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Schafer: Strategy without execution is a vision with no plan

Most business consultants want to help companies develop strategy. It’s fun, the fees are big and it has the CEO’s attention.

Messy details, like who is supposed to do what work differently, are best left to somebody else.

That’s why it was a treat for me — someone who gets swamped with PR pitches from self-styled strategists — to spend nearly an hour with Leslie Holman, chief executive and owner of Pinnacle Performance Group. “We do execution,” she said, meaning attending to the messy details.

Execution is an underappreciated part of business management. And, no, it doesn’t mean “operations” or the back office. It is taking an idea or a plan and making real and specific changes in the work that gets done, be it in front of customers or in the back office.

Holman and her staff talk to senior executives all the time, but the people she has in mind when doing this work are the front-line staff who build the products and serve the customers.

Pinnacle got its start in northern Illinois more than 30 years ago as a training company primarily for restaurant companies, and that history still matters.

There are probably brilliant restaurant strategists out there, too, but a restaurant can’t be successful unless the owner manages to prevent a lot of common goof-ups from happening. One way to achieve that is training. And training would be near useless without first deciding the right way you want something done and having that carefully written down.

Pinnacle still works with restaurant companies and still develops training programs, but when Holman acquired the small firm in 2013, she planned to broaden its work into execution consulting. Pinnacle, based in St. Louis Park, is now up to about 30 staff.

Holman previously worked both as an engineer and at McKinsey & Co., a top-tier global provider of strategy consulting.

That means she knows the value of strategic thinking and a good plan. She just sounds a little frustrated, on behalf of front-line workers, about how often the C-suite rolls out a new strategy and quickly moves on to the next thing that seems interesting, simply assuming the details of the new plan will somehow get worked out.

In some assignments, she said, the senior management has named the leaders in charge of new initiatives, but even those leaders have no idea how they’re going to implement it.

Other consultants offer clients some expertise they don’t have (“we’ll tell you what you need to do”) while some take on tasks the client is too busy to get to (“we’ll do it for you”). Pinnacle’s approach is to sit with the client and figure out together what needs to be done and how.

She described this work as time-consuming and often frustrating, because it invariably leads to hard choices and trade-offs. “But if you want something to work,” she said, “somebody has figure all this out.”

Caribou Coffee, one of the main operating companies of privately held Panera Brands, needed Pinnacle’s help to enter the Indonesia market. It was a project that couldn’t be managed by its master franchise operator in the Middle East.

Management at Caribou generally knew what needed to be done to enter a new country, said Jen Esnough, Caribou’s director of international franchise operations, but it didn’t have nearly enough of it written down. Pinnacle helped figure out what needed to be done, in order and by department, to open and operate Caribou stores in Indonesia.

Caribou hasn’t entered another country since, but its plan is to keep the training materials that came out of this project for the next time they are needed.

C-suite executives ultimately need to trust the staff to make any new strategy or plan really work, something Esnough and Holman said helped the Caribou project succeed.

Holman explores a number of questions to uncover whether senior management is really enabling the team to execute a project: Is there a budget for the implementation? Does the staff have to execute a new plan while still doing daily jobs? At a minimum, is there a deep understanding of what the front-line staffers do every day?

Workers are typically thought of as inherently resistant to change, and while workers do think first about their own pay, responsibilities, hours and so on, it seems more accurate to say workers are understandably resistant to dumb changes.

Or, as Holman put it, “the best way to manage a change is to just have a better answer.”

Holman repeatedly brought our conversation back to the impact of change on front-line workers, telling a story of a pivotal career moment that came when she was a young design engineer at Visteon Corp., a parts supplier to Ford Motor Co.

She designed the door insert on the 2005 Ford Focus, traveling to the Ford pilot plant where new models get built before being sent into full production. There she met a 40-year Ford Motor vet named Terry.

In her account, she didn’t befriend him exactly, just carefully listened to him. She was a university-educated engineer, but he’d spent 40 years building Ford cars.

Later came her big day of the first “build,” a high-stakes stage when suppliers that hold up production of the first car with ill-fitting parts face a financial penalty.

Holman brought her door insert, and it didn’t fit. Terry simply grabbed his big rubber mallet and banged it into place, quietly telling her, “We’ll fix it next week.”

Another supplier brought the next part. It was supposed to simply snap on, and Terry couldn’t easily push it on with his thumb. He immediately declared a “misbuild.”

Even colleagues later wondered how she had won this autoworker’s cooperation.Just respect, she said.

“The people in the front line, they deserve the same level of respect as the person in the CEO’s office,” she added. “Unfortunately, they don’t get it a lot of the time.”