Bless the small units

Over the past several decades we've watched a lot of trends, some big and some not so big, some that produced permanent change, and some that just passed on by.
By Richard L. Dunn January 1, 1999

Over the past several decades we’ve watched a lot of trends, some big and some not so big, some that produced permanent change, and some that just passed on by. Here are a few that come to mind:

– Vertical integration

– Conglomerates

– Centralization

– Decentralization

– Total quality management

– Management by objectives

– Management by walking around

– Management by exception

– “One-minute” management

– Self-managed teams

– Globalization

– Just-in-time

– Total productive maintenance

– Reengineering

– Paradigm shifts

But enough, already. You can list your own favorites. Some of these may have benefitted you; others may have devastated you. Most have probably not affected you much at all.

You see, business and industry are not that much different from politics and society. We latch onto an idea, jump on the bandwagon, talk it to death, give it a shot, and move on to the next idea. And the cycle repeats.

Once in awhile, a really good idea sticks, and people work at it long enough and hard enough that it makes a permanent difference. But most do not. Often, the next “great idea” is to go back to doing things pretty much the way we did them before, but with a new name to describe them. As the author of Ecclesiates observed, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Lest I begin to sound too cynical, let me hasten to point out that we are blessed with a great stabilizing factor — the small unit. In society, it is the family; in business and industry, it’s the small business or plant or department or team. With all the talk of megatrends and megamergers and mega this or that, we tend to forget that the real heart and soul of our society is based on small units. Thank goodness.

You see, for every industrial plant in the U.S. with more than 100 employees, there are 10 with less than 100. Within every large company and large plant there are dozens or hundreds of small units, all coordinating their individual efforts to varying degrees. These are the foundations of industry and society. These are what keep the mega pendulums from swinging too far. And these are what will sustain and strengthen us as we move into the next millennium.

I, for one, am comforted by this fact. It helps me keep my focus, my perspective, and my faith in the future.