MBA 101: Don't Be "That Guy"

July 5, 2008
As I move through my business school coursework, I've been surprised to discover how much my MBA curriculum falls firmly under the "common sense" label. For instance, I've learned that poor quality practices have lingering costs that go above and beyond ...

As I move through my business school coursework, I've been surprised to discover how much my MBA curriculum falls firmly under the "common sense" label. For instance, I've learned that poor quality practices have lingering costs that go above and beyond warranty accruals and inventory writeoffs.

To illustrate, let me tell you about a party I attended a few summers back, up in the fisherman's paradise known as Lake of the Woods (located in Northwestern Ontario). The crowd at the party was a mix of locals and longtime visitors, with a couple of obvious tourists and "honorary locals" (such as myself) mixed in.

As with many parties of this kind, there was one guy there who stood out for all the wrong reasons. He started drinking early, got progressively louder and more obnoxious as the night wore on, and by the end of the evening had gotten himself punched in the face and knocked out cold, after which he woke up and then, after drinking some more, passed back out. When I last saw him, he was slumped outside the cabin's back door, with a cloud of hungry, Canadian North Woods-sized mosquitoes jockeying for position on every square inch of his exposed skin. (We joked at the time about renting him out as a bug zapper, since the rest of us went relatively unmolested that night).

According to the host, when "that guy" woke up the next morning, he had two black eyes that you could hardly see, as they were recessed into a face that resembled a field of layered, angry red, swollen mosquito bites.

His friends later told us that it took nearly a month for "that guy" to look normal again, as he had an allergic reaction to the bites and couldn't stop scratching his face, neck, arms, legs, etc. Supposedly, he even had mosquito bites on the inside of his nose, and if they can climb up your nose, well...they can get anywhere. I'll leave that much to your imagination.

Point is, "that guy" became a legend amongst my group of friends, and even though I never saw him again, we still talk about him as a cautionary tale.

What I'm learning as I move through business school is, "that guy" has corollaries in the corporation. Even above and beyond the Ken Lays of the world (a great example of being "that guy" in the boardroom), I have been somewhat surprised to see how many MBA textbooks regularly use the same examples, over and over -- for example, tire manufacturer Firestone -- as an example of the cost of poor quality.

This Akron, Ohio-based company was founded on and had a century-long heritage of quality products built on top-shelf principles, but over the course of recent decades it received not one, but two black eyes in the media for tire recalls in 1978 and 2000, and has since found itself the poster child for bad quality -- and bad corporate decision-making as well. (If you don't know the story, check it out here.)

However tough the short run costs were to its product reputation amongst its primary customer base (a survey taken at the time noted that fully two-thirds of consumers said the controversy would make them "extremely unlikely" to purchase a Firestone tire) the "long tail" of this issue in school textbook form adds insult to injury, as an entire generation of business school students like me learn about the cost of poor quality from Firestone's bad example.

Now, fast forward to today. Think about Mattel's precarious position with toy recalls this last year -- how many anxious parents put the Mattel brand back on the shelf, because of high-profile, media-saturated product quality problems with China-manufactured toys? And how many textbook authors and college professors are now holding once-proud Mattel as an example of how not to manage your global supply chain?

The moral of the story is, don't be someone else's negative reinforcement.

Who will be "that guy" of this year? Might it be your company? I'd take extra pains to make sure it isn't, because the bloodsucking mosquitoes in the court of public opinion (and not to mention, the textbook publishing community) have no qualms about attacking you when you 're down, and (like "that guy" at the summer party) you'll be feeling the pain long after the black eye has faded.

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