Out of the Ordinary

Tom Peters

Are you ordinary? Stupid question. Maybe you’re not Einstein. Or Oscar winner Emma Thompson. Or baseball slugger Barry Bonds.

But ordinary? Hell no.

Me neither. Which is why I got so damned mad during a question and answer session at a recent seminar in Newcastle, England. One fellow—ahem, executive—said the key to the local Nissan plant’s success was “superb processes which enable ordinary people to be extraordinarily productive.”

I’m foursquare behind superb processes. Nissan does have them. Toyota, too. And Federal Express and Wal-Mart and Walt Disney. Moreover, the current re-engineering craze amounts to a long needed revision of basic business processes: Bravo!

Still, my Newcastle friend is all wet. And I said so, in public.

Nissan’s real secret is unstinting respect for the out-of-the-ordinary talent of the individual employee. That’s also the productivity and quality key at many Japanese transplants in the United States and at GM’s Saturn operation and Ford units in general.

Workers in the United States—and even more so in England—have been treated like dog food for the past 150 years. In fact, such treatment forms the bedrock
logic of the Industrial Revolution: Forget craft. Specialize jobs to the point any idiot can perform them. Then hire blokes willing (or forced) to put up with mindless tedium for, say, the next 40 years of their lives. Is it any wonder American (and British) product quality was doubtful by 1970?

Re-engineering reverses a lot of that ultimately misguided specialization by aligning tasks and jobs with customer needs. Mostly, it makes jobs whole again—e.g., one person shepherds an order from start to finish. But, of course, re-engineering is no panacea. (Flash: There are no panaceas.)

Most re-engineering efforts will fail or fall far short of the mark because of the absence of trust—meaning respect for the individual, his or her goodwill, intelligence and native, but long-shackled, curiosity.

I got angry all over again while reading a recent article by management consultant Tom Brown in Industry Week (a magazine I like). It was about “hustle”—which is good stuff. But my hackles were raised by the wording of several propositions. In particular, the repeated use of “your people” (as in, “Do your people know what they’re supposed to do?”)

Funny, I run a small business, yet I never think of the people who work there as “mine”—that is, chattel. “Your people”? It makes me want to throw up.

Peter Drucker says the relationship between leaders and knowledge workers is a brand new phenomenon. He begs hierarchs to treat today’s employees as “volunteers.” Maybe the boss can force a person to show up for work, especially in trying economic times; but one cannot by definition, force a person to contribute her or his passion and imagination on a regular basis. Contributing passion and imagination is a voluntary act, period—and an all-important one in an epoch when brain rather than brawn has become the cornerstone of success and added value.

But all of this may beg the first, bigger issue I addressed—that no one is ordinary. I’m not a religious sort, so I don’t come at this from the reversed-collar perspective. It’s just that I honestly don’t believe I’ve met anyone, bus driver or chairman of the board, who is ordinary. Translation: If you’re a manager, you’ll prosper, as top sports coaches routinely do, to the extent you build on the distinct talents everyone brings to the party.

If we open our eyes, we can see special characters anywhere in the crowd. Take one of the guys who hawks peanuts at Golden State Warriors home basketball games. Not much of a job. Except this fellow is a performing artist of the first order. He delivers bags via unerring set shots, many from 3-point range. Nike should pay this man a bundle to endorse its shoes!

Talk to cab drivers? I do as a matter of course. I find they do a better job than the mayor or local newspaper when it comes to giving me a feel for the pulse of the town I’m visiting. Besides, cabbies invariably have the darnedest life stories. (If some of those stories are fiction, all the better. Credible storytelling is an art to be cherished.)

Cabbies are far from ordinary—if you take the time to get to know them. So, too, peanut vendors, hotel housekeepers and gardeners. And British Nissan workers.

Ordinary people? “Your” people? Get a life.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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