BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Once upon a time, there was a ...

It's a fairly defining feature of shopping trips to the dollar store that one is never sure what you're going to be coming out of it with … as stuff that's been there each of the past half-dozen times predictably isn't when you're up there looking for that specific item. And this is even moreso when it comes to the supply of books. I had a nice haul a couple of weeks back, coming out with four hardcover books (with a combined cover price of over a hundred bucks), and this is one of those. Of course, one of the other factors at the dollar store is that I'm rarely specifically looking for any particular book, so most of my purchase decisions are made on fairly shallow investigations into what I'm buying … after all, they're just a buck if I end up with a clunker.

Well … this one is sort of in that “hey, what do you want for $1?” zone … not that it's bad but I had NO idea (until I'd logged it in my “reading” list and had started in on it) that this was not a discussion/analysis/system book, but was one of those “business parable” fictional narratives. As I have pointed out numerous times in the past, I do not relate well to this style. Give me structure, give me bullet points, give me charts and end notes and references … don't just tell me a dopey story!

Now, Dennis Bakke's The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time is not as “dopey” as a lot of these sort of things are … but it's still “neither fish nor fowl”, as it were, not a straight-forward dissertation on the program of corporate re-organization that the author is pitching, nor is it particularly gripping literature (although, I have to admit, I was engaged enough by the telling that I didn't find this as irritating as I usually do with these “teaching story” things).

Of course, that's me … others, I'm sure, quite like having their information cross-platformed into a parable (sort of like the jibe at the Waldorf schools where one might have a student doing their chemistry final in the form of interpretive dance or a P.E. exam satisfied with a toothpick sculpture) … but I kept wishing Bakke would get to the point – and, unlike some other books of this sort, he did not upgrade the story with direct presentations of the material in sidebars, etc. (although there is a “slide deck” in the Afterword, and available on SlideShare which summarizes it fairly well).

As I was not interfacing particularly deeply with this, I also didn't end up with a lot of bookmarks in it for the “key points” (indeed, it appears that there were only two here, one marking a bit which reminded me of a famed Lorne Michaels quote, which really didn't have anything to do with the material being presented, and one marking the part with the graphics of the “slide deck” that can also be found on the book's companion site), so you're going to get a lot of vague paraphrasing in this review. Sorry about that.

So … there are these two guys who had worked in a very buttoned-down and obsessively hierarchical corporation, and they had wanted to get out there and forge their own path. They ended up buying (with the substantial assistance of an outside investor), a medical supply/device company, that, as it turns out, also was very regimented. The story picks up fairly early on in their tenure at the company, and with a significant catastrophe … one of the main machines on the production line had exploded, and was a total loss. The fellow running the machine survived, because he was off trying to find the right supervisor to get the required approvals to shut down the machine, which he could clearly see was about to have a problem. This “institutional inability” of this worker to shut down the machine in an emergency situation is the start of the whole re-structuring of how the company does business.

There are several “stress points” here … one of the new owners is the “idea guy” and the other is the “money guy” and they are both beholden to the lady investor who has substantial say in the company (although she's not involved on a day-to-day basis). The “idea guy” starts with setting up situations where individual workers on the production floor can stop the machines mid-run, and then expands that to a more generalized system of “decisions” … and ultimately into “The Decision Maker Process”, which (from the slide deck) is:
In a decision-maker organization, the leader leads by choosing a decision-maker.
The decision-maker must ask for advice.
The advice process brings multiple perspectives together to guide a successful outcome.
But the decision-maker makes the final call – and takes responsibility for it.
Needless to say, there is a lot of institutional inertia that the “idea guy” has to fight against to get these things implemented, aside from the resistance from his partner and their main investor. Assorted parts of the company are involved in the story at points – from the R&D teams whose specs aren't always “doable” when it gets down to prototyping, and there isn't enough communication between them and the techs (or the manufacturing) … at one juncture somebody orders in a full product run's worth of an alternative material because, on paper, it's much cheaper and nominally to spec – but it (spoiler alert!) is too brittle and easily breaks – leading to the company having to absorb those costs. In another situation (another spoiler alert!) a long-time employee in charge of the shop floor figures he knows the manufacturing better than anybody, and doesn't need anyone else's opinions, and not only won't go through the “advice process” but he's also in the habit of simply filling in the government regulatory forms from the R&D spec sheets, rather than actually testing the products. One of the operators (of course, the same guy who was trying to shut down the machine) had tested the product and noted discrepancies – problems that had the potential of destroying the company were the government apply maximum fines. Ultimately, the owners made the manager the “decision-maker” on whether he'd be fired or not!

I guess this brings us to another good place to dip into that slide deck. Here's a list of considerations for choosing the decision-maker:
Proximity. Who's close to the issue? Are they well acquainted with the context, the day-to-day details, and the big picture?
Perspective. Proximity matters, but so does perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can be just as valuable.
Experience. Has this person had experience making similar decisions? What were the consequences of those decisions?
Wisdom. What kinds of decisions has this person made in other areas? Where they good ones? Do you have confidence in this person?
As you might have guessed from the scant outlines above, the guy on the floor who wanted to shut off the machine takes over the job the guy who was fudging data had (who stayed on as a consultant), and there are lots of other “blossomings” of people from being given the ability to make essential decisions. Along the way a lot of people are worried about losing their jobs, but eventually find new roles, plus there's another character who had been at the same company the two owners had come from, and when he tries to implement this system, it's a disaster, but that's blamed on the other fellow being a total “bottom line” guy, more interested in the dollars than the work environment. This, of course, presents something of a caveat: these ideas might not be universally applicable – at least without totally over-hauling the “personality” of one's company.

As the story plays out, everything falls into place as one might expect it to (frankly, I was thinking that they should make this into a Bollywood musical, culminating in a big dance number involving the penultimate scene of the big happy company barbecue), with everybody (well, except for the “bottom line” guy at the other company) living happily ever after. La-di-da … but I guess if you're a “parable person” this will be a lot more appealing to you than it was for me.

That being said, I liked The Decision Maker a lot more than I typically do for things in this format, the core concepts were interesting, and the potential of this being a “business model” is quite enticing (I'd like to work there … but, after 7 years mired in a job search, that's not a particularly high bar). This is fairly new (it came out in 2013), and the on-line big boys still have it at pretty much full price … suggesting that this was only on the dollar store shelf due to the rotation of books in and out of Walmart (where a lot of the dollar store stock originates). However, having found its way to that channel, it also is available via the new/used guys, with “like new” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping).

While not what I was expecting (nor being in a format I much care for), I felt this was a worthwhile read, and can recommend it to anybody with an interest in running businesses. And, again, if you're a fan of fiction, you'll no doubt be more enthusiastic about this than I was.

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Tags: book review
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