IBM — Shades of Yogi Berra

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

When I read last month about what IBM CEO Virginia Rometty said to all 434,000 employees following a poor financial quarterly report, I thought, “I’ve heard this before.” So, I dug back in my files to find the 1991 clipping in which John Akers, then CEO of IBM, said, “While I know many IBMers have never worked as hard as they are working today, I am convinced that some of our people do not understand that they have a deeply personal stake in declining market share, revenue and profits.” While arguably well-intended, Akers’ pronouncements did not improve results for him or IBM, and within two years he was forced to announce his resignation.

What Rometty reportedly said in an internal video was something to the effect that IBMers need to step it up and that the company as a whole isn’t moving fast enough. She also said that IBM is too slow and bureaucratic and needs to be more proactive when it comes to initiating change. As a way of showing her seriousness, she implemented a new rule whereby IBM employees must respond to a client question or request within 24 hours.

I’m not suggesting that Rometty’s fate will be similar to Akers’, but I am certain that her message and new response rule will not yield the results she demands.

I feel compelled to remind her of a popular saying in the quality world from several years ago, “Your system is perfectly designed to produce what it is producing.” If IBMers are not moving fast enough, are too bureaucratic and slow, chastising them will probably make things worse, not better. Systems, to include management practices and behaviors, are the problem, not lazy, unresponsive or uncreative employees. If you don’t change the relevant systems, especially the management behaviors, then we will hear the third version of this speech in a couple of years.

One example of a common mistake managers make in trying to correct poor performance is called “the sandwich method.” Hear more about what it is and how to avoid it in this short podcast.