Beyond the Barricades

Columns From: 11/1/2001 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

One thing that we know about these times: They're different.

One thing that we know about these times: They're different. Consequently, what worked in the past probably won't be particularly effective right now. Note well that I'm not saying "won't work." Sure, those past practices will still have some level of utility—but it will be a sub optimal. It won't be effective. Comfortable, yes. But capable of dealing with the present state to the extent that it really needs to be addressed? Naw.

Back in 1993, Dr. Michael Hammer (Ph.D. in computer science from MIT) and James Champy wrote a book that for those times was embraced by some, excoriated by others. There seemed to be no middle ground. The first word of the title of their book energized some and aggravated others: Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Yes, they unleashed the idea of reengineering on the corporate world. They called for turning practices right on their heads. They called for companies determining what needed to be done and then figuring out the most effective way of accomplishing it. Given that organizations grow up to address particular sets of circumstances at given points in time, chances are, reengineering meant that there were some people who were made exceedingly unhappy when it was discovered that their departments or functions weren't really adding value. Arguably, there is nothing wrong with this approach. Some could even describe reengineering as being a variant of lean to the extent that it addresses waste in the form of operations. But there was a problem that occurred in that some not particularly scrupulous students of reengineering in managerial positions used reengineering as an excuse to simply get rid of large numbers of people. Want to turn lots of people against a program in short order? That's a surefire way to do it.

Hammer is back. Back with a book that some people could argue is something of a retreat from reengineering, The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade (Crown Business; $27.50). He admits, "I felt...that radical was the key word in the definition of reengineering: radical improvement in business processes" (and realize that radical doesn't mean tipping over desks but getting to the root). He confesses, "I was wrong." Although he maintains that the fire still burns bright, and that he still believes that "major changes in the business environment require radical responses," he now holds there is something that is more important: process. He explains, "Process is the way in which the abstract goal of putting customers first gets turned into its practical consequences. Without process, companies decay into a spiral of chaos and internal conflict." I would add that without process companies decay, period. They stick with the methods and approaches that once worked. Some companies are like a person who keeps flipping a light switch and doesn't get why the light doesn't go on. Instead of changing the burned-out bulb, they keep concentrating on doing the flipping all the better—to no avail. Hammer provides a similarly simple definition of the difference between thinking process and, well, operating on some sort of auto-pilot from days gone by: "Traditional janitors...see their job as pushing a broom...Process janitors, in contrast, see their job as achieving an outcome: a clean facility." Once more, it is about what you are trying to accomplish and determining the best ways of getting it done. And in the current environment, where there are consumers who had already been exceedingly picky but who are now also exceedingly leery, business as usual isn't going to make it. Hammer maintains, "business success flows from well-designed ways of working." Chances are, organizational design isn't the strong suit of most organizations.

Listen to Hammer: "In times of fundamental change, the riskiest strategy is not to act boldly but to continue in the old ways. That is guaranteed to lead you to failure. If you act, you at least have a chance."