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Oct 16, 2018 | 17 min read

Transformation

"The Taylorist organization was turned into a caricature, the same shouldn’t befall the liberated company!"

An interview with Thierry Weil, holder of the chair of “The Futures of Industry and Labor: Training, Innovation, Regions” which FABERNOVEL supports.

Frédérique Lemonnier

Group Communication Manager


FABERNOVEL

Tom Morisse

Research Manager


FABERNOVEL
A French academic, with a Ph.D. in Physics, General Mining Engineer, former Technical Director of a Thales department, member of the French Academy of Technologies, a Stanford alum, equally former Technical Advisor at Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s office, after launching the Industry Factory think tank under the impetus of Louis Gallois and a consortium of companies, he recently created the chair “The Futures of Industry and Labor: Training, Innovation, Regions” at Mines ParisTech, with the support of FABERNOVEL: interview with Thierry Weil.

How did you go from science to industry, to management, to innovation, to work organizations, and public policies in between? What is the common thread of your career?

There isn’t a preset thread and I’d say my career path isn’t really based on logic, but rather on a series of opportunities.

Actually, I’ve always wanted to be “where the action is and where things are stuck”. When I was a kid, it seemed to me that “where the action is” was in research, hence the liking I developed for the sciences, and given that no one in my family was in this field, it was all new to me. But soon, I came across adults who said to me “of course research is an excellent field of study, but it’s only got a few geniuses, so you either realize you’re a genius, but that’s unlikely, and the best you can do then is to continue on with research, or you have better things to do after graduation for yourself and society, which needs innovation”.  What I wanted was to train through research and not for research, in order to understand some issues without having to dedicate my life to them. I very quickly stopped believing in the “Nobel Santa”, and I’d venture to say that I was a good researcher but not a genius whose vocation was to dedicate my life to expanding knowledge.

I very quickly stopped believing in the “Nobel Santa”.

In the field of research, I realized there were many people and that my presence wouldn’t change much, whereas in innovation, there weren’t enough people and that there was a lot to do in France.

I must say I was lucky to work on my thesis in an industrial lab, meaning I was keenly aware of the fields in which my work could be applied. I would regularly go to find out whether there was anything of use that could be set up involving the semiconductors properties I was studying. At the time, the components I was working on only had outlandish applications; today, they can be found in mobile phones.

I then went on to serve in the industrial development department of Thomson CSF (now Thales), then the director of the Ecole des Mines remembered me and entrusted me with the role of director of all the laboratories of the institution, for a few years. However, it seemed to me that those doing research were having more fun than those supervising them, and so I simply resumed my researcher status.

After leaving my director position at the institution, I took a sabbatical year to go to Stanford to broaden my horizons a bit and to work with someone I’d met there as a postdoc, and who to me was very impressive: James March, pope of the theory of organizations. I gave myself a year to decide between remaining at the university or going on to do “more serious” things in a company.

In Silicon Valley, I noticed that my Stanford peers would serve as professor-researchers for nine months a year and four days a week, while the rest of the time they would work with nearby companies. In my field, in particular, Robert Burgelman, technology management professor, spent his Fridays at Intel where he was consultant to Andy Grove, its CEO, and would work with him every summer to brainstorm on Intel’s strategy. I liked the format and I wanted to introduce it in France. It happens that the Ecole des Mines lent itself well to the exercise as it provided the breadth and wealth of an academic basis and the possibility of consultancy, of helping companies. More so given my dual industrial and academic experience, I could perceive any difficulties affecting the two worlds in terms of working together and the need to connect them in order to establish alliances or networked projects. To this effect, I worked with companies such as EDF, France Télécom and SMEs on issues pertaining to “open innovation” (which wasn’t referred to as such at the time).

 

Are there any highlights in your career path you’re particularly proud of?

One of the things I was most proud of took place during my thesis, when I demonstrated the equivalence between two approaches at the heart of a fierce debate in which the best physicists at the time were enmeshed in. In short, IBM held theory A and Bell Labs held theory B regarding an electrons transportation phenomenon in semiconductors. Actually, I demonstrated that the two models represented the same physical reality, and that it was simply a matter of two different ways of describing the same thing.

Naively, I was very proud of myself, which is perfectly normal when you’re slightly over twenty years old and you think to yourself that you’ve just reconciled IBM and Bell Labs, it goes to your head… But fifteen days after its publication, I received a delightful letter from two Swedish researchers informing me that they’d read my article: with a lot of satisfaction in part, as they’d discovered the same thing, but with great disappointment as well, as they’d just sent their article to a journal for publication, and their “discovery” was no longer original. And there I was thinking I’d helped advance science, which I certainly had, but only by six weeks!

