17 November 2012

Uganda: Pioneer Bus and the Pet Cat Syndrome


Its archaic parastatal-style management is out of touch with current liberal market competition realities

We the public, and the government, should not let the management of Pioneer Easy Bus Ltd mess up a great project. Its owners and managers need help and if they do not ask for it, I suggest we shove it at them.

Typically, business failure of the type seen at Pioneer Easy Bus Ltd can result from three broad malaises; wrong strategy, inept execution, or bad organisational culture.

Unfortunately, very few MBA schools place equitable emphasis on equipping managers with skills to diagnose and treat each of these points of failure of a business. In Uganda, the leading training ground for business managers, Makerere University Business School, concentrates on transforming organisational culture and less on execution, and strategy. As a result, most firms here hire the candidate with the best PowerPoint presentation, which may not necessarily carry the most transformational plan. That could be Pioneer's problem too.

But from our analysis, as outsiders, the management of Pioneer Easy Bus Ltd would benefit quite a bit from a transformation of its corporate culture.

Pioneer's problems are obviously not in execution because they have not erupted suddenly. The problems are also not strategic because its buses are not being rejected by the market. In fact, potential passengers wait for hours by the roadside, fight to board taxis, and willingly pay arbitrary and high fares on old jalopies.

So, why do we think a company with 100 brand new buses is failing because of bad organisational culture? After all, shrinking cash flows, heavy debt on the balance sheet, high staff turnover, and spates of industrial action can result from myriad situations. The answer is as simple as it is complex.

It starts with the recognition of culture, as a set of symbols, values, objects, and practices within an organisation that evokes certain collectively accepted meanings. This culture and the manager's awareness of what goals the organisation needs to achieve are, for better or worse, always intertwined.

Aspects of culture may be conscious, like allowing jeans in the office at MTN, or subconscious, like the Uganda police not letting female officers ride its traffic motorcycles. Some management decisions, actions, and events may reveal an organisation's culture. In the Pioneer Bus case, the most visible symbol is its buses; the big orange boxes with big white eyes on catlike faces.

The orange colour is hot in business as, unlike red, it promises calm excitement, creativity, and innovation. The big eyes are cheerful, sexy even. But what about the cat face? Well, that is where Pioneer Bus's success image starts to fall apart, possibly.

Unless you have been a conscientious manager, you might not appreciate how such simple symbolism as a cat-face could account for corporate failure.

As in Pioneer's cat-face case, the dominant symbols of organisational culture are usually either machine metaphors or animal metaphors. American and European organisations get compared to well-oiled machines, clock-work precision, and robot-like execution. On the other hand, similar organisations in China, Japan, and Korea are referred to using animal metaphors, thus; the Asian tigers, claw-fisted Indian firms, and the herd-mentality of Japanese decision-making.

Unfortunately, animal references suggest a rustic rawness, unpredictability, and general lack of the order found in the machine-world.

The animalistic chaos in Pioneer can be seen from its inception; no number plates, no parking, no contract, no routes, no timetables, no passenger tickets, no salaries, no taxes, no stages and parking, no garages, acrimony in Parliament, high turnover of workers, and fluidity in ownership.

Does that mean that Pioneer needs to return the Yutong buses to China in order to become better managed? Not at all. Most buses have the same cat-like face and the Yutong bus design is, in fact, beautifully aspirational. The Chinese who designed them have very small slit-like eyes. The only reason they would create a big-eyed popular face would be to make it an object of everyone's desire. All the Pioneer management needs to do is copy that attitude. Pioneer needs to determine what type of cat they want to be; the lazy pet cat, the strong lion, the swift tiger, or restless cheetah?

So far, Pioneer has shown preference to be the lazy pet cat of the government. Its owners appear to have set high stock on political patronage. They expected the government to subsidize their business heavily, exempt them from taxes, build infrastructure, expel all competition, and create bus only routes.

The petting has not happened because of a hostile Parliament. Pioneer owners expected a free ride from the government and that culture has permeated the organisation. Its managers and workers want free money. Good culture should make them work for it.

Pet cats, as we all know, spend up to 90% of their time sleeping. Pioneer needs to wake up. It needs to become a tiger in execution, and exploit the innovation and creativity that its Orange colour evokes. Pioneer's management needs to forget the privileged positions of its government-backed founders and adopt a business results-oriented culture.

Our view is that the management of Pioneer is ineptly short-sighted. On the one hand, the Greater Kampala Area is urbanising at supersonic speed and, on the other the old-style 14-seater taxis are becoming financially unviable and logistically unsustainable.

Unfortunately, Ugandan bus operators - not Pioneer alone, are failing to position themselves to meet the long-term demand for public transport in a market where these emergent issues require strategic intervention. That lack of strategy is, of course, a national cultural problem, which must be dealt with immediately.

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