This Friday, an epic global struggle between workers and management will begin. It has nothing to do with labor unions or socialism – in fact Karl Marx was such an eggheaded geek he would never have understood the issue and probably would have sided with management. It is the World Cup. If you are an American, you could not possibly understand the issue, even though the highest World Cup attendance of all time was at the 1994 Cup in the U.S. The closest thing in the U.S. is the NCAA basketball tournament – March Madness – and that pales in comparison.
I understand it only because I happened to be in the middle of World Cup insanity in 1998. The fact that the games were being played over 5,000 miles away in France didn’t matter. I was in Brazil so I was in the eye of the storm. Shortly before each game in which Brazil played, business across the country began to wind down. There were no written policies, there were no signs on store windows announcing shorter hours or when they would reopen. It was just commonly understood that the only places open for business were the ones that sold ‘chop’ (That’s a handy word to know if you ever go there. It means beer, and it’s pronounced chope) and had a TV. There is no exaggeration in that – the entire country shut down as if on cue, started drinking beer, watching soccer and behaving like raving lunatics.
The difference between Brazil and the rest of the world when it comes to the World Cup is the convoluted management principles that gave us people as variable costs, Alfred Sloan, layoffs as an inevitable fact of life, and the biggest manufacturing corporations hauling high tech gear into the world’s backwaters by oxcart to find cheaper labor. For example, authorities in the UK are warning the British business community that World Cup absenteeism could cost the country £4 billion in lost productivity. Companies are calling lawyers, beefing up attendance policies, and starting to keep a sharp eye on the slackers who just might call in sick to watch a game.
Let’s put this in perspective. The GDP of the UK is a shade north of £1.1 trillion – yeah, with a "T". These guys are worked up that almost 0.4% of the country’s wealth might be lost to their citizenry doing something they really want to do. The UK is not alone. These industrial panic attacks are taking place all over the world – except in Brazil, of course. The only businesses in Brazil burning the midnight oil doing World Cup contingency planning are the beer distributors and TV repair guys. The World Cup to them is what Christmas is to Toys R’ Us.
The employers aren’t entirely blameless, however. A recent study showed that one Brit out six showed up for work drunk at least once in the last six months. Having visited a pub or two in the UK myself, I can assure you that most of the other five are lying. In Germany, where the games are being played, they have launched a national "Be Nice To Foreign Visitors" campaign. They already know it is a lost cause, though. Beer and belligerence are so ingrained in the national culture that they are spending a lot more on security than on the ‘Be Nice’ crusade.
There is probably no avoiding some small number of crappy. miserable employers who will always see their employees as thieves who steal from the company every payday. Nor is there avoiding the small number of people without the mental agility to understand that the company’s customers are entitled to their best efforts.
In between, however, lie a vast number of manufacturing managers and employees, spread throughout Europe, Asia, Mexico and South America, with a golden opportunity to demonstrate mutual respect for each other, pride in their country and the ability to be flexible. It seems to me to be a good acid test for ‘leanness’.
To the employers, leave the lawyers out of it, put the schedules and attendance policies back on the shelf and leave them there until the games are over, and talk to your employees. In short, prove that you can be creative, respectful and effective. Any jerk can enforce rules and fire people. True managers solve tough problems.
To the employees, be smart enough to now that the month of June is not a battle between you and your boss, nor is it your birthright to stay drunk and skip work. Rather, it a balancing act between your personal interests and the needs of your company’s customers. Your boss probably wants nothing more than to be on the stool next to you in the pub cheering for the same team and cursing at the officials. Your customer, however, is more important than you or the boss, and you owe it to the customer to be sure that his interests are covered before you order that first pint.
The measure of world class is whether you can get to July 10 without missing a game, without increasing costs and without missing a customer delivery. For many manufacturers that will take a level of trust and flexibility that only very lean companies demonstrate.
None of this applies to you folks in Czechoslovakia until after Monday, however. You might as well just go work since you have no chance against the USA.