Marginal: Think About It

The on-going downsizing in the domestic auto industry is shattering for those who have lost their jobs.

The on-going downsizing in the domestic auto industry is shattering for those who have lost their jobs. People we know at major vehicle manufacturers have been literally handed cardboard boxes, told they have 20 minutes to pack—while under supervision—and then escorted from the building like the "unauthorized" person they have suddenly become, long-term tenure notwithstanding. Numerous engineers are discovering that their functions are still needed but they aren't—as those functions are being sent over to India and elsewhere. While some people maintain that U.S. auto workers have nothing to fear from the Chinese because the billions of dollars worth of capacity that has been established there by Western vehicle manufacturers will readily be absorbed by the massive Chinese market, consider this local example. The V6 installed in the popular Chevy Equinox doesn't come from Flint or the like but from a GM Shanghai plant in Pudong. Engines are hard. Assembly plants are easy. And let's not forget that some execs in Detroit have told suppliers that they expect "world-competitive pricing" for their products, which is a rather euphemistic way of saying: "You'd better produce in China or some other low-wage country." This not only affects workers on the line, but all of those engineers, designers, managers and others who support them.

To be blunt: It ain't a pretty picture, and it isn't going to get any prettier—for many, but not all, people. (Remember: Companies are nothing but an accumulation of people and capital.) Those who are going to succeed are those who are capable of outthinking and then out implementing anyone else anywhere else in the world. Which is a point that is well made by Thomas H. Davenport in Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers (Harvard Business School Press; $27.50). Ostensibly a book for managers who are in charge of those who literally think for a living—which means you*—this is really a valuable wakeup call for people, well, like you, whether you're a manager or not. Davenport writes: "My view . . . is that the organizations that will be most successful in the future will be those in which it's everyone's job to be creating and using both big and small ideas." These ideas range from the leap-frog to the continuous improvement. But as ideas they have to be thought of before they can be implemented, an observation that is as obvious as it is generally overlooked. (One of the valuable points that Davenport makes is that while it is all good and well to tell knowledge workers that they ought to be doing things like contributing to data bases and other extracurricular activities, "Few knowledge workers have any spare time today for recording their most recently learned lessons, or for taking calls from coworkers seeking their expertise. If we want knowledge workers to adopt these knowledge behaviors, we will have to free up some time for them to do so.")

While it is good and well to think of all of this in the context of someone else, what we're talking about here is your job (and mine). Davenport notes that anyone who is going to continue to be valuable "must command a body of knowledge that needs to be constantly updated." Just as you'd like your physician to be up on the latest medical knowledge, you, too, must be at the forefront of your undertaking because there are literally millions if not billions of people who may be willing to do what it takes to take your job. Think about it.