It never ceases to amaze how completely the managers and employees of unhappy companies -- whether actively failing or merely mired in mediocrity -- can convince themselves that their troubles are unique. Invariably, I'm told that their predicament is due to: difficult market conditions beyond their control; wholesale customer defections based on currency fluctuations or unfair trade; a particularly toxic or strangled culture that prevents change. Please. Believe it or not, Paul Simon wrote a song about these poor performers, "All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints." Its lyrics read:
Over the mountain Down in the valley Lives a former talk-show host Everybody knows his name He says there's no doubt about it It was the myth of fingerprints I've seen them all and man They're all the sameThe sad truth is that unhappy companies all look alike -- with five fingerprints in common: A belief that employees are dangerous and lazy. Unhappy companies invariably believe that their employees are out to sabotage the business, and they manage accordingly. All decisions -- whether on strategy or coffee for the break room -- have to be signed by three layers of management. What unhappy companies fail to understand is that if you treat people as if they're worthless long enough, eventually they'll either believe you (and behave accordingly) or they'll spend all their energy trying to build a paper case that you're wrong. Either way, your customers (and you) lose. A conviction that customers cannot be trusted. To an unhappy company, customers can seem like fickle beings; they want new and interesting products, on time and at fair prices. Managers at unhappy companies foster an environment in which customers are kept at arms' length from everyone except the sales department. Needless to say, customers usually reciprocate this lack of trust and never share the needs and frustrations that might lead to new products -- and new partnerships. A focus on policies, not principles. If employees are dangerous and customers untrustworthy, how can unhappy companies protect themselves? By installing rigid procedures and policies that make sure neither employees nor customers can take advantage of them. Although individual employees often recognize the damage that these rules have on loyalty and customer value, the lack of clear principles -- that employee satisfaction matters, that creation of customer value is how we grow the business -- means that the system stays in place until it's tipped over by a more-principled competitor. An obsession with today, not tomorrow. Beset by terrible customers and employees, weighed down by polices rooted in fear, unhappy companies focus on today's revenue and margin at all costs -- because who knows what tomorrow may bring? Never mind that their more risk-tolerant competitors are investing in relationships with customers, in technologies that may bring new profits and in work processes that may bring new profits; unhappy companies squeeze the same products and processes like stones for next quarter's profit -- and then wonder why it all seems that much harder the next quarter, and the quarter after that. Leadership in all the wrong places. Unhappy companies have leaders who make grand promises for revenues but never meet with customers; make grand demands for efficiency but never commit dollars to execution; and make grand noises about change but never do more than reshuffle the deck chairs. What kind of fingerprints will you leave on your company? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm.