The Importance of No.

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.

  1. Our culture plays a big part in our upbringing and Bengalis are generally non confrontational. Saying no equates to confrontation.
  2. We seek to be liked by others by obliging to their request.
  3. We do not have the maturity to assess our priorities and thus take on more than we can deliver.
  4. 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.

Comments (13)
  • Dear Sir,

    Wonderful article. I enjoyed to read about different aspect of life. Thanks a lot Sir

    Kazi Rafique Anwer

  • Good writeups : informative and good learning : thanks for sharing.

  • I am proud to have been working / involved in BTI for over 6 years as an employee under the Internal Audit Department. I will work again if I get a chance.

  • An outstanding piece. Kept copied for further reading. Thanks a lot great golfer!

    • I try to read all your blogs and always find very useful, true facts and real life lessons. I came across two of my colleagues who used to work for bti and I told them “I need to meet the owner someday because he seems so inspiring and sophisticated person”. Hope to meet you someday.

  • Learning say no is also my learning in my career in IBM and Chinese co. Huawei where i had been trained so. agenda less meeting, coordination meeting etc. should be greatly avoided. Unfortunately being a ceo of a small developer company i couldn’t train me people and part of an inefficient system. Hwvr i saved lot by rejecting lot f clients and projects as well as new biz ventures. Regards to you sir.

  • We have to used to say Big “No”
    Sometimes a big “No” can help me out to reach my goal.

    Very important article sir. Thank you.

  • I am highly fascinated by going through the above blog. Different countries has their own culture.

    In Japan, instead of replying NO directly, they will say “ Difficult “(Muzukashi). During my initial study in Japan, I though giving a little bit pressure will make the decision YES. Later the Sensei made clear to all foreign students the meaning.

    Similarly in our country, at times directly telling NO may result serious consequences. The better way to consider the situation, relation, subject and person – I think we decide when or how we say NO. Surely telling directly without hesitation like western culture is easier, but we need to wait till such time in culture changes.

    The later part of the blog about Children (for me Grandchildren) is very appreciable. We should really update ourselves at times learning from younger people.

    I am happy to be associated with the writers for the last forty years closely.
    Arshi Haider Sb: Please keep on writing & enlighten everyone of the untold feelings.

  • Thank you Arshi Haider sir for your another very useful Article.

    Saying “No” is an Art. We have to learn this art. If you don’t learn the art of saying “No”, we would not be successful Manager in Customer Service, Sales or any other fields including personal life. If we fail to learn how to say “No”, we will be considered as a negative personality that hampers our professional career and personal life as well.

    During customer dealing, we have to say “No” to the customers many times in different situations but at the same time, we have to ensure customer satisfaction. So, it is very difficult how we say “No” to the customers. In customer dealings, a significant success depends on how to say “No”

    When we say no, it should not be our objective to hurt anyone, rather our objective should refrain from the proposal that anyone offers you. When we keep in mind this, our objective will be fulfilled. Physiologically nobody likes to hear “No”. So, we have to say “No” very carefully and maturely. When we say, “NO”, we will be polite but firm. Hope we will be successful (সাপ ও মরবে, লাঠি ও ভাংগবেনা). We can give some examples of negative replies but in a positive way:
    1. I would be the same annoyed if I were in your position, but……….
    2. I would love to join you, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with work right now.
    3. I am not taking on any other work right now. Maybe check with another department
    4. Sadly, I cannot help with that. I’m not qualified for that type of work.
    5. I enjoyed helping you last time, but I am too busy to assist you right now
    6. I feel honored by you asking me this question, but I still have to say ‘No’ this time.
    7. Are you sure you need me to include this meeting? I would rather not, but I appreciate you asked for joining.
    8. I know that is challenging for you, but I don’t have the capacity to help you at the moment.
    9. I would love to help, but I have too much going on. Best of luck with your endeavors.

    Sometimes, we see that someone is giving some jobs to the person who is not officially assigned for and he/she is investing his/her time for doing the job but on the other hand, his/her assigned job may be pending. When we will face such a problem, we have to polite say, No
    In our society, corporate life regardless of Senior, Junior. CEO, MD we have to absorb and take positively when we hear “No” and we should have the patience to hear NO and give the opportunity to say NO and try to understand why the person is saying No. I would like to make more responsible to the Senior to establish saying “NO” culture than the Junior.

    We are continuously learning from Arshi Haider sir. Thank you again

  • Amazing! Thank you, Sir!

  • Thanks a lot Learned . I made so many mistakes in my biz life thus couldn’t achieved the target that I deserve considering my background ! In my own conscious, I hv never compromised with my efforts, sincerity , honestly & dedication as a Boss but couldn’t achieved the goal even considering my background.
    Your series of presentation, I read regularly but is it too late to implement as I am now crossing 66. But I believe that ” Its better late than never” !
    To be honest, Now I can’t control my staffs especially; Mktg & Technicians bcz most of them are working since more than 10 to 25 years.
    By the way, My company is a very old & popular like ur’s working in Electronics field .
    I would be obliged to receive your kind advise as a gift to ur brother.
    Thanks a lot. Allah SWT give you long live.

    • Thank you for your comment Mohabbat Ullah bhai. You have asked me for advice. The only one I will give you is that it is never too late. At 66 you are in the best position in your life. Your wisdom is priceless. Keep pushing yourself to the limit. Never let your age get in the way. Good luck and God bless.

  • ‘The Importance of NO’ is the newest in the series of articles written by the author in recent days. All his literary works are real life oriented reflecting his own research and experience for over 40 years in corporate world. Interestingly, reading these articles gives one the solutions to the problems one encounters in one’s professional career and social life as well.

    Introducing the article by explaining Muda (There are also Mura- Muri), a Japanese word meaning waste, futility or uselessness, he focused on Toyota Production System (TPS) of the early fifties, when TPS removed Muda from its process led by Mr. Taiichi Ohno, a Toyota Executive. Eventually, this event led to the formation of modern Lean Management.

    ‘The Importance of NO’ is articulated most lucidly. It tells us to be respectful to proper utilization of time and optimal use of resources. Saying NO is not just showing non- agreement or negativism to any demand, issue or undertaking it is rather optimism to say NO to things that is not needed to be done. NO says don’t call a meeting if it is not absolutely necessary, don’t attend a meeting if you are not relevant, don’t use a resource if it doesn’t achieve a goal or a target.

    In our society NO generally reflects negatives. It’s somewhat easy to say NO by seniors but very difficult to say NO by juniors. To say NO one requires skill. The author explained the reasons of difficulty in saying NO and gave rationale and shown the ways to learn and develop skills to say NO citing the examples of the business tycoons and global entrepreneurs.

    Saying NO must start at home so that it is ingrained in our blood to be able to practice it in our professional and private life. It is a brilliant piece of author’s work and a vivid direction to one’s success.

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