Chapter Ten Draft
Chapter Ten: Attempts at Reform from Within
And here's a teaser from the chapter:
In his later work, in the 90s, he tended to throw around words like "revolution" and "radical" and "crazy" and "extreme" to the point of self-parody. A good example is the self-indulgent Tom Peters Seminar, which must use the term "revolution" several hundred times from cover to cover--but whose assertions are backed up mainly by quotes from Fortune 500 CEOs. By the time I finished reading that book, I felt like he'd quoted all five hundred of them, about twenty times each; he's a worse name-dropper than Tom Friedman. The overall effect is like a version of State and Revolution in which Lenin manages to insert three quotes from the Tsar and his ministers on every page. His celebration, in Liberation Management, of "Ted Turner as Hero" (along with Jack Welch and Al Neuharth), speaks volumes about the kind of "revolution" he has in mind: one with its own Thermidorean reaction already built in.
The rhetoric goes to the edge of silliness--and then far, far beyond. Consider the following examples:
Change? Change! Yes, we've almost all, finally, embraced the notion that "change is the only constant." Well, sorry. Forget change! The word is feeble. Keep saying "revolution." If it doesn't roll easily off your tongue, then I suggest you have a perception problem--and, more to the point, a business or a career problem.#
Do you and your colleagues routinely use "hot" words: "revolution," "zany," "weird," "freaky," "nuts," "crazy," "apeshit," "Holy Toledo"...?....
Are you prepared to forswear the word "change" for "revolution"? If not, why not? Because I'm an extremist? Or because you aren't?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how "crazy" (a) are you? (b) is your unit? (c) your company? (d) your most innovative competitor? [Tom Peters Seminar, p. 22]
Reading such passages, I was suddenly struck by Peters' resemblance to "Poochie," the "edgy" cartoon character introduced on Itchy & Scratchy. When challenged to give him more "more attitude," the writers finally added sunglasses. Wow, just like Huey Lewis! Ten years ago, when the Fox Family Network premiered, a Fox corporate PR woman gushed about the "edginess" and "quirkiness" of the new network's programming. When questioned on exactly what she meant by those terms, she was unable to define them without reusing the words "quirky" and "edgy": e.g. by reference to the network's "quirky" and "edgy" demographic, sensibilities, etc. I suspect that "quirky" and "edgy," like Peters' "crazy" and "zany," amounted in substance to little more than a pair of sunglasses. Tom Peters may not have sunglasses like Poochie's, but he demonstrates his own "attitude" by wearing Hawaiian beach trunks with a suit jacket in the back cover photo of The Tom Peters Seminar. Whoa, radical, dude!
Just how much he exaggerated the radicalism of prospective change and the pressure for such change, Peters himself sometimes lets slip. Just as a basis for comparison, first consider this rather hyperbolic quote:
Change and constant improvement (kaizen, per the Japanese), the watchwords of the '80s, are no longer enough. Not even close. Only revolution, and perpetual revolution at that, will do.
Leaders at all levels must accept what the transformational leaders tell us: that the organization can "take it" (enormous change), that only a bias for constant action and a bold embrace of failure, big as well as amall, will move companies forward. The point is to compress 10 years' worth of "change," by yesterday's standard, into one year, if not months. Then draw a deep breath and start again. Forget the calm at the end of the storm. If you sense calm, it's only because you're in the eye of the hurricane. [Ibid., p. 271]
Or this one:
Ah, how sad it is, in these turbulent times, to watch the average company, small or large, trying to succeed in the herd by moving maybe "a little bit faster than yesterday" or "delivering a little better quality or service than yesterday." Forget it. It'll be trampled. [Ibid., p. 283]
Then contrast the above rhetoric in Commandante Peters' Revolutionary Communique No. 1 to the following passages, in which he lets slip some hints that perhaps the marketplace isn't quite as revolutionary, nor the creative destruction quite so frenzied, as he depicts it. For example, he quotes Wal-Mart CEO David Glass on the "absolute dearth of new and exciting fashion-forward products," and adds:
He's right. Among all the new products hitting Wal-Mart's shelves, where is the equivalent of the early microwave oven, the video cassette recorder, or the Walkman--the kind of products, as Glass put it, that sucked people off their couches by the millions and propelled them into his stores?
New soft and hard products alike are coming at us in increasing numbers from every corner of the global economy, but are they exciting, magical, special? Do they pass the Wow Test...? ...[A]s former Apple Computer chairman John Sculley said, "What's the new capability? ....It's like Rocky IV and Godfather V." [Ibid., p. 18]
Shortly thereafter, he writes:
Look through a sample of 25 catalogs, from pet supplies to personal computers. They're thick, but are they interesting? How many new offerings take your breath away...? [Ibid., p. 21]
Peters, in such passages, inadvertently tells a tale on himself. To someone who hasn't been successfully reeducated to Peters' New Capitalist Man values, all those "revolutionary" corporations seem to be still following something that bears a suspicious resemblance to the traditional oligopoly strategy of spooning out carefully rationed improvements. And come to think of it, if there's such a dearth of innovative products, there can't really be all that much "revolutionary" pressure to compete with a bunch of companies producing mediocre crap, can there? He challenges his readers, at the end of the same chapter:
How many processes and products have been tossed overboard (not "changed") in the last 12 months? If none or only a handful, why? [Ibid., p. 22]
Um... maybe because there's a dearth of new and exciting products from our competitors, and none of their catalogs contain products that take our breath away, so we figure we can probably get filthy rich making the same kind of crap they do? Duh.
In the roughly thirteen years since Peters wrote all that bovine scatology about the absolute necessity for continuous revolution in quality and service, if a corporation was to survive, we've seen virtually every corporation in the country adopt the universally despised "automated customer service menu." We've seen Home Depot, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart adopt a common model parodied by King of the Hill's Mega-lo-Mart, in which most service jobs are held by pimply high school kids in smocks who know little about the store's products and care less. I've seen it for myself at Lowe's, where the "associates" in the garden supply department know absolutely nothing about plants or soil additives, and the stock answer to any question is "I dunno. I guess if you don't see it, we ain't got it." I've talked to veterans of numerous Fortune 500 companies who all tell versions of the same story: career sales employees who knew the product lines and customer needs inside and out, replaced by high school kids working for minimum wage. As we saw in Chapter Seven, that's pretty much what Bob Nardelli did to Home Depot to get himself a $200 million-and-change severance package. (Nardelli was an avowed Six Sigma enthusiast, by the way; his idea of "process improvement" was to downsize the service staff and nearly double the number of customers each "associate" had to serve in an hour.) Some friggin' revolution.