Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Too much of a good thing

The Wal-Mart Effect is turning out to be much deeper than I expected it to be. Charles Fishman tells story after story about the management culture inside Wal-Mart, and the stories could easily have come out of In Search of Excellence: glowing tales of an organization galvanized by basic values. Sam Walton was all about hard work, thrift, and sales, and the relentless focus on performance gave me flashbacks to my time at RGI, working for a small software company struggling to survive and ultimate succeed.

And yet . . . Fishman traces those same admirable values in the managers of the 70’s and 80’s and sees how they manifest now. The relentless drive to cut costs led some managers to force associates to work off the clock, or to work through scheduled breaks. They were eventually busted for using illegal immigrants to clean their stores at night. What starts out as fundamentally good values – thrift and performance – becomes tyrannical and exploitive compulsions when they reach too big a scale and are pursued unchecked by other values.

What’s even better is that Fishman takes the right lesson away from all this. Nine out of ten people would see Wal-Mart’s labor practices and say, “There! I guess capitalism is ultimately evil.” But Fishman sees the virtue as well as the vice, and what he prescribes is reflection and self-understanding. The worst accusation he makes against Wal-Mart is: they do not understand themselves. They don’t understand what drives them, and they do not acknowledge the effects that they have on the rest of the world. He does not see them as greedy (their profits are staggeringly small compared to their size) nor mean-spirited; all the Wal-Mart people he talks to seem like decent, hardworking people. It’s their lack of perspective, their inability to see themselves as others see them, which makes for trouble.

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