Are you chasing field mice or antelopes?

Lion anetlope

 

“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?

No.

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.

The Charge……the lessons

“ With bayonets drawn, they charged the town, they were a fearsome sight

But they had fulfilled their orders, they took the town by night”

From the poem “The Wells of Beersheba” by Warren Eggleton

105 years ago during World War I, British, Australian, New Zealand, French and Empire troops stormed ashore at Gallipoli in western Turkey on 25th April. The plan was to seize control of the strategic Dardanelles Strait and open the way for their naval forces to attack Constantinople, the capital of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. The campaign failed. The Turks never succeeded in driving the Allied troops back into the sea, and the Allies never broke out of their beachhead. After eight months of bitter fighting the peninsula was evacuated in December 1915.

On 25th April, each year ANZAC Day (the acronym ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) is commemorated in Australia and New Zealand with marches and ceremonies, even though the Allies were defeated. This year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ANZAC Day will not be publicly celebrated, for the first time since 1916.

Ironically Australia’s first great World War I victory, the Charge of Beersheba that ended the Battle of Beersheba is barely remembered or celebrated. It is considered history’s last great cavalry charge and provides some great lessons for managers.

Beersheba (now Be’er Sheva, in modern-day Israel) is situated in desert terrain and was a strategically important town. Here the Allied advance into Palestine was blocked as it was protected by over 4,000 well-armed Ottoman Empire troops in trenches. Beersheba an important transport hub had water wells that were vital in the desert for both men and horses.

The battle for Beersheba began at dawn on 31st October 1917 when the British infantry began attacking with artillery and air support combined with infantry attacks. By mid-afternoon the British had failed to capture the town. The situation had become serious – horses and men needed water. In the late afternoon, looking at a potential defeat the order was given to the Australian Light Horse to charge the Turkish trenches protecting the town.  800 mounted Light Horsemen, armed with bayonets not cavalry sabres, charged over 6 kilometres of open ground towards Beersheba. Initially the Turks opened fire with shrapnel. This was ineffective against the widely spaced horsemen. They then used machine guns. which were quickly silenced by British artillery. The charge caught the Turkish defenders off guard. They failed to allow for the speed of the charge and had little time to recalibrate their weapons for close range fighting.  The Light Horsemen, whose horses could apparently smell the water, jumped over the trenches. Some men dismounted and attacked the enemy with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Others galloped ahead and captured the town and its vital water wells.

If the Allies had failed, over 60,000 troops would have been stranded in the desert without water. If they didn’t prevail, men and their horses who had already been without water for two days faced dying of thirst. It was also the first major victory for the British army over the Turks in World War I. More importantly, the Battle of Beersheba was a precursor to capturing the city of Gaza. The city barred the way north to the important cities of Jerusalem and Damascus. Within a week Gaza fell, and the Allies marched north routing the Turkish troops. The campaign to secure the Sinai Peninsula ensured the Suez Canal remained open to Britain and its allies and led to the collapse of the 400 year old Otterman Empire.

So, what are the lessons for managers from the Charge of Beersheba?

Here are three lessons, that as managers we can learn from the Charge of Beersheba.

  1. 1. A leader needs to be flexible. The Australian commander, General Chauvel had planned to make a dismounted attack on Beersheba but as evening approached, ran out of time. The alternative was to make a cavalry charge. The traditional strategy was to dismount and attack with rifles from a distance. In the open desert this would have made the Light Horsemen vulnerable to shrapnel and machinegun fire. Clearly a different approach was required so a new strategy was devised. The Light Horse attacked like a cavalry unit, with bayonets in their hands like sabres, thereby catching the Turks by surprise. Their speed and determination outweighed their limitations of protection and weapons.
  2. Planning. There is no substitute for sound planning. Fighting a war in a desert required careful planning as Beersheba was surrounded by desert. This posed obvious logistics challenges for moving troops and equipment, particularly mounted troops. British army engineers established forward supply dumps of water and reopened wells that had been blocked by the Turks. This secured sufficient water for the troops and horses as they moved across the desert. Although the town was protected by a system of trenches, there was no barbed wire on one side because the Turks believed they would not be attacked through the desert from the southeast. The British-led forces, by careful planning and doing their homework  proved this to be a false assumption. Logistics planning and doing your homework is critical whether in warfare or in business
  3. People. Success in any organisation depends hugely on the quality of the people. The importance of experience and training is critical. Many of the Light Horse men involved in the Charge of Beersheba were battle hardened from fighting on the beaches at Gallipoli, and most were tough Australian bushman who were experienced horsemen and used to tough living conditions having also trained extensively in Egypt for desert fighting before the Palestine campaign. The Turks led by German officers, were poorly trained as evidenced by them failing to set their rifle sights correctly and not being able to adjust to the changing circumstances.

