January 28, 2021 4:23:44 pm
How are elephants and cheetahs related to operations strategy? A new book uses these metaphors inspired by nature as a means to arrive at a better appreciation of the system being studied. “Elephants and Cheetahs: The Beauty of Operations” is about the beauty inherent in business models seen from an operations perspective.
Saral Mukherjee, who teaches at IIM Ahmedabad, says his book is not about biology or the animal kingdom but about operations strategy.
“The origin of this book can be traced to my sessions in the core courses of Operations Management I and Operations Management II in the PGP first-year curriculum, and the difficulties I faced in explaining the notion of operational trade-offs,” he says.
“Students would learn about how time-based competition differed from competing on costs and yet come back and ask why we can’t have both. The metaphor of the cheetah was a very powerful tool to intuitively explain the differences in strategic choice, and the students could immediately grasp that an elephant is not structured to run as a cheetah, and we cannot have both cost efficiency and time responsiveness beyond a point,” he writes.
Based on a popular elective at IIM Ahmedabad, the book in the book, published by Penguin Random House India, looks for answers in the hard trade-offs inherent in the design of operating systems and business models. It encourages business leaders to ask two different sets of existential questions: Does the organisation have a soul, and if so, what are the strategic choices that enable its synthesis (external orientation)?
Mukherjee says the purpose of writing this book is to reach out to a larger set of students, to enable them to see beauty in operations. “The word ‘beauty’ is conspicuous by its absence in operations texts; my purpose is to make you open your eyes to it.”
He says he tried to bring back systems orientation in teaching operations. “I tried to bring aesthetics into a field obsessed with quantification. I tried to appreciate operations systems and see parallels in nature. I tried to connect them with literature, with music, with arts. I tried to dig deeper into the case studies of organisations to identify the core set of tensions which ran through them. I tried to see meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence,” he says.
So is there anything called an elephant or a cheetah in operations?
“An elephant is an idea, just like a circle is an idea, an abstract form. There exists no perfect circle in reality, yet we instinctively call something as circular when we see an approximation. Circles are different from triangles, even though there does not exist in reality either a perfect circle or triangle,” the author writes.
“Elephants are different from cheetahs, even though there does not exist in reality either perfect elephants or cheetahs. An elephant is ultimately an idea – a firm competing on cost leadership. A cheetah is ultimately an idea – a firm competing on time responsiveness,” he adds.
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