In relation to my previous post on Patrick Lencioni’s astonishing call for “less innovation”, a colleague challenged me: Could the job of a checkout clerk at a supermarket ever be transformed into a job that would be innovative?
At the outset, I am willing to concede that this job, as traditionally designed, has low knowledge content. Hence the difference between the best and the worst performance is likely to be quite small. The potential gains from innovation in that particular job will be constrained by this fact.
Yet a moment’s reflection will also show that the traditional role of a checkout clerk is one to which intelligence has yet to be applied. In my local Safeway, this position is becoming increasingly unnecessary as the task of holding products in front of a scanner is something that the customers themselves do. Instead of standing in a tedious queue watching a bored checkout clerk stumble through the work, now I do it myself: I am no longer bored and I get the job done faster. The job of the checkout clerk then becomes one of helping customers master the task, resolving any problems, gathering intelligence about what customers would really like from the supermarket, and finding new ways to delight clients—including not bothering those who prefer to shop in silence.
This leads on to the Toyota principle: there is no such thing as unskilled labor; there is only work to which intelligence has yet to be applied. When intelligence is applied to any job, it can become innovative.
Then the discussion moves on to whether we WANT a world in which every job is innovative. When I read the defenses of traditional management carefully, I get the distinct feeling that these people ENJOY a world in which only a few people are seen to have the brains to be innovative, and everyone else just follows orders. They don’t really want to change the status quo, in part because they have so much invested in it.
So it was with medieval medicine. Medicine in medieval times consisted of blood-letting, exorcism of devils, spells, incantations, and a proscription of bathing. It didn't work. In fact, like traditional management, it made things worse. Doctors who had been taught to do it believed in it. The establishment defended it. The universities kept teaching it. So people went on doing it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It took hundreds of years before these counter-productive practices were set aside in favor of modern medicine. Eventually, people awoke from their collective delusion.
So it is with traditional management. We have known for some time the social and moral disasters that it leads to. It is only recently that we have been able to quantify the astonishing amount of economic damage that it is doing, with the rate of return on assets of US firms only a quarter of what it was in 1965, and the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 now down to 15 years and heading towards 5 years, if we continue on this path: The Power of Pull.
The underlying economics will eventually force change, whether those who have so much invested in the status quo want it or not. The dynamics reflected in these remarkable statistics will force a transition to continuous innovation, whether entrenched interests defend the status quo or not. The only question is whether it will happen elegantly and intelligently and quickly, or slowly and clumsily and painfully.
For those who want to learn how to make the change happen elegantly and intelligently and quickly, learn more about radical management: