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Re-Engineering Redux…And Redux

In 1993, the respected management consultant James Champy scored a resounding coup with a remarkable book entitled, “Re-engineering the Corporation.” …

In 1993, the respected management consultant James Champy scored a resounding coup with a remarkable book entitled, “Re-engineering the Corporation.” The highly readable tome revealed how revered companies could retool, rethink, reorganize, and reinvigorate themselves so that they could rededicate their resources to the work they were most respected for, while repositioning themselves to reascend in the marketplace in a completely reinvented form.

Readers’ reactions to the book were refreshingly reassuring, as Champy’s re-engineering philosophy reverberated around the real world. But roughly one year after the release of “Re-engineering the Corporation,” the recondite Champy recognized a real problem. All too frequently, he realized, his revolutionary re-engineering revelations were received enthusiastically at the rarified levels of a company, but were rejected, rebuffed, repelled, resisted, reviled, or repulsed at lower levels of management by firms replete with reawakened reactionaries.

Recognizing that such resistance was wreaking havoc on his re-engineering revelations, the renowned Champy released “Re-engineering Management,” a redoubtable attempt to replicate his recent reveries about the regeneration of retrograde reorganizations. In this book, Champy reiterated his re-engineering remonstrances—-retackling, rearguing, reapplying, and repeating arguments that really need to be relearned, re-examined and reimplemented by every manager who realistically hoped to reinvigorate his/her corporation. “Re-engineering Management” was also a resounding success, reaping the same reader reaction as “Re-engineering the Corporation.”

The success of “Re-engineering Management,” following so closely upon the success of “Re-engineering the Corporation,” certainly means that many more books reassessing the related subjects of re-jiggering, readjusting, reasserting, or reinventing are on the way. Recall, if you will, that juvenile moment in American history when every other book on The New York Times bestseller list began with the words “One Minute.” Now that Champy has dealt with the senior and middle levels of management at the world’s top corporations, it is only a matter of time before he publishes “Re-engineering the Shop Floor,” “Re-engineering the Typing Pool,” “Re-engineering the Mail Room,” and “Re-engineering the Complimentary Valet Parking Lot.”

Other management consultants are sure to get in on the act before long. Just as “Re-engineering the Corporation” engendered “Reinventing the Corporation,” “Re-engineering Management” no doubt will inspire such knock-offs as “Re-energizing Management,” “Reindoctrinating Management,” “Reinvestigating Management,” “Reallocating Management,” “Retransforming Management,” and even “Reattaching Management.”

But what happens to management consultants when senior managers get tired of hearing about re-engineering, reinventing, repositioning, rethinking, or doing anything else that begins with the prefix “re-“? Remember all those management gurus preaching the gospel of matrixing, synergizing, downsizing? Remember Total Quality Management? Remember “The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,” and all that pseudo-militaristic guerrilla marketing and guerrilla advertising? Where are all those gurus and guerrillas now?

Luckily, Champy need not fear the fate that befell his predecessors: His theories are based on the use of a tiny prefix, and once that prefix ceases to be useful, any other will do. Eventually, interest in re-engineering books will run its course, and Champy will be forced to find another meal ticket.

My guess is that Champy’s next endeavor will focus on the prefix “de.” By 1996 or 1997, corporations will be so fed up with re-engineering that they will yearn for the good old days before everything was restructured, re-jiggered, reorganized, or rejuvenated. Champy will step in with “De-engineering the Corporation” or “De-reengineering the Corporation,” which will preach the wisdom of sticking to tried-and-true old ways. This will lead to “Over-reengineering the Corporation,” a diatribe against companies that do too much re-engineering, and perhaps even “Under-reengineering Over-re-engineered Management,” a critique of companies that do too little re-engineering of managers who have already done too much re-engineering. Eventually, Champy will write “Deinventing the Corporation,” “Redefining Re-engineering,” “Reassessing Reinventing, Retroactive Re-engineering” and his masterpiece, “Over-reinventing re-engineering: A Retrospective Reassessment of Really Wretched Reorganizations.” I’ll be first in line to receive a copy. It’s an offer no one could refuse. Really.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.