addressed.

The Enterprise Fitness approach doesn't give short shrift to any aspect of the organization. The finances and the folkways, the mission and the metrics, the processes and the people relationships - they're all interconnected. Real and rapid improvement comes about as a result of focusing on where the pain is, and using the precision tool for the job.

This approach, then, is flexible rather than rigid, focused rather than scattershot, and adaptable to whatever the age and stage of the organization. It's not the flavor of the month, but it's a fitness regimen you can actually live with, year in and year out. And like the best personal fitness programs, it's a route to getting in better condition with each passing year. You're not always looking for the exercise routine that will give you magnificent muscles in 30 days. You make health and fitness a permanent priority, stick with the annual physicals, and catch and treat little problems before they become big problems.

And sure enough, when you stop chasing that elusive silver bullet, and rely more on common sense, experience, persistence, prevention, and focused improvement, pretty soon you find that you can jump higher, run faster, and lift heavier loads. And you find that being stronger and more agile feels good, and attracts the employees and strategic partners you want. And you find that keeping in top shape helps you weather the inevitable economic downturns and unexpected events.


John Covington is President of Chesapeake Consulting, a firm that provides value chain improvement solutions that enhance growth through increased speed and predictability. A manufacturing industry specialist for nearly 30 years, he has served in a variety of positions including Vice President of Operations and Plant Manager of a Fortune 200 company.

As an undergraduate at the United States Naval Academy and the University of Alabama, John earned a BS in Chemical Engineering. He is author of Tough Fabric, a supply chain case study, and serves on several boards of directors including Bello Machre, a non-profit that provides group homes for the developmentally disadvantaged.

He can be reached at 410-647-6880, e-mail: jcovington@chesapeak.com , or visit Chesapeake Consulting .

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Copyright 2002 by John Covington. All rights reserved.

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