Sparky Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds during most of the 1970s, spoke on occasion about the big problem he had with his Major League Baseball team. He claimed that the Reds, also known at the time as “The Big Red Machine,” had so much talent that he had a difficult time deciding who should play each day. His big problem is not to be confused with the big problems associated with things gone wrong, as when an automobile manufacturer tracks Things Gone Wrong (TGW), or when a hospital staff records and tracks medical errors, with the goal of zero errors.
Since being introduced to Dr. Deming and his System of Profound Knowledge, I’ve grown to appreciate blind spots that face today’s “Organizations as Usual” environment (also known by Dr. Deming as the “prevailing style of management”), with “commonly accepted levels of delays, mistakes, defective materials and defective workmanship” as a symptom of how each organization manages its resources, including time, money, equipment, and people. One way to test for what is commonly accepted in terms of the level of big problems in any organization is to investigate the focus of attention for problems with a “resource management” question, namely: “How much time and energy is spent every day in our organizations, discussing parts, tasks, modules, elements, suppliers, customers, activities, and program milestones which are going well?” In probing with this question, through presentations, seminars and consultation efforts, I have learned that few resources are routinely dedicated to an alternate TGW, Things Going Well.
The answer to the “resource management” question is usually zero, often with a grin, if not a chuckle. On occasion, I have made the observation that continual improvement, with a focus on improving what is good, must not be a priority in your organization, unless such an effort is dedicated to improvements in fixing problems faster, rather than preventing them from occurring. What’s missing from the “Organizations as Usual” focus on things gone wrong is the actual variation in things going well.
Imagine driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with a full tank of gas, but without a fuel gauge to monitor the amount of gas remaining. Such a gauge (as opposed to a trouble light, activated only when problems occur) is designed to reveal variation in Things Going Well, along a continuum from very well (full tank) to very bad (empty). All the while driving to San Francisco, things are well, yet steadily declining towards very bad. Without focusing on things going well, the car will eventually run out of gas and represent yet another Things Gone Wrong experience. Using this driving example, the proposal being offered is that the general awareness, followed by attentive monitoring, of variation in Things Going Well in our organizations offers opportunities to prevent, if not minimize, the occurrence of big problems, including commonly accepted levels of delays, mistakes, defective materials and defective workmanship.
Perhaps the value proposition of proactively allocating resources to things going well is not always readily apparent, even with classic reminders of economic leverage from inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and English astronomer, Francis Bailey, that “a stitch in time saves nine.”
As to what is meant by proactive, a simple explanation is to apply effort while good, OK, well, or correct is happening. By comparison, being reactive is to apply effort after bad, not OK, sick, or incorrect happens. Under these definitions, monitoring the strength of a smart phone battery and charging it before it dies and visiting a doctor for an annual checkup, while feeling well, would both be considered proactive.
In other environments, the purposeful use of monitoring Things Going Well data on a control charts (or, even run charts) to record the degree of goodness of a welding process, an invoice payment process, or the fish consumption or activity levels of a killer whale at Sea World, could detect early shifts in the direction of things gone wrong in each of these performances, removing them from our blind spot, long before the occurrence of big problems. To add proper context, being proactive should be considered as an option and weighed against the alternative cost of being reactive and focusing on things gone wrong. On a case-by-case basis, the proposal is to make a decision on being proactive or reactive, rather than focusing our efforts only on what is wrong and unknowingly defaulting to being reactive. “Organizations as Unusual,” inspired by Dr. Deming’s theory of management, offers opportunities to use things going well metrics to reduce the commonly accepted levels of mistakes, but only when the savings from these reductions exceed the expense of monitoring the things going well metrics.
Continuous improvement or continuous problem solving? Mind the Choice!
This video shows Poorani Jeyaseker’s presentation, The Role of W. Edwards Deming in Today’s IT, at the 2015 Deming Research Seminar.
Poorani explains how the management system drives behavior that is not useful to the organization. The business team asks for estimates for software development. Those estimates are treated as promises. The management system creates a punishment mechanism for missing estimates by over 10%. Of course this creates fear and pressure to make sure work can be completed within the 110% * estimate. So logically the estimates are padded (both to account for the natural variation in how close estimates are to final results and for the existing culture that means changes will be made to requirements without the estimate being adjusted).
This type behavior is obviously problematic. It is also not uncommon.
Stop using performance appraisal and rewards and incentives to motivate people, especial when you are using methods like agile and lean software development. Because the message that we are telling people that you have to work collaboratively, you have to build trust – but you are actually measuring them on individual performance and individual contrition.
