Friday, November 5, 2010

Pizza Corporosa - Over the Topping

How would a corporate organisation go about cutting pizza?

There is a new catering service recently hired for our office canteen. They seem to be a  very professional, experienced and elaborate unit from the way they go about their work. And while they make a uniform hash of every item of their La Place style Asian Wok, their Pizzas are definitely some of the best in town. In Amsterdam that is quite a certificate.

I know that some Pizza outlets and their burger siblings, especially those belonging to the large chains, are right up there when it comes to waste minimization and the application of process maturity principles of Lean and Supply Chain. It makes sense too, the results of their endeavours are generally immediate, sometimes affecting their bottom line that very lunch hour. There is a lot of readily available material on this and I don’t really want to go into all that theory.

However, a lot of my buddy’s irreverence and curious lateral views on life have rubbed off on me, and I can’t help thinking in terms of parallels in the cubicle infested corporate world. A rather striking thought hit me when I was waiting in line, absent midedly following the action of one of the sharp, shining Norpo Pizza cutters that they use. The rolling piece of steel cuts through the delicious baked dough with a simple grace that is fascinating, not just because it happens to be the last preparation step before the  hot crusty preparation becomes yours to hold and to have, but also because of the sheer efficiency with which it performs its function.

And as I watched the metal in motion, my buddy's recent influence made me indulge in a thought experiment. How would such a tool pan out in the corporate environment, in the project management office? What if we thought of the excel spreadsheets and management dashboards in terms of pizza cutters?

In the cubicle colonies, simplicity needs to be avoided like the most pernicious plague. Simple solutions generally end up in meeting expectations and that is a proverbial dread of every corporate drudge. It is the blueprint for the stamp of mediocrity in performance appraisals. The onus is on delighters, the extra step, that particular piece of innovation that would make one shine and bask in the glory of appreciation from the upper echelons of the organisation. The ones that would echo off the reverberating walls of the meeting rooms and would leap out of laudatory notices. It is a different matter that on the way to becoming such value added delighters, it is not unusual for the solutions to stop some way short of actually being solutions. The extra step does not just take you further, it often becomes the step.

Mathew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman point out in their recent article on Harvard Business Review, customers actually look for basic services that cater to their explicit requirements rather than over the top delighters. Value added products seldom manage to retain or grow customer base unless we are talking of some specific industries like hospitality. But nevertheless, delighting the customers is the fad of the day, linked to performance appraisals, management presentations at all levels of pecking order, selling pitch and business conferences.

So, when I think of a pizza cutting parallel in the Corporate world, I find myself afflicted with daytime nightmares involving crack technical team, futuristic deviants of Swiss Army Knives – touted to have far flung features as diverse as being able to perform basic limb amputation, removing specks of dust from in-growing nails, trimming the smallest asymmetry in a handlebar moustaches and prying open seventeenth century caskets retrieved from pirate shipwrecks under the sea. When I roll it over a Pizza in my mind's eye, however, it brings all the physical characteristics of mincemeat into the fare, reducing the circular sensory delight into a mangled, mutilated mess with one clumsy movement of its blade – after taking several aeons to come out of the packet in the first place, all the while sounding like a Harley Davidson engine powered lawn mower. An enmeshed mass of cheese, meat and flour closely resembling the Italian Pizzeria version of the primordial swamp. And then I see the crack technical team receiving an award for innovation, a kind of conceptually mangled mass of deception in itself, a Pulitzer, Oscar and Nobel rolled into one, the holy grail of the cubicular microcosm.

Corporate tools have this uncanny ability to suck at what they are supposed to do. And the mystique goes much further. If the purchase of the knife amounts to a substantial number of negotiations, big names and figures in the bottom line, it will be touted as an epoch making innovation. Soon the entire organisation will be eating the mutilated mass, sharing accolades and blogging about it – with Pizza pandering evangelists spreading the word that this is the very way the Italian gods had intended pizza to be had.

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands