Rust Never Sleeps

June 7, 2012
The curious thing about complacency is that you have to be successful first in order to become complacent later. Success breeds comfort.

I recently checked into a very nice hotel and trudged up to the room. The room had a beautiful LG flat panel TV and Blu-ray player, and a Denon audio system with iPod dock. It also had a relatively inexpensive Sony clock radio. The clock radio was a sad reminder of how far Sony has fallen. At one point, Sony’s Trinitron TV was the standard of the industry. Video production equipment was all Sony. The Walkman owned portable audio, and Sony’s home audio equipment was state of the art. What happened? Complacency.

In 1979, there was an album by Neil Young called “Rust Never Sleeps.” Complacency is just like rust. Things start out nice and shiny. Rust creeps in gradually. At first, it isn’t noticed and has little impact. Everything still works fine. But it keeps on building until it has taken over and what was once strong now crumbles. This is the insidious way complacency works.

The curious thing about complacency is that you have to be successful first in order to become complacent later. Success breeds comfort. It makes us cling to the strategies and methods that made us successful. Organizations start to institutionalize protection of the status quo. Decision processes get more and more ponderous. Everyone becomes more oriented to reducing risk. In the end, the rust eats through and causes a dramatic failure. I mentioned Sony, but there are other examples such as Kodak in the film photography industry. RIM seems to be heading that way in the mobile device area, and we can all think of similar companies in automation. What can we do to prevent the rust of complacency?

Fight complacency
Fighting complacency starts with each of us as individuals. Recognize that whatever good decisions you’ve made or strategies you’ve followed may have been right at the time, but that path may not be right today. If you are a manager or leader, make sure you have people working for you who are comfortable coming to you and telling you that you are not all-seeing and all-knowing. Leaders who surround themselves with yes people are doomed. We need the kick in the behind to keep ourselves from thinking we are God’s gift to the world.

Second, make sure you don’t isolate yourself. Join industry groups or trade associations and attend conferences. Spending time with your peers, customers and competitors can open your eyes. It will expose you to new ideas and best practices. All of us have customers. Listen to what they are telling you about your company and your competition. It is much harder to get complacent if you are a good observer and listener.

Third, spend some time looking at other industries. Look for patterns that could happen in your own industry. What are the lessons of a Kodak or Sony? There is an excellent book called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen of Harvard. The book tells the story of many companies who achieved success and then fell because another company saw a disruptive technology and made the most of it. The successful company’s initial reaction was to dismiss the new technology because initially it could not match current technology and was more expensive.

>> Visit to find more John Berra columns touching upon leadership, technology and the automation team. 

Picture yourself at Kodak the day someone brought in the first digital camera. Would you have dismissed it as a toy or saw it as a real threat? Chances are there is the equivalent of a digital camera in your industry right now.

Complacency takes much more of a toll on companies than strong competitors do. Don’t let the rust start.

John Berra, [email protected], is the retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management.

 >> Wireless, Security and OEE were among the many topics discussed at The Automation Conference.

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