I originally wrote this article as an internal memo for the benefit of the members of bti. Once it was completed, I felt that it may also be of benefit to so many others who walk in the corridors of our corporate world.
Muda is a much reviled word in the Japanese management lexicon. Apart from the fact that when pronounced, the sound of the word is awful as it rolls of your tongue, muda is also stigmatized because it means “waste”. Muda specifically applies to any human activity which takes up resources but creates no value. It was in the 1950s when Japan was beginning its ascent into becoming an industrial powerhouse that Taiichi Ohno a Toyota executive identified seven types of muda in the Toyota production process and became a legendary warrior against muda. The changes brought about by Taiichi Ohno in Toyota’s work process was also the start of what is now known as “Lean Management”.
Being involved with management for four decades, I feel that muda is pervasive and deeply ingrained in our country’s corporate culture. It is also one of the main obstacles to our economic progress. We are very conscious about accounting for material things. For example, in bti our Audit team periodically reconciles the inventory of empty cement bags. (Believe it or not, these have a sale value of Tk2 each). Our Accounts manager is often at odds with the Administration department regarding the excessive consumption of tea bags. Our Admin department carefully tallies the usage of the toner in the photo copy machine with the number of copies made. We are a very “cost conscious” organization. But when it comes to accounting for our time, we are very prodigal. Just mention the word training and all the seats are taken by overly enthusiastic executives. No one cares about the credentials of the trainer or the relevance of the training. (Our country’s corporate landscape is full of self professed professional trainers many of whom are totally inept).
Unnecessary meetings which drag on for hours is one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, meetings are a necessary evil in the corporate world but they are also one of the worst afflictions of bureaucracy. There is a precise science to holding meetings. There has to be an agenda and the number of people in attendance must be restricted to only those who are essential. In our corporate world, meetings are conducted with reckless abandon. There is hardly ever a clearly articulated agenda and the room is crammed with as many people as there are seats. The meetings are a cacophony of unintelligible ramblings and more often than not, they achieve very little.
I am reminded of the famous Peter Drucker quote, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
No is perhaps the most misunderstood word. Our limbic brain associates the word No with cynicism, pessimism and other negative emotions. Saying no to someone is considered rude, uncooperative and unhelpful. But the fact of the matter is that saying no is an important skill because it retains the most important asset in your life which is your time. As the investor Pedro Sorrentino put it, “If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you.”
Saying no is uncomfortable but you need to say no to whatever isn’t leading you toward your goals. To be productive you need to be able to say no to distractions. The economist Tim Harford says, “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” Not doing something will always be faster than doing it. Ergo, no meeting goes faster than not having a meeting at all. I am not suggesting that you do not attend any meeting at all. Just be judicious in selecting the ones that you should be attending. There are far too many meetings being held which need not be held. Be determined to politely say no to meetings or indeed any wasteful activity which takes up your precious time. People who do not know how to say no, also risk their own credibility. They say yes to everyone and then find themselves unable to fulfil their commitment because they do not have the time. Of course, saying no is a luxury that only people in senior positions can afford. For juniors in an organization, it may not be possible to directly say no to their boss; never the less, a good organization should have the culture where the employees have the opportunity and freedom to express their views.
Not being able to say no also affects the lives of our children. So many of our kids go down the wrong path because they could not say no to their friend(s). Training children from a young age to be able to say no is vitally important. The best way to let children know that it is okay to say no is to let them say no to parents. There are some archaic social norms which are deeply ingrained in our society. One of them is that children are supposed to be obedient and thus say yes to whatever their parent is asking for. No is considered to be an insolence. If we are to develop as a progressive society, we need to break out of this mould. Children should be encouraged to have their independent views and feel confident about saying no even to their parents. It is only then will they learn that saying no is not taboo.
So why is it so difficult to say no? I am not a psychiatrist so I will not go into a Freudian analysis on the subject but from casual observation, I think that there are a handful of reasons which make us averse to saying no.
- Our culture plays a big part in our upbringing and Bengalis are generally non confrontational. Saying no equates to confrontation.
- We seek to be liked by others by obliging to their request.
- We do not have the maturity to assess our priorities and thus take on more than we can deliver.
- There is a fear of missing out (FOMO) if we do not participate in some activity.
No also plays a big part in business strategy. Entrepreneurs are constantly bombarded with new business ideas. So many successful companies have collapsed or fallen into hard times because the senior management made a hasty decision to embark on some new venture without careful consideration. The legendary Warren Buffet says, “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that the very successful people say no to almost everything.”Steve Jobs said “In business focus means saying no to a hundred good ideas before carefully choosing one.” I am not saying that you should never say yes. I think that no should be the default mode; Yes, should only be when it really makes sense.