November 17, 2005
News & Opinion: Michael Ballé on Peter Drucker
I mourn Peter Druckers passing greatly, because, to my mind, he was the business writer. No other business author Ive read comes even close. He created the genre, and he remained its best exponent. His enduring influence was less about his individual positions on topical matters than it was about his unique ability to trigger insights in his many readers. Every other business person I meet has had a "Drucker moment", when a comment, or an anecdote has spurred a profound "aha!" experience. Freddy Ball, my Gold Mine co-author, recounts hearing Peter Drucker respond in an interview to the "raiders" phenomenon in the eighties. Even vultures, Drucker explained, have a role to play in nature. Running a company is hard work, and CEOs much prefer doing spectacular deals with their peers in closed rooms, which will make them look good. So companies grow through acquisitions, mergers, joint venture, and so on. As they do, they accumulate layer after layer of fat, until they collapse under their own weight, at when it finally happens, the vultures are there to tear the company apart and put the individual components back into the circuit. Whenever Freddy hears about one more "major" deal being made, he thinks about the cow being fattened for the vultures. And all that time and energy spent deal making, is not spent running the business. My own Drucker moment occurred reading a passage opposing Taylorism and Marxism. Drucker claims that Frederick Taylor is the great hero who saved the western world from the international workers revolution. His argument is that by finding a way to dramatically increase productivity without making workers work harder, but by using staff functions to make workers work smarter, Taylor opened up a brave new world in which the workers son becomes an engineer, the engineers daughter becomes a marketing executive and so on. Right or wrong, the argument was so powerful that it immediately forced me to reevaluate my prejudices about Taylors work, and rediscover the very basis of work organization. But most of all, what I always liked about reading Drucker was his own very human focus on the fact that management is about human beings, and his profound respect for front-line workers. I was struck years ago, when I started working in the healthcare field, by his description of "Nurse Bryan." In his 1966 book The Effective Executive, Drucker describes how a new hospital administrator, in a staff meeting, thought that a difficult matter had been resolved when one of the participants asked: Would this have satisfied Nurse Bryan? At once the argument started all over and did not subside until a new and much more ambitious solution to the problem had been hammered out. Nurse Bryan had been a long serving and now retired nurse at the hospital, who would always ask, are we doing the best we can do to help this patient? Patients on Nurse Bryans floor did better and recovered faster. Gradually, the hospital staff had learned to adopt Nurse Bryans rule. This, to me is pure Drucker. Although he was one of the strongest advocates of management, with all the unfortunate fall-out we now know of, he never lost sight of the profound and abiding value of individual contribution, and commitment of workers to doing their job well, for a better world. Over the years, Ive had many a Drucker moment, often triggered by some of his more improbable notions, such as the idea that what explains both the Jesuits and the Calvinists runaway success was the simple practice of writing down their expectations for the coming period, and then comparing it to what really happened, and learning from the process. Or his description of Britains Indian Empire run uniquely through a process of inspections and long reports to the crown. In any case, regardless of the historical veracity of his examples, or the accuracy of his descriptions, every other Peter Drucker passage is so full of incomparable intuition that Ive always felt more intelligent by the virtue of reading his books (a feeling which unfortunately fades away quickly after putting the book down.) Its such a shame that the world has lost this incredible pen, and this treasured source of insights. Certainly, Peter Druckers example has sponsored many vocations, and new, talented business writers emerge every day, but I fear that the original formula is now irretrievably lost, and were all the poorer for it. Still, his books remain, and although some general propositions are now somewhat faded, the specifics of his thinking are still as insightful and ever, and remain an ever-fresh source of inspiration. -- Written By: Michael Ball Author with Freddy Ball of The Gold Mine: A Novel of Lean Transformation.