How to Assess Management Fads

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The air is always abuzz with new management methods. How do you decide if any particular one will benefit your business? We provide a process for evaluation and tips for implementation.

OVERVIEW [top]

You may scoff when you hear the term "management fad," thinking that the latest craze hardly merits your attention. You may be right. But you may want to investigate it before you dismiss it for good. Some fads turn out to be major shifts in management and are used widely because they contribute to production and market efficiency. Some may be failures overall, but have elements that can make your company more competitive. Some are just boondoggles.

Skepticism is wise, especially if you do not have the time to evaluate whether a fad applies to your business. Properly assessing a new technique requires a depth of understanding that doesn't come quickly. Reciting buzzwords is easy; translating concepts into practical use is more challenging.

If you study a fad intently and embrace it, you must then make a long-term commitment to provide the necessary resources to implement the new system. But because fast-growth businesses often evolve at warp speed, you may find it hard to stick with a new campaign as your environment changes. And if you give up too soon, you breed cynicism in your staff. Nothing makes supervisors and workers as resistant to change as an employer who frequently flits from one new system to another.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • A process to evaluate fads and determine how useful they are.
  • How to translate valid, credible business theories into practice.

SOLUTION [top]

Management fads encompass major system restructuring (such as total quality management and reengineering), as well as changes in specific activities (like six sigma, systems thinking and critical path analysis).

Corporate executives typically initiate the process by paying consultants who preach the latest gospel. The execs then hand off their newfound tools to "change agents" (middle managers) who supervise the "targets" (workers who must apply the fad's teachings). In a fast-growth company, this approach might prove too formal or hierarchical. Rather than expect new techniques to cascade down the ranks all at once, you're better off introducing specific, incremental ideas to your employees and letting them decide how to implement them.

Example: To become a "learning organization" (a fad popularized in Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline), begin by asking a team of workers to examine whether any steps they've taken to eliminate backlogs have made matters worse. By leading them to explore Senge's point that "the cure can be worse than the disease," they can figure out for themselves if any short-term improvements come at a prohibitive long-term cost.

When assessing a management fad, use these guidelines to evaluate it properly:

  1. Watch your expectations. If you get too excited too soon, you're bound to pin unrealistic hopes on the newest management craze. Fads fade over time.

    Don't make major changes based just on advice from someone whose experience is limited. Be especially leery of management consultants with one-solution-fits-all advice for change. Ask them whom they've advised recently NOT to do what they're advising you to do. Remember that the author of a suggestion for change has spent a lot of time developing arguments that emphasize its effectiveness and importance and is not likely to tell you about its weaknesses.

    Conversely, if you go in too jaded, your doubts will prove contagious. Employees will mirror your skepticism and make a half-hearted attempt to follow through.

    It's best to approach a major change in management style like a neutral, curious scientist. Take time to gather information, stage experiments and inspect the results. Discuss it with managers of other companies. Visit a library and see what recent books and journal articles say about it. Proceeding carefully will protect you from flavor-of-the-month ideas.

  2. Let employees drive the process. Your workers need to convince themselves that a change will benefit them. If they treat a new program merely as your pet project or something rammed down their throats, they may grudgingly comply. But they will not believe in it. You'll know a change is doomed when you follow up and your staff tells you, "Oh, we tried that. It didn't work." John P. Kotter said in Harvard Business Review on Change (Harvard Business Review, 1998), "When is the urgency rate high enough (to ensure wholehearted staff support)?… When about 75% of a company's management is honestly convinced that business-as-usual is totally unacceptable."

  3. Define action, not thoughts. When analyzing a fad, ask, "What should we do?" not "What should we think?" If implementation begins with imposing a new mind-set on employees, the fad will probably fail. People like to conclude for themselves how they should think. If they're told by the boss, "Here's a new philosophy we're adopting around here. Accept it," they may resist.

    It's smarter to help employees extract useful pointers based on the fad's precepts — and let them test new skills or activities. Example: To implement chaordic leadership (popularized by Dee Hock, the founder of Visa International), don't make lofty pronouncements like "We're going to embrace chaos and order in a whole new way." Instead, say, "Try suggesting what you want others to do rather than ordering them to do it," or "Try listening for what you share in common with the speaker. Then paraphrase what you hear to confirm the common ground you've established."

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Dick Elliott, president and CEO of PRO Group Inc. in Hialeah, Fla., has learned to love "lean manufacturing," a trend rooted in Japanese production principles that has taken off in the United States. His company manufactures factory and warehouse products under the Adapto brand name. It earned $11 million in 1999 sales.

In evaluating whether to adopt lean manufacturing in his business, Elliott identified two prerequisites that needed to be met. First, from his study of lean manufacturing, he knew a business should have "a high labor content" (defined as total labor cost representing 20% to 40% of the product cost) for the fad to pay off. "If our total people cost was 5% or 10%, lean manufacturing wouldn't bring the same cost savings," he said.

Second, the products should not require significant capital investment to fabricate. For example, while a maker of circuit boards needs to invest in costly circuit-insertion robots, sophisticated machinery is not required to produce Adapto products.

With those requirements met, Elliott believed the trend was right for the company. The result: Lean manufacturing has helped Adapto hit its goals for quality, cost and delivery.

DO IT [top]

  1. Imagine it's one year from now and you've bought into the fad. List three specific, measurable changes you expect to occur as a result. If you can't, bypass the fad.

  2. After attending a speech by a proponent of a management fad or reading a book on a fad, list specific, one-sentence action steps you can take to apply what you've learned.

  3. When talking with employees, translate a fad's acronyms and made-up words into plain English. They should not need to speak a whole new language in order to understand what they need to do.

  4. Identify the specific problems your business faces. Then evaluate to what extent a fad addresses those problems. Don't accept the premise of the fad outright, and then artificially fit your business into a fad-based model.

  5. Take a skeptical, show-me-the-results attitude. Invest in a fad only after you've analyzed at least two examples of companies like yours that have adopted it successfully and produced quantifiable results that you can replicate.

  6. Before implementing a fad, define what your employees would gain. Answer the "What's in it for them?" question. Examples: It'll reduce your stress, increase your job security, expand profit sharing, etc.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Times Books, 1997).

American Business and the Quick Fix by Michael E. McGill (Henry Holt & Co., 1988). McGill discusses weaknesses in 20th century management movements in the first two chapters; then he does the same thing for management methods, skewering megafirm, entrepreneurial, messianic, managerial and motivational styles; he closes by pointing out shortcomings of overemphasis on the MBA in management hiring.

Fad Surfing in the Boardroom: Managing in the Age of Instant Answers by Eileen C. Shapiro (Addison-Wesley/Persius, 1995, 1997).

Calling a Halt to Mindless Change: A Plea for Commonsense Management by John Macdonald (AMACOM, 1997). The first half of the book defines the weaknesses of recent fads. The second half has good, if generic, management advice.


Internet Sites

Managemenf Fads: Things You Should Know, by Robert Bacal. Work911 / Bacal & Associates, 2002.


Article Contributors

Writer: Morey Stettner

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