Rx for competitive health: still more bitter medicine

ON EXCELLENCE

February 15, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Of my 422 columns to date, one, on the value of thank-you notes, has garnered several times more letters than any other.

Part of me likes that. I devoutly believe the little touches matter in relationships with spouses, children, significant others -- and suppliers, distributors and customers.

In fact, I've spent much of the last decade-and-a-half trying to get busy plumbers, physicians and semiconductor-makers to RTC pay as much attention to these very human actions as to grand strategy. (Which often isn't very grand if practitioners neglect the small stuff that makes all the difference at stellar concerns like Disney.)

On the other hand, numerous companies that know better have done belly-flops of late. They sign off on "close to the customer." And "total quality." They croon about worker empowerment. But in practice they fall miserably short, usually choking on bureaucracy.

The past 15 years in business have had their ugly side, no doubt. GM, Sears, AT&T and IBM have been caught with, literally, hundreds of thousands of excess bureaucrats. Millions of good folks at big firms have hit the bricks. Marriages have been destroyed in the process. There have been suicides. Communities have become ghost towns.

And yet we needed the bitter medicine. Still do. Make no mistake, the American economy is far more competitive today than it was 15 years ago: We've shed a lot of blood, but many large firms are now close to fighting trim, and we continue to spawn more than our share of entrepreneurs, from software and biotech to speedy parcel service and waste disposal.

I wrote about this issue a little over a month ago, addressing some of the recent upheavals at once invincible, now bedraggled, IBM.

I directly acknowledged the terror for IBM workers and their families, but I added that we'd be better off with a healthy, 200,000-person IBM than a sickly, 400,000-person jellyfish of an IBM.

Well, I guess my caveat about IBM's job cuts didn't go far enough, at least for one reader.

"When you're spouting free-market system . . . propaganda," he wrote, "you're sickening." He called the IBM layoffs a "catastrophe." Then back to me (who "bordered on the insane"): He hoped I'd "choke" on my words while "riding around in your limousine."

Forget that the limousine on my Vermont farm is an 8-year-old GMC Jimmy. The letter made me nervous -- for Bill Clinton, and for thee and me.

If we can't countenance the trimming of unspeakable blubber at IBM or Sears, are we really ready for sacrifice? A consumption tax or energy tax with bite? Taxes on health care benefits? Significant means tests for Social Security? I fear not.

We scream about competitiveness, but the worst chapter in our long recovery may be coming to a close. There will be a lot more layoffs. Huge firms are not likely to be hiring again any time soon. And lifetime employment is effectively gone. (Good riddance, I say. Lifetime employment has usually gone hand in glove with paternalism and mindless loyalty.)

But born of the suffering wrought by a messy but effective market economy there's the glimmer of a brave, new, globally competitive American economy.

Is my beloved market economy perfect? Of course not.

But it beats any alternative by a mile. No, I don't envy folks whose lives are turned upside down by market-induced change in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague or Jamestown, N.Y. But mostly I hope, with accompanying churn, strain and pain, that we keep creating jobs -- and limousine- or Harley-riding millionaires, like the thousands, mostly age 35 and below, Bill Gates has spawned at Microsoft.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)

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