Defining Industrial Sickness
There are two ways to look at the term industrial sickness. One would be concerned with the health of the workplace and diseases or disorders which might be traceable to the workplace environment. The other would be concerned with the health of industry itself, a particular sector of the industry, or the health of a specific company. In this case we'll look at industrial sickness in terms of the health of a company.
The Human And Industrial Sickness Parallel - Like a human, a company has a life-cycle, one which usually follows a familiar path, but the extent of the life cycle is usually not predictable. Some companies barely get beyond the initial start up phase, while others last for many years, in some cases a business may last for several hundred years. As is the case with humans, some businesses are healthy over most of their life cycle, while others suffer various ailments which can keep them from ever reaching their full potential and can eventually lead to their demise.
When a human is sick, there is a cause, whether it is known or not, there may be a diagnosis, an attempt to find out just what the illness is, there is treatment, designed to either manage the illness or to help the patient get better, and most of the time there is a cure.
It's the same way with industrial sickness. In perhaps somewhat simplistic terms, a company may be said to be getting sick when it begins to cease making a profit, or at least a profit large enough to allow the company to grow or even remain in business. The sickness in this example could be summed up simply as a failing to make a profit and the diagnosis may not be all that difficult as one merely may have to look at the balance sheet for a given period of time.
Diagnosing Industrial Sickness - The diagnosis may however not be all that straightforward for very large corporations having a diverse product line or made up of subsidiary companies, some of which may be very healthy and other which may be very sick. Bookkeeping that is not transparent, shoddy, or dishonest can also make a diagnosis difficult if not impossible. Just look at Enron, a company seemingly strong and healthy one moment, and gone the next.
Diagnosing industrial sickness is often easier than is determining the cause, part of the problem being the cause can be anything ranging from poor training of employees, obsolete equipment, loss of market share, poor advertising, or globalization, with these being only a few of the numerous possibilities. Sometimes in industry, when the cause has been determined, it can be too late. Depending upon the illness, a human can often recover by taking the proper medication or simply by a lifestyle change. A "lifestyle change" for a company having several thousand employees usually isn't something that can be done overnight, and may in fact take months or even years, especially when a change in corporate culture is required.
Treatment And Cure - Treating and curing industrial sickness can range from taking a series of simple steps to having to achieve almost the impossible in order to get well again. As one executive put it when describing difficulties faced in making the changes a large corporation had to make in order to remain competitive, "imagine you're in a bicycle race; you get a flat tire, and you have to change the tire while continuing to ride your bicycle at the same time". This was in response to a suggestion that the company simply shut down for a year and retool, a suggestion which, if followed, may have resulted in a terminal illness.
Not To Forget; The Symptoms - In making the comparison between human and industrial sickness, there is one all-important area which has not yet been addressed, and needs to be. That area is the symptoms. When a company is well managed, any symptoms of impending ill health are apt to be recognized by at least someone. In one way, executive management is the business, and figuratively speaking, executive management should have collective fingers on the pulse of the business. People being people, they may not always agree that a given symptom means anything, or that it even exists, but upper management is usually the first line of defense against industrial sickness taking hold.