What's Next? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine January 2001
I used to be an avid reader of business books. It was not an uncommon event for me to visit the local bookstore on a regular basis, methodically work my way through all of the titles on the Business and Management shelves, and walk away with a new book. One glance at the bookshelves in my study confirms that this behavior was practiced. The interesting thing about the books in my collection is that most of them were printed in the early years of the 1990's versus those at the end of the decade. In other words, I have purchased very few business books in recent years.
I actually passed through a phase in my life where I avoided the Business aisle in the store. I adopted this personal practice to keep my emotions in check. There is a reason why I stopped buying business books and why I chose, at least for a period of time, to avoid that section of the store - I got fed up with seeing the same concepts repackaged with catchy new titles and fancy covers. I became frustrated by the attempts of both the writers and the publishers to squeeze additional dollars out of their business customers by focusing on form over function. More than anything else however, I became angered with the confusion that this practice was causing in the workplace as leaders attempted to follow the fads in search of the secrets to high performance.
We have progressed to the point where business book writing is akin to the release of the latest fashions for the fall season in the clothing market. This practice is similarly followed in the world of business conferences and training seminars. How many books on leadership need to be written? How many different types of spin can be applied to the subjects of team-based management, balanced scorecards, and strategic planning? Is there an end to this madness, or are we destined to witness the release of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers Who Have Purchased Twenty Books On the Topic of High Performance Over the Past Five Years Only to be Frustrated by the Lack of Change in Their Organizations?"
I know the above title won't fit on a nine by six inch book cover, especially if you leave space for the fancy, eye-catching graphics, but I think you get the point. As Billy Joel states in his song "The Entertainer" - "if you're gonna have a hit you got to make it fit." What is the intent of these books - to make a buck or to help organizations truly improve? As writers and trainers, where is our responsibility for helping people actually understand and apply concepts instead of shuffling them towards new ones? What's next? What is the next fad?
Besides the preponderance of books on the new economy, we are currently surfing the six sigma and lean manufacturing waves (accelerated learning is on the way). I was recently talking with a noted six sigma consultant who actually told me that he recognizes that the concepts of six sigma have been around for years (try seventy). He also said however that we need to re-title and re-package these concepts every three years or so to help sell books and seminar seats. We have created mass confusion in the business world by following this type of practice.
There are now so many different names for teams out there that a fledging manager does not where to start if they want to involve their people in improving the organization. There must be at least fifty different approaches to problem solving or total quality management out there, with each writer touting the benefits of their approach over the others. In essence however, these "different approaches" are in essence the same if you really look at them closely. Six Sigma is merely total quality management done right - an improvement effort that is properly supported with the right amount of project development resources and focused on those improvement areas that will provide the greatest return. The variety of titles and takes on TQM are essentially the works of Deming, Juran, and Shewart repackaged, retitled, and redressed.
Still, instead of seeking out more effective approaches to applying these concepts, we look for the next fad. It is true that in many cases we have "been there and done that." Have we "done that" right however? Did we properly shift our resources to support a team-based improvement effort? Were we willing to modify our own behavior to make it more consistent with the philosophies of systems thinking? Were we willing to reconstruct our compensation systems to support the philosophies of open book management? In most cases the answer is no - we are great at learning and using new buzzwords, but we are weak at changing our beliefs, behaviors, and systems to support true concept application.
Look at your own bookshelves. Compare the titles, the table of contents, and the thickness of the books. Is there really that much difference between a book on quality that was published twenty years ago and the latest release on the topic? It is no wonder that our employees question our sanity and discount our credibility when we introduce the new 'flavor of the month'. They see through the jargon and flash - shouldn't we? We keep looking for the answers, even though they have been right in front of us for years. Let's stop judging a book by its cover and instead focus on really improving systems and respecting our people. That's enough for now - I just heard that there is a new book on the secrets of team effectiveness coming out, and I want to make sure that I get my copy before they are all gone. Keep improving!
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates