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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Walkabout Versus Makan Angin Management

Walkabout Versus Makan Angin Management
M. Bakri Musa

It is commendable that Prime Minister Najib Razak is periodically leaving his air-conditioned office to experience first hand what ordinary citizens have to put up with in their daily lives. Last week saw him riding the Light Rail Transit; the week before, a stroll down Petaling Street. All these so he could “understand the pulse of the people.”

Najib would like us to compare him to his late father with his legendary working visits to the various “Operations Rooms” throughout the country to monitor development projects. Whether Najib would prove to be like his father or closer to Abdullah Badawi, the country’s most inept leader, remains to be seen.

Recall that Abdullah too made frequent well-publicized visits to various governmental agencies. One of those was to the Immigration Department, notorious for its less-than-stellar public service, where he announced that all its problems were miraculously solved following the impromptu visit. The tragic part was that Abdullah believed it; Malaysians of course were much wiser.

At least thus far Najib had the sense not to wear a three-piece dark suit like Abdullah did on his walkabouts. Instead Najib opted for the more casual batik look. While Abdullah appeared formal and imperious, like a sultan showing the flag, Najib was more like someone out for an evening stroll, more jalan jalan (leisurely stroll) and makan angin (lit. eat wind) than a working visit. Both Najib and Abdullah looked like they were not ready for serious work.

Emulate His Father

I suggest that Najib (or his aides) look at the archives of Filem Negara to see how his father did it. The image we have of the Tun was of a leader who was serious, brooked no nonsense, and most of all ready to do some heavy lifting. It was not just an image. As many who had worked with the late Tun would readily attest, that was also very much the reality.

The Tun did it long before Tom Peters and Robert Waterman popularized the term “managing by wandering about” in their bestseller In Search of Excellence. Never mind that twenty years later Peters would confess that he faked the whole data on which their book was based, or that many of the “excellent” companies he cited no longer existed! Later, the movie Crocodile Dundee brought to the American mainstream the Australian Aborigine’s expression “walkabout.”

A prominent feature of the late Tun’s walkabouts was that they were working visits, not “photo ops” designed for the day’s prime news cycle. The Tun’s trademark gear was the bush jacket, not dark suits or casual batik. Aware of the blasting heat of the tropical sun, the Tun often wore a hat or carried an umbrella. The Malaysian sun is still as hot today even though I do not see our leaders appropriately attired on their various “official” visits.

Tun Razak’s frequent visits to the field were focused. He would first hear the official briefings; and then visit the various projects. Woe to the official whose glowing reports did not match the reality! At the same time those visits were also opportunities for junior officers to show off their stuff. The late Tun effectively used those trips to scout for promising talents.

How does Razak Junior measure up? Too soon to tell, but I wish that he would dispense with his colorful batik shirts and three-piece dark suits, have a more purposeful stride, and do away with the media hype. He should also severely trim his entourage, to a security person, a secretary to jot notes, and the head of the visited department.

I would also like him to be more prepared. Surely he did not need to visit the LRT station to know that our commuter trains are overcrowded and frequently late. What he should have done instead was to query management as to what steps they were taking to rectify the problems, and how could he help solve them.

Short Reading List for Najib

Najib has one thing going for him as compared to his immediate predecessor; he is an avid reader. I suggest that he read how some great leaders did it. From our own tradition he could read the various celebrated accounts of the night time walkabouts of our second Caliph, Omar (May Allah be pleased with him!). Closer to home, Najib could emulate his father. Unfortunately as not much has been written by Tun’s contemporaries on his unique management style, Najib has to rely on Filem Negara’s archives.

There are two old books that I would recommend for Najib in developing his own walkabout management. One is Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization, first published in 1970. Townsend was the CEO of Avis Corporation, the car rental company whose advertising jingle, “We’re Number Two; We Try Harder!” changed the fortune of the company.

Townsend related how whenever he was out of town to visit the various franchises, he would phone his headquarters incognito to see how his staff would handle customers’ queries. This was of course long before the days of outsourcing where such complaints would be routed to service centers in India. Townsend would also go to the local counters to experience the services his customers were receiving, or not receiving! When he found that wanting, he did not harangue the poor receptionists but would bring the matter up with their local managers.

The other book is Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight From The Gut, co-written with John Byrne. Welch was the legendary CEO of the giant conglomerate GE Corporation. Under his leadership, GE’s revenues increased five-fold; and market value, 30 times!

On his frequent visits out of headquarters, Welch would ask the local managers to name three or four of their promising subordinates. He would then meet them privately to get a firsthand assessment. Following that he would ask their managers what they were doing to groom the promising talents they have under them.

Welch went further. Whenever young talents were “fast tracked,” he would make sure that their immediate superiors would also be appropriately recognized and rewarded for having played an important role. Were Najib to subscribe to that, he would help reduce the pernicious habit endemic in our civil service where promising young subordinates would be banished to the ulus lest they would pose a threat to their superiors.

Najib should also adopt one of Welch’s favorite practices. He would spend one whole morning addressing about 70 of GE’s “fast tracked” managers attending a three-week development course at the company’s “university” at Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Those were no cheerleading or pep rallies, rather he would challenge the future leaders of his company, inspire them, and most all get fresh ideas from them. It was his relished assignment, one he rarely missed.

Likewise Najib should regularly visit INTAN and challenge those young civil servants. Get them before they become corrupted by the corrosive civil service work culture.

I would also suggest Najib heed one of Welch’s more brutal practices, weeding out the bottom ten percent “underperformers” every year. Were Najib to do that, he would reduce the terrible bloat and greatly enhance the civil service’s efficiency.

I would not advise Najib emulate another celebrated CEO, Southwest Airline’s Herb Kelleher. In an attempt to get close to his employees and customers, Kelleher would often fly as an ordinary passenger and also take on temporary assignments as baggage handler and counter clerk. Najib does not have Kelleher’s charm or sense of humor to carry that out. Air Asia’s Tony Fernandez could, but not Najib.

Management by walkabout is a powerful and effective tool, but only when it is done right. As the management guru Edward Deming put it, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Were Najib to do anything less than what have been presented here, his frequent forays would quickly degenerate into makan angin or jalan jalan outings. All you get with makan angin is foul flatus. Worse, those visits would only disrupt the normal workings of the visited agencies. God knows, our leaders have already engaged enough in those already.


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