 

Why the recent decision to create the chair “Futures of Industry and Labor: Training, Innovation, Regions”?

Six years ago, somewhat by chance, I was asked to create La Fabrique de l’industrie (French think tank dedicated to industrial issues, in connection with the economy and society – editor’s note). It addressed the concerns of a number of industrial employers who had observed that in France and elsewhere, industry was falling apart, but in France, unlike anywhere else, no one cared and some even thought it was just as well. Yet, the intangible realm is not everything: it’s good to not have oil but ideas, but you still need to have a lot of ideas in order to be able to buy oil! And countries like the United States and the United Kingdom which have allowed their industrial sector to unravel, illustrate the consequences of industrial decline on social and regional cohesion, and on the desire to be exposed to the rest of the world.

It’s good to not have oil but ideas, but you still need to have a lot of ideas in order to be able to buy oil

Very soon, we realized that the greatest barrier – but not the only one – was skills. Because now, even as the status of the industrial sector has improved and its order books are full, they’re still unable to hire. Airbus has 10 years’ worth of orders to deliver, and even if they want to increase their capacities and ramp up deliveries, they are stuck. Not because of machines that can be bought or factories that can be built, but because of employees who aren’t easy to find. Even less tedious, well-remunerated positions are sometimes hard to fill.

If Apple is producing all of its devices in China, it’s not only a matter of costs, but because they know how to go about it and find the people required to manage a peak production period. In France, when the order books are full, we have no choice but to ask clients to wait a bit longer…

And the problem doesn’t end there. In addition to a change in work methods, today, not only are companies unable to find the people they want, but conversely individuals can’t find companies in which they would like to work. The market is operating very poorly, with excess supply and demand.

Lastly, I think it also has to do with the poor image some careers in high demand are suffering (for example, welder, plumber, etc.). It’s also part of the reason why we created this chair, in order to reflect on issues related to the future of industry, labor and organizations.

 

Lately, there have been regular debates on new types of labor. Do you think that it’s a specificity linked to the current era, or has the subject been equally reflected on a lot in the past?

I would say that, on the one hand, there have always been a number of unusual jobs, activities which were performed more or less by independent workers, with or without protected statuses, and on the other hand is wage-earning which, although it hit a peak recently, remains the dominant form. What has changed in the labor sector in our time mainly involves the possibilities created by digital technologies, such as remote work.

Before, I would go to my office because I needed my records, or to communicate with my colleagues, now my records are in the “cloud” and communication with my colleagues is much simpler regardless of where I am. It has become easier to work away from the workplace and to do so productively, so many of the reasons we had back then that led us to deem it inconceivable are no longer valid.

If we take a look at Uber for instance, which relies entirely on an app, this establishes a permanent connection between supply and demand, and makes the service more reliable than before while creating wealth. Indeed, even though nobody is talking about it, it happens that the revenue of Parisian taxis is now higher than it was before Uber arrived! The market share of the taxis has obviously declined, but their revenue is growing because when you know you’ll easily get a car, you’ll leave your car in the garage or simply do away with it altogether. Furthermore, Uber recently declared that it was ready to serve as a “main contractor” or a responsible platform (by providing advice, training and insurance adapted to drivers), but on condition that this doesn’t encourage public authorities to reclassify it as an employer.

It is true that there’s a lot of interest in and questions about these types of unusual organizations, but not necessarily more than before. In response to the question “will these new models cut current jobs or create more activity?” I would say that the bipolar scenario with people getting richer on one side and on the other side workers dropping out altogether is just one of the possible scenarios, which we should be able to prevent. That does not necessarily mean that I share the same blissful optimism as those suggesting that we’ve always managed to return to full employment after each technological revolution. In some instances, there were very painful transitions or sacrificed generations.

 

Regarding new types of organization, and in particular the liberated company, is this a model that in fact has been around for long? Or is it a clean break from organizational models?

There is some continuity to it if you consider what Fourier or Proudhon wrote, some of the 19th century utopians dreamed of a world in which every person would be a multi-skilled artisan. The most accomplished example came from the industrialist Jean-Baptiste Godin: he created a factory, the Familistère de Guise, which operated for a very long time. What equally comes to mind are the SCOPs (cooperative and participative companies – editor’s note), and the Bat’a factories in the former Czechoslovakia, or the kibbutz in Israel, in a specific context marked by great external restrictions where they needed to clear and cultivate the land while defending themselves against potential assailants.

There were a number of rather intensive self-management attempts in the past, but most did not last long. They were marginal phenomena compared to mainstream organizational models. Ultimately, the hierarchical company was a relatively stable structure, so establishing an alternative operating model was not necessarily simple or useful and required a good level of education and a sense of democratic maturity.

 

Do you think that it’s employee expectations that have changed?

Seeking more meaning and autonomy at work is not new. What has changed is the priority they are given. As it is a first-world problem: when you literally no longer need to “earn your bread and butter”, and the primary needs are covered, new needs arise.

Today, employees are much more demanding, educated and capable of understanding complex governance and organizational processes, in addition to speaking their minds on aspects beyond their own tasks. There are even new situations that have emerged, for example, doctors complaining about difficult patients who browse the Internet and feel free to make suggestions – a few years ago, that was inconceivable! Just about anyone, armed with motivation, can acquire even partial knowledge on any subject, which will allow them to have their say. Employees’ legitimacy to participate in discussions is greater and so is their capacity to contribute. It therefore becomes harder and unwise to not listen to them, as the probability of them contributing an interesting idea is high.

 

Are we in the process of converging towards a standard model that will take over from the traditional pyramid model?

The Taylorist organization was turned into a caricature, the same shouldn’t befall the liberated company!

One of the pitfalls to avoid is seeking a standard reference model. I think that a lot depends on the context. For example, there are many fields in which each person can be allowed to take initiative and others in which it’s completely inconceivable.

For example, an airline pilot, however excellent, highly inspired and creative they may be, will be required to strictly adhere to the procedures. Obviously, they will be listened to, when the time is appropriate, if they have an opinion about how to improve one procedure or another, but they cannot decide to change something right in the middle of a flight under any circumstances whatsoever.

It is crucial to pay attention to the context, professions, restrictions and each person’s scope of freedom. We wouldn’t operate in the same manner when addressing workers who do not speak our language very well as we would to a company only counting master’s degrees holders with a strong shared culture, so we need to adapt. I’m not saying that the liberated company is only for the “highly-cultivated”, but the manner in which it is implemented will vary depending on the place we are, the population present or people’s prior experiences.

Within the chair, we find that the literature is extremely simplistic in this regard and the idea that small recipes can be transposed everywhere seems dangerous in our view, as people filled with good intentions highly risk making a mistake, and thereby discrediting the emerging models.

 

Regarding the leadership issue you worked on with James March, is leadership destined to fade away in your opinion and how is it progressing?

I’d like to quote Lao-Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.' » A leader who ensures that their organization is healthy enough to not demand their daily presence around their teams, the atmosphere is good and customers happy, is not a leader who is “loafing around”.

This kind of management might depend on the person – who doesn’t necessarily spend most of their time carrying the banner and marching off to war – or a collective, but if we define management as the technology of collective action, as Peter Drucker said “doing extraordinary things with ordinary people”, it’s about intelligently combining people’s efforts. Some people manage better by being present, while others do it by focusing on specific mechanisms.

An article in March that had faded into oblivion and which I translated, called “Prosaic Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, demonstrates that, indeed, some organizations can function very well with little input from the leader. Ultimately, as March rightfully recalls, the sign that an organization is functioning well is when there’s always someone to answer a call and the toilet flushes are working – because everyone is watching out for any potential dysfunctions.

 

Does leadership still exist in the liberated company?

There are several trends of liberated companies.

The first one, conveyed by Isaac Getz, consists of saying that all problems arise from a manager’s obsession with control: but although a leader must indeed be ready to let go, to trust, that’s not always enough.

Another trend is holacracy, a management system in which what matters most is having impeccable coordination rules. Actually, as long as the rules don’t change, they are applied, so instead of being bothered by a bad leader, you are now bothered by bad rules, which is not necessarily better…

Once again, it all depends on the situation: an organization governed by strict rules and procedures can be just as barely liberated as an organization operating in a completely different manner.

 

What is your view on the place and role of middle management in these changes?

Everyone should receive support. Today, the approach and role of the top manager is changing, but so is the role of middle managers. To basic operators, going from a less procedural situation to a hierarchical one, affording slightly more freedom can constitute either an advantage or a huge problem, as it implies possession of the material and cognitive resources required to carry projects through to completion. For middle management, the risk lies in being evaluated based on the same criteria as before, but without the means to act.

Liberated management can function either well or not. In some instances there’s genuine subsidiarity (everyone freely works on whatever they are competent in) and genuine trust (each person is considered as doing what is best for the company and is clearly aware), but sometimes it’s wishful thinking with a lot of control nevertheless. I know of liberated companies where I’m told that all is well, but if you take a closer look you realize that some of them are uneasy and still haven’t the means of making it known. Yet, in any collective effort, hidden struggles or inefficiencies should be identified in order to be resolved. One of the functions of hierarchy in classic companies is to spot anything wrong. And in a liberated company as well, effective dialog about work and dysfunctions should be established. The presence of “facilitators” might be required to support “inhibited” individuals against “loudmouths”. Leaders aren’t the only ones who can make an employee’s life difficult.

