Tag Archives: management

Hope Yet? A Survey on the Livable Human Future

I just conducted a completely unscientific survey on Twitter, asking whether we human beings have a livable future here on earth. The polling lasted twenty-four hours. Sixty-two people weighed in.

Here are the results, for your consideration.

The results were undoubtedly skewed by the way I worded the question and by the kind of people who follow me on Twitter and who are drawn to these issues. I’d put the question this way in an earlier exchange about the livable human future with Professor Sarah Lilly Heidt, and when creating the survey I didn’t fuss over it too much. I really just wanted to get a rough sense of the mood out there, and I figured the three choices (no hope, we’ll manage, and we will thrive) would do the trick.

Of course, if I could do the whole thing over — which I would love to do, on a much grander scale — I wouldn’t frame the issue in terms of despair, and I would like to drill down a little further to get at attitudes behind the answers.

Denning and the Death of Hierarchies

Steve Denning, the “radical management” and leadership guru, published a post at Forbes.com yesterday about the shift taking place within many organizations, away from hierarchical models of command and toward more fluid, flexible and agile setups. Drawing on Fairtlough’s The Three Ways of Getting Things Done — which argues that the only “effective” organizational models are hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy — Denning argues that hierarchies “must sign their own death warrants to survive” in what he likes to call the Creative Economy.

In this post, Denning’s interested in why business leaders cling to hierarchy even in the face of evidence that it’s no longer the most effective way of getting stuff done (if it ever was), and in the paradox that in all the examples he can find, “it’s the hierarchical management itself that has led the shift away from hierarchy. The shift didn’t occur as a kind of bottom-up movement. It was the top that saw that there was a better way to make decisions and went for it.” Flatter organizations tend to cleave to the status quo and work within established frameworks, he observes.

Of course plenty of other people within an organization might see that there is a better way. Those atop the organizational hierarchy are the ones permitted or entitled to say it aloud or do something about it. Hierarchy isn’t just a way to get things done; it’s also a way of distributing power, and the power relations hierarchy maintains are a daily fact of life for subordinates. They usually don’t have a place at the table when the organizational models are being drawn up or redrawn. In order to effect change within a hierarchy, those at the bottom – and the middle – would need to be enlisted as stakeholders, entrusted with real power and respected as equals (which would itself require some undoing of the organizational hierarchy).

I am a little puzzled why Denning here doesn’t present a more considered and nuanced view of the way power actually works within organizations – and the way in which concentrated power can actually hamper performance and kill ideas or even the motivation to present ideas about how to do things better.

That aside, and no matter how or why or by whom “the shift away from hierarchy” is brought about, Denning’s article is a good place to start talking about what this shift will really entail and require of people at every level of a hierarchical organization. It seems fair to say that as organizations get flatter and try to operate with more creativity and agility, the way things are coordinated – the way we use language to order the world, get things done and coordinate action — will itself have to undergo a radical change. The way I’d put it is that coordination will have to shift from the power of command to the power of asking.

Indeed, how we use language – how we make claims and demands on others, how we talk and listen to others about what to do — can itself help effect a shift from hierarchical command structures to the more fluid structure associated with the give and take of serious conversation (the rough equivalent, to my mind, of what philosopher T.M. Scanlon calls “co-deliberation”). I’ll have more to say about what constitutes a serious conversation in a future post.

Ask Is A Verb

If you have spent any time in conference rooms or on conference calls, you have no doubt arrived at the moment when someone, usually the person who commands the most authority in the room, articulates “the ask” of the meeting. Or someone will ask, “what is the ask?” and this poor excuse for a question will snap everyone to attention, demonstrating that they regarded most of what went before as inconsequential blather. They were merely awaiting their orders.

Against this slide into jargon – and it’s fair to talk about it as a slide, an intellectually lazy lapse into the jargon of bureaucratic command– it is important to assert: ask is a verb. Why? Because verbs describe and denote action, and asking is a special action – an action that initiates and coordinates new action (on a very basic level, the discussion of the request, the coordination of the actors who will attempt to satisfy the request.) Asking is a way to begin, and beginnings are the prerogative not just of nominal leaders, but of all human beings.

When a designated leader, or anyone, for that matter, talks about “the ask,” they are turning a verb into a noun, an action into a thing – into a command, more precisely, and depriving asking of its native connection to action. They are not interested in beginnings, but in ends, the outcome they already have in mind. At the level of the sentence, “the ask” or “my ask” obscures the basic relationship that the verb “to ask” usually creates between a petitioner (the person doing the asking) and a respondent (the one of whom a thing is asked), and converts that very fragile and mutable relationship, that conversation about the world and what we should do together, into a superior’s control over a subordinate.

