What Would Rip Think? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine September 2004
Several years ago, when I was involved with helping local schools build stronger partnerships with the businesses in their area, I experienced an exercise that I was recently reawakened to. In that exercise, school and business leaders were asked to imagine what Rip Van Winkle would think if he returned to a school that he had attended prior to falling asleep for twenty years. After thinking about this scenario for a minute or two, the leaders were then asked to describe the types of significant changes that Rip Van Winkle would notice. Would he notice any significant changes at all?
As I have now been a part of the business world for over twenty years, I thought I would spend a little reflective time with these questions relative to the world of work itself. Unfortunately, when I discounted the impact of technology has had, I was really challenged to come up with any other significant work-related changes. Like it or not, I could not say with conviction that we had become significantly better at using the seven quality tools, working together in groups to solve problems, or shifting our business mindsets from a short-term perspective to one that looked at the bigger picture.
Sure, concepts and tools relative to things like Six Sigma and lean thinking exist today that did not exist in the mid 1980s, but are the tools really that different themselves, or has the packaging merely changed? If Rip Van Winkle sat in a 21st century meeting room, would the experience he has be that much different than the one he had in the past? In my opinion, he might actually think that we have regressed in our ability to work together as people to make our organizations better, especially if he came across a group of time stressed, PDA obsessed, carbohydrate starved managers that could not put their self serving aggression aside to focus on the real task at hand.
It has been nearly fifteen years since Dr. Deming passed away, Peter Senge published The Fifth Discipline, and Dr. Stephen Covey began his ten or so year stint in the public eye with his Seven Habits of Effective People. As a relatively young and aspiring Industrial Engineer turned manager, I was both inspired and given a strong sense of hope by the messages contained in the books and speeches produced by these three business gurus. If I was Rip Van Winkle however, just awakening in the year 2004, I would struggle to be convinced that people had ever attended the seminars, read the books, or attempted to personally adopt the tenets that were contained within them.
Today we use technology to do a lot of good things, but we also use it to avoid working with our peers in a face-to-face environment. We use Powerpoint presentations in attempt to convey substance, when we are often merely demonstrating our own personal capacities for bringing infomercials into the workplace. We now have the ability to generate all kinds of reports and graphs, but we still have not begun to master the personal skills for building theories from this information and having true dialogue with our peers to find ways to use these theories to create lasting changes in performance.
I think that old Rip would also be shocked to see the amount of money some people are making by repackaging and renaming tools that existed prior to his twenty year nap. He would be even more shocked however when he observed that in many cases, we not getting any better at using the tools to actually improve systems and make work a better place. He would be appalled at the way workplaces have become more policy-focused and behavior paranoid. When he went to sleep, it looked like self-directed work teams and employee involvement were the emerging trends. When he woke up, we did not even want to speak to each other if we could avoid doing so.
Rip would most likely be most amazed by the loss of soul at work. He would wonder where the focus on people had gone, and how it could disappear so quickly at a time when environmental, global, and economic indicators were showing that we needed stronger communities, not more isolated ones. Today he would think, it all seems to be about the money and how fast we can do things to make the next quarter's numbers look good. Even though the faces in the workplace look a lot different, we don't seem to behaving that differently he would note.
There would be some distinct non-technology driven positives that Rip would notice, such as the fall of the Berlin wall and the development of some countries that were not doing so well when he fell asleep. Whether he would see the world, and in particular the work world, as being a better place however is a more challenging assumption to make. He would immediately notice the degree to which we have failed to manage our personal systems – the United States in particular is more obese and out of shape than ever. If he had embraced the ‘inside out” philosophies of his time prior to dozing, he would be hard pressed to believe that our teams or companies could be more effective if we can't even manage ourselves.
More than anything else, I think he would comment on how we have done such great things with technology in terms of connecting people, treating chronic illness, and making more work safer, but we have failed to use that same technology to improve the way we work together. He would wonder what went wrong – how did we go astray? In his mind, he would be very puzzled as to why we no longer focus on the human being at work to the same degree that we did twenty years ago, and why the youngest generation in the workforce has had little exposure to quality and participative concepts at all. We have the technology to give us better feedback on the systems that are shaping our world, but we are using that technology more to entertain us and keep us safe instead of creating a stronger foundation for future generations of employees?
What do you think? Do you feel that work is a better place than it was twenty years ago, or are my conjectures about Rip Van Winkle's post-nap perceptions ironically on target? Would Mr. Van Winkle be glad that he awoke from his slumber, or would he head to the nearest drug store in search of the fastest, new pill that would help him return to a world where all he has to worry about are his own personal nightmares?
Perhaps I am too cynical, having personally been downsized, restructured, and categorized by today's corporate world. Maybe we don't really need to be worrying about what a person goes through at work each day – after all, it's called work for a reason. At any rate, historians say that life goes in cycles, so perhaps we will cycle back around to caring about what a person experiences and has to endure during the bulk of their waking hours each day. Personally, I think that I need a twenty year nap. Perhaps things will be better when I wake up.
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