What do you think the management lessons from the Charge of Beersheba are?

If you are in Australia or New Zealand on ANZAC Day please don’t forget to remember the sacrifices made by service men and women in your country’s defence.

Note: if you are interested in reading about this event in more detail, I would recommend reading the following books:

Paul Daley, Beersheba, Melbourne University Press, 2009

Roland Perry, The Australian Light Horse, Hachette Australia, 2009

Management lessons – why the Schlieffen Plan failed: the What vs the How

“In western Europe the military machine, with its thousands of wheels, costing millions to maintain, cannot stand still for long. One cannot fight a war for one or two years, from position to position, in 12 day long battles until both combatants are completely exhausted and weakened and forced to sue for peace. We must attempt to defeat our enemies quickly and decisively.”

Count von Schlieffen, German strategist, 1905

What was the Schlieffen Plan?

Long before 1914, Germany was preparing for war. In 1905, Count von Schlieffen, the German Chief of Staff completed what became known as the Schlieffen Plan in which planning commenced in 1897, based on the theory that Germany would be at war with France and Russia at the same time.

The aim was not to fight the war on two fronts at the same time, in the West against France and in the East against Russia. The plan was to first defeat France within 6 weeks by invading through neutral Belgium and capturing Paris before Russia could mobilise its army. After the fall of France, German troops could then be diverted to the East and attack Russia.

The Schlieffen Plan failed spectacularly as World War I became a war of attrition, bogged down in trench warfare in eastern France and Belgium, well short of Paris. The Germans believed that neutral Belgium would not resist and that the British through their 1839 treaty with Belgium, allegedly described as a ‘scrap of paper’ by the German High Command would not come to the support of Belgium. Furthermore, the Germans believed that there was no need to fear the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which the Kaiser called a ‘contemptible little army’.

What are three management lessons from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan?

Lesson 1: inflexible and arrogant leadership leads to failure

Apparently over 80% of the German soldiers were not professional soldiers. The schedules were prepared by a military hierarchy for fit regular soldiers under ideal conditions, not for non-regular soldiers who were not for physically or emotionally fit to march 30 km per day with heavy packs. The German High Command refused to modify the plan when the advance faltered. There was no Plan B

Lesson 2: under estimating and not understanding your opponents and their tactics

The BEF was not expected to support Belgium but they helped delay the plan. This led to atrocities being committed often by the inexperienced and untrained German troops. The bureaucratic minds of the German planners justified these actions as nothing should stop the plan’s operation. These atrocities in turn assisted in portraying the image of the ‘evil Hun’, which mobilised public and political opinion, first in Britain and later in America, indirectly allowing America into the war several years later.

Lesson 3: not understanding and taking into account logistics in your plan

The Schlieffen Plan was partially successful in the first month of the war, as it resulted rapid penetration into France. However, the speed of the initial advance created its own problems, placing a strain on the supply lines as well as placing great strain on the German troops, where the majority were travelling on foot and also having to fight on the way. They became fatigued, sunburnt and developed blisters reducing their fighting capacity. The daily needs of feeding the hundreds of thousands of horses and men, and providing ammunition was a logistical nightmare (logistics in your business). The army moved away from the railheads at 30 kms per day resulting in the supplies being brought to the front by horses. It is estimated that the German army needed 3,900 tonnes of food and fodder each day, clearly a difficult task when overwhelmingly horses were used for transport. Clearly logistics limited the operational success of the plan.

There were other reasons for the failure of the Schlieffen. However, as managers that we can learn from the three management lessons from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.

In conclusion, the questions you need to ask yourself are:

Post note: The Russian Army mobilised quicker than the Germans had predicted which meant a war on two fronts.