When you ask someone to do something you will elicit a response. The response can be a simple yes or no; and the number one rule of asking  — of being a petitioner — is “always take no for an answer.” In other words, be prepared to listen, engage and adapt. Asking someone to do something – as opposed to ordering them to do it – is to initiate an event whose outcome is unpredictable. The request is fraught with possibility, uncertainty, promise. That is because when you ask, you implicitly acknowledge the independence and autonomy of the other – recognizing them as an agent capable of their own beginnings. When you command, you forgo that recognition, and the respect that goes along with it, to remind the other of his subordination, and treat him as an instrument of your will, a means to your own ends.

This little piece of jargon creates a big moral muddle, but sometimes a muddle is exactly what bureaucrats want to create because they are unwilling to assume the responsibility of command, they are averse to risk (beginnings are always risky), or they are just cowardly.  “The ask” preserves hierarchy without acknowledging power relations. It involves phony respect for the other: I am not petitioner asking you, the respondent, to do something; there is an object called “the ask” that we must address. It comes from nowhere, really; its origin is unclear, but our duty is clear.  That request from nowhere or at least nobody also keeps power relations, the status quo, intact. The course is set. Things have already begun; the task now is to complete them. So “the ask” works as a hedge against change, against doing something really new; it short-circuits the conversation, shuts down dialogue, and enlists others not as collaborators but as a pair of hands to get a job done.

I suppose that’s not so surprising in a context where the point is execution of an already-decided objective or plan, not debate; but without debate or deliberation a plan or objective will lack meaning for those asked to carry it out. They won’t have had a chance to figure out for themselves the best way to carry it out, whether they are the right people to carry it out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all.

What’s Really Wrong with Non-Profits?

You may have been fortunate enough to have missed Rush Limbaugh’s angry tirade last week against the non-profit sector and the “lazy idiots” and “rapists” who fill its ranks.

It’s disturbing to think there are people out there – millions of people — who tune into this buffoon on purpose, and share his views and are infected by his hysteria.

What’s even stranger is that — though I am loath to admit it — Rush got me thinking.

Having worked in the non-profit sector (as an educator) and for the non-profit sector (as a consultant) for most of my adult life, I have my own ideas about what’s really wrong with non-profits.

Here is my top-ten list. I won’t pretend that this list of troubles is exhaustive, and I admit up front that these are sweeping statements. My aim is simply to gather my thoughts and, if I’m lucky, start a conversation.

1. Many non-profits are unable to say what they are really about, or confuse their programs with their core mission.

2. Non-profits that begin from small, inspired efforts have a hard time figuring out how big they should grow, how small they should stay, or how to right-size themselves.

3. Many non-profits are founded by a charismatic leader, and remain captive to his or her charisma; but to flourish, the non-profit may require another organizational model.

4. Non-profits don’t do a great job of capturing knowledge, turning knowledge into assets, and sharing knowledge across the organization or with other organizations engaged in the same work; but they should.

5. People come into the non-profit organization inspired and ready to change the world, and become (at best) competent managers.

6. Many non-profits believe managers with corporate skill sets or consultants versed in management theory can create greater organizational efficiencies; but they too often simply don’t get the culture of the non-profit organization.

7. Non-profits lack the entrepreneurial audacity of social entrepreneurs, and tend to be risk averse.

8. For the sake of being inclusive and making sure everybody has a say, non-profits will often forgo the best ideas and the smartest choices.

9. Many non-profit organizations confuse capacity with resources, and resources with funding.

10. Non-profits tend to be captive to their history, because so many non-profits were formed as a solution to a particular problem, or were built in a single great effort, and it’s hard to move beyond that founding moment.

I wonder if my list resonates with the experiences of others. I wonder, too, what’s missing from it, and which non-profit organizations, in your view, really and consistently get it right.

A brief reply to Starbucks’ Jonathan M.

After I wrote about the Taylorism in Starbucks new “lean thinking” program the other day, I sent my post to the Investor Relations and Press Relations contacts listed on the Starbucks website and asked them to pass it along to “Vice President of Lean Thinking” Scott Heydon and CEO Howard Schultz. I doubted that would happen; but I thought the company might respond with a prepared statement about Lean Management, and from it I could learn a little more about what Starbucks is really trying to accomplish. And maybe, I thought, I might goad somebody at Starbucks into a conversation or exchange about Taylorism.

That was naïve, or presumptuous; in any case, I was wrong. Apparently neither department found anything in my post deserving a response – I guess Starbucks doesn’t consider my blog a form of press coverage and doesn’t think anything I say could ever affect their stock price — so they forwarded my email, with a link to my post, to Customer Relations.

