Turning Success into Mediocrity


A few years ago I was asked to visit with Microsoft’s manufacturing product folks to explain lean accounting to them. The impetus for the visit didn’t come from within Microsoft, but from a big mover and shaker in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership organization who knew the senior Microsoft manufacturing folks and repeatedly urged them to listen. So they had me in and I soon noticed the inverse relationship between the level of interest in what I had to say and the Microsoft folks’ status in the pecking order. The junior people were very interested and wanted more; the senior people listened politely but couldn’t wait to thank me, hand me a bag of Microsoft goodies and give me the bum’s rush out of there.

The reason for the lack of interest comes through loud and clear when you read the none-too-subtle message in this interview with Melissa Cook from Microsoft, ironically titled with a quote from her, Microsoft Director: 'Manufacturing Is A Hotbed Of Innovation'. She is all about creativity, speed and innovation so long as it happens within the ERP framework. Her examples of manufacturing’s creative culture is simply the evolution of MRP: “going through MRP, MRPII and ERP. Manufacturing is a hotbed of innovation”.

She is correct, of course, when she says that “manufacturing is a hotbed of innovation” but when you start from an assumption that innovation has to be centered around ERP Microsoft misses out on all of the really good innovation.

The problem is that Microsoft is not much different from many manufacturers – or other successful tech forms for that matter. The people who call the shots are still firm believers in the innovations that were the springboards for their careers twenty years ago. At both Microsoft and many manufacturers that means ERP. The product manager at Microsoft is the guy who built their early ERP system, and the VP or Director of the manufacturing company is the guy who bought it from Microsoft (or Oracle or SAP or whoever). Getting either of them to face up to the notion that there are better ideas that have come along since those days means getting them to walk away from the foundations of their success.

The same phenomenon is why Apple is on iPhone 6, and each iteration is a little less unique than its predecessor. The decision makers are the same people who made their bones with iPhone 1 and letting go is nigh unto impossible. It is why the same company that turned the information world upside down with Windows now looks to its third party resellers (UK based EBECS is the brain power behind any significant lean capability in Microsoft Dynamics AX – their flagship ERP product) for innovation and new ideas.

Those young bucks at Microsoft who were so clearly frustrated with the seasoned bosses for their polite apathy when exposed to lean accounting are soul mates to the junior folks in manufacturing butting their heads against the wall of ‘older and wiser’ leaders who embrace lean so long as it doesn’t change the fundamental management of the company.

I pick on Microsoft because of my personal experience with them, but I believe they are better than their even stodgier competitors. Success is a hard thing for successful people to keep in perspective, and it can turn successful innovative companies into mediocre followers.

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