Change for better? It's not a contradiction in terms

ON EXCELLENCE

November 28, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Thoughts on business while hosing down the slime after a disgusting political season:

* The hype hype. Boy, do I have it tough! Infobahn. (Scanned the sports scores on-line last night.) Global village. (Talked with a Canadian last week.) Constant learning. (Read all four sections of USA Today this morning.) Re-engineering. (Stopped photocopying the stuff I send out by FedEx.) Total Quality Management. (Proofread this column one extra time!)

But my old man? Things were a lark for guys like him, born in 1903: World War I. The Great Depression. World War II. The Holocaust. The atom bomb (and the use thereof on humans -- twice). The hydrogen bomb. The Cold War.

And more: the spread of automobiles, radio, television, long-distance calling and commercial air travel. The arrival of the computer (I'll never forget when his accounting office was computerized in the late '60s). And a man to the moon. ("And, kid, for most of the time no Social Security, Medicare, etc., to fall back on," he might have added.)

A quiet 70 years, eh?

Let's dismount our fin de siecle high horses. There's a lot that's new these days. But what's new about that? One thing that is not new is our incessant bellyaching about change. It is the arrogance of every generation, management researcher Henry Mintzberg writes in "The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning"; we contend that yesterday was bliss (toddlers could have run our firms successfully), today is a mess (you gotta be a workaholic-genius to survive an average day).

Calm down. Lighten up. Enjoy it.

* The joy of creating. Speaking of enjoyment, I love capitalism. Capitalism has nothing whatsoever to do with econometric models. And everything to do with the human circus. Somewhat pretentiously (OK, more than somewhat), my alma mater, Stanford University, has announced a Pacific Basin equivalent to Oxford's Rhodes scholarships. Stanford's chief donor is Hong Kong's Larry C.K. Yung, who's pledged $5 million for this most sober, prestigious, scholarly internationalist endeavor. The source of Mr. Yung's bucks? He hit it big at the racetrack. Nice!

Ludwig von Mises, de facto founder of the free-market Austrian school of economics, saw business as "a creative activity involving inspired hunches and leaps of faith," the Financial Times reports. Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and author of a well-received book about the Stanford business school ("Snapshots from Hell"), recently said, "Sometime during the two-year curriculum, every MBA student ought to hear it clearly stated that numbers, techniques and analysis are all side matters. What is central to business is the joy of creating."

Then there's the Henry David Thoreau verse I'm using as the epigraph to my latest book:

"What recommends commerce

to me is its enterprise and

bravery. It does not clasp

its hands and pray to Jupiter."

These words capture the essence of true capitalism, from the new restaurant to the biotech start-up. Inspired hunches, leaps of faith, the joy of creating, bravery: That's the spirit of Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher, The Body Shop's Anita Roddick, Virgin Group's Richard Branson, Blockbuster's Wayne Huizenga, Turner Broadcasting's Ted Turner, Oracle's Larry Ellison. The people who define business for me are not the button-down analysts; they are the bold, daring, brash, half-crazy creators who have redefined markets and invented new industries. "It takes characters to give business character," one executive told me. (Grant that man a Ph.D. in economics!)

* The death of TQM. Speaking of dismal, I was perturbed by a paper from the ordinarily sensible University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. It carries TQM to the executive suite and touts the use of personal checklists as a vehicle for doing so.

The author showcases a computer-based defects-measurement scheme used by a vice president at a large corporation. I happen to know this fellow's company has a massive agenda for change; nonetheless, I can nearly forgive his choosing "on time for meetings" as the top item on his personal quality-evaluation list. (Nothing wrong with the big cheese being courteously prompt.) I get a little queasy over "clean desk," though; and "hair cut," "shoes shined" and "clothes pressed" (three of 12 supposedly critical items) drive me to the wall. What drives me up and over the wall, however, is his practice of graphically plotting these "defects."

Somehow, I doubt this is what the late Dr. Deming had in mind when he crisscrossed America, into his 90s, preaching the quality gospel.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536

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