On Acquiring Peripheral Vision

Tom Peters

Walmart’s matchless information technology allows it to make decisions with blinding speed. But is that its success secret? Despite the power of the system, Walmart executives spend two days a week in the marketplace. Ask why and you’ll get, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Walt Disney hires thousands of part-timers, who must attend a training class where they learn about the corporate culture and organization structure (how their bit fits in with the rest). What’s the point?

The need to speed up all processes, work with more partners in more complex networks and bridge functional barriers within the firm is requiring employees, top boss to temporary broom-wielder, to think in “wholes” for the first time. But such a requirement runs counter to our history, a saga of increasing specialization. By the end of World War II, we had disaggregated whole jobs to the point that some plants had 500 hourly job classifications. Sadly, our glorious history has turned on us, now that new foundations for competitive advantage are emerging.

Others are luckier. There’s a different tradition among our most formidable competitors. West Germany’s peerless apprenticeship program churns out highly skilled workers with a generalist bent. The Japanese story is a carbon copy, as T.W Kang notes in his book, Is Korea the Next Japan. “… I am continually impressed by how knowledgeable workers or engineers are, not only about their own jobs, but also about manufacturing process in general,” he says. “The (Japanese) cultural profile … tends to reinforce the (accomplishment of) horizontal tasks.

Some of our countrymen do preach this gospel of wholes. W. Edwards Deming, for one, has long argued that most American manufacturing issues are “systemic,” that almost all quality problems involve cross-functional activities. Deming pushes firms to “tap (workers’ inherent) process knowledge.”

Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s classic book, In the Age of the Smart Machine, spells out the new thinking required. She speaks of the need for “metaphors of wholeness.” Zuboff writes that “learning is the new form of labor. (It’s) no longer a separate activity that occurs either before one enters the workplace or in remote classroom settings. … Learning is the heart of productive activity.” Another Harvard Professor, Ramchandran Jaikumar, concurs, proclaiming the “shift from a static world view to a dynamic one, in which continual change and improvement (are) the raison d’etre of management.”

While we must translate these issues into specifics, dealing at a higher level of abstraction is also essential. This means pursuing different metaphors and models—a dynamic versus a static view, value created by broad-based understanding, labor as learning, horizontal versus vertical thinking.

Consider the experience of Roald Nomme, who worked with Scandinavian Airlines System on improving customer satisfaction: “The customer has approximately five contacts with front-line airline employees (‘moments of truth,’ SAS Chief Jan Carlzon calls them). Each of the five people is SAS to that customer. SAS as a whole is the five people.” But, Nomme explains, SAS was organized so that each employee worked in a different, narrow functional department: “We were organized vertically.’ The customer saw us ‘horizontally.'”

The need to induce “horizontal thinking” leads to courses like the one at Disney, and to all kinds of new organizational experiments. On the one hand, self-managing teams are the rage. On the other hand, the likes of Harvard Professor D. Quinn Mills talk about full-blown organizational alternatives to hierarchy. Mills labels his version “clusters:” Any activity, he insists, can be effectively organized into 30- to 50-person super-teams.

But thinking in wholes must extend far beyond the corporate borders. Harvard Professor Paul Lawrence concocted the useful idea of value-added partnerships, or VAPs. McKesson, the $7 billion (revenue) drug-distribution company, is a favorite example: “What makes McKesson so powerful is … the understanding that each player in the value-added chain (drug producer, druggist, McKesson) has a stake in the others’ success. McKesson managers see the entire VAP … as one competitive unit.”

But wait. There’s still a more basic ingredient missing. Consultant Stan Davis touches on it when he describes top foreign exchange traders as “… intuitive, (having) an inner sense of oneness with currency flows. (T)hey see things as a totality.” Which is why the top execs in the opening Walmart vignette religiously schmooze in the marketplace each week.

And that brings us to the problem which ultimately may keep us locked in mental handcuffs binding us to our specialist ways: The truest masters of the narrow path are our schools, with their rigidly functional orientation of classrooms and knowledge. New Hampshire high school principal Dennis Littky, for one, rails against such fragmentation. His faculty frequently teaches together in multi-disciplinary groups, conducting classes that extend far beyond the traditional, 50-minute micro-slice of time. Students work at projects, often in teams, which simultaneously draw upon several disciplines. Sadly, Littky’s crusade for synthesis, like Deming’s and Zuboff’s, is still a lonely one. That must change.

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