Business needs ideas from the bottom up

In the continuing dialogue over our nation's macro - or broad-scale - issues, we seem to have lost sight of the emphasis on detail which can make both corporations and nations great. This is an oversight that could prove fatal for a company, or even for a nation. Once we begin focusing on the micro solutions, we will begin to have an impact on such issues as culture and ethics and behavior.

Successful corporations and successful nations alike are those that concentrate on the operating details. What has created great American companies in the past is a willingness to pay attention to their knitting. By focusing on detail and staying true to their principles, superior companies have been able to achieve outstanding performance in revenues and profits, and to continue that performance through the years, even through recessions and management changes. They have a vision and they have a mandate because their people - and we may include either a company's employees or a nation's citizens in this category - feel an ownership that makes the relationship important to them.

Management itself has often proved a hindrance in improving corporate performance. Consider management's frequent arrogance, its conviction that all answers must come from the top down. It feels that solutions seldom rise from the bottom up. That is probably true, but it is only because management rarely solicits answers from its troops on the front lines - and, because of management's arrogance, can seldom convince those troops that their suggestions will receive a fair hearing even if they submit ideas.

Maybe the vast schism between American executive salaries and workers' pay has contributed to management's royal view of its corporate domains. It is interesting that an American chief executive officer customarily earns 40 times as much as a worker in one of his plants - perhaps drawing $600,000 a year, while the worker may start at $15,000 or less. In Japan, that salary coefficient is only half as great, something like 20 to 1.

We're just beginning to see corporate managements and workers taking the first tentative steps toward meaningful cooperation after years of virtual guerrilla warfare over the bargaining table. The recent economic slowdown prompted labor unions to hold the line or even cut back pay scales in some industries, or to give back other benefits won in the past. And we've seen managements take a new interest in the opinions of their employees, in some cases for the first time in a decade or more. We have seen the ''quality circles'' concept spread, giving workers a rare opportunity to take part in the corporate problem-solving process. What a contrast with the pre-recession era! Some executives considered themselves egalitarian if they so much as posted a suggestion box where employees could volunteer ideas - knowing full well that the ideas were usually doomed to be ignored because they didn't come from the management side of the organizational chart.

Concessions won or surrendered under the pressure of recessions and plummeting earnings are a unique situation, however. They aren't necessarily representative of a born-again commitment to corporate enlightenment. It will be interesting to see what happens to wage demands and to executives' cooperative spirit now that we have weathered the recession and companies are looking forward to better times. Prosperity, it seems, poses a far greater challenge to corporate cooperation than does recession.

If we are to establish a new commitment that endures through all economic seasons, we need to revisit the idea of working together so we can be unified in strength. For too long, our corporate staffs have been polarized and fragmented. We cannot have the engineers segregated away in an ivory tower engineering things, the workers on the factory floor making things, the managers off somewhere else giving orders, and the corporate chieftains isolated from those activities in their air-conditioned executive offices. That kind of formalized, pyramidal organizational structure just doesn't make sense in an era when workers' input can make the difference between a corporation's success and its failure.

When we speak of recognizing employees' contributions, an important question of perspective is involved. Managements shouldn't patronize their workers to make them think that they count, but should provide them a legitimate opportunity to contribute to the decisionmaking process. We have every reason to believe that employees can contribute more to their employers' success than simply performing routine assembly-line chores that a robot could probably execute as well.

Executives need to spend more time in their plants, sharing ideas and perspectives with blue-collar and white-collar workers who are closer to the operation than an officer can ever be. Officers should relish the opportunity to get a close-up look at the production process that they could never find time for when they were chasing an MBA. Engineers also need to be on the shop floor, close to the equipment that they designed or that they maintain, watching it demonstrate its strengths and weaknesses as it turns out products for real-world buyers.

We need corporations where workers on the assembly line don't think, ''This is his problem'' or ''that is her problem''; rather, employees should think, ''This is our problem.'' Certainly it is vital that we go through a consensus process to arrive at a solution quickly, because all of our jobs are at stake. This is a new way of looking at problems - it is much more organic, much more behavioral, much more micro - and it involves searching for internal answers, not waiting for an all-purpose, hand-me-down solution from corporate headquarters - or from Washington.

It seems clear that we can't expect to see the answers to our national dilemma come from Washington, whether from legislators or macroeconomists. The battles we are fighting today to regain our national stature won't be won by sweeping omnibus policies. They must be won daily on the shop floor through a concern for the consumer and through a national resolve to produce superior products.

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