About a week later, this reply, from a certain “Jonathan M.,” arrived:

I would first like to apologize for my delay in getting back to you. I truly appreciate your patience. We have been very busy recently and I’m sorry that’s caused you to wait so long for my response.
I read your entire article.
To be completely honest with you, I really liked it. Having worked with the Lean team myself (this is true), some of the things you said really struck a chord with me. I’m glad to pass along what you said to the people in our company who make these decisions.
To speak directly to what you said in your article:
This is a diverse company. The thousands of hard working people who make up this company harbor a wide range of ideas and principles they bring to the table when it comes to business. This is a point we pride ourselves on.
I listened to and fully understand your criticisms of the Lean program.
It does make a difference you shared your feedback because we do have channels in place to affect change in our company when our customers let us know that’s what they want.
Our business, like anything else in life, is, simply put, not an exact science. We’re always looking for ways to improve. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, customers, and employees to do this.
Lean has helped us in many ways to do what we do more efficiently, but, if you have criticisms for Lean, then we’re open to that too.
I hope you feel this e-mail has spoken to the concerns you raised in your article. If not (or in any case) feel free to write back and let me know. In closing, I’d like to mention the anecdote you ended your article on, the one about the employees giving directions in New York, was well used in making your point.
Warm Regards,
Jonathan M.
Customer Relations
Starbucks Coffee Company
800 23-LATTE (235-2883)
Monday through Friday, 5AM to 6PM (PST)
p.s. I’d really like to know how my response met your needs; click here if you’d be willing to share your thoughts in a brief survey.

Let’s put last things first, Jonathan. It seems only appropriate, because we find ourselves in a preposterous situation. Here you are, having to respond not to a usual customer complaint – my coffee was cold, the Gents was dirty, the barista was rude – but to a blog post that is ultimately about the difficulty of instituting a social science or a scientific approach to the social. And you get it. “Our business,” you write, “like anything else in life, is, simply put, not an exact science.” No, your business is not an exact science, and no business is or, I would add, should be. But you can’t really expand on that thought or dwell on it; you can’t really explore what that thought might mean when it comes to Scott Heydon and his Taylorist pursuits: the stopwatches, the spaghetti diagrams, the pretensions to knowledge about the right ratio of motion to work. Though you admit that some of my points “struck a chord” with you, and you appreciate my use of anecdote, and you seem to have a philosophical spirit, you, Jonathan M., have a regimen to follow, a Customer Relations protocol, and you do your best to follow it.

Which brings me to the last thing you mention, in the post-script to your letter: the request that I fill out a survey. Looks like you almost forgot to ask! Thank goodness for the post-script. Apparently there is no science to letter writing either. We always leave something out, always forget to say something, always have an after-thought, or a regret; it is amazing we can send email all day, and not be consumed by remorse or always embarrassed by the things we forget to mention. I nearly am, every day, every time I write, but I manage to soldier on. I guess all writing is like that; maybe that makes writing like life, or life like writing. But then look at your “p.s.”: it seems like a post-script, an after-thought, a little accident or addition, but I strongly suspect it is the least accidental thing in your response: it’s clearly from a Starbucks template or a Customer Relations protocol. (And I wonder if you or the people who instituted the protocol came up with the clever device of lowercase “p.s.,” to make it seem all the more casual?)

How can I be so certain that your post-script is not a genuine afterthought, but part of a corporate protocol? Because a couple of days after you responded to me, I received this response, from a certain “Liz B.”

Hello Louis,
Thank you so much for taking the time to write to us. I have apssed along your feedback as requested.
I want you to know that we take feedback from our loyal customers seriously. Because you know better than anyone else what you want from Starbucks, I will share this with the appropriate department here in our corporate office.
We have made a promise to our customers to provide outstanding products and service. I know that this is a primary reason why you visit Starbucks and I understand how disappointing it is when we let you down.
Thank you so much Louis, for giving us the opportunity to improve what we do.
If you have any further questions or concerns that I was unable to address, please feel free to let me know.
Thanks again,
Liz B.
Customer Relations
Starbucks Coffee Company
800 23-LATTE (235-2883)
Monday through Friday, 5AM to 6PM (PST)
Share your ideas at http://www.mystarbucksidea.com
p.s. I’d really like to know how my response met your needs; click here if you’d be willing to share your thoughts in a brief survey.

I guess Investor Relations and Press Relations didn’t bother coordinating before they forwarded my link to Customer Relations. It seems odd that in a company like yours, dedicated, as you and Liz B. both say, to continuous improvement, you wouldn’t have some more efficient way of coordinating your responses to incoming mail. Apparently you folks could use a little of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorism right there on the frontlines of Customer Relations. Too much motion, not enough work! Maybe when Heydon is done with the baristas he can turn his attention to that little tangle.