She discusses how the practices that were driven by the management system in the example pitted departments against each other. The system itself was actively discouraging cooperation and teamwork.
“Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
– very possibly Albert Einstein
My son, Ben, is such a proverbial fish – and for at least 7 years, he’s been a fish out of water.
Benjamin graduated with his high school class of 2017 this past May. I couldn’t be more proud of him. Yet, according to the standards of the traditional system of education, he is “average”. Those of us closest to him observed his intellect and intrinsic desire to learn at an early age. He showed interest in computers at age 3, and, as a kindergartner, he enjoyed reading and telling stories. By age 11, he learned Linux programming language from a library book and, as a pre-teen, he created and published animated videos on YouTube for fun.
Ben did well in school in the early years-when the AIM was on the learning, something, I’ve learned from Dr. Deming, we are all conditioned to do well in our early years. It all changed for him when his teachers and school administrators began defining him with letter grades and class rankings. Take this in for a moment. Think about the movie a Christmas Story. It airs on Turner Classic Movies 24×7 from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. The main character Ralphie, a poster child of mid-western 1950’s life, pours his soul into his “What I want for Christmas” theme paper – the focus of which is a Red Ryder BB gun. His palpable excitement turns to heartbreak as his teacher returns the paper marked with a BIG, RED, “F”. Christmas is doomed and Ralphie may never be the same. Now realize this scene takes place, less dramatically but with no less impact, every day in a school near you. This is our traditional system of education.
The Carrot and the Stick – how common educational practices kill our “yearning for learning “ (intrinsically motivated) at an early age.
In his seminal work “Punished by Rewards,” Alfie Kohn teaches us that carrots and sticks (extrinsic motivators) might drive students to perform in the short term, but at the peril of long-term gains in being able to think on one’s feet. Nowhere is this more evident than in our educational system and the handing out of grades as a means of evaluating the past performance of students and using this as a prediction of the success of failure of our next generation of workers.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, in his 14 Points for Management, eschews targets (goals, point #10) because – and I’m paraphrasing – they focus on completion (by any means), instead of through a process (which allows for continual improvement), and, in so doing, can create adversarial relationships with others striving to achieve their targets. In a broader sense, they drive both fear of failure and lessen the emphasis on quality.
Translated to our system of education, targets and rankings cause cheating, focus on achievement, and drive in fear and suck the joy out of learning. This was certainly true for Ben. I’m grateful that Ben didn’t completely give up on school. When he became desensitized to the grades, he turned to gaming the system. As I said, he’s smart and he knew exactly what he needed to do to earn a passing grade. This is what I call survival mode. Marking time. Seven hundred and twenty days in what felt like a prison to him (4 school years). It reminds me of the worst job I ever had. I loathed arriving in the morning and I couldn’t wait to leave. Every minute was an eternity. Our “fish” – the young people who don’t neatly fit into our system of education – are at risk of believing they are less than they are.
Here’s the kicker. Rewarding the tree climbers at the expense of the fish isn’t yielding stellar outcomes for the tree climbers. Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the pack, as judged by their superior letter grades. “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas.” In another interview, Arnold said, “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries. . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” Our schools teach tree climbers to climb trees – to achieve within the system. By the same turn, why does this same system fail to teach visionaries to be visionaries?
Friends, 90% of us are average – and that is a good thing. We have days (hopefully more often than not) when we knock it out of the park. We also have days when the best we can do is believe we gave it our best. This is supported by our knowledge of variation – a pillar in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. Separation of the tree climbers from the fish – or the high performers from everyone else – is arbitrary. How can we, with a straight face, subject our young people – still wet behind the ears – to such judgment before they are even able to vote for a president?
If you’ve attended a graduation ceremony, you know the scene. Pomp. Circumstance. The corralling of extended families. Pictures. More pictures. It’s all there. As the proud (and maybe some less proud) families celebrated on this milestone day, the competition, rewards, and rankings continued. Prior to handing out the diplomas, “special awards” were revealed. As the administrator described each award, the nominees were asked to stand and await the reading of the winner’s name. One young lady (I will call her Grace for lack of remembering her name) was nominated for nearly every award, but received none. Her look of disappointment – or perhaps shame – became more pronounced with each sleight. I felt bad for her. Her special day became something less special.