Are all your eggs in the one basket?

zimbabwe

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”
Anon

I love travelling. Travelling allows me to experience unique cultures, see beautiful and interesting sights and most importantly meet interesting people. It’s amazing what you can learn from listening to other people’s experiences.

On a recent trip to Zimbabwe I was fortunate to be sitting on an aeroplane next to a local businessman who was returning home from South Africa. In conversation he gave me his family’s life story. He had several businesses, some urban property assets and was managing to survive despite the severe economic circumstances. His family also used to have several farms, employing hundreds of people. With the encouragement of the government, these farms were ‘taken over’ by so called ‘war veterans’ in the early 2000s with no compensation. In other words, his farms were stolen and hundreds lost their jobs.

Apart from obvious injustice, his position emphasised an important strategy for business owners. I had initially seen this strategy used by a former employer.

The strategy was “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”

Unlike many farmers who had lost their farms in the ‘farm invasions’ the Zimbabwean businessman had survived because he had diversified his businesses, thereby protecting his wealth. Likewise my former employer had carefully separated his business into various categories – operating business, fixed assets, property investments and stock exchange investments. If the operating business failed, then the rest of his wealth was not threatened.

The lessons learnt from my former employer were implemented in a subsequent business. This could not have been done without a very disciplined approach as at times our business struggled. Too often I have seen business owners draw out of their business for private use such as expensive cars, children’s school fees and overseas holidays and then get into trouble with the tax office and creditors when the business struggles financially.

Have you got ‘all your eggs in the one basket’?

If you have, perhaps you need to reassess your situation……

What is your plan?

boer maak ‘n plan

In Afrikaans, the language spoken by the mainly Dutch immigrant descendants living in South Africa ‘boer maak ‘n plan’ means a ‘farmer makes a plan’.  The deprivations and harshness of farming in a foreign land brought resolve and the need to plan to get around or solve these problems.  Having travelled recently in Southern Africa I came across another similar saying in Zimbabwe where people often spoke about ‘making a plan’.

What does the saying really mean?

Not as it appears literally. The ‘hidden’ meaning is that you have an alternative plan (a plan B) when your first plan fails or is impossible to implement. In other words, you need to be flexible and adaptable to solve a problem.

How does this equate to being a manager or managing a business?

As business owners or managers, we need to plan in the first instance. As the saying goes, ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. See the blog by http://www.stewartclark.com.au/blog/fail-to-have-a-business-plan-is-planning-to-fail-in-business_105s41

However, having a rigid plan may not work if circumstances change. Let me give you an example?

Many years ago in our third party logistics business we were having difficulty in getting our trucks unloaded on time at a retailer’s distribution centre despite meeting their strict time slots. It was OK for the distribution centre to run late unloading you, however if you failed to arrive at the designated time slot you were ‘fined’. What made the situation even worse was that to make the early morning delivery time slots, trucks had to battle peak hour traffic to and from the distribution centre as well as the loading delays. This became an expensive experience – instead of 3 hours it was taking 6 hours to deliver and unload. It was further compounded by our fixed price delivery charge.

We had many meetings with distribution centre management and despite their assurances that the situation would improve, it did not.

What would solve our problem and be a ‘win’ for the distribution centre? Our Plan B.

Making some observations and talking to the receiving team at the distribution centre a plan emerged. All loads were hand unloaded (rather than on pallets) onto a conveyor with the individual cartons being scanned as they travelled up the belt. The distribution centre had a prime mover that was used for moving trailers around the receiving area.

We asked distribution centre management whether we could trial loading a 40’ container instead of an ordinary tautliner semi-trailer. We would bring the loaded container in early in the morning before peak hour, leave it in the receiving area for the distribution centre prime mover to move onto the unloading conveyor when it suited the receiving team. The empty container would then be picked up on the next early morning delivery. After a short trial, it was found that it was a win/win for both us and the distribution centre. Delivery time halved with a massive increase in margin for us and the distribution centre was able to utilise their receiving area far more efficiently.  

The success of the trial enabled us to purchase two second hand and obsolete hand semi-trailers for 10% of their replacement value and establish a unique closed loop delivery system that was extremely profitable.

We solved the waiting time problem and the peak hour travel problem which initially appeared to be unresolvable. We significantly increased our profits by having a Plan B.

Remember in any situation, you should always have a Plan B like the farmer faced with the unpredictability of the harsh African environment…….