From crop dusters to key cutters: More tales from the field

fm-blog-3-03-14-220x207Recently, I posted about the need for CEOs to get out of the office and stay in the field, and highlighted a story about a CEO who was shocked to realize that as his company grew he spent less time in the field, rather than more.

I see this theme of staying in the field popping up all over the place. Two examples:

Steve Blank, serial entrepreneur and author of several books, including The Four Steps to the Epiphany, posted a great story last week about some students he was working with on a start-up. They were pursuing lots of desk research on their start-up idea, which was to use aerial photography and proprietary algorithms to help farmers improve productivity. They were confident of the basic idea, but had concluded that they would need a fleet of drones to do the necessary photography and field work. Steve recommended that, first, they leave their desk research, get out into the field and figure out if farmers actually wanted the data before building a drone fleet to deliver it. Low and behold, they discovered from their fieldwork that crop dusters are constantly flying over the farmers’ fields and the entrepreneurs could simply arm this existing fleet of planes with cameras. What was a good business idea demanding massive fixed cost investment became a good business idea with only variable cost investment—that is, buying cameras for the crop dusters as the fleet grows. And it is a wonderful reminder to move from your desk to the field as you tackle business problems.

John Timpson, chairman of Timpson, the British shoe repair and key-cutting retailer, continues to appear on various TV and radio programs to talk about his book Upside Down Management. (I first learned of the book on a recent flight from Singapore to London, watching a BBC show featuring John). His basic point is that CEOs need to do far more to empower their front line, putting frontline managers in charge of delivering great customer service. Empowerment is the Timpson way: The company puts few controls on individual Timpson shops and lets the local managers sort out the right way to support customers. Managers can change prices to serve local customers and are given £500 to sort out customer complaints, eliminating the need for a Timpson customer complaint function and all the resulting bureaucracy that it entails. This is quite similar to the “Empower” initiative that Vikram Oberoi introduced at Oberoi hotels.

I particularly love Timpson’s take on the need for CEOs to visit the field relentlessly. Here’s how he described that to the Telegraph: “We trust everyone to do their job in their own way—bosses don’t issue orders, their job is to help colleagues, not to tell them what to do. James, my son, and I relentlessly visit our shops to meet the people who serve our customers, to look for ideas and listen. We are there to observe, not to dictate. We seldom tell anyone where we are going (although word soon gets around after the first visit of the day). We want to see our business as it really is, like our customers see it.”

From crop dusters to key cutters, there are hundreds of examples of the benefits of moving from your desk to the field. This raises two questions:

  1. What keeps leaders in the office?
  2. What keeps leaders from empowering their front lines more?

Watch this space. We’ll explore these two questions over the next few weeks.

This entry was posted in Frontline obsession by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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