Competing in the great disruption
Humans are all about their tools. Tools are how we control our environment – and each other – for better or for worse.
For instance, the great mechanical achievement that is the train can be used to move people and goods across the world, generating unlimited wealth in the process, but also to relocate forcibly entire populations and enslave them into camps. Closer to us, social media software were born to help scientists cooperate better than ever, but can also be used for propaganda and pushing fake news.
In our society, our most successful tools have been generally used for productivity. This can happen in two ways:
- Replacing people by machines, as happened throughout the XIXth and XXth century to empty fields of farmers and factories of workers and replace them by automats.
- Leveraging individual productivity by alleviating the dangerous, straining or boring aspects of any job, as we’ve done with cars, washing machines, personal computers, etc.
Disruption is not so much about the technology itself, but about how we use the technology with what intent. Up to recently, automation had mostly been used to take humans out of blue collar jobs, first in agriculture and then in industry. Then the first computers started automating low-level white collar jobs by taking over routine paperwork operations.
At the turn of this new century, Internet based IT tools are now automating service jobs. As an experiment, I just published a new book, Lead With Lean, through Amazon’s automated process. Once the book was written and the layout created (still need a human there), the entire Camera-ready to published book process happened without talking to a single person — a strikingly different experience from working with a traditional publisher.
Such disruption possibilities have opened a Pandora’s box of three very obvious evils:
- Financial thinking: what is the point of trying to work well if all the money is in financing operations, not running it. For many CEOs now, the moment they make money out of the business is when they either sell (they get a cut through shares) or buy (they are incentivized on the share value increase due to the acquisition’s apparent Sales growth). Sure, a better run business will influence the price somewhat, but not as much as the luck of the deal or the period. So why bother run the business well when you’ll sell in two to four years
- IT mechanization: similarly, why bother training people when you can force them to follow mechanized work processes through IT systems. Rather than worry about science-fiction robots taking over jobs, look at how many workers are also robotized by having to follow screen by screen what an IT system tells them to do. It starts obviously with call centers where the person you have on the line is reading from an obligatory script, but most planning systems have also been replaced by ERPs no one really masters, or worse, in engineering, Computer-aided design (CAD) is taking away all engineering intuition from engineers, and limiting their ability to design really great products.
- Meaningless commoditization: as a result of these two trends, many jobs are now treated as commodities – services that can be bought on the market simply on the basis of price, as the thinking itself is assumed to be in the system. Digitalization has the unfortunate effect of taking away the analog understanding of why and how we do the what? As a result, too many jobs now are meaningless, as people are asked to achieve repetitively meaningless tasks regardless of their impact on customers or each other – the service equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
These three trends are overwhelming business thinking, and we can see none of us benefit (other than the already extremely wealthy). But how can we fight back?
One obvious option is to become luddites, or saboteurs – as the name for the workers that would throw their wooden cogs (sabots) into the machinery. Many younger people feel that the whole business world is to blame for the way society is going and what we’re doing to the environment and feel they should fight the entire system. Historically, none of these resistance movements have had much an impact beyond a few highly visible actions.
The less traveled path is finding a way to compete in these disrupted times with putting people first: customers satisfaction, employee engagement and social awareness.
This is the promise of lean. By learning to lead with lean, we ca learn to compete in a way that keeps the human in the driver’s seat. We don’t want to replace people by machines, we want to keep people working mindfully, thinking hard about how to do things better and use machines to make work easier.
There is an alternative to the current business trends. We can build a different, people-centric world. But we’ve got to make the effort to learn this other way of competing if we want to wrest our businesses back from financiers and systems sellers.