America has some unfinished business

PLENTY TO DO

January 27, 1992|By TOM PETERS

Five hundred years ago Columbus hove to and began this wacky, wonderful, modern American experiment. Half a millennium later, we have lots left to do.

1. Remember the flag -- that is, the Soviet flag that came down on Christmas Day, ending a disastrous, 74-year experiment in central economic planning. America played a lead role in that flag's last dip. Our missiles? Maybe. Our commitment to markets and free trade? You bet.

The message from those shriveled souls who want us to pull in our horns and sing "America First" is frightful. From the right, Pat Buchanan. From the left, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his merry band of fair traders. "In practice," Cato Institute's James Bovard writes, "fair trade means protectionism." Quotas on foreign-produced textiles, for instance, cost consumers one dollar for every penny of increased wages carried home by U.S. workers.

2. Don't forget who brung ya. Where did your grandpop come from? Mine came from Germany, about a century ago. Hail yesterday's immigrant. Today's. And tomorrow's. Our latest round of immigrant bashing turns my stomach. Fact: Immigrants more than pay their way in hard-dollar terms; and their energy is a boon to us all. Shutting the door on immigrants is denying the very essence of our national character.

3. Honor our start-ups and midsize firms. IBM sheds jobs by the tens of thousands. GM, too. The Fortune 500 rolls heads by the million. But the American economy churns like no other. While around 6 percent of our jobs (6 million) dry up in any year, we created a net addition of 20 million jobs in the '80s. In short, "we" (not the Fortune 500!) developed more than 80 million new jobs!

4. Get serious about education. The K-12 system needs help. So do our corporations. The most significant "R&D" in today's knowledge economy: training. If you're allotting less than 3 percent of gross revenues to training, you're joking about competitiveness.

5. Service. Most polls say better service is CEOs' top concern. So why in the hell doesn't service improve? When something teeny-weeny goes well -- a clerk tested the Christmas-tree light she sold my wife -- it's worthy of a 15-minute dinner-table discussion. The problem: Most CEOs who blather about service pay scant attention to the front-liners who provide it. To really put customers first, put employees first.

6. Disorganize to innovate. Even IBM CEO John Akers almost gets it. Few innovations come from corporate towers or central ++ R&D activities. Instead, they're a product of disorganization: independent, market-scale units (no more than a few hundred people), forced to innovate to live. OK, a 250-person division wouldn't cut it at GM; but break that monster into a half-dozen parts and I'd wager that a miracle would occur, fast.

7. We have met the future and it is soft. I'd rather have Bill Gates on my team than Lee Iacocca. I'd rather be tops in software, media and biotech (we are) than in autos and steel (we aren't). Manufacturing is going gangbusters in the U.S., by the way. (Our little manufacturers, as in Germany, are outstripping the biggies these days.) But it doesn't take many people to make things anymore. Eighty percent or so of the typical industrialist's payroll is "service" folks -- marketers, engineers, designers, accountants, distributors, salespeople.

8. Let's fight the right war. Germany wins with modest-sized firms. We do, too. They admit it and embrace it. We deny it. Big Japanese firms are spinning out thousands of small, entrepreneurial subsidiaries. Meanwhile, our geniuses (MIT B-school dean Lester Thurow) beg us to copy yesterday's Japanese formula -- the keiretsu combos. Release entrepreneurial energy.

9. Very green is very good business. Clean up, conserve -- and save big bucks.

10. Your future is in your hands. It's plain stupid to imagine you could stay on one payroll for life. It's up to you to make yourself more marketable by the end of 1992 than you are today.

NOTE TO READERS: I've been writing this column for seven years. Heartfelt thanks to the thousands of readers who have written to offer encouragement -- or give me hell. Both responses are equally appreciated. It's indifference I fear. 1992 TPG Communications

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