But unlike Liz B., who makes it clear that she is only a front for people within the company who have opinions and make decisions, you are struggling mightily here to say something – anything – within the silly confines of this Starbucks protocol, and you really do seem inclined to serious conversation. But a brief survey isn’t going to do it, or even allow me to say whether your “response met my needs.” My needs? I want to have a conversation about the tension between “science” and the “social,” and I want to know how and why a company like yours becomes captive to Taylorism, quasi-Japanese management theories, and other bad ideas. And the only way to do that is for you to put the Customer Relations protocol aside, and have a real conversation. We could do that if you would provide me with a little more information about how to reach you — like a last name, for starters, and a real telephone number, not an 800 number that ends with LATTE (I seriously doubt that’s your direct extension, and that you share an extension with Liz B.), and maybe some assurance that we can resolve these thorny issues without involving, say, Howard Schultz or Scott Heydon, or any of the other “people in [your] company who make these decisions.”

I don’t mean to disparage you or not take you seriously. You say you are acquainted with the Lean program; you even add, as if I would doubt you, “this is true” — which of course makes me doubt you. And if I read you right, you want to indicate that you are not to be counted among the program’s big boosters. The problem is, it doesn’t much matter that Starbucks “is a diverse company” or that “the thousands of hard working people who make up this company harbor a wide range of ideas and principles they bring to the table when it comes to business.” Maybe this is a point of “pride,” but it really doesn’t affect how Starbucks goes to business, and it feels a little like the disingenuous use of the word “partner” to describe a barista: phony empowerment.

After all, the only “ideas and principles” that matter to the future of your company are those being advanced by the people who have the power to advance them; everybody can “bring” their ideas to “the table,” but only a few people get a seat. And that’s the trouble, in my view: those few very powerful people are currently espousing some very bad ideas (which is why I — naively — thought Investor Relations might take an interest in my comments). Bad ideas, and bad in a couple of senses: bad for the coffee business, because they mistake the running of coffeehouses for the serving of fast food; and bad in another, more important sense, because Taylorism, even when it’s dressed up as fancy imported “thinking” from Japan, is a pernicious doctrine. Given the historical record, I might go so far as to say that it’s an inhumane and downright evil doctrine, a part of the intellectual and historical legacy of the twentieth century with which we all have to grapple daily and against which we can all struggle by ignoring its protocols. Work alone will not make us free.

Management in your mocha, a Taylorist in your tea

Back in the early spring of 2008, I wrote about Howard Schultz’s plan to shut down all Starbucks retail stores for a day-long training exercise. Apparently the Starbucks CEO was convinced that his sagging stock price must somehow be the fault of his employees, or at least could be improved if his employees were only better trained in the Starbucks way.

It was only a passing reference. I was half-seriously wondering if Schultz’s decision had inspired Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, in a caffeine-deprived moment, to write a clumsy email announcing that he’d be shutting down Chrysler’s plants for a full month in the summer of 2008. We now know how all that turned out. Nardelli was trying to save a sinking ship, and couldn’t. Fiat now controls Chrysler; Marchionne has supplanted Nardelli. And Starbucks? Schultz is still in charge; and the company’s fortunes seem to have improved, but only a little. Starbucks was able to beat analysts’ expectations for the third quarter, largely through cost-cutting measures.

And management is once again going back to the baristas, whose performance at the counter has come under fresh scrutiny. That’s because a big part of this new cost-cutting approach has to do with making coffee service at Starbucks more efficient. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the other day focused on Starbucks use of Japanese “lean” management techniques, applying the sorts of “scientific” management approaches in their coffee shops one usually finds on manufacturing floors.

The new emphasis at Starbucks on making their business “lean” is inspired by manufacturing improvements at Toyota, and it all comes down to reducing the amount of time baristas spend going through the motions of getting you coffee: “Motion and work are two different things,” says Starbucks’ Scott Heydon. “Thirty percent of the partners’ time” — partners is a word Starbucks uses to describe its counter-help – “is motion, the walking, reaching, bending.”

(Heydon styles himself the “Vice President of Lean Thinking,” and I suppose that makes for a fun business card. But whenever someone has a title like that, odds are he works at a vastly over-managed company that has lost sight of its core business – or at least has mistaken the business of management for management of the business.)

Of course, another word for “lean thinking,” as Heydon practices it, is Taylorism. There’s really nothing all that Japanese about it. Management teams travel to Starbucks locations around the country, armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head doll. (I’m not making this up.) They teach the virtue of efficiency by asking store managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head doll, and then to improve on their own performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work.

The Taylorists then apply the same tests to the fetching of coffee or the grinding of beans; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to document confused movements behind the counter or divigations across the shop floor; and they prescribe new, more efficient coordinations of action.

