Books

In love with operations management

Chandu Nair | Updated on February 07, 2021 Published on February 07, 2021

Title: Elephants and Cheetahs – The Beauty of Operations Author: Saral Mukherjee Publisher: Penguin Portfolio Price: ₹399

The author brings aesthetics into a field obsessed with quantification

Clearly, Prof Saral Mukherjee is besotted with the beauty “inherent in business models seen from an operations perspective.”

How many people can weave metaphors of elephants and cheetahs or wax lyrical to help students and practitioners visualise and understand the notion of operational trade-offs. (“An elephant is ultimately an idea — a firm competing on cost leadership. A cheetah is ultimately an idea — a firm competing on time responsiveness”, he explains).

How many would even attempt to “bring aesthetics into a field obsessed with quantification?” Mukherjee has taken parallels from nature, brought in linkages with literature, music and arts. How many would implore you thus — “I want you to fall in love with my beloved,” which, in his case, Operations Management?

It is little wonder then that he has been one of IIMA’s most awarded professors, a recipient of the Marti Mannariah Gurunath Outstanding Teacher Award for seven consecutive years from 2014 to 2020.

Mukherjee infuses emotion and passion into what is generally seen as a dry subject in academics or a prosaic endeavour in business. But he doesn’t let his love and emotion overtake reason. Because he knows that “managing an organisation without understanding it (Operations Management) is a recipe for disaster.”

He has accordingly divided his book into four parts: The Whole; The Doors; The Paths; The Beauty.

Systems with souls

In Part I, he puts forth the hypothesis that systems have Souls! He argues that a system is greater than the sum of its parts; that a harmonious synergy attained cannot merely happen by providing a set of inputs but by a flawless interaction between the various parts making up the system, leading to a set of transformations. Constraints only add to the complexity and make it more wondrous.

He also argues that organisations have the potential to be autopoietic and hence a living system. This may seem absurd to the conventional Operations managers but Mukherjee certainly wants to provoke you to think. Organisations too can have purpose beyond making money and satisfying shareholders.

In Part II, he delves into understanding a firm’s strategy, the paths that were chosen, and those that were not (which doors were closed and why?). “Strategy starts shaping the autopoiesis of the organisation by impacting the nature of interactions and transformations….and thereby shapes the culture of organisations,” he stresses.

It is little surprise that Part III — The Paths — occupies a lion’s share of the book. That is understandable as it covers a large chunk of the ‘How to’ elements along with the “What” aspects. The characteristics of the elephant — cost leadership — and the cheetah — time responsiveness — are dealt with in detail as also aspects such as cost cutting, quality, design and convenience, risk minimisation and flexibility. In the final chapter of Part III, he reveals the great mantra — A system designed to succeed, succeeds if it succeeds. A system designed to fail, fails if it fails to fail.

Designing to fail

Mukherjee clearly is a votary of the Lean philosophy — he likens it to a religion, no less. He proclaims, “Lean is system designed to fail. It is the first, the one and only management system that is designed to fail.” This can take time to digest for the typical management practitioner.

The end of the book has an Appendix with three fascinating stories (Case Analysis) of McDonald’s, Zara and Sukiyabashi Jiro. I found the story of Japan’s Jiro, the first Michelin 3-star sushi restaurant, particularly appealing as it combines the raw passion and conviction of a quirky individual with fascinating insights on the operations behind running a niche speciality restaurant. This encapsulates a lot of what Mukherjee is attempting to educate us in the preceding chapters. And in my view, is worthy of detailing here, as it illustrates the issues much better than mere theory can.

The 85-year-old owner chef is such an overwhelming personality, the epitome of a self-made man. Eating at his 10-seater restaurant means you to have to completely abide by his rules, take whatever menu of the day is offered, the way he wants to, and finish it fully; in short, you have to surrender to enjoy the experience (which typically lasts a mere 20 minutes!). Incidentally, it is the only 3-star Michelin restaurant to not have a restroom!

Jiro doesn’t bother about competing on price or time or convenience. As Mukherjee observes, “In fact, he does not compete at all. He is a master craftsman, a shokunin, who strives towards perfection. If he has stipulated precise terms of serving a customer, he has stipulated stricter standards for himself, his employees and his suppliers.”

He has precise specifications for each item — octopus, shrimp, rice and so on — and he or his eldest son personally tastes each item before it is allowed to be served. Anything which doesn’t meet their stringent standards is simply tossed away.

Loving your work

The road to becoming a shokunin, a master craftsman, is long and arduous. Jiro’s advice? “You have to fall in love with your work…You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success, and is the key to being regarded honourably.”

The attention paid to the supply is no less. Each supplier is a total specialist in each item he deals in, each in their own way a shokunin. As Mukherjee succinctly points out, “We are looking at a supply chain of artists.”

Clearly, Jiro is on an unrelenting daily quest for gastronomic perfection. “With each bite, you are experiencing Jiro’s philosophy of sushi.”

Mukherjee poses several fundamental questions to make the reader pause and think deeply about how Jiro operates and entreats you, like Jiro dreams of sushi, to consider how he loves “our beloved” — Operations.

Dip into his labour of love and perhaps you too may figure out what to dream of.

The writer, an alumnus of IIMA, is an entrepreneur-advisor and investor

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Published on February 07, 2021
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