The news keeps coming in. Two large slabs fell from the tenth floor of a building under construction in Mumbai, and killed two people who were having a chat on the street below. A road caved in and was the cause of vehicular accidents in which some people died. And the list goes on. And one keeps thinking - where was the error? And was it only ONE error?
I wrote on this subject over 20 years ago, when the speaker of the Lok Sabha, GM C Balayogi died in a helicopter crash in Andhra Pradesh, and everyone was shocked. He had wanted to leave by train the previous evening. His host convinced him to spend the night with them, and leave the next morning, since they had a hired helicopter at their disposal. He took up the offer and the unexpected happened.
A week later, the government announced that it was planning to allow helicopters to be operated, only if they have two pilots. They would not allow single pilots to take a risk. And the question is: Do these crashes occur only because it was a single-pilot managed helicopter? What about the telecommunications system? What about the total load in the helicopter?
Why do we say all this? …Because management consultant Frand says that when a small private plane crashes, it is rarely due to a single cause. It is normally the result of several events, one piled on top of another that causes the crash. If only one condition had not occurred, the pilot would have arrived safely. And he gives the example of the crash of John Kennedy’s small plane when he died with his wife and sister-in-law. He was the only son of ex-President John F Kennedy of the US.
Kennedy was a relatively inexperienced pilot. Yes, he had good training, but he did not have that many hours in the air. If he had been flying for years, his experience would have told him not to fly that night, or he would have had the skills to overcome some of the problems. It follows the old adage: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots!
Secondly, he flew at night. He was supposed to fly to Martha’s Vineyard during daylight, but his sister-in-law was late. Night flying is not that difficult. You can even fly using VFR (visual flight rules) if you can see where you are going. But it takes a little more experience.
Thirdly, the weather was not that good, once he got out over the Atlantic Ocean. It was hazy and foggy. If he had been flying in the daytime, he would have been able to maintain his orientation. But it was night, and he lost his way.
In any event, all three of these conditions coming together all at the same time caused the plane crash. Three lives were lost. Had any one of these conditions not been present, he would have made it. Two out of the three might have been okay.
The same thing happens in companies. I was called to do some consulting for a small company in south India. The company was started by a young technocrat in 1997. It produced products of high quality which it sold at a reasonable price. They made good profits. Sales increased by 40% every year for the last four years. Then, the slightest hint of a recession, and the big challenge loomed on the horizon. His products were not differentiated from those of the competition; his prices were premium; he produced small quantities which did not give him economies of scale; he had no marketing department or sales executives because in the past he generated business only by his personal contacts. Any form of promotion or advertising was absent.
The company began to falter. They needed new solutions and the time to find these solutions was when they were already doing well. Now, they were strapped for funds.
But the lesson was clear. Such a failure of a company is rarely due to a single cause. It is the result of several events, piled one on top of the other that causes the crash. Whether it is piloting a plane or piloting a business. Whether it is a small Rs2 crore company in south India or a large enterprise like K Mart in US, which declared bankruptcy many years ago!
And what happened to K Mart? They got mixed up in their positioning in the minds of the customer. K Mart stood for economical (cheap?) but they also tried to sell expensive premium merchandise, and this was a huge mistake. They began to offer high-priced Gitano designer jeans—and customers did not believe that expensive designer clothes could be sold at K Mart prices. In the process, the Gitano brand image also got affected. What was worse, K Mart was chronically out of stock of important, much-in-demand products. Customers came once, twice, and not the third time. In the process, K Mart also lost a lot of impulse sales, where customers bought something they had not intended to buy, but got tempted when they saw it on the shelf. K Mart also became known for long queues at the check-out counters and unhelpful service from the sales and service staff. Finally, K Mart declared bankruptcy and closed down. It was more than one mistake that took K Mart down, and caused it to fall between two roads, into the gutter!
There is, therefore, a lesson for all of us in government or business – look for all the mistakes that can take you down. Don’t focus on just a one-item correction. That may not prevent the calamity!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are ‘Marketing in a Digital/Data World’ with Brian Almeida and ‘Customer Value Starvation Can Kill’ with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India)