Tag Archives: Strategic management

The Spanish Inquisition

I’m a big fan of Monty Python, as I am of anyone or anything that provides great insight amidst great silliness. One of my favorite Python sketches is The Spanish Inquisition. Not only is it funny (if you like really silly) but it also provides a great business reminder:

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

It’s a phrase I’ve found myself saying many times in business as some unforeseen circumstance causes great disruption. You see examples of it every day. Just this morning, there was a report of a newspaper closing in Houston which is blamed primarily on the effects of Hurricane Harvey. I’m sure there wasn’t a business plan built around that sort of natural disaster.

Sometimes, the disruptive event can be seen but its dramatic effects aren’t. Take, for example, the discussions I used to have with some higher-ups during Internet 1.0. One person was totally convinced the explosion in web properties and the dawning digital age was “a scam.” He didn’t believe that people wanted to watch TV on their computers when a brand new HD-TV was in their living room (HD was pretty new at the time). Of course, he also didn’t expect that broadband would make delivering video to any device wirelessly as good an HD experience as that same TV, nor did he understand that it literally was the same bits that comprise the “broadcast” signal.

Those same broadcasters denied that cord-cutting would have any effect on viewing. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, you see. However, ESPN has lost more than 12 million subscribers since 2011. You think the recent waves of layoffs aren’t related to cord-cutting? When cable is losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers each month, you can count on there being an effect on the business.

The hardest part of being in business is seeing over the horizon. Brexit? President Trump? China leading the charge against climate change? The Cubs winning the World Series?? Who expected those things? Equally as difficult can be in believing what you’re seeing. Nobody may expect The Spanish Inquisition, but part of our job as businesspeople is to be ready when it pops into the room. Are you?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks

Offer Fewer Fries

This Foodie Friday, I want us to think about less being more. Specifically, it’s the balance between quality and quantity. I’m of the opinion that when it comes to food, high-quality ingredients expertly prepared are more satisfying than a large portion of bland, low-quality food.

Photo by Stephanie McCabe

For example, think about a bread basket that arrives at your table. Rich, dense bread slathered in high-quality butter is not something you’d eat much of. Compare that with a bunch of Wonder Bread and store-brand butter that you might have at home. The latter is tasteless and not satisfying and I’ll bet you eat more of it.

McDonald’s proved this point in 1990 when they stopped frying their fries in beef tallow. It was a knee-jerk reaction to people believing that trans fats were better than natural fats (turned out to be totally wrong). The fries never tasted the same and, more importantly for our discussion today, were not as filling. I’m convinced that the reason we have supersized portions is that the current fries are so unfulfilling. It’s probably why we have an obesity problem as well. I suspect there were cost-savings too, but are those savings worth ruining the reputation of your signature product?

Look at Europe. France and Italy, two fantastic food cultures, don’t serve you big portions and yet it’s hard to walk away from a meal in either place still hungry. The dishes are rich and tasty. High fat? Sure. Caloric? Yes, but you don’t eat as much. For the restaurant, this can mean lower food costs (smaller portions) which might be taken as higher margins or passed along to customers. You can’t really eat a huge portion of fries cooked in duck fat, believe me.

This is a principle which I believe any business can use. Consumers don’t want (or need) tons of low-quality products. Sure, they might be duped into thinking of them as great values (“Look at that portion!”), but over time your customers realize that they’re not really satisfied.

Example: think of Word or Excel. They are extremely complex products and yet most users take advantage of a tiny amount of that complexity. Why not offer a simpler product to the masses that cost less and save the complex version for those people who really need it (and charge them accordingly?). You can find articles dating back over a decade complaining about Word’s complexity and yet it wasn’t made simpler.

Less can be a lot more. Think about offering fewer, but much better, fries. People can be satisfied with less as long as it’s top quality at an affordable price. I’d rather be sated and healthy than hungry and sick. You?

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Filed under food, Huh?

Does Your Business Serve Pu-Pu Platters?

This Foodie Friday, I’m inspired by the memory of a long-closed (by the Health Department as it turns out) restaurant called South Seas. It served very large “exotic” drinks – Zombies, Scorpion Bowls, the full range of tiki bar delights – and the first pu-pu platter I’d ever encountered.

My high school friends and I would often meet up at South Seas to gather in front of a glowing pu-pu platter. The center was a grill, fueled by Sterno I think, on which we could cook something from the mound of delights surrounding it. Of course, everything had been fried and I was never quite sure why one would want to further cook an egg roll, but it was very foreign and wonderful. Of course, since they would serve both the food and the drinks to anyone (the drinking age was 18 but our 18th birthdays were a few years away – sorry Mom), I might be misrecalling how good the food was, but I really loved it.

It’s the pu-pu platter that triggered the business thought. While most of us had after-school or weekend jobs of some sort, none of us really had a ton of disposable income for food. The Pu-pu platter solved that problem by being a cost-effective alternative to having to order several different plates. We could graze as we saw fit without having to commit to one dish. As I think about it now, many other types of cuisine offer their version of a pu-pu plater: the mixed antipasto (hot or cold) most Italian places serve, the popularity of tapas places  (you’re sort of constructing your own pu-pu platter as your order many different little plates), heck, even the canape platters they pass around a cocktail parties are pu-pu platters in my mind. And I think there’s something your business can take away from that.

The pu-pu platter or antipasto plate lets the customer sample multiple facets of your kitchen. It lets them understand the quality and variety of what you offer without their having to make a major commitment. That’s not a bad idea for any business. Free consultations and low- or no-cost trial periods are one way to deliver this. Offering a little bit of everything, much like a country store does, might be another. I hasten to add that anything you do offer needs to be of the same high-quality as your main product or service offerings.