The objective of these rites and mysteries, we are told, is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that’s obviously management double-speak; the objective here is to sell more coffee and coffee drinks and other Starbucks stuff, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but one barista from Minneapolis just thinks Mr. Heydon and the Taylorists plan to turn the workers into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. After all, the most efficient Starbucks would be a Starbucks free of slackers behind the counter – an Automat, with espresso drinks served up by mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.

It’s clear that some very powerful people at Starbucks decided a while back that the coffee business is really the fast-food business. In so doing they lost sight of, or consciously jettisoned, some basic truths about coffee and cafes. The most important of these is that coffee is a social beverage. You don’t need to go to Vienna or study the history of coffeehouses to understand this; just drive out to the suburbs, where very often the Starbucks is the only place in town – or in the strip mall – where people can plan to meet.

The Taylorist approach to coffee preparation and service makes much more sense if you are serving coffee at a drive-up window. It does for coffee what the fast food joints did for the meal – strip it of its sociability and make it something to be consumed on the go. That’s not exactly conducive to making the coffee shop a place where people want to gather. And if you go this route, you have to assume that all of your customers are going to be Taylorist in their pursuit of coffee – that, for them, coffee is a fix. The very idea is offensive.

Starbucks is not alone in this regard. Apparently even Mom and Pop coffeehouses are now discouraging wifi use during the day because online customers tend to linger. This is not a welcome trend. To sit in a coffeehouse working, or talking with a friend or reading a book – or, better, talking about a book with a friend — is to feel oneself a part of the civilized world.

On my way to a meeting in Chelsea the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorist experiment. There wasn’t much of a line – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? — so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, he said, a doppio. (But he said it like, dopey-o.) Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. He turned and communicated something inaudible to the young woman working the espresso machine. She looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, she said. I guess she was just starting. Another woman came over and took her through it, and as she was doing that and I took my change from the clerk, I chimed in from my side of the counter: and not too much foam. Just a dab.

This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: even if the woman at the espresso machine knew how to fill the order, I wasn’t going to let her do it without oversight, because I like my coffee just so. As do most people. In this instance, the rookie barista didn’t even come close to making the coffee I wanted. What I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath.

When I asked if she could take some of the foam out of the cup, she looked confused. The woman who had been training her intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said she’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Just a dab. I was starting to enjoy this. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.

A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the register and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest subway. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the subway system, and he asked what any New Yorker would ask: which train do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which train would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had started. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in New York City, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.

Trending Towards The Gray

I’m watching Procter & Gamble stock today, looking for some reaction on the trading floor to the announcement that Robert McDonald will succeed A. G. Lafley as CEO. The market did not exactly raise a huzzah or hurrah at the news yesterday, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the AP wire. P&G finished slightly down. It was a gray day.

Maybe traders and investors are waiting for today’s official announcement before reacting, but when have you known Wall Street to wait? Maybe McDonald just isn’t seen as an inspired or inspiring choice; but I refuse to believe that. After 29 years at P&G, McDonald now serves as Chief Operating Officer of the sprawling consumer products giant. He has an impressive military background (West Point, 82nd Airborne), and a degree in Engineering. He is a logistics man. In his tenure as COO, McDonald focused on making P&G’s manufacturing and transportation network more efficient. He implemented a monitoring system to track trucks and reduce empty truck miles. And he made efforts to move production to emerging markets – another push for virtuous efficiency (or cheaper labor, depending on your perspective and your politics).

These are not the actions of an empty suit. McDonald is clearly someone with a deep and hard-earned knowledge of how P&G works and the expectation is he will make a concerted effort to institute new discipline across the company. No small task, given P & G’s size, breadth and depth: the company makes everything from my Braun coffee-grinder to dish soap, Gillette razors, potato chips, AA batteries and cosmetics; even the diapers your child is soiling right now are probably made by P&G. Imagine directing all that traffic, or simply trying to bring the whole thing into focus. The company claims people around the world use its products three billion times a day. By my reckoning, that’s about 35,000 uses every second of every day.

That makes the collective shrug yesterday over McDonald’s appointment all the more puzzling. Or maybe that shrug was the intended effect. P&G certainly could have made a big splash if it wanted to, by choosing Susan Arnold over McDonald. Arnold was often mentioned as a likely successor to Lafley until she left P & G in March of 2009 (motivated, no doubt, by the fact that she’d been passed over. The succession process had been two years in the works; the writing must have been on the wall sometime in 2008). Arnold was a P&G superstar. She started out selling dish soap (a brand assistant), and gained the highest rank of any woman in P & G’s 168-year history. But wait, there’s more: she’s openly gay, according to her profile on Wikipedia. (These are the wages of success: to have one’s sexual preferences detailed on Wikipedia.) Think Carly Fiorina meets Ellen DeGeneres. Think of the cultural capital the company would have reaped: over-the-top praise from big media outlets, eager to portray themselves as socially progressive; the lashing and futile threats of boycotts from the Religious Right. At the very least, it would have been a good day at the circus.

