"Japanese-style management" is the latest buzz phrase. We'll adopt "TQM policies," regardless of whether we understand what that means or not. Hiring business consultants is all the rage to boost productivity. We'll send our troops away to weekend retreats, where they can role-play and act out. We'll even bring on staff executives who have no experience in the industry for a fresh perspective -- forget that they might not understand the nuances of your industry.

It was that last fad among corporate giants that recently bit J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP). The midrange retailer got an ice-cold dose of reality when it fired its chief operating officer after just six months on the job, because it realized that as an outsider to the retail industry, she apparently didn't have what it took to make a retailing giant run like clockwork.

Hired away from her position at Capital One Financial (NYSE:COF) as president of its U.S. credit card division, the COO was expected to bring a fresh perspective as an executive from outside the industry, even though her previous position had been one of cultivating accounts and consumers. Yet the sudden, terse way the firing occurred had some analysts speculating that there may be more to it than just her not being a good fit.

Penney has been directly battling Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) and Dillard's (NYSE:DDS) for its share of consumers' wallets, while it's also having to look over its shoulder at Target (NYSE:TGT) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) -- and even, to a lesser extent, Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD), which has been making impressive gains in garnering customer loyalty to its fashions.

As David Meier recently noted, the retailers have been turning in solid performances lately, with same-store sales ringing up consistent numbers. In particular, while November's comps were below expectations and last year's numbers, September and October had seen same-store sales north of 8%. It hardly seems like the type of performance that would warrant ousting a recently hired executive.

Operations is also an area where it would seem to be easier to make the transition between industries. According to market researchers Korn/Ferry, nearly half of all CFOs hired by the restaurant business (44%) are industry outsiders. In the 1970s, hiring outside executives to the CEO spot accounted for just 15% of the new executive hires. By the 1990s, that had grown to 26%, according to the Wharton School.

Yet it's endemic in all industries and in all ranks. Two years ago, the hotel industry seemed particularly struck by the idea: Starwood, Hilton, and InterContinental all hired executives from outside their industry. Restaurants as well as others have hired from outside the industry to fill marketing, human-resources, and operational positions.

According to Booz Allen Hamilton, two out of every five executives fail within the first 18 months of being hired, but 55% of outsiders hired were forced to resign by their boards, compared with just 34% of the insiders let go.

J.C. Penney was apparently just another corporate lemming in its pursuit of catching the competition. Corporate giants are nothing if not herd animals, and all too often, a corporation doesn't want to be the one that isn't trying to implement the latest fad. In Penney's case, it went with the trend but then asked the COO to resign. She refused -- first, because she apparently thought the kinks of her role could be worked out, but also because by resigning she would not be entitled to a generous severance package. As it is, she will now receive a going-away present said to be worth about $10 million, which ought to assuage some of the ill feelings over having been axed.

The burned hand learns best, they say, but whether the COO position will go to another outsider or will eventually be filled by someone from within remains to be seen.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey owns shares of Wal-Mart but none of the other stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.