Lean and Downright Mean

'Lean and mean' is the shapely figure to which companies are called to conform these days. It's worrisome that the mantra implies a clever business strategy. Firing large numbers of workers ought to be considered an admission of failure, a last resort, or perhaps a necessary evil in times of technological change or declining market conditions, not a badge of strong management.

Since World War II, the American corporation and its workers had an implicit agreement. If the company did well, the workers could be more or less assured of job security and rising compensation. That's no longer the case. Very profitable companies now lay off their workers or place a cap on wages and benefits.

Last July, for instance, Intel announced that it would cut 4,000 jobs. Although the company earned $446 million on $6.3 billion of revenue for the quarter, its performance did not meet analyst expectations. Intel executives admitted they were not sure which part of the company would be hit with layoffs, but promised they would make the necessary "cost-saving measures."

One of the more fascinating characters I have met in the business world recently is Charles Fred, the CEO of Avaltus, a company that focuses on "people development" in the corporate enterprise. Fred started his career as an aeronautics engineer at the Boeing Company. During his 10 years, he saw Boeing in the best of times and the worst of times. In the late 1980s, the company profited from an order backlog in the tens of billions of dollars. Fat with cash, Boeing undertook a major re-capitalization campaign, tearing down old facilities originally built during World War II and constructing new factories equipped with state-of-the-art machinery.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2002
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