At What Cost?

Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

I do not know if you are like me and sick to death of hearing the nauseating anthems of doom and gloom endlessly resounding throughout our business community. Economic downturns, global financial crises, retrenchments and redundancies, outsourcing services, restructuring, consolidating and centralising functions are the newly-exalted X factor branded, language of reduced costs.

What is the cost to our nation and future generations if these strategies to save a dollar were also to sacrifice quality, talent, and skill?  Inexperienced workers often without the appropriate qualifications replace experienced workers considered more expensive.  If the same criteria are used to justify the events of the following hypothetical story what repercussions will reverberate throughout our culture, after all, it only appears to affect one stand-alone company and just two individuals.

We are familiar with Michelangelo who spent years perfecting and mastering his craft.  He is one of the two persons in our story. You may have seen some of his breathtaking masterpieces envisioned on hallowed ceilings, or sculptures of perfect figures chiselled from marble pieces, never before conceived laying dormant in that cool stone.

Let us imagine that his company came to him and said, ‘Even though you have been with us for many years, the shareholders have stated they want to align our expenses with infrastructure to reflect the market.  Your role has now become redundant. We are sorry to let you go Michelangelo but what with the company moving in a different direction this is the way its got to be, we do however appreciate all the great work you have done for us’.   I wonder what would have happened to Michelangelo, the "master" artist who perfected his trade for years and who enriched and inspired society with his gift.   I wonder would he have survived today’s world, with companies focusing on ‘getting’ and ‘cutting down’?

Companies competing on ‘the level playing field’ aligned with the global economy are reluctant to pay the price for Michelangelo’s skill.   At a fraction of Michelangelo’s cost to the company is Bill.  The company was applauded for what was an insightful move on their part to employ Bill.   Bill had just graduated, so he had current qualifications, was keen and hungry to work and could be trained to follow the company’s new system meanwhile Michelangelo finds work in a supermarket packing shelves because of his age that's the only work available for him.

Bill takes up Michelangelo’s former role in the company’s new centralised department.  He is given an impressive title meaning nothing in particular.   Soon after Bill’s initial excitement of securing an influential position with this illustrious company subsides, he comes to the realisation that the company expects him to produce work to the same standard as his predecessor.  Bill’s problem was that his teachers at college gave him a selection of design ideas to choose from and they were always there to help, especially with the selection of the correct marble for each project.

In fear of losing his job, after labouring over colourless designs, Bill acquiesces and Googled for ideas and decides to go with the safe method by copying an obscure but exemplary work.  The company is convinced that his design is cutting-edge.  Bill starts to work on his chosen marble, but sadly he does not have the master’s skilled hand and it takes some time before his figure amateurishly takes shape.  The company officials visit Bill to remind him of his obligation and impress upon him the urgency to complete the project. It must be ready for market on time and on budget. They push up his deadline. Bill decides to cut corners. The deadline is met, and the company is happy, but the task fell short.  Bill’s creations were clearly inferior to the inceptions of the master, Michelangelo.   Regardless, Bill continues to work in this manner on each project until he makes a huge mistake.  The company being liable for the faulty craftsmanship of their work blames Bill, the obvious scapegoat.

So my questions are:  

  • What is the cost to Michelangelo, to Bill, the company and more importantly to our society?
  • What message are we sending if Michelangelo and his awe-inspiring talents disappear into oblivion? 
  • Bill had qualifications, he was hungry to work, yet he needed time to sit dedicated at the master’s feet.  How will our culture suffer if we place Bill’s lesser work under glass?

The company, their emphasis on short-term profit and fear of takeovers or closures made decisions, to refocus, to rebrand and repackage their products eventually removing them far from their original intent.  They stopped listening to their customers and the bottom line took precedence over what their customers needed or wanted.  

Should we be seeking the advice of great leaders who have the wisdom to think outside the square box that modern businesses are modeled on?  Leaders like W. Edwards Deming, who promoted and introduced models of business practice to Japan after the Second World War which promoted the manufacture of high quality goods without the use of expensive machinery or limited budgets (the opposite of the ethos that most companies are following today).  The focus lays in improving the quality value of the finished product, which in turn improves productivity and shows an increase in demand.  Human nature decrees that when people are proud of producing a quality product, they do a better job.  

This leads to more questions:

  • Is our society satisfied with cloned faulty work in exchange for cheaper prices?  
  • How does our society’s reflection appear if we are willing to disregard quality, talent and experience?
  • What do we offer our future generations in exchange for Michelangelo’s master skills?  
  • Importantly, what can we do to help the 'Bills' of this world so that they too are given the opportunity to excel and be trained to learn the craft of the masters?  
  • Lastly, how do we make ourselves heard or shall we just let things roll on as they are, because it is all too hard?