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monday morning manager

Consultants don't have theme songs, but if Andrew Miller had one, it would be Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song, with its catchy opening: "Slow down, you move too fast."

Mr. Miller, a Toronto-based specialist in operational excellence, said he isn't obsessed with speed. But often when he is called in to help with organizational challenges, he finds the problem can be traced to speed. Everyone is trying so hard to get things done quickly – with performance measures prodding for speed – that quality gets shunted aside.

The problem may be as close as your call centre or shop floor, but Mr. Miller, president of ACM Consulting, also points to a series of high-profile blunders that fit his theme.

Take Leo Apotheker, who lasted only 11 months at the helm of troubled Hewlett-Packard, after being rushed in to fill the post when Mark Hurd was forced to resign. HP was in such haste to hire Mr. Apotheker, Mr. Miller notes on his company's website blog, that many board members had never even met the new boss before he was hired: "I can understand not having all of the board be a part of the selection process, but before offering him the job, shouldn't he have been vetted by the entire board?"

For HP, one mistake seemed to follow another. The news media focused on boardroom politics but to Mr. Miller the constant thread was speed: "They need to slow down and stop panicking."

It isn't just HP, of course. He wonders in another posting what might have happened if Research In Motion had decided to hold off on launching its faulty Playbook tablet to compete against the iPad. Perhaps if RIM had foregone speed for quality, its stock price wouldn't have taken a beating.

And perhaps if Toyota had not been so focused on its speed of growth then its quality processes wouldn't have atrophied with so many dismaying recalls.

To be clear, Mr. Miller is not preaching slow, slow, slow. He is pushing "responsible speed" or "optimal speed" – speed appropriate to the situation. "It's about going as fast as you can without sacrificing the quality of what you do," he said in an interview.

These days, however, he finds that the default speed in organizations is super-fast, so time after time he has to preach the need to slow down: "Although it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes you need to slow down to get more done."

Mr. Miller does not start with a focus on speed. In gauging operational effectiveness, he surveys various processes, from commercializing products to hiring people to marketing. He looks for problem areas. And when he dissects those difficulties, invariably speed plays a component.

The companies usually haven't noticed that speed is the problem. "It's easier to blame it on people," he said. Or technology, or systems, or external economic factors. But he usually discovers metrics are in place that encourage unhealthy speed – speed inconsistent with high quality.

A common example is customer service. Executives moan that call centres get too many repeat calls from the same customer on an issue, or too many customers asking to escalate their issue to a manager because they are unhappy with the original customer service representative. The customer service reps must be incompetent or poorly trained, management declares. But when Mr. Miller probes, he finds metrics that force those agents to move more quickly than reasonable for the complexity of the issues they are dealing with. "If people are measured on speed, executives forget that those people will do what is being asked for," he said.

That doesn't mean, he stresses, that everything must be slow. "Optimum speed could be speed, speed, speed. In some cases the optimum speed is going as fast as you can."

A good example is strategy. Normally, you want to decide that as quickly as possible. If you dawdle, events could overtake you and your strategy may no longer be sound. So try hatching your strategy in two months instead of six. But when you implement that strategy, he suggests you slow down, taking small steps.

Going to market with new products need not be fast, either. Large companies are routinely attacked for being lethargic and letting small companies create new markets with unexpected, breakthrough products (so-called disruptive innovation). But with the exception of pharmaceutical companies, Mr. Miller said, there is no first-mover advantage. Many companies have been very successful watching developments and becoming the second mover.

Dismissing an employee, on the other hand, should be done quickly. When you conclude that the person doesn't measure up, don't procrastinate: "You should be slow to hire, and fire quickly."

In a guest posting on the Contrarian Consulting blog, Mr. Miller explained that he asks clients five questions to help them to clarify optimum speed for their organization:

  • How fast are you currently going?
  • How fast could you go (what is your optimal speed)?
  • What impact would it have if you achieved optimal speed?
  • What are the key indicators you should use to determine when to slow down and when to speed up?
  • What plan do you need to put in place to maintain optimal speed?

As he concluded in our interview: "I can connect almost any issue I run into with clients to speed."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter