Thursday, October 16, 2014

In search of excellence

Back in the early eighties, Peters and Waterman's best selling business book rapidly emerged as the new bible for how to excel in business.

When In Search of Excellence was published in 1982 the new managing director of Thorn Electrical Industries decided that the core theme that excellent companies succeed, was a culture the company should adopt. It was a time soon after the sort of retirement of founder Sir Jules Thorn when the old culture his 'hands on' approach had created, now left something of a gap where it was thought Peter's and Waterman's observations were just what was needed.

Thorn must have helped propel their book into the best seller list, since one day copies turned up on every managers desk with the instruction to read and absorb the key message. The book had 8 ideas which it was argued were the common threads that showed up in the most successful companies. It has to be said, Sir Jules own style which involved by-passing managers and talking directly to factory operatives, office clerks and researchers to get the real feel of what was going on had became legend. People at Thorn House arriving late might find JT  sitting at their desk and having to explain their tardiness was scary. Such tactics gave rise to a wealth of stories he happily encouraged and no doubt many had few a threads of truth, but it kept everyone on their toes.

To give just one personal example. One summer I was working as an apprentice in the lighting laboratories conducting measurements on a light fitting being developed for a major high street retailer. I  should explain everyone who worked in the labs wore a white coat, freshly laundered and starched each week and with a policy of recruiting many graduates with doctorates, the place was known affectionately as the 'hospital'. It was as much a marketing ploy as a scientific one that allowed customers to see products in development and question the scientists and engineers directly. Except I was merely a student apprentice, on this occasion alone in the lab making hundreds of measurements. Suddenly into this quiet backwater swept the diminutive Sir Jules who I  had never met, followed by Marcus Sieff head of his family business - Marks & Spencer - and an entourage of suits. Sir Jules barked a request for the manager and I  explained he was elsewhere on an important mission expecting the party to leave and return later. Instead Sir Jules asked my name and proceeded to introduce me to his guests as one of the company's top researchers. And so it was I  had to make an impromptu presentation which fortunately seemed to go down well. I was aware that my manger had by now reappeared in the lab his face a picture of horror and concern, not doubt wondering what I  was telling a very important client. Happily it ended well but it wasn't long before I  traded white coat for a suit and joined the marketing department.

Interestingly the differentiation through excellence advocated by Peters and Waterman soon started to lose its gloss when it was pointed out that several of the companies held up as success stories had actually achieved very modest results and some had even gone bust! The new culture was quietly forgotten and the books found their way to charity shops.

No comments: