Rendered Fat Content


"To idealize is also a form of suffering." Julian Hubbard

I spent in the Library of Congress some of my happiest hours in Washington DC, reading hundred year old religious tracts. I’d kind of backed into the literature by studying the Industrial Revolution, which led me into the fascinating world of efficiency. A hundred years ago, the Western World turned efficiency crazy, the literature resembling nothing so much as fervent evangelical pamphlets. What began as a set of engineering principles quite quickly consumed nearly every aspect of American life. It exported into Germany where it spread like dandelions, even eventually infecting the newly-hatching Soviet state, where it emerged as absurdly-detailed and ludicrously-premised Five Year Plans, which brought industrial and agricultural inefficiencies that quite nearly destroyed that fledgling economy.

The insistence that the highest, even the best purpose of every profession involves instructing others in the proper application of the religion of austerity remains a burgeoning industry even today.
No self-respecting enterprise rejects the promise of adopting best practices. The larger the organization, the easier they seem to fall for the promise of continuous process improvement. None question the beneficence of Better, Faster, Cheaper, and few remember when ‘not invented here’ was considered a damning critique. Now, ‘invented here’ seems the very arrogant soul of parochial, self-destructive inefficiency in the Big Dumb Companies.

We seem to firmly believe that the surest way to success lies in mimicking the published descriptions of someone else’s method. None seem deeply disturbed to hear that Toyota’s much-touted ‘Way’ turned out to be largely fictional, a public relations campaign aimed at delivering what hungry, idea-seeking observers wanted to see, the better to elevate Toyota’s own brand’s standing. The idea that context and culture might somehow encroach upon otherwise pure mimicry, gave rise to a hot sub-industry insisting that it could change culture and render context ubiquitous, further flattening a thoroughly notional Earth. Now, one can quite comfortably drive from coast to coast without even once having to experience any disturbing locality along the way. You'll need to drive at least ten miles off the freeway to find any mom and pops still foolish enough to believe branding doesn't make anything better.

A hundred years ago, churches published pamphlets promoting efficient godliness, clearly the superior kind. Women swarmed to buy magazines dedicated to household efficiency, under the enduring promise of wasting not as a sure path toward prosperity. Marriage, gardening, vacationing, schooling, government, every aspect of life got nipped by this bug. Now, of course, it’s become second-nature, crowding out even the memory of our first nature, except in eccentric enclaves lately embracing the then heretical notions of Slow Food and artisanal craft. Inside BigDumbCompanies, 1916 still stands as the high water mark of industrial godly goodness, still unwaveringly holding the promise of salvation, curiously still unrequited and as a curious result, ever more furiously pursued.

Many considered efficiency a radical, progressive, idea at the time. Now it's more closely associated with conservatism. The radicals today reject best practices, derisively referring to them as merely 'blessed', and wonder aloud who blessed them and why. The process evangelists scream at sheep, either spooking them or herding them, but teaching them nothing. These preachers fancy themselves sheepdogs and the sheep in near desperate need of firm guidance, which might just be a different way of encouraging a near eternal adolescence. Should they grow up, they might catch the nearly absolute absurdity they've been encouraged into.

In the modern organization, few roles attract more distain than the process improvement specialist. Those attracted to this calling tend to be of a kind. Almost all of them were rejected from the productive functions of the operation as too tight-assed, unimaginative, or certain to qualify as safe co-workers there. They huddle in otherwise unused office space, publish a periodic newsletter filled with what I'm certain they think to be brilliant insights, constructing improved methods nobody will ever even half-heartedly adopt. Their department's budget assured by the absolute necessity of periodically demonstrating to the auditors and the Board that the organization has whole-heartedly embraced the religion of continuous improvement. Who could possibly be against that?

The sacred cow produces the most curious milk. It appears as if it should be nutritious. It thrives on self-fulfilling prophesy branded as revelation. It relies on a steady stream of suckers and a dedicated cadre of insurgent practitioners; the suckers to compliantly suckle and the insurgents to studiously ignore what it utterly fails to provide, while just getting on with doing something in the world. Those most in need of salvation preach until they turn purple in the face while those who already know what makes a difference get on with the work at hand.

©2016 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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