By Kevin Meyer
A few days ago The Wall Street Journal had a book review on John Kay's Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly. I'm typically more than a little skeptical about the latest tomes of academes as generally they try to create some supposedly significant but often ridiculous interpretation of a known nuance. However this review created enough intrigue that I immediately downloaded it to the iPad and have been devouring a chapter or two when I have time.
The premise is interesting.
If to the hammer everything is a nail, then to the management guru flourishing an insight, everything is a case study. John Kay, the former director of Oxford's Business School, has an insight—a promising insight, as it happens. Often, Mr. Kay says in "Obliquity," we can attain a desired goal only by pursuing it indirectly.
When it comes to major goals, whether in life or in business, one can pursue them best by deliberately not pursuing them.
What's an example of that?
Applying his insight to business, Mr. Kay notes that when Merck was governed by the "oblique philosophy" of George Merck, who focused on manufacturing "medicine for the people . . . not for profits," it was comfortably profitable. When it assumed a "more direct approach" under CEO Ray Gilmartin, who pledged that Merck would be "totally focused on growth," it ran into the financial difficulties provoked by Vioxx. Similarly, when Boeing's stated purpose shifted from surmounting "technological challenges" to an explicit focus on "shareholder value," its stock price floundered.
There was another example that implied Jack Welch was successful because he focused on "the workers" but I decided to leave that out since it is so wrong. The turkey.
The concept applies to personal life as well as business.
If you consider what's involved in the direct pursuit of happiness, Schopenhauer said, you will quickly become miserable. Think of anything that might make you happy—say, winning that boy or girl or beachfront property of your dreams. As you pursue your quest, you experience the frustration of unfulfilled desire and the anxiety of not knowing whether you will succeed. Then, assuming you do succeed, you immediately begin to tire of your object of happiness: After all, you wanted it in the first place because you did not have it; now that you have it, you no longer want it.
Given that the direct, conscious pursuit of happiness is such an ordeal, it follows that happiness can be attained only if we focus on activities we deem valuable for their own sake. Engrossed in other pursuits, we may then feel happiness "alight" upon us.
I bet I'm losing some folks now so on to what I found intriguing: the application and association with lean.
Many aspects of lean are counterintuitive, and the initial phases of a lean transformation often don't impact the bottom line. In fact, especially in hard core traditional accounting environments, lean can appear to create a negative financial impact before the CFO wakes up and asks "where the heck is all this cash coming from?"
If you pursue lean to "be lean" you will almost certainly fail. Perhaps you're like 80% of the organizations and forget about the second and in my opinion most vital pillar of lean: respect for people. Or after a few months of investing in a bunch of lean tools and consultants the CEO realizes there have been no real financial savings and perhaps even more costs and decides to put the kibash on yet another fad.
But if you focus on what lean is really about instead of the tools and immediate financial impact – creating value from the perspective of the customer and respecting people to create a passionate and engaged workforce – you will realize the competitive excellence that is lean. Don't focus on "becoming lean" – focus on what is important based on the underlying concepts and pillars of lean.
Mark Graban says
I’m about 7 chapters in after seeing the review. Some interesting thoughts in the book but it probably is more of an article than a book.
John Hunter says
Well said. I think it is a symptom of how we have very reductionist thinking that we end up narrowing the focus on actions. Taking a big picture view is very important (and something we do too little). Doing so will often point to solutions that are not straight line do a to get b.
Mark’s comment seems to be one that could be said for most business books in my experience. If they have a good idea, that is great. But even if they do, the book ends up really making like 1 or 2 or 3 decent points. But I guess it isn’t cool to have the book be too short.
Joe St. Amand says
I liked that article Kevin. I have been thinking about how I could apply lean to A microbrewery, it makes sense that the focus needs to be on engaging the workforce and not just lean for leans sake.