"The prevailing system of management has destroyed our people", said total-quality pioneer W. Edwards Deming. "People are born with intrinsic motivation, selfesteem, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning". Echoing Deming, anthropologist Edward Hall declares, "Humans are learning organisms par excellence. The drive to learn is as strong as the sexual drive—it begins earlier and lasts longer". The premise of work on learning organizations has been that thriving in today's knowledge-based marketplaces means reversing the destructiveness that Deming speaks about and cultivating people's drive to learn.
In fall 1999 the sustainability consortium was hosted by the Xerox "Lakes" team that had developed the Document Centre 265 copier. Already aware of the team's innovations in design for remanufacture (more than 500 patents came from the Lakes project) and the product's success in the marketplace, we learned about how the team's zero-waste vision translated into a manufacturing facility with virtually no waste and eventually became embraced by many of the team's suppliers. But it still wasn't clear how the team had achieved those accomplishments.
Late in the day, Rhonda Staudt, a young engineer who was one of the lead designers, was talking about the team's innovations when she was interrupted by David Berdish, veteran of many organizational-learning projects at Ford. "Rhonda", Berdish said, "I understand what a great opportunity this was for you and how exciting it was. I work with engineers, and I know the excitement of pushing the technological envelope. But what I really want to know is why you did this. What I mean is: ‘What was the stand you took and who were you taking that stand for?’"
Rhonda looked at David for a long time in silence and then, in front of many peers and a few superiors, began to cry. "I am a mom", she answered. We had all heard the Lakes motto, "Zero to landfill, for the sake of our children". But now we were in its presence. Roger Saillant of Visteon turned to Peter and whispered, "Seamlessness". Peter knew exactly what he meant: when what we do becomes inseparable from who we are.
We have all spent much of our lives in institutions that force us to be someone we are not. We commit ourselves to the company's agenda. We act professionally. After a while, we have lived so long in the house of mirrors that we mistake the image we are projecting for who we really are. The poet David Whyte quotes an AT&T manager who wrote, "Ten years ago, I turned my face for a moment…and it became my life".
Over the past decade, many companies have attempted to build learning organizations with little grasp of the depth of the changes required. They want to increase imagination and creativity without unleashing the passion that comes from personal vision. They seek to challenge established mental models without building real trust and openness. They espouse systems thinking, without realizing how threatening that can be to established "quick fix" management cultures. There is a difference between building more-sustainable enterprises because there is profit in it and because it is one's life's work. The journey ahead will require both.
If understanding natural systems establishes the guiding ideas for sustainability innovations, then learning provides the means to translate ideas into accomplishments. But, just as the logic of natural systems conflicts with take-make-waste industrial systems, so too does the logic of a learning culture conflict with traditional, control-oriented organizational cultures. To a controlling culture, a learning culture based on passion, curiosity, and trust appears to be out of control. In fact, it is based on a different type of control."We are not trying to eliminate control and discipline in our organizations", says retired CEO William O'Brien, formerly with Hanover Insurance Co. "We are trying to substitute top-down discipline based on fear with self-discipline. This does not make life easier for people in organizations. It makes it more demanding—but also more exciting".
These two tensions—between natural systems and industrial systems on the one hand and between learning and controlling on the other—may appear to make sustainable enterprises impossible. However, deeper currents in the New Economy could also cause those tensions to become immutable forces transforming traditional industrial-age management.