Book Summary of Peter Drucker’s “The Practice of Management”

Peter Drucker (1909–2005) was the 20th century’s leading thinker on business and management. He was amazingly prolific—he produced 39 volumes on management and leadership and worked right until his death a week before his 96th birthday.

'The Practice of Management' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060878975) Drucker’s The Practice of Management (1954) played a pivotal role in the recognition of management as a professional discipline. Even six decades after publication, The Practice of Management remains relevant for its original, profound, and timeless ideas. Drucker’s conception for the organization as an integral part of society, his elucidation of the nature of managerial tasks, his emphasis on good governance, and his prescription for effective leadership have served managers well over the decades.

Here are some prominent insights from The Practice of Management:

  • Drucker accentuated the need for clarity about the meaning of a business. He argued, “‘what is our business’ is the most important question successful management groups have to address.” In corporate strategy, this inquiry has become the underpinning for business analysis and the formulation of mission statements.
  • A business exists to “create a customer.” Therefore, managers need to query who their customers are and what the business must try to do for its customers.
  • The Practice of Management contributed to a rich analysis of the role of business in society. Drucker proposed that a business exists at three constructs that influence each other and thus establish the organization’s performance, mission, and business definition:
    1. as an economic establishment that produces value for its stakeholders and for the society,
    2. as a community that employs people, pays them, develops them, and coordinates their efforts to increase productivity,
    3. as a “social institution that is deeply embedded in society and values and as such is affected by public interest discussion, debate, and values.”
  • “The manager is the dynamic, life-giving element in every business” who defines the organization’s mission, develops and retains productive teams, coordinates various activities, sets goals, and gets things done.
  • Leadership gives the organization meaning and purpose—leadership defines and nurtures the organization’s central values, creates a sense of mission, allocates resources, and builds systems and processes in pursuit of the organization’s goals.
  • Management entails farsighted thinking about the future state of things and taking appropriate risks to capitalize on opportunities. Additionally, “managing a business must be a creative rather than adaptive task. The more a management creates economic conditions or changes them rather than passively adapts to them, the more it manages the business.”
  • The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker Managers inculcate the dominant cultural norm in the organization through their actions. These values become evident in the decisions they make concerning whom they recruit, whom they retain and promote, the goals they pursue, and the ethical parameters with which they frame their decisions.
  • The Practice of Management popularized the concept of management by objectives (MBO) for the successful execution of an organization’s strategic plan. The MBO process ensures delineation of key objectives, prudent allocation of resources, dedication of effort on key goals, use of real-time feedback, and effective communication. MBO helps managers organize and motivate their employees, promote effective communication, develop employees, measure performance, and increase their sense of empowerment.

The Practice of Management is one of those books that his admirers tend to appreciate more with every successive reading. Drucker’s remarkable virtues as the “father of modern management”—viz., clarity, usefulness, and common-sense pragmatism—are all on display in this book.

Recommendation: Read—it’s the best book you’ll find on the responsibilities, tasks, and challenges that managers undertake. The Practice of Management will have a profound effect on your thinking.

Use Zero-Base Budgeting to Build a Culture of Cost Management

Zero-Base Budgeting

Traditional Incremental Budgeting

As part of the traditional budgeting process, managers tend to roll their budget over from one year to the next. In addition to accounting for any strategic initiatives or headcount changes, they simply add to every line-item in the previous year’s budget a certain percentage “and then some” to account for cost inflation. They assume that the ‘baseline’ is automatically approved, so they justify just the variances versus prior years.

The drawback of this budgeting process is that nobody questions the underlying ‘baseline’ costs. Further, these cost increases are carried from year to year.

Zero-Base Budgeting

'Zero-base Budgeting' by Peter A Pyhrr (ISBN 047170234X) In the 1970s, Peter Pyhrr, a Texas Instruments accountant, formally developed zero-base budgeting. In his influential Harvard Business Review article and a book titled Zero-base Budgeting, Pyhrr advocated that a prior year’s budget should not be used as a benchmark for the next year’s budgeted costs.

With zero-base budgeting, managers prepare a fresh budget every year without reference to the past. Consequently, they start every line-item in the budget from a zero-base even if the amount didn’t increase from the previous year. They are thus forced to justify all claims on their organization’s financial resources as if they were entirely new claims for entirely new projects.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Zero-Base Budgeting

Zero-base budgeting advocates say that it detects inflated budgets and unearths cost savings by focusing on priorities rather than simply relying on the precedent. Managers secure a tighter focus on operations by justifying each line-item in their budgets, thereby reducing the money they allocate to the lowest level possible. Managers can also contrast competing claims on their ever-scarce financial resources and therefore shift funds to more impactful projects.

Zero-base budgeting critics call attention to the many practical difficulties of implementing this time-consuming tool. More importantly, since zero-base involves give-and-take, the budgeting process is susceptible to favoritism, cronyism, and political influence.

3G Capital’s Success with Zero-Base Budgeting

'The 3G Way: An introduction to the management style of the trio' by Francisco S. Homem de Mello (ISBN B00MKKWZME) Zero-base budgeting has garnered much attention in the last few years as the centerpiece of an aggressive cost-cutting recipe used by 3G Capital, a thriving Brazilian buyout firm that’s renowned for its parsimonious operations. 3G’s predominant investment strategy is to acquire and then squeeze value out of companies, particularly in the food and restaurant industries.

