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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Eight Stupid Things Managers Do to Mess Up Their Companies

What, me manage?

Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 10:39

In a business climate where only the best companies survive and thrive, one thing is clear: You must avoid the stupid stuff. You must eliminate the things that leave customers and employees scratching their heads, frustrated, and mystified.

The problem is that every company, no matter what size, battles to some degree a central tension: people with ideas on how to make things better and hidden obstacles that keep those positive changes from actually happening.

In his recent book How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Neil Smith distills down what he’s learned by working in exemplary companies into a list of the key barriers that are holding back even the world’s best organizations. According to Smith, the following eight things are the typical barriers to desirable attributes of growth, efficiency, simplicity, and profitability.

1. Avoiding controversy. Controversial ideas exist and are left unresolved because dealing with them would cause too much disruption. Politics, personalities, alliances, and appearances all contribute to making ideas controversial.

2. Using time poorly. Even in organizations where people are very busy and long days are the norm, employees use their time very badly. There are three aspects to this barrier: the lack of time, the use of time, and the value of time.

3. Resisting change. The most human and pervasive of the eight barriers, this involves resisting the impulse to remain creatures of habit and complacency. People fear change because it is about the unknown.

4. Erecting organizational silos. These silos, or departments, within a company are necessary evils, providing structure and accountability. But they also prevent the onward flow of information, focus, and control.

5. Committing “ideacide.” Many good ideas are shot down not for perceived lack of merit but because a manager feels threatened by the idea in some way. Employees are generally powerless in these situations. The result? Employees are frustrated, and good ideas are never put to the test.

6. Making decisions based on bad data and assumptions. Information can be incorrect, outdated, or difficult to obtain. Assumptions are made when data are nonexistent or haven’t been calculated. Decisions made using assumptions or incorrect information will always yield poor results.

7. Ignoring size, scale, and scope. A great challenge for many companies is managing the economies related to smaller and less profitable customers or transactions. Companies ignore or don’t think about the potential effect of even simple size-based changes in the way they conduct business.

8. Ignoring process. Existing processes can prevent great ideas from being implemented even if people are advocating for change. The problem is that there is no process to change processes. The issues that need to be solved often aren’t complex, but resolving them without a process in place to do so can be very complex.


Smith says he’s never worked with a company that didn’t have all eight barriers present. Which raises the obvious question: Why is that?

“These eight hidden barriers are caused by both human nature and the way companies are naturally organized,” says Smith. “The human-nature type of barrier has to do with the way we instinctively behave. For example, most people get anxious about the fear of the unknown, so there is a reluctance to change. Structural barriers result from the way companies, rather than individuals, function. Take the case of organizational silos, which are important to provide structure to a company but can make it difficult for people to share the same priorities.”

The key to avoiding the dumb things, to breaking down the barriers, seems straightforward enough: consensus. Smith believes consensus about specific ideas is both the glue and the grease that keeps the business moving forward positively and ensures full implementation of ideas for change.

“Everyone who is going to be affected by an idea has to be on board with it,” Smith maintains. “Otherwise, crippling problems will crop up during the implementation phase. If people weren’t consulted about something that will affect them or their sphere of influence, they may be resentful; they may have very practical, reasonable objections; or they may feel blindsided. None of these will help you get things done.

“Getting consensus often means modifying an idea,” Smith continues. “But don’t think that’s about diluting its impact. Idea modification is what makes it possible for an idea to have impact. A great idea that doesn’t go anywhere because consensus has not been built won’t help the company with its goals of increasing efficiency, boosting profits, and reducing complexity.”

How many of the eight hidden barriers exist in your company? What are you doing to eliminate them?

Reprinted with permission from http://EDITInnovation.com


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


Wrong Audience

You should retitle the piece "Eight Stupid Things Congressmen Do to Mess Up the U.S.A." and send links to all congressmen.

Incorrect Assumptions

"In a business climate where only the best companies survive and thrive, one thing is clear: You must avoid the stupid stuff. You must eliminate the things that leave customers and employees scratching their heads, frustrated, and mystified."

You're strongly implying that we're in such a business climate:  why then is mediocrity so commonplace in manufacturing?  Why do so many people die of medical errors and catch infections in hospitals, and why are hospitals run on cost, not value?  Your thesis is untrue:  it's not necessary to be best to thrive.