On Excellence : Changes and leaps of faith

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Thoughts of business while hosing off the slime after a truly disgusting political season: The hype hype. Boy, do I have it tough! Infobahn. (Scanned the sports scores on-line last night.) Global village. (I talked with a Canadian last week.) Constant learning. (I have stopped photocopying the stuff that I send by Federal Express.) Total Quali ty Management. (This week I proofread this column an extra time!)

But my old man? Things were a lark for guys like him, born in 1903: The First World War. The Great Depression. The Second Word War. The Holocaust. The atom bomb (and the use thereof, twice, on humans). The hydrogen bomb. The Cold War.

And more: The spread of the motorcar, radio, television, long-distance telephoning and commercial air travel. Then the arrival of the computer (I'll never forget when my father's accounting office was computerised in the late 1960s). And finally, a man walked on the moon.

("And, kid," he might have added, "for most of the time, no Social Security, no Medicare, etc, to fall back on." It was a quiet 70 years, eh?

Let's dismount our fin de siecle high horses. There's a lot that's new these days. But what's new about that?

One thing that is definitely not new is our incessant bellyaching about change.

It is an arrogance of every generation, writes Henry Mintzberg, the management researcher, in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. We all contend that yesterday was bliss ("any toddler could have run our firm successfully"),and that today is a mess ("you have to be a workaholic-genius just to survive an average day").

Calm down. Lighten up. Why not enjoy it.

The joy of creating. Speaking of enjoyment, I love capitalism. Capitalism has nothing whatsoever to do with econometric models. And everything to do with the human circus.

Somewhat pretentiously, my university, Stanford, has announced a Pacific Basin equivalent to Oxford's Rhodes scholarships. The chief donor is Hong Kong's Larry CK Yung, who has pledged $5m for this most sober, prestigious, scholarly internationalist endeavour. The source of his bucks? He hit it big at the racetrack. Nice! Ludwig von Mises, de facto founder of the free-market Austrian school of economics, saw business as "a creative activity involving inspired hunches and leaps of faith," according to the Financial Times.

Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and author of a well-received book about Stanford Business School, said recently: "Sometime during the two-year curriculum, every MBA student ought to hear it clearly stated that numbers, techniques and analysis are all side matters. Wha t is central to business is the joy of creating."

And then there is the HD Thoreau verse that I am using as the epigraph to my latest book: "What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery. It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter."

These words capture the essence of true capitalism, from the new restaurant to the biotechnology start-up.

Inspired hunches, leaps of faith, the joy of creating, bravery: That is the spirit of Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Anita Roddick of Body Shop, Richard Branson of Virgin Group, Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster, Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting's andLarry Ellison of Oracle.

The people who define business for me are not the button-down analysts; they are the bold, daring, brash, half-crazy creators who have redefined markets and invented new industries.

"It takes characters to give business character," one executive told me. (Give that man a PhD in economics.)

Real-world business and economics are anything but dry, dreary and dismal.

The death of TQM. Speaking of dismal, I was really perturbed by a paper issued by the ordinarily sensible University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. It carries Total Quality Management into the executive suite, and touts the use of personal checklists as a vehicle for doing so.

The author showcases a new computer-based scheme for the measurement of defects - a schemethat is being used today by a vice president at a large US corporation.

I happen to know that this fellow's company has a massive agenda for change; nonetheless, I can nearly forgive his choosing "being on time for meetings" as the top item on his personal quality-evaluation list. (There is nothing wrong with the corporate big cheese being courteously prompt).

I get a little queasy, however, over "clean desk", "haircut", "shoes shined" and "clothes pressed" (three of a dozen items that are supposedly critical). They drive me to the wall, but what drives me over the wall is his practice of graphically plotting all these "defects".

Somehow I doubt this is what the late Dr Deming had in mind when he crisscrossed America, into his 90s, preaching the gospel of quality.

TPG communications

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