At Anheuser-Busch, InBev, Tim Hortons, Burger King, Heinz, Kraft, and other acquired companies, 3G’s hard-nosed managers have used zero-base budgeting to initiate sweeping cost cuts. They’ve shut down factories, laid off thousands of factory workers, eliminated hundreds of management jobs, sold off corporate jets, forced executives to fly coach, restricted employees’ office supplies to $15 a month, and even asked employees to seek permission to take color printouts.

'Dream Big' by Cristiane Correa (ISBN 8543100836) Inspired by 3G, many other companies have adapted zero-base budgeting to root out bloat. Some have even gotten carried away—for example, Pilgrim’s Pride (an American meat-processing company) used zero-base budgeting to measure how much soap employees use to wash their hands and how much Gatorade hourly employees consume during breaks.

Idea for Impact: Zero-Base Budgeting Is an Effective Cost-Management Tool

Cutting operating costs is an ever-bigger priority at many organizations. For each line-item in your budget, ask “Should this be done at all?” and “Is this the most efficient and effective use of our resources?”

Consider zero-base budgeting to rigorously find cost-effective ways to improve your operations. It can bring about cost discipline, force your operations to become lean, and ultimately boost your bottom line.

Suggested Reading

Clever Marketing Exploits the Anchoring Bias

Clever Marketing Exploits the Anchoring Bias

In the ’70s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first to study a cognitive phenomenon called “anchoring” and its influence on decision-making. Over the decades, extensive research on anchoring has explained that the way and context in which we receive information profoundly influence how we synthesize it.

The effects of anchoring are very visible in marketing, sales, merchandising, and product pricing as it profoundly influences consumer behavior. By offering clever price contrasts, marketers can shape customers’ purchasing decisions. For example,

  • By offering lower prices and promotional sales, department stores induce customers to compare the sale price against the original price—the “anchor”—and think they’re getting a bargain.
  • By displaying shiny, expensive new cars in the showroom, car dealerships encourage customers to accept the prices displayed on their used cars or less flashy models.
  • Patrons at restaurants tend to order the second least-expensive bottle of wine in an attempt to avoid looking cheap. Therefore, restaurants tend to put the highest markup on that very bottle.

The Case of the $429 Breadmaker

Anchoring Bias: Williams-Sonoma $429 Breadmaker Customers are usually more likely to purchase a product when competing alternatives are included, as opposed to having only one product option.

Consider a classic example of this “single-option aversion” phenomenon. A few years ago, Williams-Sonoma couldn’t get customers to buy their $279 breadmaker. They cleverly added a spiffier-and-slicker deluxe breadmaker model to their product line for $429. While Williams-Sonoma didn’t sell many of the new and expensive breadmaker, they doubled sales of the original and less-expensive model.

When the $279 breadmaker was the only model available for sale, customers couldn’t tell whether the price was competitive because there was nothing to compare it to. By introducing a better product for a higher price, Williams-Sonoma provided an anchor upon which its customers could compare the two models; they naturally sided with the $279 model as an attractive alternative.

The Case of the $69 Hot Dog and the $1000 Chocolate Sundae

Anchoring Bias: Serendipity 3's $69 Hot Dog Usually, absurdly expensive premium goods are less of publicity stunts and more of strategic marketing tactics.

Consider the case of Serendipity 3’s menu anchors. In 2010, the popular New York eatery introduced a $69 hot dog called “Foot-Long Haute Dog” with dressings as exotic as medallions of duck liver, ketchup made from heirloom tomatoes, Dijon mustard with truffle shavings, and caramelized Vidalia onions to justify the high price. Of course, Serendipity 3 gained plenty of publicity when The Guinness Book of World Records certified this hot dog as the most expensive wiener of all time.

The true purpose of these ridiculously priced premium items is to make the next most expensive item seem cheaper. Customers who were drawn by the Haute Dog’s publicity gladly ordered the menu’s $17.95 cheeseburger. Even if $17.95 was too pricey elsewhere, Serendipity 3 customers deemed it reasonable in comparison to the $69 hot dog.

A few years previous, Serendipity 3 similarly offered a $1000 “Golden Opulence Sundae” that was only available with a 48 hour-notice. They sold only one Sundae per month. Nevertheless, this was just a shrewd marketing ploy to convince customers to spend more on high-profit margin desserts such as the $15.50 “fruit and fudge” confection or the $22.50 “Cheese Cake Vesuvius.”

Unsuspecting customers ended up paying too much for other meals at Serendipity 3 while believing they were getting a great deal.

Idea for Impact: Be Sensitive of Anchoring Bias

In both the above case studies, even if the companies sold almost none of their highest-priced models despite the publicity they generated, the companies reaped enormous benefits by exploiting the anchoring bias to induce customers to buy cheaper-than-most-expensive high-profit products.

In summary, anchoring exploits our tendency to seek out comparison and our reliance on context. The anchoring bias describes our subconscious tendency to make decisions by relying heavily on a single piece of information.

Call to Action: Sensitize yourself to how anchoring and anchoring bias may subconsciously affect your decision-making. If you’re in marketing or sales, investigate how you could use anchoring bias to influence your customers.

For more on cognitive biases and behavioral economics, read 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow. Also read Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products on how to influence customer behaviors and build products and offer services that people love.

Lessons from Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.