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Management Theories - Flavour Of The Month?

Managers face plenty of difficult choices when it comes to management theories. Do they put their trust in Total Quality Management? Or how about Business Process Reengineering? Perhaps they should aim to make their business a Learning Organization, or concern themselves with the continuous improvement of kaizen?

Top bosses are forever latching on to these management theories and attempting to instill them in their companies. But too often, the concepts turn out to be merely the 'flavour of the month'. Managers introduce a new initiative with a fancy name, give the employees some training and after the benefits are deemed to be negligible, another 'programme' fades away.

Managers are always looking for a panacea. A prime example was Management by Objectives, or MBO. The foundation for this was a powerful insight from Peter Drucker: managers' performance is better if they know what's expected of them and have agreed to it. So MBO put forward a raft of aims, all with numbers attached, to guarantee corporate success and perfect performance. This was the theory, at least. In practice, it didn't deliver and MBO faded away.

The philosophy of Policy Deployment in advanced Total Quality Management is at first similar to MBO. It has been described by the PA Consulting Group as 'a fully integrated top-down, bottom-up management system through which the two or three critical breakthrough targets and means are identified and implemented with the full participation and alignment of all managers'.

However, PD allows people to both share in drawing up the objectives and also to set out what improvements they plan. While MBO set targets, it wasn't too concerned with how those targets were met. PD, on the other hand, is deeply concerned with process and doesn't make the mistake of MBO in believing that the perfect system will give you the perfect results. The theorists behind PD know that panaceas don't exist and that errors will occur that will require correction.

But management theories are certain to fail if they are expected to achieve wonders overnight. Many years of sustained effort are required. And failure is guaranteed if the top management refuse to join in. Anyone who refuses to participate will harm the collective performance of the company and the system.

The word 'system' is important. Many of the management theories mentioned here can produce lasting improvement in aspects of performance. However, those improvements have to be integrated with all the other processes in the system - and that doesn't mean the 'company' or 'unit'. It goes beyond those boundaries and has customers and suppliers at either end.

The above article was written by Robert Heller, renowned management expert and co-author of business management website Thinking Managers, covering management theories and all other aspects of managing in the modern business world.