Think out of the box

Dawo grew up deep in Kaduna, an arid village, where life was not just slow but there was hardly any new thing that ever went up. Your eyes could stretch far on end and all you saw were isolated homesteads. People lived in simple grass-thatched huts and life carried on normally as their ancestors had done through the ages. In fact, the whole landscape was littered with ancient stone structures, and actually, some folks hibernated in trees and caves. Throughout the day they covered themselves with simple leaves, just to hide the most essential parts.

It came as not surprising that Kaduna was one of the poorest districts in the country. But Duwa, was born with an imaginative and inventive mind. Ever restless he had the early impression that he could create new things out of the ordinary.

One day while at the village well, he noticed a long queue that was stampeding into the water, making it all muddy. Close to the well rose a giant mango tree. Suddenly, an idea gripped Duwa.  Why not get a rope and loop it around the tree and make a pulley! He figured that one person on the ground would then use the pulley to lower a pail down into the water, fill it up and, pull the pail back. Then the waiting pots would be filled, without each person getting into the streams with muddy feet.

Excited, Duwa shared this idea with those who were near him. “But it can’t work!” said one person.

“We have always fetched water one way,” insisted another quite opposed to change.

“You try it and we see,” said another skeptic, eager to see this new upstart fail.

Duwa was not the one to be easily discouraged; he took this as a test. He decided to try out his experiment. After he had assembled the pulley, with the whole village holding their breath as they watched, he let a rope loop around the tree, and then he eased the pail down to scoop up a pail of water. Once he had the pail back up he lowered it and went on to fill one pot after another. The villagers quickly realized they had got a deal. A faster and cleaner way of drawing water from the well had been born. They nodded with satisfaction. But Duwa’s father, Shehu, upon learning what his son had done was not amused. “Who told you to change things?” he confronted him later. “Didn’t I tell you not to touch things unless if you are told?”

Apparently, Shehu had never taken his son to school. Now when a newly posted chief to the village heard about this development at the well, he advised Shehu to send Duwa to school. Duwa was eager for school but Shehu saw no use.  He expected Duwa to grow up and herd cattle just as his ancestors had done. Shehu only let Duwa attend school after the chief came to his home and delivered an ultimatum.

The first thing at school the teachers discovered was that Duwa was left-handed, yet school policy had it that every child must be right-handed.  So, the first lesson the newcomer got was beating him hard to discard the use of his left hand.  No one asked him if he could write faster as a leftie.

Duwa liked to ask questions. However, school lessons involved parroting letters and numbers in a chorus. If one failed to sing back in unison as expected, a long-foot ruler would hit him. Because Duwa liked to ask questions he found himself a constant target with a foot ruler landing on every part of his body. He started hating school. Everywhere were rules, he had to obey absolutely. But Duwa’s brain did not work like that. He liked tinkering and trying new things. At school, he was told never to think out of the box, if he was to avoid trouble.

Duwa hardly scrapped through primary school and in the final exams got minimal grades. He was pushed to join a technical school close to the capital city unlike his mates who scored higher grades and were posted to prestigious secondary schools. These were expected to have a brighter future.

Duwa found the technical school different. One thing was that here he could tamper and create new things as part of his course work. “Come up with new things,” the teachers encouraged him.

Energized, Duwa got back to his old creative ways. Once after attending a function where he saw a long queue waiting for guests to wash their hands with soap before being served, he thought of something else.  He came up with a stand with a container that had a capillary linked to liquid soap. One had only to gently step on a stand below and spread his hands for the soapy water to flow.

This mobile tap water was well received not just at the technical school but in the big city. Duwa started receiving orders. In between attending to school work, he launched a small business that supplied customers with “Duwa mobile tap water washing machine.”

One thing Duwa noticed is that in the big city many people tried new things;  most failed but no one seemed to bother. Everyone was trying something novel. And if one idea caught off, copycats descended on the ground from everywhere.  They embraced the successful idea and started selling everywhere.

Encouraged, Duwa came up with another machine to thrash millet into fine flour. Years back he had seen his grandmother back home end up with a hunched back. Duwa attributed it to the fact that she grinded millet with a stone, her back bent. There must be a better way, Duwa teased.  After a while, he came up with a machine driven by a motor where you could pour grains down a gulley that thrashed them into fine flour. This new system was faster and also didn’t require one to bend down and grind grains with a stone.

Growing up Duwa had noticed how rampant tree cutting had left his village almost reduced to a desert. In the big city, he realized there was a huge demand for charcoal because the alternative was far more costly.  After a bit of research, he found d the amount of waste gathered by garbage companies was enough to gather and fire into energy-saving briquettes. These he offered on the market as an alternative to the devastating charcoal.

Duwa contracted agents around the country to sell his many products and made the lives of many people more comfortable. But he was concerned that while other regions were profiting from his trade, not his village. So, one day, he decided to go visit back home.

The first thing he noticed was that Kaduna was much as he had left. People were still strolling about barefoot, hibernating up in trees,  their bodies bare  except for the most essential parts.

Duwa recalled the pulley he had put up years back. He decided to walk down to the village well.  From far he noticed the mango tree was gone along with the pulley. Closer, he found a troupe of villagers down into the well, all scooping water with their muddy feet.

“What happened to the pulley?” he pulled aside a lad who had recognized him.

“Someone cut down the mango tree for charcoal,” he said. “After it was cut people returned to the old way of fetching water.”

Once he got back to the city, Duwa, who rarely wrote decided to share his thoughts in a newspaper article. The heading was “Why certain regions remain poor!”

“If people do not welcome new ideas,” he wrote, “then it is almost impossible to introduce anything  new. Also, if people look at failure negatively instead of seeing it as a positive step forward, few would try for fear of being put down. And if an area has no market where people can place and sell their new ideas, then few would venture, for they can’t recover their costs.  These are some of the reasons why some places are stuck in the past!”

The Manager and Staff Layoff

Staff Layoff

The coronavirus pandemic had a huge negative impact on X-Logistics, which with suspension of travel during the lockdown and subsequent decline in importation of goods was struggling to make ends meet. To survive, and give room for business recovery, the Board tasked management to cut payroll by a third. Immediately Kuma, the CEO, saught Mpetu, Head of Finance, how to go about by suggesting, “We need to start with the most senior positions to lay off taking a huge chunk of our money.

“I agree,” Mpentu nodded. “Otherwise they will be no effect.”

“Then proceed by finding the most expensive staff,” Kuma, already stressed with having to scout for finances, directed.

Once clear the decision was taken to senior management meeting for approval. But the moment Mpetu had presented his case with glossy slides showing the savings to accrue from slashing off so many heads, Ngozi, who was Head of Human resource, raised an objection.

“I agree with the need to lay off some staff in order to save funds,” she said, “but we need to be careful how. I do not think we should merely look at how expensive a particular staff is but also what we lose by letting the staff go.”

“I know where you are going,” Mpentu turned to Ngozi. “But if we approach this task with some staff being untouchable then we can’t reduce the bloated payroll.”

“The issue is if we lay off some of these skilled staff,” Ngozi pressed her point, “not only shall we lose all the investment we have made in them and which, by the way, we are most likely to surrender to our competitors, but also the skill set we need to forge ahead.”

“So, what are you suggesting?” Mpetu asked with some impatience.

“I suggest we start by identifying the skills we need for our business recovery,” Ngozi said. “We have a business plan and unless we are abandoning all our plans ahead we need to see what skills are important to save us for the future.”

There is a paradox today for many companies that are caught in similar situations of scarce funds like X Logistics. Normally, in lean times companies tend to slash staff as one cost saving measure, for business recovery. The question often is whether the company should merely look at what it saves in the immediate short run, without considering what it has lost in the long run! There are yes certain staff ( or skills) that can easily be absorbed back once the operations return to normal. The market is not short of such. But there are those who are so specialized that to lose them, the business may never completely be in position to lure them back. Besides, as we see Ngozi arguing, it may be important to consider what has been spent in getting them to their level and if it is worth to just let go.

Then there are those highly specialized or emerging industries. The training of certain individual skills in such industries may have taken years and laying them off may mean losing them to the market, which leaves the business at the mercy of its competitors who may then take advantage and gain leverage. This may make it more difficult for the business to fully recover.

One of the truisms in laying off staff is first deciding what you can’t afford to lose. Or put positively, what is the most important thing you must save for business sustainability. Without bearing that in mind slashing staff may while causing a temporary relief completely seal the chances of full business recovery.

The writer is a Management Consultant, Associate Professor and Dean of UCU Business School. E- mail: mlwanga@uc.ac.ug