Changing the world, or being changed by it?

Changing the world, or being changed by it?

Big Business loves "big ideas," so there's never a shortage of insights available from consultants, universities, executives, and even business journalists expecting to "change paradigms."

These thinkers are evangelists for ideas that will solve the problems of our time, sometimes problems we don't recognize yet, capturing just the right mix of economics and human behavior.

My exposure to this phenomena started with The Machine That Changed the World, a 1990 book that explained the problems and opportunities of the global auto industry, as they existed then. It was helpful and illuminating, a concise presentation of everything from Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan to W. Edwards Deming and the Toyota Production System. The Machine has been reissued (visit, so I recommend the 2007 edition to anyone who wants a review of this important subject.

One thing that has stuck with me since my first reading of the book was its persuasive outline of the different business cultures that had emerged as a global auto industry: in Europe, a long tradition of craftsmanship bred a series of companies producing vehicles known for luxury and precision engineering; in the U.S. a huge, mobile population equaled a wide and eager market of consumers, best served by vast organizations mass producing vehicles and employing millions; and finally in Japan, where a late-emerging auto industry used analysis and discipline to pare away the inefficiencies of mass production, and nurture consumer satisfaction.

What wasn't clear in 1990, but which the authors emphasized and is obvious now, is the impact of the latter approach — now easily recognized in Lean production theory, and influential well beyond automaking. However, much has changed since 1990, in the world and in the auto industry (which obviously is "larger" in terms of production volume), and the concerns and assumptions of that era are harder to relate to our times.

The distinctions among "regions" seem quaint now. A prevailing assumption then was that the Cold War signified a new kind of conflict: mostly static, with two opponents and their allies staring down each other as they looked for political, but rarely military or economic advantage. That's surely no longer true.

Today, individuals, companies, capital, and information are in constant flow from one location to another. Different organizational styles compete side-by-side. Conflict is political, economic, military, and sometimes personal. Today, even "the machine that changed world" has at least one obvious challenger for that title.

My hunch is that over the coming years or decades we'll recognize that machines no longer have the great unifying effect we have credited to them for so long, and that will make our futures more dependent on good people than on big ideas.

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