“A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse. But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself. So a lion that spent its day hunting and eating field mice would slowly starve to death. A lion can’t live on field mice. A lion needs antelope. Antelope are big animals. They take more speed and strength to capture and kill, and once killed, they provide a feast for the lion and her pride. … So ask yourself at the end of the day, ‘Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?’”
Newt Gingrich – speaker of US House of Representatives
What is Gingrich’s underlying message?
Certainly, the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule is implied in this quotation . However, there is another message for managers and business owners here, that is to focus with discipline on the issues that provide the best return for your resources of time, money and expertise. The danger is business failure, as explained by Michael E Gerber in The e-Myth Revisited – Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it. This is where a business owner and manager who understands the technical nature of the business but does not understand the business is likely to fail. In summary, they do what they are comfortable in doing and what they know, not what they should be doing.
Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t, describes how a ‘culture of discipline’ is evident in successful companies. This begins with disciplined leaders who display empathy, personal humility and intense focus. They do not suffer from ‘I’ strain and rarely appear in the media seeking celebrity. Before purchasing our logistics business, I worked for a privately-owned transport company. In an industry that was known for its larger than life personalities who courted the media, the owner was virtually unknown. He ran a highly successful business which was far more profitable than many of the publicly listed companies in the industry. He was extremely disciplined in strictly adhering to his market niche which enabled higher profits and greater customer service.
In another example of discipline, I managed a large division of a transport business in a large regional centre where the managing director was passionate about truck safety. This involved vehicle journey’s being monitored by on-board computers to prevent speeding, exceeding mandated driving hours and excessive idling as it wastes fuel. If drivers exceeded the speed limit by 5% in a week they were disciplined and if this occurred three times within 12 months the driver was terminated. Like the lion it was targeting the areas that significantly affected the successful operation of the business. Each week the performance of the trucks and drivers was given to me to action. I decided against the advice of my peers to post the results on the drivers‘ notice board.
Did the drivers react negatively to being compared to others as I had been warned would occur?
Instead each week many of the drivers would compare their performance of their vehicles and themselves. Some drivers would personally seek me out to ask if there were problems with their vehicle and why for example their vehicle had appeared to be idling excessively. They became self-disciplined team members who were more accountable and didn’t need to be micro-managed. Fuel economy improved and more importantly our accident record was the best in the business despite having drivers’ company-wide who travelled the most kilometres each week. Within the ‘safety framework’ a culture of freedom and responsibility had developed.
For a business to grow or change in a positive way, the discipline required must be where consistent behaviours align with achieving the organisation’s goals. Note the words – “discipline” and “consistent”. The aim is for consistent productive goal-oriented behaviours to become habits. Habits once formed become entrenched, however they must be right habits and they must align with the organisation’s vision and goals. In the drivers’ example, safety and performance became a habit. With the niche transport company, the discipline was only remaining in its narrow market niche. Both examples required disciplined people acting in a disciplined manner, demonstrating that discipline must start at the top.
Here is another example. I was engaged to undertake a business review by a niche logistics business which had suddenly begun losing money. Determining the prime reason was relatively easy; the business had lost a major customer who had contributed the majority of their previous profits. This was only a symptom of what was wrong. A walk through their numerous warehouses provided some answers. The warehouses were dirty, stock was not in the correct locations and staff were inadequately supervised. Management was focussed on managing day to day crises, were not enforcing operational disciplines, rates had not increased in several years and customer service was inconsistent. Classic chasing field mouse behaviour.
The business review formed the basis of a new business plan. New benchmarks for performance were established and a renewed commitment to improving customer service was implemented. This was underpinned by imposing operational disciplines in the warehouse following consultative meetings with staff. Several managers and supervisors exited the business and a new general manager and senior management team were appointed. In the first year the company made a modest profit. In the second year, profits exceeded expectations, revenue grew through targeted strategic sales in the business’ market niche, prices increased, unprofitable customers were forced from the businesses, a warehouse was closed and new leases with more favourable terms were negotiated. This was a good practical example of what Jim Collins describes in his book, Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t; disciplined people – first who; then what, disciplined thought; confronting the brutal facts, and disciplined action; a culture of discipline.
Being a successful business owner, leader and manager requires discipline. Lack of discipline manifests itself physically in examples such as untidy and dirty warehouses, poor telephone manners and uninspiring first impressions.
What are the antelopes you should be hunting in your organisation?
Have you identified the field mice?
Is it clear to others in the business?
Do the antelopes align to your vision, values and goals?
Discipline in the areas of accountability, teamwork, and attention to detail are required. Disciplined leadership is defined by is defined by sound habits, rigour, consistency and routines. A disciplined environment assists in putting both management and employees on their best behaviour leading to improving productivity and profits.