Having returned from a 2-week vacation in Cuba, it is interesting to see that managers can learn a lot from this unique country in the Caribbean Sea. The people in Cuba are ruled by one of the last authentic socialist regimes in the world. Socialism is a fully top-down management system. It doesn't work.
Here is a collection of random thoughts I had while driving around this beautiful country…
There is No Progress Cubans are still driving the same old cars they were driving 40 or 50 years ago. Not only because they cannot afford new cars, but also because the system gives the people no incentive (and no means) to change. When parts of a car break down they are simply replaced by ropes, toothpicks, cookie jars, and anything else the smart Cubans can come up with to get those cars working again. Sure, people are very flexible, but they don't move forward. (And with Ladas from the 60's, you can often take this literally.)
Top-down management (whether in a country, an organization or in a project) does not facilitate a system to evolve with its environment.
There is No Quality The lack of direct responsibility for customer feedback results in a lack of quality of products in most (state-owned) restaurants. A "salad" with a meal is likely to contain just some dry cabbage, and green beans from a jar. Not even goats enjoy eating that! (And in Cuba many goats are used as vehicles, which means they probably run on fuel from sugarcane anyway.) At one time, one of the waiters was very surprised that I asked for something more interesting to spruce up our "salad". We made some suggestions. Ehm… a fresh avocado maybe? Perhaps some olive oil? Just a crazy thought.
Top-down management prevents employees from using their own brains. It prevents people from feeling responsible for a customer, and trying to anticipate his desires.
There is No Variety Most of the time you cannot choose between competing options. In Cuba there's only one brand of cola. (The state-owned one, of course.) There's only one brand of mineral water. (The same brand as the cola.) And there is usually only one type of dish (rice with beans). I enjoyed one of my favorite moments when I found out I could order a "pizza" in one bar. The waiter asked me: "What kind of pizza? With ham or with cheese?" Being already in a wild mood I said, "Oh what the heck, let's do both… pizza with ham and cheese!"
Top-down management does not acknowledge that people are different. Nobody likes to be treated as if they are the same as everyone else.
People Need Freedom Note that these depressing results apply to most of the standard bars and restaurants throughout the country. Of course, quality and variety in some of the most touristic places are higher. (As are the prices.) But those places are not accessible to the average Cuban. They are the places where top-down socialist control gives way to bottom-up freedom of movement. Freedom to initiate, freedom to compete, and freedom to earn.
I believe all managers of other people's work and lives should take to heart the lessons from Cuba, and find ways to translate those lessons to their own organizations.
Fortunately, there was also a sunny side to my vacation in Cuba. The beach, the sea and the mojitos made me very happy. At least, until hurricane Gustav nearly blew me back all the way to Holland. (If you want to see my other pictures from Cuba, you can find them here.)
Afterword: Please note that I despise the Cuban social-economic system and its leaders. I am not criticizing the people of Cuba themselves. In fact, I thought the Cubans were very nice. Especially some that were not wearing a t-shirt.