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Why don’t we take more pride in our businesses?

Mar 18, 2007 Strategy, Sunday Nation

Why would anyone open a restaurant when: the renovations are not complete; the staff are not adequately trained; and the chef hasn’t quite got his act together? Happens all the time in Kenya. How often do you go to new establishments to encounter exposed wiring, waiters who have no clue what the dishes are, and a kitchen that seems to be cooking a completely different type of cuisine from that advertised?

This is not a restaurant column (thank goodness – I’d be sued every week for intemperate language), so there is a wider point to be made. This casual approach to business doesn’t just happen in the hospitality field, and it doesn’t just happen to new establishments. For a nation of famed entrepreneurs, we seem to pay very little attention to quality, and even less to detail.

And so we have contractors who will undertake your work, accept a deposit, and then disappear for weeks. We have movie theatres where the staff imagine that cleaning up between shows means picking up the one chocolate wrapper near the door and ignoring the debris within. We have airlines whose staff are happy to watch their customers queue for hours (wholly unnecessarily) just to check in.

We have food manufacturers who won’t provide proper toilets for their workers. Shops that suffer daily power cuts but won’t invest in a simple inverter to keep their lights on so that customers can see the merchandise. Service providers who blithely tell you that their fees have doubled after failing you every time the year before. Concert promoters who can’t seem to sort out the seating until after the fans have arrived. Hotel managers who won’t bother to put up a projector screen in their conference room until someone screams in their face.

Where’s the pride, people? Why do so many of you charge into business without the vaguest intention of doing things to a certain standard? Why are we so casual about the idea of business, so slapdash in thought and deed? This applies to all ethnic groups in the land, without exception. You can take the Kenyan out of the hot sun, it seems, but the jua remains kali in his head.

A business is a noble enterprise. It is something that sustains dozens, hundreds, even thousands through its myriad chains and linkages. It gives a market to suppliers, fills a need in customers, provides growth and development to employees, fills the pockets of its owners, and helps build the roads, clinics and schools of the nation. Still, too many of us undertake our ventures as though we were engaging in a game of marbles in the dust.

A business should be an extension of your own self. You should take as much pride in its appearance, its behaviour and its functioning as you do in your own children. You should nurture it, improve it and grow it with a passion that emerges from the deepest of wellsprings within you. You should want it to excel, and should revel in its contribution to your life and to the world.

Jim Collins undertook an extended study of great businesses before writing his best-selling book, ‘Good to Great’. He noted that outstanding businesses operate at the confluence of three important questions. First: what are you deeply passionate about? Second, what are you best in the world at doing? And third, what will make you money? These are three fundamental questions, and all businesses in Kenya, good and bad, old and new, existing and imagined, would benefit from trying to answer them.

If you don’t believe in something, won’t jump out of bed to bound into work, can’t get excited about your product – don’t do it. Equally, if you can’t be very, very good at what you do, find the field too crowded with too many people doing exactly what you do, and can’t find a breakthrough capability of your own – stop doing it. And lastly, if for all your passion and all your excellence you can’t make your business produce a sustainable and sizeable profit – do something else.

It seems too many of us ignore these very fundamentals of business. We start ventures in industries that bore us to tears. We become the thirteenth competitor in the industry, doing everything in exactly the same way as the other twelve. We can’t take in more revenues than we pay out in costs year after year, but we persist in the hope that better times are a-coming. And for our failures, we blame governments, councils, exchange rates and foreigners.

No wonder we produce dreary and unworthy businesses that will die a sudden death the minute customers are offered a better alternative. It need not be so. Creating a business, like creating a work of art, should be done with deep thought, care and attention. Anything else is a waste of your time, and ours.

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