USA: Book Review - The trials of a Mr Nice Guy - DONALD PETERSEN.

USA: Book Review - The trials of a Mr Nice Guy - DONALD PETERSEN. - Teamwork: New Management Ideas for the 90s, by Donald Petersen and John Hopkirk.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Teamwork: New Management Ideas for the 90s, by Donald Petersen and John Hopkirk.

Gollancz; 204pp; £16.99. Review by Simon Caulkin.

Donald Petersen is a quiet, mild, serious sort of guy. Hence there was surprise (well, incredulity) when he made it to the very top at Ford: the Ford of Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, whose managers prided themselves on being even meaner, harder, sons-of-bitches than the mean SOBs who ran the other macho companies of Motown. Petersen was an engineer, a truck man (yuck) as much as a car man. He was polite and he listened.

This combination of qualities turned out to be rather useful to a company as deeply in trouble as Ford was in the early 1980s. Reading this partial account, one is struck anew by the abiding paradox of all big companies: their habitual management mix of the sophisticated and the inexpressibly crude and stupid.

At the end of the 1970s Ford had armies of razor-sharp financial brains who still couldn't show it how to make a profit; kilometres of market research print-outs along with cars that no one wanted to buy; and managers, presumably family men and pillars of the local church, who tried to win performance from subordinates by hollering and cursing at them like John Wayne on a cattle drive. Just what is it about big companies?

The answer is an utterly primitive system; or rather no system at all in the sense of an overall process design. Petersen began to realise this in 1980, when he consulted quality guru W Edwards Deming, whose influence is recognisable in every line of this book.

If there are two principles at the very heart of Deming's teachings they are: work constantly to optimise the system (which means controlling ever more closely the causes of variation) and drive out fear (so that people can learn, work in teams and contribute what they know). This is what Petersen tried to do at Ford.

The results, as he acknowledges, may not yet have convinced all the sceptics. Ford certainly achieved tremendous improvements in quality over the decade, and in North America the ideas of employee involvement and participative management are now implanted.

The gospel has received a less enthusiastic reception in Europe, however. And Ford's financial results, although better than Chrysler's and GM's (they could hardly be worse), are hardly dazzling even allowing for recession. Finally, Petersen's departure has in some quarters been linked to the uncomfortable situation at Jaguar; which, although probably a sensible long-term purchase, has turned out to be an embarrassment in the short term. So how secure is the caring, sensitive, Model P Ford? And will it revert to an older industry style now that the champion-in-chief has gone?

Petersen himself believes that, as they experience the benefits of teamwork and involvement, neither workforce nor managers will willingly allow the clock to be turned back. But he is not completely certain. And that uncertainty is surely the reason for this odd but ultimately rather impressive book.

How else to account for Teamwork's curiously hybrid structure? Had he wanted to, Petersen could certainly have written a blow-by-blow account of events at Ford during a traumatic decade. (A lot of people wish that he had). He could have written a handbook on managing a large company. He did neither, preferring to combine elements of both in what is, rather, a statement of management faith supported by selective examples from the corporate casebook.

Read Petersen's book, therefore, not so much as the author's with-hindsight account of his reforms, but as his last attempt to cement them in place. Hence the cheerleading: the naming of ordinary Ford managers who built teams that accomplished good things, the "roll of honour" listing the achievements of plants or sections in cutting costs, raising quality or finding new ways of carrying out difficult tasks.

Hence also the refusal to criticise, or deal in polemics, even where the reader can clearly sense the full fury of the battle raging between the lines.

Celebrating the successes and not criticising in public - two of the cardinal rules of the "new management" - may make for a duller narrative. But they are inseparable from the essential dignity and decency which characterise the whole.

If for nothing else read Teamwork for the chapters on "The Manager's Role" and "Working at the Top". No revelations, it's true. But the modesty and practical insights of these 30-odd pages are of much more value than the entire contents of many flashier volumes of top management memoir.

Simon Caulkin is a freelance writer.

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