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Seldom uttered by Nabeel Gareeb, ’86/87, is the word can’t. He eschews it because of what it represents—an obstacle to accomplishment.
“My belief is anything can be done, it’s just a matter of time and resources,” said the former chief executive officer of MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. at the March 2 installment of HMC’s Annenberg Leadership and Management Speaker Series.
Gareeb also took the occasion to challenge the notion that people advance in life and in careers because they get lucky. “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” he said, offering that if one has done his or her homework, then that person should be well-equipped to seize opportunity as it arises.
He should know. From 2002 to 2008, Gareeb steered St. Peters, Mo.,-based silicon wafer-maker MEMC through its transformation from modest concern to $2-billion-per-year semiconductor industry powerhouse. And, earlier, as chief operating officer of International Rectifier Corp., he quintupled that sclerotic company’s revenues to the tune of $1 billion annually (he had joined the firm in 1992 as its vice president of manufacturing).
Gareeb’s HMC presentation was entitled, “Lemonade: Lessons from a Career of Fixits,” or, as he described it, “a career of lessons learned and tools employed to fix companies, departments and institutions.”
Leaders-in-the-making who attended the speech heard Gareeb advise them to master the art and science of process simplification. “Don’t let anybody tell you different – every process can be simplified,” he stressed, adding that, no matter the application or endeavor, reducing the number of process steps sets the stage for cost reductions and minimization of opportunities for error, thereby improving quality. “It has been documented that...most processes have 80 percent non-value-added work” built into them. Therefore, [a]ny given process can be simplified by at least 30 to 50 percent, on average.”
Gareeb disagreed with adherents to the adage of working smarter rather than harder. “I’ve never found any place where you can work only smart and not [also] work hard,” he said. He mentioned too that he found implausible the notion that lowest cost and highest quality are mutually exclusive terms. “If you simplify the process enough, you will reduce the opportunity for error to where you get the lowest cost process with the highest quality,” he said.
Every truly effective leader keeps handy a number of basic business-management tools, Gareeb alluded. A favorite from his own toolkit is immersion. Explained Gareeb, “You have to immerse yourself in not only the job you have but the jobs a couple of levels below you.” This allows one to understand work that is or isn’t transpiring lower down in the organization—important in order to make sure needed operational and product improvements are occurring, he said. But such progress can prove elusive without involved leadership that takes time to teach subordinates how to ask the right questions and find sensible answers on their own.
Another tool: the management technique known as parallelism. “When you enter a company that’s got a variety of issues,” he said, “you can’t serialize” the corrective initiatives, that is, implementing one big fix after another after another. “You don’t have time. The company can close its doors” before the serialized initiatives show results. By contrast, with parallelism, each key member of the team is assigned one or more separate corrective initiatives. In this way, many vital projects move forward simultaneously, transporting the troubled company to those fabled sunny uplands at a far faster clip.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Gareeb came to the United States to attend HMC, where he studied electrical and electronics engineering, and then subsequently obtained a master’s degree in engineering management from the Claremont Graduate School.