There may be a glass ceiling at P&G, but Arnold came pretty close to shattering it. There’s no questioning her competence, and it’s likely she was passed over not because of some institutionalized sexism or homophobia, but because of the business she was in. She came up through the beauty and cosmetics line (look for institutional sexism there, if you must), a business that flourished under Lafley; but there is a suspicion that in hard times, Cover Girl and Pantene won’t do as well as some of the more essential consumer items. Some investors had begun to question whether the acquisition of Gillette had made the company unwieldy, too big to succeed. The future of the company doesn’t lie in Arnold’s bailiwick. So it might have been as simple as that. The McDonald appointment suggests a new sobriety about the marketplace, a shift in focus or a correction of the Lafley strategy. (Since Lafley will stay on as Chairman, it’s a subtle suggestion, at best.)

But doesn’t the P&G succession story also suggest something larger and more significant? Something about the mood and tone of the country right now? I’m tempted to see in McDonald’s ascent something like the start of a trend — away from the superstar CEO, and towards the nuts and bolts operations guy. Less sizzle, more logistics. A similar restraint seems to have played into the thinking behind the choice of Fritz Henderson to lead GM through its dark days and into Chapter 11. There are doubtless other examples.

It’s sometimes said that the operations-minded are too immersed in the details to see the big picture; but sobriety, details and logistics might be exactly what we’re looking for after the housing bust, the financial crisis, the Madoff affair, the private jets, all the CNBC hype and John Thain’s $1,400 wastebasket. And it may be what we’re looking for, more broadly, in leaders: think of it as a trend toward the gray, more Ike, less Dubya. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could never have conceived, let alone plan D-Day; Eisenhower would never have invaded Iraq without a postwar plan. Obama is a rock star, to be sure. But many like him for his sobriety and evenness of temperament; he is unflappable, and he likes to make careful distinctions and discuss things coolly, so much so that before the elections some right-leaning pundits were praising his “conservative” instincts. (That’s over.)

Remember when Ronald Reagan famously told us it was morning in America again? Now, it seems, we’re just happy to hear that it’s a gray day and that nothing too out of the ordinary is happening.

Mr. Efficiency

The business guru Jim Collins has a stopwatch – an impressive, digital stopwatch, judging from the picture of it in the New York Times.

His stopwatch keeps three separate times, a running tally of time spent on pursuits he labels “creative,” “teaching,” and “other.” Collins tabulates the readings of the stopwatch on a spreadsheet; then he posts the results on a whiteboard in his Boulder, Colorado office. His aim, he tells the Times, is to keep the creative pursuits (writing and exploring ideas) at or above fifty percent of his time, and to divide the rest of his time between his teaching duties at the University of Colorado and the managing of his small enterprise – which supports all the things Jim Collins does: writing business books about why companies succeed and fail, giving talks, and consulting.

Bravo, I would like to say. I know the vigilance required to keep other obligations from impinging on one’s creative work, and though I am not teaching right now, I aspire to a balance much like the one Collins has achieved. But then there’s that stopwatch, and the spreadsheets (Collins even logs his hours of sleep: he needs 70 to 75 hours every ten days), and I have to wonder just what sort of guru Jim Collins really is – or what religion he’s out to spread.

Adam Bryant, who wrote the profile for the Times, calls it “doggedness.” Collins takes an “exacting approach to time management and research,” Bryant writes, and lives according to a “method” he “borrows from other hypersuccessful people. He approaches every aspect of his life with purpose and intensity.” That’s certainly one way of putting it. But it misses an important point, and misses why I can’t bring myself to applaud or approve.

Bryant’s portrait of Collins is a study in what I would call ethical Taylorism. I think the coinage is sound and the label applies. Taylor, of course, is F. W. Taylor, the great grandfather of “scientific management” and management consulting. Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru, described Taylor as “the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work.” In the time studies for which he’s best known, Taylor analyzed a bit of industrial work and broke down the actions required to perform it into hundredths of a second to look for more efficient ways to perform the action. He thought there could be a “science of handling pig-iron” and a science of shoveling (and, incidentally, that the pig-iron worker or the day laborer was too stupid to figure out the “one best way” to perform his appointed task).

