EYE ON THE PIE: In 2007, sweat the little things

January 8, 2007

This time of the year, serious people make serious resolutions about important matters; people like me, experienced and lacking determination, avoid resolutions.

If, however, I were to recommend resolutions to business and government leaders, my list could be condensed into this: Attend to the little things. For too long, we have heard the preaching of management gurus and public-policy mavens that we must keep our eyes focused on the bigger issues. If you are a decision maker, you are supposed to hire people who will attend to the details while you involve yourself in strategic planning and seeing the big picture.

I suspect the problems at GM and other auto companies are too many strategists and too few people of significant authority focused on the details. Quality and customer relations are not responsibilities to be delegated. Marketing and production design require personal involvement from the top.

Is getting top management involved in the details going to overload them? Would experts with specialized knowledge be as involved as they need to be? Shouldn't we leave government operations to the people who run the agencies because they understand the problems?

Organizations, even those as large as General Motors Corp. or the U.S. government, operate best, as far as I can tell, when they bear the personal stamp of an involved leader. Think of Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson at IBM Corp., or Herman Wells at Indiana University. The current structure provides remarkable rewards to people who, at times, are remarkably ignorant of their products, people and procedures.

The Indiana state administration is attempting to study government activities closely. Are those reports easily obtained by the public? Will there be hearings by the General Assembly to see what changes in law and funding may be indicated by the findings in these reports?

Let me give you a tiny example: The Indiana Department of Transportation spends a big chunk of money. Recently, it has plastered the state with signs telling us Major Moves is bringing us better roads and more jobs.

But where are the signs for our community hospitals? At U.S. 421 on the northwest side, there is no hospital sign, until you get to the bottom of the ramp, too late to get off if you don't know it's there.

Can't we do better? Tourism information centers get more attention than hospitals. Inside cities, libraries often get more signage than hospitals. But which do you need more urgently?

Every state and federal highway in Indiana should have signs indicating how many miles to the nearest hospital. We give space to fast-food restaurants, service stations and lodging establishments for signage because they pay for it. Why can't we afford signage for hospitals?

Highway signage is part of our public face and hospital signage might save lives. Yet signage is probably left to a committee of competent but indifferent technicians at INDOT.

Signage is just some of the small stuff, a detail, a minor matter in the great scheme of life, below consideration of highly placed executives. Big people need to be occupied by big thoughts. How well have the big people in the public and private sectors been doing on either the big or the little stuff the past few years?

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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