Editor’s note: William Dunk is an international consultant based in Chapel Hill and is a frequent contributor to Local Tech Wire.Salem’s most distinguished citizen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, penned a fine story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which perfectly captures the ambivalence with which the 19th century greeted emerging technology.

The story introduces us to a beautiful garden and a devastatingly beautiful daughter, both of such allure that passersby are attracted like bees drawn to the nectar of flowers. There’s a fly in the ointment: both are wondrous to behold but deadly poisonous to the touch. Rappaccini, the scientist, had brought this about through his experiments – his great achievement a prelude to catastrophe.

Is this story not a metaphor for our chock-full medicine cabinet? Every drug, no matter how useful, has lots of “contra-indications.” Each is marvelous but with a hitch. Mother Nature did not intend for us to put chemicals, the stuff of drugs, in our bodies, when she created the human design. This paradox is endlessly replicated in our lives – in government, in business, in the sum of human activities. We keep discovering that our cures are much worse than the problems they’re solving.

Just Tylenol

We’re not just talking about complex drugs such as statins for your heart or fast-selling Celexa for your mood. Tylenol, the everyday pill that made Johnson & Johnson huge, has had a problematic history. Certainly J & J is a fine company, and Tylenol is a worthy product. But we learn in literature dating back at least to 1985 that over-use or wrongful use (with alcohol, for instance) of Tylenol can lead to pernicious liver and kidney damage. Annually, more than 100 deaths and 13,000 emergency room visits stem from problems with acetaminophen, the base ingredient in Tylenol.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine (January 12) suggests that Tylenol can be a bit addictive, especially for headache sufferers. While it is used as a cure for headaches, it can, if over-used, actually cause them, as the body’s own pain control mechanism goes dormant. As the Times says, “Over-the-counter analgesics taken even five times a week can transform an episodic headache into a chronic one.” Once again, the cure suddenly becomes worse than the malady it is to remedy.

Less is more

In the 21st century, our challenge increasingly will be to use less, not only to save resources, but to save ourselves from the pain of excess.

Less drugs and hospitalization.

Fewer dollars on advertising and mass marketing (and more dollars on product).

Much less complicated weapons systems to better deal with the suicide warfare of nameless cults.

Small companies that can more smoothly create and deliver very large volumes of better goods and services.

What we need is to bring Toyota’s lean manufacturing system into more and more aspects of our lives. In fact, using less is the economic imperative for most of the developed countries of the world.

The game’s up

That means knowing when a product is ready for the junk heap. For prescient companies strategic insight consists of knowing when the game’s up, when yesterday’s miracle product has peaked out and when it’s time to find a new blockbuster.

GE’s jet engine unit, for instance, has designed the right engine for small regional jets, since it understands we will be pulling traffic away from mega-hubs in the future, wheeling passengers through under-utilized secondary airports in efficient small craft.

Land’s End has achieved significant Internet volume in semi-custom clothing.

This Christmas the Internet showed good sales growth even though overall volume at the nation’s retailers was flat. To get renewed growth, Fidelity is moving decisively beyond its mutual fund franchise into the employee benefits business.

The Veterans Administration has peeled back the number of under-used hospital beds it offers while beefing up critical outpatient services. The goal, simply, is to do more of the things we need, not to stuff marketing channels with a surfeit of yesterday’s products.

William Dunk Partners: www.globalprovince.com