Mom told me, “Sit up straight“. If I came home late, Dad would say, “Tell me where you’ve been with a straight face.” Coach told me, “Straight arm your tacklers.” My pastor encourages me to “Walk the straight and narrow.” And when confronted with major decisions, my wife reminds me to take time to “think straight“.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “straight” as “not crooked, upright, accurate, a strict following of principles, outspoken, frank, without deviation.” Until a year ago, Enron accountants and auditors were offended when they were called straight, i.e. “You’re too straight-laced” or “Why won’t you bend a little?” Now those same people who bent are broke. They would give almost anything to be called “straight” again. But integrity is not easily earned or returned.
Senior management, auditors, board members and lawyers at Enron, WorldCom and other firms have been accused of wrongdoing, but are you and I free from blame just because we’re not in the news? Are we straight shooters and straight-talkers that walk the straight and narrow? Or are we too “bending the rules” to fit our needs or situation?
Based on what I see and read, the American marketplace needs more people who are willing to live a straight life. Straight is not dull. It can be exhilarating. For example, think what our country, culture and companies would be like if more Americans were willing to say straight to their boss:
- “No, I refuse to tell our managed care customers that they can’t have the medical treatments they need.”
- “No, I refuse to write an unsubstantiated journal entry.”
- “No, I refuse to search elderly passengers when I know the profile of actual terrorists.”
- “No, I refuse to pretend to lose our supplier’s invoice.”
- “No, I refuse to continue allocating overhead costs using an old, outdated method that is over- costing high volume products and customers and undercosting everything else.”
I believe America would be a much better place to live and work if we said “no” more than we said “yes”. Just Say No to crooked procedures. Just Say No to legal but unethical policies. And Just Say Yes to what is just, right, straight and true.
A search for truth takes me straight to the Ten Commandments (1), i.e. do not steal, do not covet, and do not lie. While most Americans dislike being told what not to do, there are benefits in following these inerrant truths. For example, here is what I think America might look like if everyone took God and His commandments straight to heart:
- Road rage would be replaced with highway hellos.
- Police stations and courthouses would be almost empty.
- Prices would drop at the mall because there wouldn’t be any shoplifters.
- “Keeping up with the Jones’” will become a non-existent phrase.
- Pornography web sites and hosts would go out of business.
- Promise Keepers would be a way of life, not a men’s organization.
- There would be a 75% reduction in lawyers because of no divorces or crimes.
- The phrase, “Well, to tell the truth…” would be a thing of the past.
- The only homeless would be hobos and missionaries.
- Professional athletes would make less money than pastors.
I hope this list causes you to pause and think of how good things can be if you think straight. Napoleon Hill wrote the first major success book in 1937 entitled “Think and Grow Rich!” (2). He did not say, “Work hard and grow rich”, “Connive and grow rich” or “Do and grow rich”. Mr. Hill specifically chose the word “think” because it’s an activity we don’t spend enough time doing.
Thinking straight can help you and your organization grow rich. For example, think what your business might be like if it used Activity Based Cost Management (ABM/ABC) to achieve perfect costing with no non-value added cost:
- If we had perfect costing, every new product or service could be introduced at a profit.
- If we had no waste, we would have ample resource to help suppliers and customers improve.
- If we had perfect costing, management would focus on action, not analysis.
- If we eliminated non-value activities, employee turnover would drop to almost zero.
- If we had perfect costing and no waste, there would be less stress.
- If we had perfect costing and no waste, we could focus on growth instead of cutting.
- If we had perfectly “straight” costing and “straight-thinking” employees, we’d have great success.
- If city, county, state or federal governments had perfect costing with no waste, improved stewardship would lead to lower tax rates.
- If my distributorship had perfect costing and no waste, we could consistently make lots of money at low gross margins and easily demonstrate the value added to suppliers and customers.
- If my hospital had perfect costing and no waste, doctors and nurses would once again enjoy their jobs (activities) and Medicare/Medicaid cuts would not have a significant, negative impact on provider P&L’s. Aravind Eye Hospital does 180,000 cataract operations a year for $10 each compared to $1,650 for a typical U.S. hospital (3). Not perfect, but close to it!
Perfection reveals what we were created to correct. While one or more of the ten examples of perfection may seem out of reach, taking small steps every week towards those goals will get you and your organization closer to where you need to be.
When I was a controller at Motorola in 1985, achieving Six Sigma quality seemed laughable and totally out of reach. But step-by-step continuous improvement for five years saw our division go from 16 defects per radio to 3.4 defects per 1,000,000 radios. I learned many things from that experience. I definitely learned that it’s a lot more exciting and beneficial to shoot straight at a perfect goal than bend rules to achieve a selfish, short-term goal rooted in greed, deception and unethical practices.
Seven Steps to Think Straight
- Search out and know basic truths, facts and laws.
If you don’t know them, search them out. Don’t base important decisions on erroneous assumptions or ignorance. As one of my heroes, Steve Allen, said, “It is important to understand the distinction between an erroneous assumption and a stupid mistake.” (4)Ignorance of the speed limit never got me out of a speeding ticket. Thinking straight involves preparation, gathering facts, considering alternatives and selecting the best course of action.
- Prepare now to think straight in the future.
- The majority of men and women who saved the nine Pennsylvania miners had never worked in a mine rescue before July 24, 2002. Training prepared them to think straight in a time of crisis. Read books, attend seminars, talk to knowledgeable people and then practice, practice, practice. Do these things before you need to think and act.
- Focus on one positive outcome.
Our culture promotes multi-tasking as a desirable behavior, but the only way to consistently go straight to a desired solution is focusing on one thing. Make the one thing, the one thing. Author Vincent Roazzi says,“Anyone can learn to focus, but it’s an acquired skill that is honed through experience and repetition.”(5)
- Find a quiet place.
It is very difficult to think straight with noise as the backdrop. Get up early when the world is quiet. Go to your prayer closet. Visit a library. Or find a door to close. Do whatever it takes to find a quiet time and place for your decision-making.
- Demand straight talk.
It’s impossible to think straight if your source of input is bent on lies or deception. Warren Buffet, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, accepts failure from employees but rejects deceit. “If you deceive, you are gone in an Omaha second. Turnover is low. The result is reduced operating costs because the staff is smaller and more attuned to business than to reading between the lines. This boosts profits.” (6)
- Beware of prefabricated answers.
There is nothing wrong with referring to wise sayings or fortune-cookie aphorisms, but don’t use them to support a decision that has no thought behind it. Wise sayings can be found to support both sides of an issue. For example,“Look before you leap”is offset by “He who hesitates is lost.” Or “Better safe than sorry” compared to “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.“
- Simplify your thinking.
- James Barr said, “Throw out the ballast and the balloon will rise.” Determine what you need to “throw out” to simplify your thinking process. Cut the clutter. Focus on what’s important.
George Bernard Shaw said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Schedule some time into your weekly schedule to think straight about how good things can be in your personal and professional life. Think straight and grow rich in results, respect and rewards.
(1) Exodus 20:1-17
(2) “Think & Grow Rich!”, Napoleon Hill, 1937 (2004), Aventine Press
(3) “What Management Is”, Joan Magretta, Free Press, 2002
(4) “Dumbth and 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter”, Steve Allen, Prometheus Books, 1991
(5) “The Spirituality of Success”, Vincent Roazzi, Brown Books, 2002
(6) “The Six-Month Fix”, Gary Sutton, John Wiley & Sons, 2002