Thursday, February 25, 2010

Political Theater with Ham Actors

I should have known better than to listen to the rebroadcast of yesterday's Toyota hearings on C-SPAN Radio last night. From a point of view of content, it was sufficient to read the statement that Akio Toyoda had released prior to giving his testimony. What I had forgotten was that the hearings themselves served more as political theater for the participating committee members than as any deliberative body trying to address the future of manufacturing from both producer and consumer sides. The fact is that I doubt there was anyone on that committee who had anything better than a tourist's view of how an automobile is actually made, let alone the breadth of management questions that must be faced by any firm involved in automobile manufacturing. So we got more than our fair share of moralizing accusations; but these were nothing more than cheap dramatic histrionics for the benefit of folks like Stephen Manning, stuck with the unpleasant task of reporting the proceedings of the day for Associated Press.

Nevertheless, the problem goes beyond whether anyone in our Congress actually knows anything about manufacturing automobiles. The very concept of the assembly line, as it was first conceived by Henry Ford, was that no one on the line needed to know anything about manufacturing automobiles either! Every worker had a single task to perform and needed no broader scope than that of the "skill" (using the word generously) to execute that task. Today's lines may be more sophisticated. They may even be more flexible in terms of who gets to do what. However, the overall system is sufficiently complex that it may be fair to say that no single individual knows how it all works. Toyoda's contrition was an admirable instance of buck-stops-here thinking; but could he have prevented the current situation? I would suggest that, just like any worker down on the line, he has his own rather narrow skill set that he engages; and he probably does not have much leisure time to reflect on its limitations.

When evangelists first started promoting knowledge management, the talk was all about making sure that there would always be people who knew how things worked. When a guy who had worked for the company for thirty years went out the door with his retirement package, the company had to worry about whether or not his knowledge was going out the door with him. Because this was more of a social problem concerned with the nature and diffusion of work practices, rather than a technology problem, the technologists wasted little time in hijacking the agenda in the name of knowledge "creation." Rather than study the assets and liabilities concerned with how work gets done, one should focus on innovation, because that was the path to wealth creation.

Now we are faced with a situation in which work does not get done very well (when it gets done at all). Perhaps there are even a few folks beginning to recognize the almost total absence of knowledge in what we gratuitously call "knowledge work." This is not just a problem in manufacturing. It is just as evident in service sectors. Indeed, our general ignorance of how the entire health care system works is probably the greatest impediment to that system ever getting reformed; and it goes without saying that there are any number of vested interests who want to make sure that this general ignorance is maintained.

Yesterday we saw our Congress worship in the Temple of General Ignorance that our culture has erected. Yes, the Toyota story is one of really bad news; but it needs to be seen as a symptom of systemic failure, rather than a problem that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, a key element of that systemic failure is a culture that has lost the ability to distinguish between symptom and disease. In such a culture the disease can only flourish, and it is very unlikely that the population will produce individuals fit for survival.

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