When I see a pu-pu platter on a menu these days, I’m still tempted to order one so I can have a little taste of everything. Keeping a pu-pu platter mindset might just be a way to grow your business, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Growing up, Consulting

You’re Bacon Me Crazy

This Foodie Friday, I come to you with a perfect example of how businesses often get things wrong. I hear you wondering how anything involving bacon can go wrong, but stick with me here and I think you’ll understand my distress.

English: Uncooked pork belly bacon strips disp...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was widely reported this week that scientists in China have created 12 healthy pigs with 24% less body fat. If you care to read all about it, the results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I didn’t bother to read it because it makes me both sad and angry. From my perspective, most pork we get in this country is already too lean. Fat is flavor, and most of the pork we get has very little. The exception is bacon.

I use bacon the way many cooks do. Sure, I bake it and eat it as part of a full breakfast (put a little Old Bay on those bad boys before you bake them – a revelation!). Rendered down, it yields lovely fat in which to saute your aromatics and get any recipe off to a great start. Wrapped around a lean cut of meat, it prevents that cut from drying out. And who doesn’t love to toss some lardons into salads, omelets, pastas, grilled vegetables, or potatoes? Lean bacon defeats the entire purpose of the cut!

OK, most of the above was a little tongue in cheek, but there is a real point to be made here. When we try to “improve” a product we just might end up destroying it. Lean bacon is a solution in search of a problem, and that is the kiss of death to any offering most of the time. Putting aside the issues many people have with genetically engineered food (this was achieved using CRISPR), there are already many lean alternatives to bacon. OK, it might be a stretch to call them “bacon” but they exist.

None of us can afford to waste time figuring out a problem for something we’ve produced. The process works the other way around. Listen for problems that your intended customer base is having and then find a solution. Much of the time, successful entrepreneurs had the problem themselves, found a solution, and then helped others with the same problem. The camera phone, for example, came about when a new father wanted to send a photo from the delivery room (true story).

As you’re moving along in your business, ask yourself if you’re solving peoples’ problems or if you’re trying to find a use for your solution. Hopefully the former!

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Filed under food, Consulting, Huh?

They Don’t Make It Like That Anymore

This Foodie Friday I am going to run the risk of sounding like the grumpy old man I’m slowly becoming. Rather than admonishing you all to get off my lawn, I want to share the sentiment I had a week or so ago as I fired up my smoker. My smoker, or as it’s lovingly known, “The Beast”, was made by the New Braunfels Smoker Company at least 20 years ago, How do I know that? Well, that’s today’s food and business thought.

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move. Why was that, especially when I also gave away or junked a Caja China and two other grills? In a sentence:

Because they don’t make them like that anymore.

The New Braunfels Smoker Company was sold to Char-Broil 20 years ago. Almost immediately, the quality of the products went downhill, and this was especially noticeable on the gauge of the steel. The steel was thinner and didn’t hold heat as well. When a rust spot developed, it was difficult to sand and paint it without almost going through the area that has rusted. The products were similar in design and name, but that was about all that was the same. The bbq forums, home to serious meat smoking aficionados like me, were deluged with negative comments and, more importantly to the business, better alternatives to what had been a superior line of smokers.

This is something from which any business can learn. We’re always under pressure to improve our margins. Some folks look to cheaper materials, other to cheaper, less-skilled labor, and still others to cutting customer service. Sometimes we just skimp on quality control. While margins might improve, there is a strong chance that revenues will decline as the customer base figures out that “you’re not making it like that anymore.” As an Apple user, I recently switched to a Chromebook because my Mac OS isn’t as smooth and there are glitches that were never an issue before. For you cooks out there, Pyrex changed their formula and “new” Pyrex is not as good. Recent Craftsman tools, once the industry standard, are now made in China and aren’t nearly as good. I can go on and I’m sure you can as well.

If you’re successful, resist the temptation to cut corners. People notice (so does your staff). Don’t be part of a conversation that claims you don’t make it like that anymore.

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Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Embracing Change

“The only constant is change” is an old saw, but it got to be so because it’s true. I mean, it was uttered by an ancient Greek philosopher (Heraclitus) and has been repeated for 1,500 years. Change is inevitable yet a lot of us are incredibly resistant to it. We carry that resistance into our business lives as well.

Most businesses are pretty good at living in today. They have a grasp on their current situation and have allocated resources to deal with their daily operations based on that situation. A lot of businesses also have a grasp on what will happen tomorrow. They plan lines of succession within departments and train their staff to move up. They allocate capital to grow strategically based on how they see tomorrow playing out. Generally, the short-term doesn’t portend radical change.

The problem occurs when you ask businesses (and people) to think about the day AFTER tomorrow – the longer term in which change occurs. In some cases, people don’t even recognize that there will be a day after tomorrow. Try to have a chat with a 23-year-old employee about retirement and the need to start saving today for something 50 years down the road if you want proof of that. A lot of managers guide their businesses based on a series of short-term plans and goals without contemplating the sustainability of their plans over long-term. They don’t embrace change because they don’t want to accept that it’s going to happen.

The music business fought change and where are they now? My beloved TV business is going through this now as they continue to deny cord-cutting is a problem and refusing to adjust to this massive change. On the non-business side, I believe that many of the challenges our country faces are due to the refusal to accept how our demographic and economic base has changed. That refusal, both in business and outside of it, sparks fear as the signs of change become more prevalent. It’s really only traumatic, however, if we try to resist rather than accepting change and planning for it.

I believe in controlling your business. That means you need to contemplate change, accept it, and revise your plans before change happens to you and not because of you. Things happening due to circumstances beyond your control should be rare if you look to the day after tomorrow, embrace the inevitable change, and having a clear picture of where you’re going, not clinging to an unreasonable and unsustainable changed past. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud