Monday, February 19, 2007

That Sound!

For those of you who are fans of old movies, few are as well done as The Glenn Miller Story (1953) with James Stewart and June Allyson. Not only are Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa featured, there are some great examples to follow. Yeah, yeah, what does this have to do with business process management? I suppose my curse is seeing the relevance of BPM in just about everything. So I’ll elucidate:

First off, Glenn (played by Stewart) sets an objective and goes for it. This is perhaps best exemplified by a favorite scene of mine, a scene in which, after two years of no contact, he calls up a former flame (Helen Berger, played by Allyson) in Denver and asks her to meet him in New York after getting a steady job for the first time. “But Glenn, it’s been two years! I’m engaged” protests Helen. These words would make most men slink away, humiliated. Not Miller. As legend has it, and as the movie aptly portrays, his response is, “Nonsense! Now there’s a train leaving Denver...”

Wow! Here is a man committed. Nothing was going to stop him and the realization of his goal. Helen, of course, showed up in New York three days later, on the very train Miller suggested, with Glenn chivalrously waiting to greet her trackside at Grand Central. He envisioned. He planned. He executed. And this is just the setup.

His music was legendary. Different. His band had a unique sound, a differentiating quality not known before he invented it. As the story goes, that unique quality – that sound – was something for which he searched for years. He knew it was there. He knew there had to be something unique about his offering, lest he be relegated to the heap of also-rans playing ballrooms and dime dances. He didn’t know exactly what it was, he couldn’t precisely articulate it, but he knew he had to find That Sound.

Years of struggle, of promises and pawnshops, of dance band sideman jobs and pit orchestra engagements came to a climax one day during a rehearsal for a new opening engagement in Boston. His lead trumpet – the traditional lead instrument in a 1940s dance band – smacked his mouthpiece into his lip and cut it wide open. Opening night at a new venue, and his star player was incapacitated. Now what?

Turns out it was a happy accident. With a sudden flash of insight – and to the consternation and utter confusion of everyone around him – Glenn had one of the band’s clarinetists take the lead part. And there it was. That sound. The curtain was drawn. The music began. And the crowd roared.

The pursuit of a vision, unabated, that thoroughly differentiated one band from the others, much the same way innovative operations differentiate one business process from all the others. What makes greatness is the relentless pursuit of a vision. All others be damned!

Sixty-five years later, his music is still some of the most recognizable in the world. Wouldn’t it be something if our business leaders, too, so relentlessly pursued their visions? If they were so consumed with a passion for what they believed was a better way, a superior product or a greater value that they would devote their lives to its fruition? That’s the Vision Thing so desperately lacking from so many of today’s enterprises. That’s the Vision Thing that drives business process management and the very idea of continuous improvement that underlies it. General Electric. Microsoft. Google. Southwest Airlines. Progressive Insurance. You can count the passionate ones on one or two hands. Want a real competitive advantage? Get inspired!

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