Collins has turned his whole life into a Time Study. He has made a habit of efficiency – habit here in the Aristotelian sense of an ethical habit, a disposition or hexis. It is only fitting, I suppose, that this creature of scientific management should devote the “creative” work he so jealously guards from other obligations to questions of management theory — those are less likely than others to lead him to other obligations — but the real point here is a simple one: ethical Taylorism makes a virtue of efficiency. Or, to put it another way, it mistakes efficiency for virtue. (In this light, I have to wonder how ethical Taylorism might have played into the financial crisis, or how it might play into the impending business failure of the New York Times.)

The most popular expression of ethical Taylorism is probably Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book nearly everyone professes to have read but hasn’t, because books like this are ultimately unreadable — and not ever meant to be read (because that would be a waste of time). It, too, is a celebration of the life efficiently lived, of effectiveness; the two Taylorist terms share an etymological root in the Latin efficere, and a philosophical confusion of human being with an efficient cause.

Or they both rely on an unphilosophical reduction: in this conception, human work is merely a means to an end, so it should be made as time-efficient as possible, and human beings are agents — no, merely agents who bring about an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. There is not much room here for human dignity, or true vocation, or even a sense of creative work as discovery and self-discovery. (The creative is harnessed to a regime of production.) I might go so far as to say that there is not much room here for the human aspect of human being; ethical Taylorism reduces the human being to an economic or industrial agent. Think of the business organizations that embody this ethos; think, too, about the politics that follow from this reduction.

Forget wonder. Focus, instead, on success, only on what works, on being highly effective, even “hypersuccessful.” With doggedness and luck (Collins attributes much of his success to luck), things might work out for you. But — win or lose — the real trouble with ethical Taylorism is that it offers (at best) an impoverished idea of virtue or human excellence. Eventually, you’d think, the human will rebel, or wander from the plan of “creative” work into unfruitful and unscientific speculation on his Creator, or nap. I certainly hope so.

Return of the Blob

The rhetoric around the ousting of former GM CEO Richard Wagoner has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “moral hazard.”

Interviewed Monday on the Today Show, Governor Jennifer Granholm said that Wagoner is “clearly a sacrificial lamb”. The remark was widely reported; and – what can this portend? – the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal found itself in agreement with the governor, adding that the “anticorporate furies” have been unleashed.

I suppose it’s because we sense that we are not just going through an economic downturn but witnessing the passing of an entire economic and social order that we have reverted to the language of a more primal one: the blood of the Paschal lamb, an innocent (“Rick Wagoner is a good man,” said Granholm), shed on the high altar of industry, to sate the angry god or slake his bloodthirst; winged avengers hover, ready to swoop down and feed, like the Furies in a dark Gustav Doré engraving.

This is economic crisis as miasma. The Blob. The sky darkens and the blood-guilt spreads; the chorus of the people cries out for a cleansing rite, expiation or salvation.

Never mind that Paul Ingrassia can produce a decade-long list of mistakes and bad judgment calls Wagoner made; his loyalty and goodness are now what count. He grappled, says another columnist, with a “cursed legacy” dating back to the Wagner Act of 1935. Never mind that GM’s new CEO, Frederick “Fritz” Henderson, has indicated that he will not depart significantly from Mr. Wagoner’s strategic choices; he has been “anointed,” declares a front page story. (But he makes a strange sort of messiah, one who likes to spend downtime reading novels in the company of his family and their five cats.)

At the very least, this older language of mysteries and rites allows us to express truths our own morally impoverished, wonkish vocabulary of social scientific facts, TV punditry and fiscal policy can’t accommodate.

Look at it this way: the auto industry is the closest thing to an ancient grudge American industrial capitalism has ever known, the archetypal struggle of American workers with American bosses. We’re not out on the heath, crying out to the unanswering sky to tell us what we have done — what could we possibly have done? — to defile ourselves and bring these punishments down upon our heads. We know that we have set our world out of joint, and we know that some old scores are going to be settled in the auto industry shakedown; but we want more than some measly concessions from labor and management.

We want “sacrifice” on all sides — the President himself said it. There will be blood. Or at least that’s the promise. And everybody seems to be groping for words to describe the cosmic hazards we will all face if, in this Easter season, that sacrifice does not appease the wrathful god Economy.

From Coffee Break to Chrysler’s Break

When Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz announced last month that all 7,100 shops around the country would close at 5:30PM on February 26 for a three-hour, company wide re-training session (just one measure Schulz was taking to boost a sagging stock price), Bob Nardelli must have been paying attention. Maybe it was even during those caffeine-deprived three hours that the Chrysler CEO first got the idea for the memo he issued on Thursday announcing that he had decided to expand the traditional model changeover period to a “two week mandatory vacation” — a company-wide shutdown.

The complete text of Nardelli’s badly written memo was made public right away.

