Would Today’s General Electric Recognize the Ideas in their Old “Blue Books”?
Mark's note: It's been a long time since Andy Wagner contributed a post to the blog, but we've remained friends and I was happy that he accepted my invitation to share thoughts on a recent discovery of his.
As a student of continuous improvement and organizational excellence, over the years I've run into a few articles that talk about the General Electric “Blue Books” — a management curriculum put together in the 1950s by none other than the father of management gurus, Peter Drucker, on behalf of GE CEO Ralph Cordiner.
Typically, the Blue Books come up when talking about Jack Welch's work at GE, which centered on destroying the Blue Book culture and the hidebound bureaucracy associated with it.
Being somewhat skeptical of Jack's management methods, my curiosity was piqued. It took some persistence, and luck, but I finally found a set of the famous books on Ebay. I haven't read the three volumes cover to cover and yet there are some gems that emerge just scanning the pages of the first volume.
CEO Ralph Cordiner's introduction letter is another document that would seemingly send Jack into fits.
Here are the four tenets, which Cordiner says guide how the company will be managed:
Bullet two — stewardship to
Piepenbrock found that integral enterprises, such as Toyota and Southwest Airlines, experience steady, continuous growth in cooperation with that list of stakeholders. It's a win-win strategy that he contrasts with the intermittent fits and starts of growth seen by what he calls “modular enterprises,” such as the Detroit Three and the legacy US airlines. These companies view customers, employees, and suppliers as interchangeable parts. And, as a result, their customers, employees
The book closes out with a diagram, “Progress in Social Relations,” that calls to mind the continuing conversation in Lean circles about servant leadership:
If you're familiar with David Logan's 5 Stages of Tribal Leadership, I think there's an analogy there as well.
As we develop as leaders and organizations, are we aspiring to climb this ladder? To advance beyond paternalism and meer participation to full on *
A friend pointed out to me that the early Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, believed that all people should aspire to become “statesman” in their interactions with others, through their personal growth and development. That's certainly an aspirational goal–and a surprising artifact, coming to us all the way from 1953.
All of this makes me wonder what Ralph Cordiner and Peter Drucker would have to say about the state of General Electric today. After decades as one of the world's most respected companies, and being hailed for its ability to generate highly capable executives and managers, we see now the trouble that existed beneath the surface.
I spent nine years of my career at GE, the first two as a contractor. I value that experience as much as any other in my professional development. There's no doubt in my mind the depth of talent and organizational capability embedded in GE's bones.
But I must say, even at the time, I did have doubts about some of the choices the company was making — putting short-term results and “fixing the game” to hit the numbers ahead of excellence in service of the customer.
Perhaps the path forward can still be found in some dusty old books in a forgotten desk drawer in Schenectady.