TIME Magazine

April 22, 1996 Volume 147, No. 17



YOU SAY POTATO...

...And I say leave the downsized life behind and head for where the caribou roam

GARRISON KEILLOR

Tomorrow morning you go to work at amalgamated potato and find an envelope on your desk with the CEO's name in the upper-left corner, and you sit down and draw a deep breath. After 22 years working your way up through the Skin Division, you are about to become road kill, one more confused raccoon smeared across the corporate highway.

Amalgamated has been downsizing like crazy for two years now. Everyone works 60 hours a week and goes home with a briefcase as big as a garment bag. You have languished at your present salary, in the mid five digits, for quite some time, and the new management team, guys in their mid-30s, who came here from pasta, and are trying to bring pasta-type glamour and growth to the humble potato so that Amalgamated can turn a humongous profit and be sold and make top management dizzyingly rich, is cutting costs by decimating the drones, and now it's your turn to walk the plank.

But you open the envelope, and it isn't your final notice. It is a memo announcing that Amalgamated Potato is about to transform itself through Total Quality Organization, a team-oriented leadership process in which power flows holistically, and you will spend three days next week at a seminar being empowered.

So you report to the seminar center, a big white concrete-origami structure with skylights and indoor trees and maple floors and modular furniture in primary colors, and you sit in a circle of potato employees with loose-leaf notebooks on their laps (Tools for Transformation), listening to a young facilitator named Terri explain how TQO works. She is friendly in a robotic way, as if she had taken one of those personal-development courses where they train you to look the other person in the eye when you speak to him and always say his name.

"Our business isn't potatoes; it's helping people live and work to their full potential," she says. "This is a team process; management does not 'make decisions'; management empowers the team-leadership process."

Oh, you think. I see.

The words holistic, leadership, process, quality and commitment crop up everywhere--sentences like "The commitment to quality is a holistic value structure throughout the leadership process that is accessed dynamically through all functions of the organization from the bottom up." Sentences that, the moment you hear them, they're gone, like gas.

It dawns on you that nobody at Amalgamated will ever utter a simple declarative sentence again.

This might be a good time to quit your job and head for Alaska and open a fishing camp, you think.

You blame liberals for this at first: something about the term facilitator makes you think of liberals and their schoolmarm view of the world ("No running, please, no pushing, no bad talk") that leads them to eliminate sharp edges and outlaw flirtation between strangers and rearrange the playing field so that the sidelines are the goals. Liberals are in charge of the schools, and they rewrite the tests to keep the scores from dropping. Liberals run the churches, and nobody talks about sin lest it tend to make folks feel marginalized.

But TQO isn't the work of liberals. Liberalism is dead, so dead that Democrats have all become moderate Republicans, and the heavy hand of Big Government is now limp and damp and trembly. TQO is the heavy hand of Big Business. You want to see a big mitt, this is it.

When people talk about the free market as the engine of progress, remember that long ago, movies were shown in gilded palaces with deep-carpeted aisles, and you sat on a throne beneath a ceiling of smiling cherubs and goddesses and looked up at a luminous picture on a screen 50 ft. high, and today you go to a 32-screen multiplex in a shopping center and sit in a concrete shoebox and watch a bad print on a screen the size of a tablecloth, and when you get up to leave, your feet stick to the floor. Capitalism has bestowed profound ugliness on this land. And it would make you ugly too.

You've got to make a swift, smart decision whether to be a team player at Amalgamated, work a longer week, donate your life, accept that the company has switched your health plan over to an HMO that requires 30-day advance notice of emergency care, accept the TQO gibberish about power percolating up from the bottom, or should you fly to Anchorage and head up the Iditarod Trail and get to work guiding hunters across the trackless wild in search of the wily salmon?

You're a little old to be making a big jump, but there's a lot to be said for reality. You don't have to sit in meetings about the holistic process of quality leadership sharing. You could do real things all day, and at night tell stories about them. That's why the green world is out there: to give you an alternative to the monkey island of corporate life.

A dense fog has descended on Amalgamated Potato, and it will not lift soon. You need this like you need a porcelain hairnet. Go west, young man. Go north. Don't give your life to them. Get out of town.