This Company Doesn’t Brake for (Sacred) Cows

At Mitel, the way to go faster – and to do better – is to stop spending time on things that don’t add value.

Mitel Corp. is a classic story of entrepreneurial success-and failure. Its founders, Michael Cowpland and Terry Mathews, are two of Canada’s most flamboyant high-tech innovators. They started the company 25 years ago and pioneered the field of computerized PBXs (private branch exchanges). The company, based outside Ottawa, grew fast, went public, and soon was worth more than $1.1 billion (in U.S. dollars). But mismanaged growth nearly choked the company. By the early 1990s, Mitel shares, which once traded for more than $33, were trading for less than $1. The founders were out. Change was in.


How did Mitel respond to all this turmoil? Some people had a cow. But most started killing cows – sacred cows, that is. “Sacred cows are the barriers that everybody knows about but that nobody talks about,” says Stephen Quesnelle, 39, Mitel’s head of quality programs. “They’re the policies and procedures that have outlived their usefulness – but that no one dares touch.”

Quesnelle is something of a fanatic about cows. Parked outside his office is a nearly life-size wooden heifer; inside you’ll find a cow poster, a cow calendar, cow postcards, cow figurines. This cow business may seem silly, Quesnelle admits. “But it’s easier to get over the pain of change if you do it in a lighthearted way,” he says. “You need to create an element of folklore. You’ve heard of the Birdman of Alcatraz? Well, they call me the Cowman of Mitel!”

Quesnelle has organized “sacred-cow hunts” through- out the R&D division. They’re a new wrinkle on an old idea: The way to do better is to go faster, and the way to go faster is to stop wasting time on things that don’t create value. “The company lacked a sense of urgency,” says Quesnelle. “And R&D had lost its self-confidence. There was a deadly combination of apathy and finger-pointing in the organization.”

Quesnelle and a few colleagues organized their first sacred-cow workshops in September 1997. R&D employees spent three days identifying rules, rituals, and attitudes that stood in the way of doing great things fast. “We were looking for little things,” Quesnelle says. “What paperwork is getting in the way? What approval systems are getting in the way? What can we do that will make us faster?”

The virtue of starting small, argues Mike Miles, an Ottawa-based consultant who works closely with Quesnelle, is that it gives people the confidence to pursue bigger things as well. “You’ve got to start with problems that people can touch,” he argues. “Then what you begin hearing is, If we can change that, what about this?”

The 450-person R&D department gathered in five separate groups and produced a list of sacred cows that fills 71 pages on Mitel’s intranet. Two examples: So many signatures were needed to approve a business trip that R&D people rarely visited customers to discuss their needs; and engineers responsible for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars had to sign a bunch of forms before they could even take home a laptop.


But the sessions weren’t just about finding cows. They were about killing them as well. Every participant had to identify two “personal cows” and to devise a plan for attacking them the following Monday morning. “We had people stand up and read those two things,” says Quesnelle. “And before they could get out the door, they had to commit to doing those two things differently.” (The complaint about travel, for example, elicited a promise from the head of R&D to preapprove a pile of travel vouchers.) The series of workshops ended with a celebratory beef barbecue – complete with beef, of course.

Today signs of change are everywhere. The R&D division vowed to start meeting deadlines (missing them had long been one of its biggest problems). So Quesnelle designed an enormous digital clock (seven feet long, one foot tall) that counts everything from 10ths of a second to days in a year. He put the clock in the cafeteria, attached a huge whiteboard to it, and posted interim deadlines for all major projects. Now, whenever a group misses a deadline, Quesnelle puts a red slash through the date for everyone to see. “People screamed the first few times” he reports. “They said, ‘Don’t do that. Everybody’s going to see it!’ ” Exactly, he replied: “We’ve made our deal with the devil. If you miss your deadline, it goes on the board.”

Meanwhile, the fascination with corporate change has spread beyond R&D to other parts of the company. Quesnelle has helped create “Demo Days” – internal trade shows at which Mitel groups explain their projects and steal ideas from other groups. The company intranet now features a sacred-cow section, where people post questions, identify new cows, and get feedback from senior executives.

The result? Mitel is on the road to renewal. It has reduced the average time-to-market for its new products from 70 weeks to 50 – big progress toward the ultimate goal of 36 weeks. Its revenues are expected to grow from $480 million in fiscal 1997 to almost $700 million in fiscal 1998. Its stock price has tripled since last September.

“Change is part of the culture now,” Quesnelle exults. “The attitude is, If you see something that doesn’t make sense, get rid of it. People simply don’t stand for roadblocks anymore.”

David Beardsley writes on business and health care from Swampscott, Massachusetts. You can reach Stephen Quesnelle by email .