How To Drag Ourselves Into The 21st Century


When I was a young lad working as a management trainee, I came across a department called Organisation and Methods (O&M) and was intrigued as to what they did in there. I tried to get a job in that department but, sadly, failed and so was consigned to the life of a COBOL programmer instead (I did eventually break free and become a roving marketeer).

However, the machinations of that department still entranced me. Nowadays, O&M has morphed into business process re-engineering, which is a rather fancy term for assessing the best method for making a cup of tea (inter alia). Essentially, it looks at all of the activities (processes) involved in producing something and seeks to eliminate redundant tasks, shorten the critical path and improve outcomes. Countless organisations have drawn up the requisite process maps and analysed the time taken for different tasks. (I had a stopwatch and clipboard in my hand when the activity I was monitoring came to a premature end when the van keys were accidentally locked inside the vehicle.)

McDonald’s realised that buns were better pre-cut, UPS worked out which fingers your car keys should be held in to speed up locking and unlocking your car, and systems analysts cottoned on to the fact that unnecessary data entry keystrokes wasted time and created errors.

All of this is generally thought to apply only to large corporations that can save millions by reducing time or costs in activities performed thousands of times a day. My thesis is that this applies to all of us.

I do agree that shaving five seconds off of your personal best in making a cup of tea in the morning is unlikely to improve your life very much. As George Bernard Shaw reputedly remarked when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile record, “And what did he do with the time he saved?”

However, the clutter of today’s society in terms of digital photographs, email, WhatsApp messages and important documents that need saving somewhere safe — O&M has things it can teach us. Naming documents is a good start (we used to call it annotation in the programming world), sorting digital photos into buckets (years or situations for example) is another. Some sort of backup is essential.

Psychology (Miller, 1956) has given us the concept of the magic number seven plus or minus two as being the maximum number of separate ideas we can hold in our head at any one time. Therefore, any digital filing system should have at most nine categories. Mine (not necessarily the best) are as follows: 1.0 Personal, 2.0 Family, 3.0 Finances, 4.0 Social, 5.0 Career, 6.0 Holidays/Travel, 7.0 House, 8.0 Car/Motorbike, 9.0 Other.

In the Sunway MBA, we teach subjects like economics, which considers the allocation of scarce resources to the correct tasks. In this respect, time is critical. Operations management looks at simple processes (like making a cup of tea) before moving on to nuclear submarines. Critical reflection (or Kai Zen) can help us improve our own lives on many different levels.

There is a debate about the usefulness of deleting read email. The cost of storage is now insignificant. However, I note that the culture in Malaysia is to save everything and copy everybody in on everything — just in case. I had one case last week when someone “replied all” with the words “Thank You” to 126 people. Just think of the time wasted in that company of people reading and deleting that one message — do not even go there if they all start replying “You are welcome”. A few years ago, a colleague of mine was sacked for sending out a mass email without hiding the addresses. A firestorm of auto-replies replying to auto-replies brought down the servers of several of our largest customers.

There is no point advocating Industry 4.0 if we cannot even get the basics right.

Now please excuse me, I am off to make a cup of tea, now where did I put my stopwatch…?

Dr Michael Dent
Department of Marketing


Originally published in The Edge, May 2019