When people today aren't worrying about something else, they worry about whether the American gift for making things and selling them hasn't withered. The old phrase "Made in America" doesn't mean what it used to mean: an honest product, skillfully crafted and competitively priced. Just as often it may signify something second-rate and dear. The result of this change in image and reputation is that foreign manufacturers make inroads on our markets; automobile companies suffer losses in the hundred of millions of dollars; even out vaunted skill in electronics is yielding rapidly to competition from Japan.
The people who worry about these things usually point the finger at labor. American workmen, they aver, don't work hard enough and have too many coffee breaks. I was struck, however, by a recent article in the New york Timesm by two faculty-members of the Harvard business school, Professors William J. Abernathy and Robert H. Hayes, who attribute the larger part of the blame to management.
The new managers, it is pointed out, are drawn to an increasing extent from financial and legal backgrounds. They think of themselves as overseeing things from afar, not too much immersed in details, but dynamic in planning "takeivers" and "divestitures" -- the buying of a company that makes money or the getting rid of one where profits lag. These are master-strategists, imperial captains. But they know comparatively little about the actual products being created or the markets in which they are sold.
I have not myself recently been out where I could observe and judge such exalted characters. The people I see in this late autumn in Maine are mostly concerned with doing things with their own hands: getting boats out of the water , picking up lobsters in a stormy sea, harvesting the last crops from a notoriously grudging soil. But I have a deep-rooted feeling that when men at the top get separated from day-to-day knowledge of the actual world -- when they cease being makers and became bankers or buccaneers -- the nature of the work suffers.
A visiting architect asked me this summer whether I believed that good printing could be dome when the print designers never touched type or presses themselves. I had my own ink-stained hands to answer for my faith. And then I turned the questiond: could good architecture be shaped by men who had never participated in the work of construction? There was a time, long ago, when printers made books and builders made cathedrals. The "architect" and the "graphic designer" were unknown. I am not at all sure but that those were the best of days.
In the plants of modern industry matters get more complicated. Somebody has to be the boss -- allocating resources, assigning personnel, setting policies for compensation; and the boss is inevitably cut off from life-giving contact with things in the making. Still, somewhere along the line he must, if he is a good boss, have known what it is to struggle with the refrectory material of actual objects; he must have experienced directly the competitiveness of men desiring to sell in the same market.
The idea that a manager, possesses a sort of universal, neutral skill, that he can move without loss of effect from business to business, or even from business to politics, is surely one of the heresies of the modern world. Roots still do count. The deep, often inarticulate promptings, coming from the well of past experience, makes the manager wise. Such wisdom is worth more than copybook efficiency, than financial wizardy or inspired juggling.
Americans have sometimes been accused of being too materialistic.It is better , I say, to care for the material world, to encounter with feeling its shapes and textures and colors, than to pursue phantoms of power or become immersed in abstract processes. Give me a man or woman who loves the thing created and cherishes human contacts. I would vouch I could make a better manager of such a one than most that our schools of business turn out.