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Friday, 5 September 2014

Crash Got Sound - Management by Stumbling Along

Crash got sound is a wonderful Hokkien saying in Singapore.

It never really sunk in until I started work at this wonderful previous company of mine. 

Let me share some of the interesting anecdotes of the company's early years that introduced me to this not so well known management concept of Management by Stumbling Along.

The bloody chair is too big

One evening, pioneer employee X was trying to load up a wooden chair into the boot of his car to make a delivery to customer.

But it just didn't fit into the boot or the back seat of the car. Frustrated, he sawed off the 4 legs. Now they fit!

Yup, this led to the interesting idea that if we can apply this "saw the legs off"  concept to our other furniture products, we can ask customers to transport back and assemble the furniture themselves!

One thing led to another... Resulting in tremendous savings both in transport and warehousing costs.

Just imagine how many more tables and chairs we can load on a truck and/or to store them in our warehouses if they were flat-packed and not fully assembled?

And when containerisation took off, guess who got the most savings on sea freight?

Too many customers!

Now that's a great headache to have as a business owner!

Remember, retailing of furniture is pretty much like you shopping at Courts, Novena, or any other furniture shop today - there is someone to serve you.

Now imagine if there were too many customers, you either get lost sales or frustrated customers not happy with the waiting time...

Most management hired hands would just employ more salespersons to cope with the increased customer flow - linear thinking what?

Our pioneering Senpai (先輩) colleagues simply gave up instead.

They opened the store's warehouse to our customers and invited them to pick the furniture themselves!?

It's a bit like that famous Ryanair story where due to an airport porters' strike, Ryanair were able to get volunteer passengers to load the luggages themselves so the plane can take off. Now that's cool!

We have a similar example here in Singapore. More "senior" Singaporeans may remember a time where we don't have to carry our own food trays when ordering from hawkers. Hawkers got stall assistants where they delivery the food to us. Remember those days?     

Back to my story. This simple act of "giving up control" has resulted in us gaining a competitive advantage over our competitors - whether it be Sales Revenue / Salespersons or Sales Floor Area / Salespersons.

If you are a business owner, how not to be happy? Don't you just love employees that offer proposals to help you earn more and/or save more?

300 over restaurants in the world

When the first store was opened, it was somewhat the equivalent of opening a furniture store at the southern tip of Johor Bahru in Malaysia.

Using this JB analogy, that means our customers will take about average 1-3 hours to drive by car from rest of West Malaysia to our location.

What's the hospitable thing to do when receiving customers after such a long drive? Offer them some coffee and cake?

Yup! It didn't take long before one observant employee gave birth to our restaurant-in-store concept. 

How else to encourage more to make that long shopping trip? And having arrived at our store, stay longer?

Not many customers realise we are also one of the leading restaurant chains in the world. Wink.

Just make a wild guess. Did our business owner planned to be in the restaurant business?

Planning versus connecting back the dot

Crash got sound indeed.

This post is written primarily for those who are still in school and those who started their corporate careers recently.

What you've learned in school is goal setting, business plans, mission statements, etc. 

You may think most clever corporate moves you see in the market place are done behind ivory walled offices at the corporate headquarters. 

That may be.

But if you have the opportunity to talk with real business owners - not hired hands - do ask if their entrepreneur journey is one that is more synonymous with 5 year plans or more like Management by Stumbling Along....

Or you are a fan of Apple and Steve Jobs, you may want to think for yourself what Steve Jobs meant by connecting back the dots.

If you find Management by Stumbling Along too foreign a concept, you can start with Management by Walking Around first - there is academic literature here.

And for those who want to ask where to find literature on Management by Stumbling Along... I think you are missing the point.
It's more about being AWARE on the HERE and NOW.

May sound simple; it's not.


  1. Hi SMOL

    That's how the meatballs get popular too.

    In school , we learned theories . In real world , we deal with people of different background .

    1. Small Time Investor,

      It's interesting to note that the story began in the 50s.

      Few were graduates then. And even if there were graduates, a small retail company can hardly afford nor attract graduates.

      Who knew the "non-conventional" decisions made by those pioneering non-graduates on the selling floor could have so much impact looking back.

      And yes, most of those pioneering senpais are now millionaires. Now who says you can't get rich working for others? Just ask pioneering hired hands of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.

      I think that's on the mind of most new graduates - should I join a MNC with excellent pay, or do I join a fledgling but growing SME with mediocre pay?

      I believe women have the same headache too - should I marry a middle-age proven success, or do I want to chance it with a young ambitious guy with nothing but dreams to his name?

      P.S. This is not an advertorial comment to "lelong" myself OK? Spoken with a deadpan face.

  2. Hi SMOL,

    Good post :)

    My career as a tutor is stumbled upon too. Who in the right mind will want to grow up to be a tutor right? So low class, no cpf, no titles, no bonuses, no leave etc etc? But it was while waiting for my then gf to finish her degree so that we can leave overseas to study, that I started tutoring and had never looked back since. I even rejected my phd application because I realised that's not what I want afterall.

