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Doing It the Hard Way

October 29, 2004
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Here’s an exercise I have used for some time with general-interest business books that arrive in our office. I flip to the index and look for some key words: employees, human resources, human capital, workforce, people--you get the idea. I frequently find that the book has no reference to anything having to do with the human factor. You’d think that all the products and services we use every day just sprang, fully formed, from the brain of a CEO.

    I didn’t apply the test when I sat down to read a much-discussed new book, Hardball, by George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer. It came with such delicious buzz behind it that I forgot to start at the index.

    Hardball sets forth a manifesto for business: This is a game you play to win, rather than play to merely play. Some of the chapter titles give you an idea of the book’s tone: "Unleash Massive and Overwhelming Force." "Threaten Your Competitor’s Profit Sanctuaries." "Take It and Make It Your Own," and my particular favorite, almost feline in its cunning: "Entice Your Competitor into Retreat." There is no chapter called "Kill, Crush and Destroy," but maybe that was tossed out in an early draft.

    Hardball does not advocate illegal methods of getting the upper hand, of course. But it’s so hardball that more than once, the authors caution readers to check with their lawyers for possible anticompetitive or predatory-pricing violations before putting a strategy into play. Nevertheless, the anecdotes, from Frito-Lay versus Eagle Snacks in the war of the "salties" to Federal-Mogul’s "wickedly clever" psyops campaign against competitor JPI, kept me reading. More than once I was moved to try out a rich and triumphant mogul laugh: Bwaa-ha-ha-ha!

    If I had first dipped into the book in my usual way, looking for the workforce-management angles in the index, I would have been disappointed. There’s no reference to human resources there. No mention of the workforce. There is, however, a listing for "people assets, stranded."

    Stranded assets can be buildings, suppliers, customers or employees that have become "irrelevant or, worse, a drag on competitiveness." For instance, there are "workers and retirees in the automotive and heavy manufacturing industries who are highly paid and receive significant healthcare and pension benefits." Hardball companies bite the bullet and eliminate such stranded assets or "re-purpose them," the authors say. Cold? Yes. And you can see companies employing that strategy every day.

    There are more positive workforce-management themes in the book, too. They’re mostly about engaging employees in the joy--and pain--of competition.

    When management and employees at Batesville Casket Co. tried to ignore quality problems, CEO Bob Irwin put a defective casket in the executive suite so his resistant colleagues could not ignore it. In the "salties" war, Frito-Lay workers developed a "stressed Eagle" logo that workers put on manufacturing equipment and truck doors, as though they were fighter pilots with their kills on display.

    Whirlpool employees got fired up when they watched a documentary featuring "Gail," an overworked wife and mother. With her in mind, they came up with better products, such as easy-clean cooking surfaces and quieter dishwashers. (Personally, I think what would have most improved Gail’s life would be dumping her unhelpful husband, but that was probably outside the Whirlpool team’s purview.)

    Stalk and Lachenauer say they avoided writing about such "soft" issues as employee empowerment, talent management and corporate culture because their focus is on business strategies that will create or strengthen competitive advantage. Without them, they say, "no amount of customer care or employee motivation will bring a company success or longevity."

    Co-author George Stalk told me that if there had been more space, they would have addressed people management in a hardball setting. In brief, he says, "You make sure nothing on the HR agenda distracts from the strategy agenda."

    And the hardball workforce agenda is fairly simple: Hire, train, compensate and motivate a team so that it plays to win. If there’s a Hardball II, you could look it up under "people assets, fully engaged."

Workforce Management, November 2004, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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