The Devil In (More) Details.

First published in BW Businessworld here.

As a young professional, before turning to academics, our Professor was the Plant Head of a manufacturing facility located in north India. He narrated this anecdote in a business management class to explain how in the pre-liberalization era, with a combative labor union, managing operations could be a perilous balancing act. 

Circa 1980s, in the middle of a drab but busy workday, the dull and steady hum of clanking machines and whirring ceiling fans was broken, when representatives from the worker’s union stormed into the office building. They sought an immediate meeting with the Plant Head and demanded that management install bicycle-stands for all workers. And if their demands were not met, they threatened to call upon the workers to strike work. 

For the Plant head (our Professor in the future), accepting this demand, meant spending beyond the annual contract arduously negotiated with the Union. More importantly, it signaled weakness and opened doors to further demands. However, taking a hard stand, meant a strike and loss in output – something the company could ill afford. 

He was caught between the hammer and the anvil and needed to find his way out. 

The next day, he invited the union representatives to his office. And over steaming cups of sugary tea and Parle-G biscuits, he announced that Management had accepted the Union’s demands to install bicycle-stands. And just as the union leaders’ loud cheers died down, he continued, but to plan spends, management wanted the Union’s help to determine the exact number of bicycle-stands needed. The Union was requested to furnish data on the exact number of workers who cycled to work in each shift – A, B and C, the number of Ladies and Gents cycles and the number of potential overlaps in each shift considering the number of cyclists who worked overtime and workers with cycles reporting for their actual shift. As soon as the requested data was made available, he – the Plant Manager – promised to have bicycle-stands constructed within four weeks. 

Our Professor, with a wicked smile in his eyes, confessed to us – his students – that the requested data wasn’t sent by the Union even until the day he retired. He called this technique of dealing with requests that you can neither say yes to nor say no, as MDM – More Details Method

As students, we laughed as our Director narrated this amusing tale. But as working professionals, MDM is a sobering reality to be dealt with almost every day. (Of course, enlightened readers of this magazine don’t stall, they make decisions)

Today, advances in technology and AI have led to automated decision engines that help reduce labor costs, enforce processes, and improve CX. For example, the airline industry deploys decision engines that set seat pricing basis availability and time of purchase or banks use tools to automate credit decisions. Many of these tools are based on business rules; often using Bayesian logic with the system learning from its successes and failures. They are best suited for decisions that need to be made frequently and rapidly, with information that’s available electronically so that managers can spend time on more complex tasks. 

As the medieval philosopher Maimonides said, the risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision. Companies invest billions in IT and data systems to help managers with information to make effective decisions. Ironically, these tools make it easier for some invertebrate managers to abuse More Details Method and defer decisions by simply asking more questions. 

So have you met any practitioners of More Details Method?