Replies: Monoculture, Corporate Culture, and Cultural Change

I'm not sure how to respond to Maysa's questions without replicating her comments and questions in whole, so I repeat them below. My comments are in italics below.

Monoculture, as you say, is the practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area, i.e to ‘culture’ or grow one thing. In the Japanese auto industry, we have seen it applied in the setting of the large manufacturing corporation to utilize instruments of social control unique to their production environments. The corporate monoculture in Japan is facilitated by an environment that is very different than those here in the United States. Some factors include the relative absence of ethnic, racial, or religious subcultures. They have historically hired mostly men into permanent positions in their plants, providing corporate dormitory style housing or subsidized mortgage or construction loans under rotating shifts. Housing being scarce and expensive outside the corporate estate, this is a real benefit that instills loyalty. The corporation provides more than work but a work and personal life and livelihood where people socialize with each other and establish a unified identity. Back in Michigan we see a diverse group of people from many backgrounds, race, age, ethnicity, religion and gender living in private homes commuting on fixed shifts, each bringing to the work force their different and rich perspectives that are not as easily compressed into one entity.

We look to the East because of the degree of quality and efficiency we see from the items they produce and want to emulate that here. We want to reduce defects, optimize production, and squeeze everything we can out of each nickel. Out of this desire come concepts of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. I believe you can be pretty lean if you only produce one item – monoculture, and hopefully quality will fall out of this – though that is not a certainty. But are we trying to “make mono our corporate culture?” And, is that realistic? Will that be the key to success and larger profit margins, more efficiency, more responsiveness to the customer needs and the market?

So far, the jury’s still out. Clearly, in the short run, even a tightly enforced monoculture seems to be capable of producing remarkable increases in effeciency, larger profit margins, and more responsiveness to customer needs and the market. Perhaps even higher quality. Ask any take-over artist.

I say the jury’s still out, because the relevant range of mono-polist tactics is indeperminant. It is certainly shorter than longer, but how long they can remain viable remains indeterminable. What can be known, if only from perusing history, is that such houses of cards are stabile until they are not, collapsing with stunning speed and even greater efficiency. They are not (at least not yet) long term sustainable.

What one might call inefficieny, another might label requisite variety. We know that 80% of the effort to produce most effects in the world cannot be directly related to the observed effect. A trivial example is hanging wallpaper. Less than 20% of the effort to hang wallpaper has anything to do with actually hanging wallpaper. The rest includes absolutely essential, apparently non-value-added effort. The simmering discussions around deciding what wallpaper to hang. The surprises lurking beneath the old wallcovering, not to mention removing the old wallcovering and disposing of the mess.

Compare the efficiency of someone hanging wallpaper on virgin walls with another recovering hundred year old walls, and you’ll find innumerable apparent inefficiencies in the later effort. Some resolve this dilemma by hammering out the lathe and plaster, replacing it with modern sheetrock, then covering that. Others are more respectful of the character of the old place, and work very hard to maintain the original plaster. A superficial glance might not disclose any difference in the finished product, and if you’re judging results solely by cost and time, the decision to create the mono-wall is clearly superior.

It’s a matter of taste. I know, for instance, that Toyota has a world-renowned manufacturing process, but I’ve owned Toyotas and will never buy another one. I spent too many years trying to change the oil in a Toyota that was clearly designed for ease of manufacture, but with no attention to what any owner might have to do to maintain the resulting kludge.

If corporate culture is the unique personality of an organization then, like personality disorders, you can have cultural disorders. As you know recently, I left the National Laboratory environment and went back into private industry for an engineering company that supports the public sector. The history of my current company comes from many backgrounds due to the merger of 5 separate entities into one business unit. For such a long time now, I’ve been confused. I’m trying to socialize into my new culture; really I am, but… I get mixed messages. This is why. My current company has Multiple Personality Disorder – or Multiple Cultural Disorder – and not having the experience and the social network established yet, I never know which ‘personality’ is speaking to me. I came from an organization with Narcissistic Cultural Disorder and it took me years to integrate but looking back I can now see that I, too, slowly developed a small feeling of entitlement that came with that disease.

