In 1982, without fanfare, Harper & Row issued a book called "In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America's Best-Run Companies." Written by two management consultants, Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., it had a first printing of 10,000, as befitting a book adjudged by its publisher to be a parochial tract of interest only to business people--and a small number of them at that. But the hunger of managers for models of successful organizations was so great that "In Search of Excellence" turned into one of the biggest-selling books in the history of publishing. More than 5 million copies have been sold.
Best sellers nearly always yield imitations (publishers may not know how to evaluate an original manuscript but they do know how to read sales charts), and "In Search of Excellence" opened the floodgates to a torrent of books aimed at lifting managers out of the morass into which nearly everyone agreed they had fallen. Peters himself, dropping "Thomas" for the more familiar "Tom," teamed with writer Nancy Austin to produce "A Passion for Excellence" in 1985--and it too was a best seller.
Now, five years after the appearance of "In Search of Excellence," Waterman and Peters have re-entered the field with sequels of their own--from different publishers--and you are likely to be hearing a lot about them. Bantam's first printing of the Waterman book is 100,000; Knopf's first printing of the Peters book is 150,000.
Both books are true sequels in that they continue the "In Search of Excellence" stratagem of showing by examples from companies the authors have either visited or studied that it is possible for a company, a governmental body or a nonprofit organization to become an excellent performer by pursuing such practices as listening carefully to customers, making employees real partners with management, busting up bureaucracies and promoting a zeal for quality. Close followers of the "In Search of Excellence" saga may recall that two years after the book was published, Business Week revisited the companies that had been held up as paragons and found that, measured by financial results, many had fallen from grace. The magazine trumpeted this finding on its cover under the headline: "Where Are the Excellent Companies?"
This time around, Peters and Waterman are taking care not to fall into this trap again. Seeking to extend the lessons they taught in their earlier book into a general, guiding principle, they both arrive, independently, at the same theoretical platform. Their bottom-line message comes down to this: "Nothing is forever. Learn to live with change. Better yet, be prepared to take advantage of change."
With change as their lodestar, neither author can be accused of permanently enshrining companies (although Waterman comes pretty close to canonizing IBM). In a constantly shifting world, anything can happen, including the devolution of a company from hero to goat in a brief period of time. Peters can therefore come right out and say: "There are no excellent companies. . . . No company is safe . . . too much is changing for anyone to be complacent." And Waterman asserts that "change is the norm," drawing this moral: "The highest expression of management art is the manager's ability to renew a department, a division, a company, himself." The old saw, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," doesn't apply anymore. Peters replaces it with: "If it ain't broke, you just haven't looked hard enough." And he adds: "Fix it anyway." His erstwhile collaborator, Waterman, agrees. He quotes John Akers, IBM's chief executive, on why IBM is always reorganizing: "We organize for good business reasons. One of the good business reasons is that we haven't reorganized for a while."
In short, we have here virtually a prescription of change for change's sake. Peters and Waterman find in change a religion. Peters, always pushing the argument to an extreme, declares that "loving change, tumult, even chaos is a prerequisite for survival."
An important corollary of this philosophy is that since everything is always changing, it's impossible for anyone to know what's coming next. Peters says flatly that "nothing is predictable." Waterman agrees. He says we live in a "stochastic world," meaning a process driven by random events. Given that kind of environment, the premium is on opportunism. Peters urges managers to evaluate everyone in the company "on his or her love for change."
Considering their similar years of servitude in the ranks of a management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., it may not be surprising that Peters and Waterman share the same visions and values. They admire the same companies (IBM, GE, Citicorp, 3M, Nucor Steel, Quad/Graphics, Dana, Hewlett-Packard, McKesson, Ford, Pepsico); they prescribe similar remedies, often in the same language (empower employees, emphasize trust, use small teams, cut management layers, be a compulsive listener, accept paradox).
They also share a viewpoint that all of the attributes they advocate can--and should--be measured. Read back-to-back, these books reinforce one another to the point where the reader is not sure whether the idea came from Waterman or Peters--or both.
Not that the books are identical. Far from it. Tom Peters' book covers more ground, trying to get into all phases of a company's operations. It's also written at a feverish pitch familiar to anyone who has seen Peters on the lecture circuit. He's an evangelist, and he spews out ideas with the velocity of kernels of corn popping in a saucepan. And to make sure the reader is not missing anything, he underlines, italicizes and boldfaces passages so that it looks as if you're really looking at a handbook. Bob Waterman is on a mission to reform companies too, but his approach is quieter and more philosophical. Both of these books are laced with laundry lists for managers, who can open to any page to find tips, recommendations, suggestions, rules, commandments, warnings and prescriptions for action in an uncertain, changing world, to wit:
*"Go with your gut. . . . Get the facts, analyze them, and then do what feels right." (Waterman)
*No one in a company should have a salary of more than $100,000 a year or $50,000 in companies with sales of no more than $25 million. Anything extra should be keyed to the performance of a company. (Peters)
*Reward the messenger who brings bad news. (Waterman)
*Actively and publicly hail defiance of the rules, many of which you doubtless labored mightily to construct. (Peters)
*Take baths instead of showers. This piece of advice comes from Antoine Riboud, head of France's largest food company, BSN, who pointed out that with a bath you think. "That is the problem with managers today," Riboud said, "too many are taking showers." (Waterman)
*A Japanese company, Misawa Homes, shakes up the bureaucracy regularly by having its president, Chiyoshi Misawa, send a memo to all the troops announcing formally "the death of your president." It's a way to force rethinking. When employees resist change, they are told: "That was the way things were done under Mr. Misawa. He is now dead. Now, how shall we proceed?" (Waterman)
*Spend time with sales and service people. "If you're not visiting stores and distribution centers at 2 a.m., and dispatch offices regularly, you don't care about these functions. It's that simple." (Peters)
*When someone does something well in your company, send him or her a note along with a crisp $20 bill. (Waterman)
Give an award for the best idea swiped from another company. (Peters)
It's easy to predict that both of these books are going to be best sellers. And it's easy to see why. Just reflect on your most recent experiences with a local utility, a bank, your insurance company, brokerage house, local supermarket or employer--and think how many of the features cited above are being practiced in those places. Five million copies of "In Search of Excellence" may have been sold, but American companies have not changed much. Waterman and Peters have a fertile ground to till. If American companies adopted only 10% of the suggestions offered in these two books, we'd all be better off.