Circumspection is also called for when a leader declares that they will abolish any symbols of power or authority. Parking spaces reserved for directors are not the only issues! When I arrived at Stanford, everyone talked about how it’s amazing, everyone’s cool, the leaders don’t wear ties and relations are informal… and some people leaped to the hasty conclusion that there weren’t any signs of hierarchy. Yet, I quickly noticed that some had offices with several windows, others with just one, others shared offices with one window and the last ones were in cubicles without ever seeing the light of day. Oddly enough, the star professors mainly occupied the corner offices. Being a foreign guest already holding a Ph.D, I had an office to myself, however, those who were not yet Ph.D. holders were in cubicles. Everyone said “hey”, but still each person knew who was who despite the very informal relations. They just didn’t need the usual markers applied in Europe to demonstrate their authority.

 

Could you give us an example of an organization that is functioning well in your opinion?

Among all those cited by Frédéric Laloux, the author of Reinventing Organizations, I’m fascinated by the example of the home-care nurses network in Buurtzorg (the Netherlands). In a nutshell, they created a local self-management system in which the teams of nurses work together to manage their patients, schedules and self-development. Very good knowledge capitalization mechanisms were established within the network, with qualified people who don’t necessarily have post-doctoral degrees, who really succeeded in doing their jobs, improving the quality of their services and lifestyles.

 

And an example of a problematic organization?

I’ll use an example equally cited in Laloux’s work. It involves a delightful anecdote about FAVI (a French auto parts supplier which is among the first “liberated companies”, editor’s note), whose watchword among others was “the customer is our priority, FAVI always delivers on time”. One day, FAVI was to make a delivery to one of its customers on a Monday, but ended up stuck because of parts that became available too late. True to its principles, and to avoid leaving a customer “hanging”, FAVI decided to charter a helicopter in order to allow the parts to arrive on time. The customer certainly didn’t understand what was going on as they had enough parts for production for the following days and the delivery could have waited without inconveniencing them at all.

A closer relationship with the customer would have allowed them to avoid an unwarranted expense. The customer, if given a choice, would probably have preferred to obtain cheaper parts rather than to benefit from helicopter delivery. Actually, the company was more attached to its principles and message than to its customers, and perhaps it thought that renting a helicopter was a timely internal and external communication operation.

 

9 years ago, at a lecture at the Paris School of Management, you talked about a lack of “systemic coherence” in innovation management, by citing the example of an employee of a large group that was sent to a Californian startup, but no specific arrangements were made upon his return to exploit the experience he had gained and to have the group and employee benefit from it. Since the article, do you feel that systemic coherence has improved in France?

We can always do better! When you are operating based on a continuous improvement rationale and you measure process quality, you’ll note with horror that the number of incidents remains stable, or has even increased. In reality, you become so demanding that whatever was tolerated in the past is no longer tolerated. For someone operating from a continuous improvement approach, nothing is ever sufficiently good enough.

One day, one of my colleagues asked a professor at the Collège de France “but how do you decide, you who are a physicist, and a position has opened up as chair of Assyriology (study of Assyria, region in Mesopotamia and the ancient Middle East, editor’s note), who is a good assyriologist or not, given that it’s not your physics expertise that will help you test the candidates? »

The answer is amusing: “it’s very simple, when you interview a good candidate, they will proudly explain that they have resolved a given problem or established a given procedure. When you are dealing with an exceptional candidate, it’s different, because they will tell you that: ‘I started with a difficult issue, but after having apparently resolved it, I realized that there was another more interesting issue, and that this other issue was hiding a more significant problem, etc.’ You can identify an excellent candidate thanks to their perpetual dissatisfaction, despite their recognized accomplishments. »

This brings us to the issue of systematic coherence: I think that once you’ve resolved the obvious problems through meticulous work, you realize that there’s still more progress to be made. In companies that develop autonomy, trust and responsibility, it’s also a matter of continuous progress. Even when many things are working better than before, you need to seek to do even better.

It’s like when the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland answers Alice with this famous sentence “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”. In the French ecosystem, we have achieved progress across many aspects, but last week I was in Seoul and they are also still improving their production systems! It’s normal to want to constantly improve your company’s performance, for the sake of employees’ wellbeing, for customer satisfaction, for the company’s prosperity, and to never believe that everything has been done. And although the truly good ones don’t boast about their success, it’s not due to modesty, but because they are already focusing on the next challenges.

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