The Ministry of Common Sense: consultant Martin Lindstrom on the strategy that has helped transform Maersk and other top companies
Book review by James Brewer
“When people start working within organisations, something happens to them. They forget they’re human.” So argues Martin Lindstrom in his new book The Ministry of Common Sense which is boldly subtitled How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS.
The consumer and branding strategist, whose A-list clients have included the mighty Maersk shipping group, throws down challenging questions for all those who hold the levers of boardroom power. He says that what is missing in much of today’s business world is a once every-day but now elusive quality: empathy.
Corporate man and woman “start adhering to rules, processes, procedures and official and unofficial codes of behaviour that make no sense to anyone outside the organisation.”
The intuitive consultant asserts that businesses have squeezed out almost everything that could be called human. “If something cannot be measured or quantified, it does not exist.”
The curse of the corporation runs deep. Back in 2000, the author John le Carré who died late last year, when speaking to The Times about his novel on big pharma corruption, The Constant Gardener, expressed his concerns. “The tragedy is very often when we assign our loyalties to corporations… we quite often hasten to leave our own personal morality outside the door. You get… a kind of obedience that hastens to anticipate the will of the boss,” said le Carré.
Martin Lindstrom has ruthlessly analysed the stultification of the big concerns, and exposed it to his ridiculing and hilarious dissection.
Businesses that ignore empathy not only kill common sense, he says, they place future innovation at risk.
It will be no surprise to learn that the writer castigates the obsession with IT as one of the biggest disasters. More than any other factor, tech is the enemy of common sense, he declares. It destroys empathy, compromises our agency, turns grown-ups into children, impedes innovation, and worst of all makes us doubt our own store of common sense.
Almost every stupidity and inconvenience we face as consumers can be traced back directly to a faulty or broken corporate ecosystem – one that has abandoned, for whatever reason, a few fundamental principles of common sense.
This entirely absorbing and lucid treatise is full of salutary case studies: he says he spoke to more than 5,000 people while seeking to help Maersk overcome some of its organisational bottlenecks. He gives trenchant examples of the bizarre, disembodied nature of the corporate world. They are drawn from such businesses as supermarket chains, financial multinationals; oil companies, motor manufacturers, tech giants, restaurant chains, hotel groups, airports and airlines.
Throughout his astute and wide-ranging guide, he tells executives that “they need to adopt an H2H theory. H2H stands for human to human. Their customers are human, not numbers on an Excel sheet, and their employees are human too.”
He is especially polemical about the organisational culture that many of us are only vaguely aware of but that saps initiative, and as a result the wise ‘student’ will feel encouraged to take a hard look at his own commercial habitat. There is an illuminating sense of immediacy: “The need for thoughtful, intelligent observation of other parts of each person’s and company’s world has never been greater.”
When he began working with Maersk, he learned out that the world’s leading container shipping line was an extraordinarily rational company with a cutting-edge IT system (although it was to fall victim twice to hackers.) He was to delve much deeper into the inner workings of a line that moved one-fifth of all the goods on the planet.
A main factor was the stop-start permutations of container shipping scheduling. Maersk employees hardly realised how slow-moving and paralyzingly complex their industry could appear to others.
Maersk set out to tackle this by creating a seamless journey for the customer, “one we hoped would be a huge transformation for the entire industry,” as a company executive put it. The company’s new vision became “connect and simplify” to minimise the number of steps customers had to go through in placing an order.
Lindstrom comments: “If Uber acquired Maersk or any other shipping company, well, let’s just say that arranging for a delivery would probably be a lot easier.”
On becoming a public company, Maersk had begun focusing on its quarterly reports, which was fine, says Lindstrom, until share prices began falling and a there was a $2bn loss in 2016.
“Departments began pointing fingers at other departments… employees were scared of what would happen if they did not hit their KPIs (key performance indicators).”
Lindstrom took a close look at the way relationships worked with customers and came up against bugbears including the term ‘force majeure’ – shorthand for the assertion that something outside the company’s control has frustrated a shipment.
The term was used time after time. “I wondered how many transatlantic shipping problems could be caused by divine interference, was it Poseidon? A few days later, I discovered that force majeure had less to do with vengeful deities and more to do with an unrealistic set of KPIs” When Maersk employees clicked on a button marked force majeure, they had to fill out one page of notes. For all other issues or complaints they were obliged to fill out four or five pages.”
To tackle the dysfunction, Maersk eliminated its centralised oversight of the scattered logistics operations supporting shipments, including call centres, and gave each region autonomy in how it ran logistics. Most call centre employees were then given common-sense metrics that yielded much better information about customer problems. Customers were happier, too.
When the Baltic Sea froze in 2015, it really was a case of force majeure, but Maersk’s customers still complained. The call centre agents tried to explain, often without success. Then the company had its ship masters take photos of the difficulty of navigating through the ice. It posted the photos on a Twitter account under the heading WinterMaersk. Many customers suddenly appreciated what it took to deliver their cargo and were not so upset over delays.
In summer 2017 the company was the victim of a major cyber-attack which blanked all its screens worldwide. The only option for Maersk employees to help their clients was to visit them in person. For both the employees and clients, the experience was transformative. The return to a common-sense response and a sense of empathy benefited everyone, especially the customers.
Whatever the degree to which Mærsk has honed its human approach in recent years, it must be doing something right: its profits surged in 2020 after a slow start, albeit thanks to a demand surge amid pandemic disruption.
“These days, if you criticise tech in any way you are seen as an old-school relic,” says Lindstrom, citing the frustrations of automated check-ins at airports. “Technology is erasing common sense in company after company. Last time I looked, I did not think that common sense was a technological breakthrough that AI had fully conquered.”
He is no fan of video-conference meetings. These are an easy target for their time-wasting propensity, but one worth having a go at. Most businesspeople love to say how much they hate meetings, but while they are sitting in them every attendee is preparing in their heads for their next meeting, and the one after that. “In real life, how often are we asked to stand three feet away from our colleagues while staring at their faces for an hour?”
The solution to this crazy way of carrying on? He urges companies to “appoint a ministry of common sense [call it whatever you like, but choose a name that stands out] to catch problems and inefficiencies at the same time as they happen.” The person charged with transforming the corporate culture, this “minister of common sense,” should be a full-time, salaried official.
The ministry should remind everyone that questions are meant to be asked, rules and regulations analysed, procedures held up for inspection. “A small team behind the ministry should begin by quietly finding a few examples of ‘bonkers bureaucracy’ which will help them make their case. It should be given a time limit to fulfil its mission and if there are no tangible results – it should be wound up.
The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS. By Martin Lindstrom. Published by John Murray Learning. Link for the book https://www.martinlindstrom.com/ministry-of-commonsense/