I remember, whilst living in Spain, working as a language-learning provider for a car components manufacturer. Their job it was to build the plastic linings of car roofs and doors; car and coach seats; and a multitude of other items.
Their customers were companies like Mercedes and Renault. The factories in the group we supplied the language services for were never larger than about 250 workers – and specific to each customer. The machines they used and the methods of working they employed were imposed by the customers too. The relationship was close, claustrophobic, hard-bitten – but relatively long-term. The latter factor was therefore the upside which supposedly helped justify all the other pretty hard-to-live-with downsides.
I also remember my students telling me how they had to work till eight in the evening, designing and redesigning industrial objects of art; and this extra time was never paid as overtime. They were glad of their jobs – and complied with the unspoken requirements. Even though theirs, in the main, were not executive responsibilities. Clocking on in the morning was one of their primary duties; it was just the clocking-off in the evening at any time possible to predict that they were allowed to forgo.
Their philosophy of working was called total quality management – or TQM for short. In their particular version of TQM, they had a decalogue – a kind of industrial Ten Commandments – which the workers in each factory had created for themselves. The first item on the list was common across the group: “The customer is king.” But theirs was not the baleful appeal to external pressures designed to make workers work harder in the absence of effective people managers; the con, that is, which is competition. No. When they said the customer was king, this was on the understanding that everyone in a company was both customer and supplier at different moments in the processes that led to external customers being supplied with their products and services.
For example, if my boss required a report of me by Friday and promised me data to complete it by Thursday, the report made me the supplier and my boss the customer and the data made me the customer and my boss the supplier. The beauty of such a philosophy was that good person management – at least in theory – became par for the industrial course.
In reality, I am pretty sure that in very few places in our latterday capitalism is such a circular paradise of rights and responsibilities properly and pleasingly implemented. Competition is more often than not used – by those who appeal to its supposed virtues – to supplement the insufficient abilities of the managerial class to effectively and humanely carry out their day-to-day responsibilities.
So when ideologues ask for more competition in public services, they should be encouraged to explain why better management wouldn’t – in itself – work just as well. That is to say, the application of a similarly circular form of TQM as described and experienced above.
For it’s not fear on which we should be building the foundations of this 21st century but trust, respect and professionalism.
It’s not the indignity and pain of losing one’s job that should be used to drive us but our pride in doing everything we do as well as we can.
So where – and when – did we begin to get it all so wrong?