Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Learning to be American

In decades past, I had a stock presentation to help local economic developers understand more clearly what was happening to their plans in the face of growing competition from abroad for the production of goods and services that had been an American monopoly.  When working with budding executives, I added a little something about what had happened to American management practices in the years following WWII.  It’s old stuff, but I think it still has some relevance because the lessons were never fully learned, or maybe never learned at all. 

It went something like this.  After WWII America had the only economy in the industrialized world that had not been bombed into ruins.  It was the only source for the large scale production of goods of a predictable quality.  We set the standard not because we were the best, but because we were the only.  It was one element of what became known as American exceptionalism.  As other industrialized nations recovered, they found new ways to improve efficiency, quality, and diversity of product that helped rebuild their economies while giving America competition it was unprepared to meet.  It took us several decades to recognize that we are just one among many industrialized nations, and must compete, as fairly as possible, without the stale old bromide of being Number One to prop it up.  In the meantime, large multinational corporations that once prided themselves on being American quietly dismissed all pretense of domestic patriotism except for that needed to protect their public image.  That’s another story.  

Meanwhile, about thirty years ago there was a stampede in American business education and consulting to discover how it was that the Japanese were able to be so efficient, and the idea of importing Japanese styles of management became vogue.  The curious thing was that the Japanese style of management was an American invention honed in the darkest hours of WWII.  It’s what enabled us to produce so much, so quickly, at such high quality with a workforce made up of older workers, women, and those not qualified for the draft.  Then we exported it to Japan to help them rebuild their economy.  We, on the other hand, abandoned all those lessons after the war so that men could return to work and women could return to the kitchen.  It made some sense at the time, but it returned us to an early 20th century business model while recovering nations moved forward using our own methods.  In one sense we have done much to catch up these last twenty years or so.  In another sense we have, as a people, been terribly reluctant to admit that we are in a different world than the one that existed briefly from 1945 to around 1970.

Sadly, many of us still think of America as the Greatest Nation on Earth, and shudder in disbelief whenever we hear that some other nation is better at something than we are.  The problem is compounded by the current popularity of a certain brand of Luddite thinking that drives down our collective intellectual, emotional, ethical, and political intelligence.  What will help, I think, is for us to stop worrying about being the world’s only super power, the greatest nation ever, and begin living more fully into what it means to be Americans committed to the best of what we claim to be as a nation of opportunity for all, celebrating our multicultural heritage, and dealing with other nations as partners in a partnership we do not always have to lead.  


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