    To stumble upon something, we have to open my minds and be ready to accept black swans event (the good ones and the bad ones). Trust that you will have the capability to handle whatever that may come and believe that whatever happens happened for a good reason.

    You just don't know yet ;)

    1. LP,

      Thanks :)

      I believe this post can be perhaps hard to digest or accept for those who live life according to this motto:

      If you fail to plan; you plan to fail.

      It can be heresy.

      Sometimes, the side roads and back lanes can lead us to interesting finds than had we stuck with the main road.

      Of course we need to exercise common sense safety precautions - we don't want to be wandering off to some side alley in the middle of the night. Do we?

      Open Mind and Curious Heart.

  3. landowner very siong one hor...sorry my land size still not very big.Sometime need to be the cleaner, driver, salesman, accountant, clerk, system admin,helpdesk, sometime gigolo... ;)
    Every problem is different.If everyone don't know how to do,who can they ask? then everyone look at me. then i tell them i go ask sunzi to teach me the art of war first lor...

    1. WolfT,

      I am glad you have decided to weigh in here, being landowner class and all ;)

      When cash flow is tight, landowners are suddenly gigolos and prostitutes to their bankers and suppliers - I'll do anything you ask, just give me 30 more days...

      Yup, in Asian mentality, the big boss man should have all the answers. Yet no one pause and think if the boss has all the answers, hire you for what?

      There are whiners, there are complainers, and there are solution providers.

      Solution providers are the most likely to be future landowners.

      Since they are going to "wrap mountain wrap ocean", they might as well be gigolos and prostitutes themselves!


    2. but it is bao mountain bao ocean thing that you learn and stumble upon insights and make changes.
      You learn more of what your customers wants, how to improve on your social skill, networking, create bond with staff.

  4. Hi SMOL,

    I agree, when my bosses ask me to go for this "management course" and say it is a must, I obliged.

    I am still at the stage u were 10? 15? Years ago? But I always tell my closer friends, I believed learning on the job. Take knocks etc.

    I remember my colleague telling about how some resources were missing and that staff of duty have to work longer hours. Because of the constraints we changed some processes and it end up, we finished work faster with lesser people.

    Those eureka moments that you mentioned in your post, I am not sure how many I have missed by focusing on managing rather than innovating.

    1. Sillyinvestor,

      Hang in there. I believe you will find your own solution on how to balance "managing" ("leading" could be a more sunnier word to use) with innovating.

      In Zen, we see beyond words so words don't matter as much, But in corporate life, words DO matter. I know, I'm such a man-whore...

      I am just glad that in my previous life as purchaser and supply chain evangelist, I had the good fortune to visit factories all over Asia and Europe.

      As foreplay to business, some of the most scintillating conversations were with ebullient factory owners who were most willing to share their stories with me.

      Before long, I've discovered I am like Jack D. Schwager of Market Wizards.

      I've seen the look in the factory owners' eyes, observed their body language, and listened to their tone of voice . And that's something you can't get just from reading 3rd person accounts from books ;)

      Tip: Get out of the office more often ;)

  5. Hi SMOL,

    I'm totally with you on the point of management by experiment.

    Important that minions like me in the organisation should also have the business owner mindset. The difference between a successful business owner and a good minion is - one is a good problem finder, the other, a good problem solver.

    If we can identify the problem - be it a market gap (customers' needs), process gap, HR gap and what not, we can channel resources to fix the problem.

    School teaches problem solving skills and that's how we minions are made.

    A paradigm shift will occur through good mentorship and/or self learning through getting a few 'balukus' from hard knocks in life.

    Here you are doing a great job being a social mentor. Pro bono some more.

    Give you a star and a badge of honour.

    Happy belated Teachers' Day!

    1. Endrene,

      I think I'll go hug mom now.

      After 47 years, finally someone gave me a star...

      All those years of sitting at the back of the class, watching others get their stars... And I pretending not to care...


      Thank you ;)


    You're Responsible, but you are not in control:-

    While you're thinking, make sure you consider the bigger picture--the context of your behaviour. A single action may have broader financial consequential that aren't immediately obvious. For example , you decide to start your own business. Your daughter works there in summer and ends up running it. This could be good or bad--but it probably wasn't part of the plan.

    You send your kid to Harvard because you think it's a good investment in her financial future--and she (bless her heart!) ends up teaching high school kids in an urban setting for $19,000 a year. This is probably not the outcome you expected.(Maybe it's the right outcome, but that's a different matter.

    Get it? You're not totally in control even when you are making wise decisions. So beware of making decisions for purely financial reasons. Instead, make decisions that square with your notion of virtue, wisdom, and common sense.
    And remember: you're responsible for your own behavior--but you can't control the results.

    In a nutshell, that's life (especially money & investment)
    We are all actually stumbling along, even for those who thing they plan for it. Ha! Ha!

    1. That's quite right. Lol....

    2. temperament,

      I love your examples!

      We are quick the summon and scapegoat the variables that we can't control in defense of WHY we couldn't achieve our goals and plans.

      But if we hit our goals and plans through sheer dumb luck, we do an about-turn and use language like - aku, 是我, it is I....



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