Three Approaches to Repair Broken Firms

For managers trying desperately to rebuild companies in disrepair, three things are needed: a concrete how-to plan, a vision for the company's particular mission, and an understanding of the changing landscape of the market. Several new business books give advice focusing on each of these areas.

FAST CYCLE TIME: HOW TO ALIGN PURPOSE, STRATEGY, AND STRUCTURE FOR SPEED, by Christopher Meyer (Free Press, 290 pp., $29.95), lays down a detailed blueprint for managing manufacturing processes.

Though "fast cycle time" sounds like another peppy business catch phrase, Meyer actually defines what he means. In part, fast cycle time is "the ongoing ability to identify, satisfy, and be paid for meeting customer needs faster than anyone else." The book includes many concrete examples of Meyer's methods for achieving this.

The way he sees it, managers are always hard pressed: Time is not on their side. "As customer needs and technologies change, products and services that at one time created competitive advantages eventually become liabilities," Meyer writes. He incorporates lessons learned while serving as a consultant for such firms as Ford Motor Company and Procter & Gamble.

Since Meyer's goal is to keep the business vital - not just efficient - cranking up the pace of the assembly line will not accomplish the kind of speed he seeks.

Fast cycle time requires investment in process development R&D spending, rather than just product development R&D.

In Meyer's time-sensitive universe, every aspect of business is measured early enough to make use of the information. "Imagine what it would be like driving a car if the speedometer indicated how fast you were going ninety days ago," he writes. "This is obviously absurd, and yet we drive our businesses with the same lag-time handicap."

People rather than numbers are the key to the success of Meyer's method, however. Time-based performance measurements should be used by managers "diagnostically rather than punitively," he writes. "The goal is to learn, not blame."

While "fast cycle time" can be implemented at every level of a firm, Meyer holds top executives' feet closest to the fire. A ripe area for improvement, he writes, is decision cycle time. It is easy for managers to tell factory workers to work faster. It is much less comfortable to increase the speed of a firm's decisionmaking.

The book starts off quickly, but soon bogs down in detail that makes it hard going. Meyer's brisk writing style comes to the rescue somewhat.

THE SOUL OF THE ENTERPRISE: CREATING A DYNAMIC VISION FOR AMERICAN MANUFACTURING, by Robert Hall (HarperBusiness, 382 pp., $27.50), defines a new set of values for operating businesses in these difficult times.

Hall's book is a broad survey, covering a lot of ground. As such, it will probably not "stir up controversy" as the author speculates in his preface. Yet the book characterizes several climactic shifts in the organization of American business remarkably well.

Beyond the initial American expansion era, the subsequent growth period (where businesses took on increased economies of scale), and the more recent "lean manufacturing" stage, Hall sees the need for a new guiding principle or rationale for corporate America.

"The American system was designed to exploit any new opportunity, as in oil exploration, real estate speculation, and genetic engineering ventures," he writes. "It was not designed for long-term preservation or for continuous improvement...."

This book sets out interesting goalposts. A firm must create "high-value-added, high-margin" products that allow it to sustain the company's social mission, which Hall sees as including paying high taxes to the government and offering generous retirement and other benefits to employees.

Of the three books reviewed here, Hall draws on the widest range of case material. But he overreaches a bit, speaking broadly but not deeply.

THE FOURTH WAVE: BUSINESS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, by Herman Bryant Maynard Jr. and Susan E. Mehrtens (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 217 pp., $24.95), aims for the macro view of the marketplace and business's role in it.

Maynard and Mehrtens have built a sweeping utopian vision of a future shaped and guided by business leaders who are global stewards - protecting, preserving, and guiding humanity's destiny.

"We focus on business ... [because] it is arguably the most powerful institution of our society," the authors write.

They consider their book more a long-term prediction than a proposal. Their scenario is "attractive, yet far enough away to be nonthreatening," they write.

Maynard and Mehrtens shift back and forth between bumper-sticker philosophy ("Think globally, act locally") and incisive critiques of corporate culture (such as the desperate need for more truth-telling in business).

Some of the authors' ideas are outlandish, however. For example, it will be a stretch for most readers to imagine meditation breaks instead of coffee breaks, as the authors propose. The "devaluation of money as the primary motivator" of employees is also a long way down the road.

Often the authors claim to see harbingers of their theories in current events. In a discussion of racism and sexism in the workplace, they state that "one company making genuine progress is Federal Express, whose appeals process is truly excellent." That is all the reader gets. Meatier examples would have been more compelling and provocative.

The book's academic-style footnotes might be a bit jarring to those in the business world. But the clear, smooth writing more than compensates. In addition, a thorough executive summary at the beginning of the book helps organize ideas in the reader's mind.

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