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Indy: Velocity at the Office

TIME isn't what it was at ``the brick yard,'' the Indianapolis auto speedway. The qualifying times are pushing an average of 230 m.p.h. for four laps around the 2.5 mile track, to determine the starting positions for the May 31 race. Crowds of 50,000 people a day come out to watch the race preparations.

Speed. How the masses love it. Women drivers are now a staple at Indy. This year a Japanese driver has joined the international roster. Sons of drivers carry on family dynasties - Andretti, Unser. Mercedes-Benz is back with three new super-engines for the Roger Penske cars. Words like horsepower, r.p.m. range, push rod are overheard. The preoccupation: small improvements in design, materials, fabrication to gain increments in safety and, above all, in speed.

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Speed is, among other things, a metaphor. To Jack Welch, the driving force behind General Electric in the '80s and '90s, ``Speed is everything.'' ``It is the indispensable ingredient in competitiveness,'' he is quoted as saying in ``Get Better or Get Beaten!,'' a manual of Welch's business precepts compiled by Robert Slater and released this week by Irwin Professional Publishing.

``There is something about speed that transcends its obvious business benefits of greater cash flows, greater profitability, higher share due to greater customer responsiveness and more capacity from cycle time reductions,'' Welch says. ``Speed exhilarates and energizes. This is particularly true in business, where speed tends to propel ideas and drive processes right through functional barriers, sweeping bureaucrats and their impediments aside in the rush to get to the marketplace.''

That to the swiftest goes the market - even the global market - is not a new idea. America's discovery was a byproduct of trying to sail straight to the Orient. And clipper ships were developed to win the race around the Southern Hemisphere horns. Today's new product cycles, once measured in years, are now measured in months.

Velocity has come to the resizing of organizations. The yearly budget and work cycle is breaking up into two, three, or four shorter units of minor momentums - each of which can be said to approximate what was previously thought to take 12 months. Workers are having to learn new tasks or to revise operations continually: Teams are formed to facilitate these transitions. Business leaders like Welch find speed an ally in organization and market domination; workers can feel like its victims or can ride out the energy wave of change to new positions or another round of survival.

If things don't change they can't improve, and humans feel a basic command to do things better. Even redemption implies change. Indy is a circuit. The track does not get longer or shorter and the race itself, 500 miles, is constant (unless weather or accident intervenes). Great speed requires a track. Helter-skelter it would be destructive. Competition implies speed under controlled conditions.

Americans invent competitions: how much a president accomplishes in his first 100 days. But many competitions are forced upon us by the general conditions in which we operate. Business, school, and nonprofit organizations are having to become ``learning'' centers to better utilize the intellectual capital of a staff granted limited or shrinking financial capital.

Indy reflects our times. Hold everything but ingenuity constant and someone will still go faster.

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