The AFC Story Arc – What are the lessons?

So we have gone from a pesky start-up that found a niche in the small carrier business to one that became the leader in the North American Access Business. I think people overlook the power of this story because it ended with a buyout that was less than people had hoped. I remind people that AFC was the fastest growing telecom equipment start-up of all time. We survived the telecom meltdown. We became a leader in new technology deployment. I have talked a bit about some parts of my role in these events. But will connect this even more directly to myself here and some things I took away from it.

I joined AFC as the Director of Hardware Engineering. At the time, the development teams were organized with a “Time to Prototype” model. What I saw quickly is that we struggled with being done with things and putting them into volume production. I focused on this issue with a single mindedness and made changes to our processes and language to make this change. I can tell you that many engineers were not happy with these changes, but within a year I had stabilized our development systems to be predictable. I had to do this in a time that we could not change everything instantly. I really began to understand the process of change in an organization. I set a goal of “Time to Profitable Volume” and worked to fix one thing at a time. Not everything at once. All of this set a process in motion that created its own momentum as it progressed. Change did not happen at once but in an escalating fashion. By the end of the first year of this program, we were able to clean up the vast bulk of our designs and free up engineers to work on new things.

I got into the Technologist Role during a potential acquisition of AFC by Ciena. This didn’t come off for valuation issues, but this introduced me to our problems at a top level. We had already figured out that we were going to miss our objective of $1B in Revenue before the Year 2000 (aka 1B42). The problem with that goal was that $1B in revenue was not achievable without a significant position in the Tier 1 North American Carriers. But our product was not suited for deployment by those carriers and in the late 90s not interested in a new product to fill that slot in their networks. What I learned here is the value of looking at a business from the outside – from the view of competitors and customers. We acted for a long time as if we could just convince the world to believe our vision without understanding the needs of others.

A couple of other lessons are the role of Executive Management and Leadership. The first and most important job is to tell people what is important so that they can align their decisions. You can’t make all the decisions from the top. What you can do is help people understand where you are going so that they can weigh the choices that they have in a common way. This helps people drive a company in a common direction. But people need to understand the desire of Executives to impact the outcome of the company. Many times I saw decisions not brought to Management until only a single path forward was possible. What happens then is the presenter now owns the outcome of the decision. If the Executives are brought in sooner, they will provide input to the path chosen and thus have joint ownership in the outcome. I think that this level of joint respect is important in the creation of a great company. If it doesn’t exist then the company is out of balance.

I will continue the Access Story a bit by giving some picture of what happened inside of Tellabs, but we have reached an inflection point. For those of you who won’t be reading over the next couple of weeks, Happy Holidays. I will “see” the rest of you on Monday.

Jim Sackman
FocalPoint Business Coaching
http://www.jimsackman.focalpointcoaching.com/
We Focus On Your Business – Time, Team, Money, Exit
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