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This Focused Performance Weblog started life as a "business management blog" containing links and commentary related primarily to organizational effectiveness with a "Theory of Constraints" perspective, but is in the process of evolving towards primary content on interactive and mobile marketing. Think of it as about Focusing marketing messages for enhanced Performance. If you are on an archive page, current postings are found here.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Ming the Mechanic, Frank the Fixer -- Last week, Britt Blaser, opened up a posting with comments about Turn Around Artistry. There were things in the piece about the conflicts over local and global performance to which I initially responded. But Britt's opening line got my attention, as it hit quite close to home, and has stuck in my craw since first reading it...
"Maybe we need a turn around artist. You've heard of these guys who go into a faltering company and bitch-slap them into profitability. They don't have a great rep, but it's a nasty job few are good at.
Helping companies fix themselves -- turn around their thinking and performance -- is what I do. Hence the stuck craw.

While there are some situations where someone has to go in and "bitch-slap" managers like those at the top of Enron, Worldcom, etc., and there is residue in some quarters of the consulting profession of behaviors associated with the old "efficiency expert" image, there are other ways of getting a company "turned around." The eventual trigger of what you, dear reader, are perusing right now is a piece by Flemming "Ming" Funch, in which he talks about satisfaction found in being...
"...a people mechanic, or a system mechanic. I like if people bring me something to fix, and I fix it. Particularly when it relates to individuals or groups of people trying to do something, and not quite succeeding. And I resonate with people with that kind of abilities."
I know the feeling. There is nothing more satisfying than helping people through the issues and constraints that block their ability to acheive more of their goals. After talking about experience with different kinds of consultants, Ming uses a minor character in a modern classic film as...
"...another example, some would say a horrible choice, but it illustrates my point: In the movie Pulp Fiction, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson's characters get in some trouble. There's a dead body in the car, blood all over, they're at this guy's house, and his wife is coming home in an hour, and they don't know what to do. Their boss, the big gangster Marsellus Wallace decides it is time to call in Mr.Wolf. Mr.Wolf happens to be across town in a tuxedo at a party, having cocktails. But when he gets the phonecall, he's professionalism itself. He gets paid extremely well, but he is only used when it really counts. He's there in 10 minutes in his Porsche. "I'm Winston Wolf, I solve problems" he says. And so he does. All he really does is to take a keen look at what is going on, and to tell the people who're standing around what the logical thing to do is. And, well, I certainly don't have in mind working for gangsters, but I like the idea of being the person who's brought in to solve a problem, but who otherwise is happily uninvolved."
While I could probably write a whole piece on the values of helping people develop solutions for themselves versus going in and doing a direct "fix" (and probably will at some point), instead, I'm going to pick up on Ming's cinematic example with a few more of my own.

The lead character in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the story of a hit man, attaches himself to a questionable benefactor in the loyal style of samurai and lord. The film uses readings and themes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo's classic, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, to bring home the theme of the honor of loyalty owed by hired help, be it a consultant or a hit man, to his or her client. That loyalty puts a flavor on work that brings, I believe, something more to work than Mr. Wolf's detachment. It is one thing to be brought in for otherwise unavailable technical knowledge, like a mechanic, to deal with a single blocking situation. It is another to be brought in not only to fix the presenting symptom, but to help the client dig deeper to deal with systemic root causes to prevent future recurrences. That requires a connection with the people involved and a loyalty to their larger goals, in addition to the objectivity of fresh eyes and open mind, in order to help them through the understanding of what needs to change, the vision of the desired future, and the actions necessary to get there.

There's another small film, likely seen by few -- The Efficiency Expert, featuring Anthony Hopkins and a very young Russell Crowe, from 1992 -- that is more directly linked to this topic through the evolution of the conscience of a consultant from a partner in a ruthless cost-cutting firm (the "bitch-slapping" version of mechanic). It parallels the difference between doing such work in the supposedly anonymous nature of the big corporation versus helping smaller firms, in which the issues are not about cutting 450 or 500 unnamed headcount, but about sacking the lives of Jack or Jill, who you have come to know as you walked around the shop floor or among the cubicles. It's important to me that the journey that the main character takes is similar to my own, in the realization that cost-cutting is often not the solution, and that fixing the ability to protect and grow the top line is far more important, more lasting and more valuable, than fixating on the lines between it and the bottom.

Ghost Dog talks about the honor of loyalty for the sake of loyalty. The Efficency Expert talks about the deeper honor of loyalty to those you come to care about. In films that may be more familiar to most readers -- The Seven Samurai and it's western clone, The Magnificent Seven -- are not unlike the latter (or for that matter like another little film on the theme that comes to mind -- Local Hero), the main characters start out as ronin, masterless samurai, detached mechanics, caring mainly about what's in it for them in the end, to honorable retainers, subordinating their interests -- and in the case of some of these dramas, their lives -- to those that they serve.

Somehow, as effective as Mr. Wolf is in cleaning up a mess (hmmm...While my head is riffing on films, didn't Harvey Keitel also play essentially the same character (Victor the cleaner) in Point of No Return?), I can't quite see him getting that involved with the real outcomes of his efforts, or in developing connections with anyone other than the checkbook.

And that's were the real value -- the real meaning -- is found, in the movies and in life.

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