So, here I am trying to bathe myself clean of that and adopt the new way of ‘thinking’ that I will need to be successful here, only to discover the answer normally given by culture of “this is how we do it here” all depends upon where I'm standing at the time. We are working hard here to create “one” company – a corporate monoculture. We even have a new intranet web site introduced in 2008 that strips us from our past. To make matters worse, we are several companies all blended into one.

What will success look like at the end? What is the goal of this effort? Warren Bennis would say, “managers do things right and leaders do the right thing” so in this frame, managers work on being more efficient while leaders try to be more effective. And, aren’t things more efficient in a monoculture? I guess it depends upon what you want in the end.

The final questions I would ask you are: How do you stay competitive in this one culture? How do you preserve innovation? Where do the new ideas come from?

Ah, these are the questions. The deep paradox of the mono-polist mindset is that it optimizes on the past rather than focusing on the future. While the bubble sustains, the markets rage. Once the bubble bursts, it’s too late to decide how to stay competitive, where innovation might come back from, and where new ideas that were smothered might be resurrected.

Amy makes the distinction between the renter’s and the owner’s mindset. The renter consumes the resource while the owner preserves it. The owner plays a more infinite game, interested, sure, in short-run survival, but compromising that to ensure longer-run sustainability. Because they expect to pass on their legacy to another generation and not simply consume it in the present.

We’re seeing publicly held companies managing like the renters their stockholders have become. In it for the short-term profit, damn the long-run (in the long-run, this mindset insists, we’ll all be dead). But our children and our children’s children will not be dead, unless we leave them incapable of sustaining their life because we insisted upon consuming our legacy ourselves.

Peter Senge insists that the corporate world has ceased becoming the fount of innovation. They’ve optimized on making a lot of money, so much that we now have an unprecidented surplus of financial capital. And a concomitant deficit in both social and environmental capital. Because these three kinds of capital are in opposition, optimizing on one to the exclusion of the others, creates a zero-sum game. If you want efficiency in manufacture, you’ll shortchange society and the environment doing it. You might recognize the economic benefits of monoculture and ignore the social and environmental costs.

In the fifties, urban planners derived a nifty solution for the problem of inner-city poverty. They built huge, subsidized housing projects, which were very cost-effective to build. More cost effective than remodeling thousands of individual neighborhood houses. The resulting wearhouses tore apart the social fabric of the inhabitants, undermining social networks that had sustained even the very poor for generations.

Just a few weeks ago I read an article titled, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike.” The message was that as “our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off.” Why? The walls of our boxes thicken with our increased level of experience as we approach our goal of maximum efficiency. Hmmm… So as you specialize in a field, you start seeing things only one way – building and thickening your box. Sounds like, “if all you have is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail. It’s for this reason that my new company tends to engineer itself out of business by designing products ultimately useful only to other engineers. We can’t think of why you wouldn’t want all 52 buttons on your DVD remote control. “It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.”

The solution to the innovation killer, according to Cynthia Barton Rabe in her book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” is to bring in outsiders that she calls ‘zero-gravity thinkers’. (And so... I was brought in). Now… isn’t that contrary to adopting a corporate monoculture? Who better to tell management that “the emperor has no clothes” than the new person who doesn’t know better? I guess there has to be diversity for healthy 'evolvement' to exist. Those who don’t evolve, dissolve. Now, if we can just stop killing the messengers.

Who told you that you would be revered just because you can escape the bounds of gravity? No, Maysa, it’s a tough job. The monoculture robs even the most well-intended of some of their most human capabilities. You might find otherwise decent people savaging you as if you were an infection rather than a possible source of salvation. This is very hard work, not for ninnies or wimps. Hard, but worthy work. Keep chipping away.

Now, because I know you are a poet, I’ll leave this posting with a poem:

Finding Purpose

When efficiency become the purpose, purpose is gone

When low cost becomes the purpose, purpose is lost.

When conformity, consistency, and sameness become the first measure of goodness,

All goodness is gone.

Mistake the measure for the purpose, the process for the result, the glossy cover for the book,

and you’ll never find meaning in literature again.

Purpose lives beyond tomorrow, over the foreseeable horizon, in a dreamland banned from the bottom line.

Without it, every bottom line is meaningless.

With it, the bottom line today rarely matters.

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