Magazine article Management Today

If You Won't Take Advice, Don't Invite a Troubleshooter

Magazine article Management Today

If You Won't Take Advice, Don't Invite a Troubleshooter

Article excerpt

Whatever happened to...? That's a question which future students of the 1980s will be asking about many names, great in their brief season, which have already vanished from sight. More of today's living dead will yet be following in the forlorn footsteps of British & Common-wealth, Parkfield, Polly Peck, MCC, etc. But whatever happened to the multitude of companies that never were that famous, or notorious, but still suffered the torments of the last decade?

Thanks to Inside Story, in the April issue of Management Today, the story has now been told of five firms whose joint claim to fame is that Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former chairman of ICI, shot their troubles in a justly celebrated TV series. The chief surprise is that only one of the five had flopped: Tri-ang (and its seams were visibly parting during his visit). The fortunes of the other managements which Harvey-Jones advised had prospered slightly over the two years.

Yet, as I wrote at the time, 'with the greatest good humour, the trouble-shooter relentlessly exposed muddled minds, wishful thinking, basic incompetence, inadequate delegation, hopeless misinformation and management which is neither production nor marketing-led, but floundering in some morass in-between. Many of his studies, what's more, seemed equipped by neither nature, nurture nor experience for their posts -- middle or major.'

Mismanaging misfits could hardly do so well, surely? Did the programmes accentuate their negative points to the exclusion of positive qualities? Or did the Harvey-Jones hand miraculously turn the tiller in the right direction? As Inside Story observed, this could be said of three successful survivors. But the fourth, Morgan Cars, had rejected his advice -- with some contumely, at that.

Harvey-Jones admits himself that the sharpness with which he slated Morgan's extreme conservatism in management had 'quite shocked' and 'rattled' the two Morgans, father and son. As he writes in Troubleshooter (the book of the series): 'I get the feeling they had expected me to endorse their methods, and come up with a few practical tips which they could easily implement for increasing production to 10 cars a week.'

Note the words 'they had expected'. For another common thread binds these five firms. Each had volunteered for the trouble-shooting inquisition. It's an utterly safe bet that none of the mighty failures of the 1980s, even the honest ones, would have stood for this trial by television -- and one of the five, the former Apricot Computers, was a public company, at that.

Its chairman, Roger Foster, had enjoyed a starry reputation. The programme glaringly exposed the weaknesses of a strategy which rested on persevering with lame manufacture of hardware in tandem with a vigorously profitable business in services and software. This lumbered Foster with two managing directors and a dire threat to the viability of the entire company.

Harvey-Jones left the scene with Foster still in thrall to 'a stubborn part of him which remains glued to the bit of Apricot which manufactures computers'. When the glue came unstuck, and Apricot sold out its manufacturing to Mitsubishi for [Pounds] 39 million, the shining prospects envisaged by the outsider were realised by the renamed ACT. The impact of arguing the wrong case against a right outsider must have been considerable.

That's the true moral of the trouble-shooting. Individuals are commonly advised to unburden their troubles to outsiders, not because the latter will necessarily produce the solution, but because confession and dialogue help the troubled to see and face reality. …

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