Dear Employee,
A willingness to try something new has proven to be an important catalyst as we transform into The New Chrysler and, in many corners of this company, new ways of doing business are firmly taking root. That’s not just because of new leadership; it’s also a product of an “Own It” mindset. As a private company, we all need to think like owners and do our part to accelerate Chrysler’s recovery and transformation.
One idea that we have taken a fresh look at is the implementation of a two-week mandatory vacation shutdown. This year, in order to create better alignment and efficiency across organizational lines and boost productivity, Chrysler will use a corporate-wide vacation shutdown for the weeks of July 7 and July 14. While some operations will need to work during the shutdown to support business-critical activities and others may need to maintain minimal support staffs in place, most organizations should use this two-week time period to schedule employee vacations.
Employees who have already used their earned vacation days, have insufficient earned vacation for the year or are otherwise committed to noncancelable vacation plans during other time periods should work with their local management to make alternative arrangements. We ask that you approach this idea with an open mind and a team spirit. It’s going to take your cooperation and teamwork to achieve success.
Thank you in advance for your cooperation and continued support.

Several bloggers and auto-industry watchers rightly took Nardelli to task for sending an unambiguous distress signal to Wall Street and for hiding behind management speak when the occasion called for candor and plain speaking.

To be sure, the claim that Nardelli and his team will “create better alignment” and “boost productivity” by shutting down operations for two weeks is patently absurd, as if alignment and productivity are calibrations made to a machine during idle time. Or as if during a two week hiatus you can retool an industrial operation and a sales organization in the same way Schulz hoped to train coffee jockeys to make a better espresso in 3 hours.

The absurdity is compounded by Nardelli’s suggestion here that ordering everyone off the premises for two weeks somehow amounts to entrusting them with ownership of the business, or requires from them an “own it mindset.” The phrase is telling, and its provenance is likely the doctrine of “individual and organizational accountability” laid out by Tom Smith and his partners in The Oz Principle. The borrowing may be direct or indirect. The Oz Principle has enjoyed wide acceptance and popularity; its special mix of self-help methods and theoretical persiflage is pitched just right for managers who want their people to act as they would act if they had a real stake in the business. And it’s a lot easier to muster these platitudes than give them a real stake.

But if you are going to muster these platitudes, and you’re out to persuade people to act like owners, it’s probably best not to use the dead, impersonal, and distancing salutation “Dear Employee,” or opt for the passive voice over the active. As if to accentuate those stylistic or rhetorical shortcomings, Nardelli’s letter never once uses the first person singular — always “we” — as if “Bob,” the signatory of the letter, is merely a front man for a decision making group. How does any of that add up to individual accountability?

Maybe it’s unfair to put this kind of pressure on an internal email, but there’s more than bad writing here. If this were simply a matter of management theory once again inflicting its ugly language and conceptual inanities on an office memo, there would be nothing remarkable at all in Nardelli’s note. Management speak provides a refuge from, and a hedge against, hard decisions; and it’s often as sinister as it is cowardly: it’s a way of keeping the truth from people even as you pretend to engage them candidly.

No surprise if there are cynics or cowards in the Chrysler executive suite; but the larger point is that the news this week was really about a failure of leadership at the automaker — or at least of the kind of leadership the present moment demands. Nardelli established his reputation at GE and Home Depot wielding what Joseph Nye would call “hard power,” which consists mainly in threats and inducements. “Soft power,” on the other hand, consists in the ability to attract people and lead them by inspiration; the evidence suggests that Nardelli wields it about as gracefully as Hillary Clinton. Even when he’s trying to be considerate and respectful — please keep an open mind about these new policies — Nardelli sounds wooden, rehearsed, flat.

Is Nardelli just tone deaf? Maybe. For Nye, it’s more than achieving the right pitch. There is a third power — “smart power” — that knows which kind of power, hard or soft, suits which occasion, and how the two kinds of power can be combined and applied in a specific context, to effect change or make people do what you need or want them to do. And in addition to smarts, you also need grace in execution.

Smart power also requires an awareness of history, of the moment in which you find yourself. And there’s no sign at Chrysler of an honest reckoning with history. So while Nardelli’s letter may have been lacking in grace, or downright awkward, because he isn’t accustomed to addressing (or regarding) his Chrysler employees as real stakeholders, it’s also pretty clear that like every other U.S. automaker he is trying to buy time with words, to persist in denial or remain willfully blind, to hold out for just a few more years, rather than see and seize change.

Chrysler along with the entire U.S. auto industry is in dire straits. They are relics of an industrial era and an old economy that has run its course. At the very moment that Nardelli and other leaders should be planning for real “transformation” — how to leverage their existing infrastructure, reorganize their business for the 21st century, and take calculated risks on new post-industrial-era services and technologies — they are exerting their nearly spent powers to stay the course, shine it up, scrape off the rust and call it new.