Business case gives a false sense of security

A cohesive business case is an essential link when preparing a solid foundation for a project. My motto is: ‘a vision without a plan is just a dream’. However, when I listened to an inspiring presentation during a conference in Atlanta, it dawned on me that this may not be entirely true.

No business case
While attending the Chief Supply Chain Officer Forum, I listened to a presentation by Masao Nishi. Nishi is the Vice President of Supply Chain Management for SYSCO, a food wholesaler in the US, Canada and Ireland, which has a turnover of about $37 billion. He talked about his experiences with a large project in which all inbound flows to over 100 distribution centers were decentralized and the number of carriers cut by over 70 percent.

This was an impressive achievement, given that each distribution centre forms part of a so-called operating company; an independent company with an average turnover of almost 400 million dollars. Centralizing a decentralized organization presents a huge challenge. One factor that shouldn’t be underestimated is the possible resistance to change, and you will need widespread support within your organization to succeed.

What struck me most was that Nishi had never made a business case for this project; he had a clear vision right from the start. He spent the first six months creating solid support for his vision by talking at great length to stakeholders, investigating any objections and whipping up enthusiasm. I was so fascinated by his story that I talked to him after the presentation and asked him to tell me more about his approach. He explained that creating and selling his vision had proved to be more valuable than having a business case. You didn’t need to make in-depth calculations to see that the project had the potential to create huge cost savings; you just needed to use a good dose of common  sense.

A business case would have provided a false sense of security that he could have used to convince everyone using in-depth analyses. The question was, would anyone actually believe in these analyses? Belief in a successful outcome was crucial for such a large project. His motto was: ‘Invest your time in discussion, and don’t forget to listen at the same time’. By gaining the support he needed at the appropriate levels he could implement his vision quickly and in a structured way.

Dream or nightmare?
Perhaps a vision without a plan is just a dream, but a project without a business case doesn’t have to turn into a nightmare. If it’s clear that a project will, by and large, result in cost savings, then involve the people who can help you and enlist their support. If the costs savings are not so certain, be bold and rethink the project. Masao Nishi’s story taught me that using your common sense will get you a long way.

Jeroen Bolt is an interim manager and consultant at Bolt Consultancy