People are the organization – Organizations are not people

Having worked for some of the largest corporations in the world, e.g. General Motors when it was the largest company in the world, grown up in and traveled through most of the Western hemisphere and observed its governments and institutions in action, I make the following observation that applies to the topics of Citizens’ United and the role of government:

All organizations are made up of people and it is the people who make the organization what it is.

Whatever the type of organization, be it a corporation, a government, a church or a protest group, what the organization does and how it behaves, whether it is efficient and effective or corrupt and clumsy, the organization does not have an identity of its own. That identity is created by the people who make it up and their behavior.

Which is not to say that organizations do not have a culture and identity. Rather, organizations change their perceived identity as a reflection of the people within it.

This tells me two things:
1) Corporations are not people, governments are not people, unions are not people, et al., since they do not define their own identities. They do not think, therefore they aren’t, so to speak.
2) It is inappropriate to vilify or glorify an organization because of the kind of organization it is. Whether you are talking about a corporation, a government, or a football team, they are only as good or bad as the people within them.

So, rather than judge an organization by its type, when should we value and support it and when should we restructure or dismantle it?

I worked for General Motors when it was beginning a long decline. The Japanese auto and truck manufacturers were taking market share at an ever-increasing rate. Why? Well, let me use an example that illustrates how an organization can change.

I began with General Motors as a warranty claims clerk. That job essentially entailed evaluating the warranty claims submitted by it dealers for reimbursement to determine if they were valid. Working in the Panama office, we managed a territory covering most of Central and South America. We also could sell every vehicle General Motors made throughout the world. In practice, we sold vehicles from the U.S., Germany, Great Britain, Brazil in Japan. Getting to the point, although we sold almost as many Japanese vehicles as U.S. vehicles, I was seeing about 50 times as many warranty claims for U.S. vehicles as Japanese vehicles.

Yet, U.S. management simply could not acknowledge that there was a difference in quality. This was still true 15 years later when, at another company, I worked with a former GM assembly plant manager. He still insisted that the only difference between Japanese vehicles and U.S. ones was “fit and finish”.

My job evolved rapidly and I was soon the truck and commercial vehicle specialist for the entire territory (not bragging so much, it was a small office with way more responsibility than it had people so the opportunity to take on new roles was always open). In that capacity, I would develop new commercial vehicles to meet local needs (and import duty regulations). If I approached the U.S. divisions with a proposal for a new vehicle I was essentially told that I needed to order 10,000 or more before they would talk to me. If I approached the British factory, I was told that, sure…we could have what we needed. They would run the standard truck down the assembly line and then take it apart again and install the components we were asking for. You can imagine what that cost. Then there were the Japanese. Their response was always: “Yes, we’ll assemble it the way you want. Would you be kind enough to order 125 units, please?”

So, what am I getting at? They were all the same company – General Motors – but different people who had a different culture and attitude. It was the Japanese culture and attitude that expressed itself in the way they took care of their customers with quality and service that drained American auto manufacturers’ market share. The people make the organization, not the other way around.

The logical extension of this is that government is not the bogyman, nor are corporations per se. I postulate that when the people in the organization are inculcated with the right culture, they can serve the public well. What should that culture entail? Well, what seems to have worked, pretty much everywhere, is a can-do attitude, a willingness to listen to and respond to your customers/constituents, striving for constant incremental improvement, and – what has been a hallmark of success in the U.S. – distributed decision making, i.e. the flexibility to respond at the local level.

Now, roughly 40 years later, we finally see a woken up General Motors with a different culture of quality, listening to customers and making products they want, making ongoing improvements to the product, and more of a bottom-up management. Their market share is improving as result.

Wrapping this up (for now), I think we need to not attach personhood to any type of organizations but see them as village of individual people. The organization needs to serve its constituents and it own people (all of them, not a select few), not itself. The systems in our society, like education and socialization, need to be designed in a self-correct way to consistently direct people in organizations to that service. Part of making the system self-correcting is to approach everything at the individual level, not the organizational level. JPMorgan Chase isn’t so intimidating when we look at the people who make it up rather than a ponderous monstrosity of a corporation. The government can’t seem malevolent when we think of it in terms of the fireman who shows up when we call 911.

This perspective of seeing the individuals rather than the organizations is reflected in: “Taking the economy back from Wall Street, our democracy back from K Street, and moving them local to Main Street”

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