Ethical dry cleaning: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
I HAVE SEEN mortally wounded American soldiers in Vietnam. I've pored over the snapshot my late father-in-law took while liberating a Nazi death camp. And, of course, I've watched Schindler's List. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the images from Rwanda - the bodies of civilians, by the hundreds, stacked along the sidewalks and roads like so much firewood.

But what does all this have to do with the management of enterprise, the usual topic of these columns?

Maybe a lot. I'm an ardent defender of capitalism and very free trade. I believe that boosting the general economic tide is the best way to lift all boats. And I'm not all that unglued by the dollars 203,010,590 that Michael Eisner took home from Disney in 1993 - after all, the market value of the company has increased from dollars 2bn to dollars 23bn during his 10-year reign.

But those dead bodies - whether it be in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, the West Bank - they make it seem almost immoral to deliver a long-winded speech like 'The 10 Keys to Better Customer Service in the Dry-Cleaning Industry'.

Sure, if US productivity continues to rise smartly, in part on the tide of better customer care, at least the lot of our own have-not class will be ameliorated. Or will it?

It seems more and more middle-class Americans (not just the rich) are choosing to live in what amounts to walled-off enclaves. That growing isolation is underscored by Labor Secretary Bob Reich's claim that as many as two out of every three US workers are unprepared for the brain-based global economy.

In short, I think it is high time that business people (that includes me, for starters), pay more attention to the vast circus in which we perform our commercial tricks.

I was delighted to see Bob Haas, the Levi Strauss chief executive, featured in a recent full-page ad about dealing with Aids, just as I was pleased that Levi's decided to acknowledge China's dreadful human rights record by abandoning that huge consumer market. Even though I reluctantly support an extension of China's favoured nation trade status this June, and thence diverge from Levi's decision, I applaud the company's courageous and costly public stand. Likewise, I cheer Ben & Jerry's, the ice cream firm, for taking a strong position on restricting bovine growth hormone (even though I'm not sure I agree with that, either). And huzzahs to Body Shop International for its strong views on damn near everything.

But what about me? I let it be known that if the Singaporeans caned the young American accused of vandalism, I would cancel my seminar that was to be held there in July. The economic effect is merely to reduce the positive US trade balance in services by a few dollars. But it was a point I wished to make. I don't care if you agree or not; it's a matter of acting on something besides flattening hierarchies and improving service.

I'm going to work with the wee elementary school in my Vermont town, because I feel it's time the school enters the computer age full-bore - and time its rural youngsters escape an almost automatic consignment to the left-out class that Bob Reich describes.

I'm also going to write more about companies that work on inner-city problems, that speak out (and act) on human rights; and especially those such as Body Shop that give employees encouragement and paid time off to take part in community affairs (time, not money, is the best gift to any cause).

I am a capitalist through and through. I champion the rights of businesses to do nothing more than make damn good products, serve their customers well, train the hell out of their workers and, hopefully, create new jobs that pay well.

But I will champion even more vigorously those that take the bottom line as a starting point; who worry, in public, about Aids, Rwanda, etc - and then do something.

We are in the middle of a cataclysmic economic shift; and it is causing cataclysmic social dislocation. In the US the cancerous rift Reich frets about gnaws at our innards. And while the information age will enable underdeveloped nations to skip steps toward modernisation, it also may lead to more isolated islands of excellence in volatile seas of despair.

There are no easy answers. Maybe there are none. Humankind's record of inhumanity to its own, from the Stone Age to the slaughter in Bosnia, can lead one to that conclusion. Business as usual and wholesale denial are unacceptable.