When it was finally time for the graduates to receive their diplomas, the “fish” were easy to spot. Unlike their classmates who demonstrated their masterful tree-climbing skills, the fish were not adorned with awards of cords and medals. On this “special” day – just like every other day – the tree climbers were celebrated and the fish were reminded of their average-ness or worse- their inadequacy.
I felt a pang of sadness for a moment. Then I remembered – among this school of fish are visionaries – and Ben is one of them.
(If you are interested in knowing more about how Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work is being applied in education, refer to the work of David P. Langford, an international leader in the improvement and transformation of education through Quality Learning and Leadership. Earlier this year, David was honored by ASQ with the Deming Medal for his 30+ year legacy of advocating the use of Deming management in education.)
In his presentation at the 2015 Deming Research Seminar Joseph Schneider discusses his efforts to apply Deming’s ideas within Siemens.
Joseph talks about how they worked to use Deming’s ideas even though much of the management system was not within their control (so they had to accept the system had aspects that fight against creating the ideal management system). This is useful as this is true for nearly every (every one that I know of) attempt to apply Deming’s ideas on management.
Joseph explains the efforts to improve and the results of those efforts. And he explains the ties to Deming’s ideas that lead him to pursue the strategies he chose. He organized PDSA projects that included participation from many different internal departments to address reliability issues with a particular product line.
We also introduced the voice of the customer into this PDSA workshop. We brought customers in who used to buy from us and these people didn’t really have a lot of connection with customers but they heard first hand how much these customers valued the products that we made, but they just had to go somewhere else because they never knew when they were going to get them.
Process flow charts were key to the success of the second example he discussed. I believe process flow charts are very under used and even those making attempts to apply Deming’s ideas would benefit from greatly increasing the use of process flow charts to aid their continual improvement efforts.
“There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management,” proclaimed Shoichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s president between 1982 and 1992 and chairman between 1992 and 1999, at the 1991 Deming Prize Ceremonies in Japan.
One year earlier, in February 1990, Dr. W. Edwards Deming fielded questions from the evening audience at Western Connecticut State University. This would be his third lecture in a day that began with a session with students, followed by one with faculty and staff of the business school. I attended all three lectures, in which he frequently referred to notes that later became his book, The New Economics, published in 1993.
It was during these lectures that I was first introduced to his System of Profound Knowledge, the name he chose for his theory, yet deferred to each audience with a kind request – “If you have a better name, please help me,” he would say. These sessions also included ample time for questions and answers from the many newcomers who joined me that day. Approaching 90 years of age, Deming had no doubt heard many of them before. For me, in my first exposure, the questions and answers revealed both counter-intuitive perspectives and enticing possibilities. I sorted the questions and answers, like pieces to a greater whole, and began to arrange them in my mind. This is how my search for a pattern and a deeper perspective within the Deming message began.
I recall one attendee in the evening audience seeking insight on the issue of staff cutting. His question went something like this: “Dr. Deming, what do you think about the recent trend toward reducing the number of levels of management?” Although I was not a middle-level manager, I was captivated by the prospects of Dr. Deming’s answer, for it offered another piece to the puzzle. With little hesitation, Dr. Deming answered: “Why have more levels than you need?”
As for me, it was not the answer I had anticipated, nor the direction I had expected Deming to move. I was expecting a response with advice on how many levels of management were appropriate. Perhaps five. Perhaps three. Instead, Dr. Deming re-framed the issue with a question revealing a contextual appreciation of organizational interactions.
My interpretation of Dr. Deming’s answer was that the number of levels of management would be dependent on the specifics of the organization, not “one size fits all”. Given a specific situation or system, one would need an appropriate number of levels. More than this would be costly. Less than this would be costly. Trial-and-error often leads to an answer. Should the situation change, one might expect the solution to change as well. Instead of a “one size fits all” solution, this activity could be seen as managing the system, with its inherent interactions.
Guest post by Edward Martin Baker. A version of this post originally appeared on Aileron.org.
About Aileron – At Aileron, we fervently believe privately held business fuels free enterprise and raises the quality of life for us all. As businesses move beyond the start-up phase, a systematic approach to your business is critical to sustainable and strategic growth. We call this approach Professional Management, and have developed a system to implement it influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and other great thought leaders. Dr. Deming’s timeless teachings have been, and will continue to be, a driving influence because we see his philosophies work.
In a previous blog, “Leaders can make music,” I used the analogy of the leader as orchestra conductor who follows a score to orchestrate people playing together. The score to which I referred was Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. Another analogy, more familiar to business leaders, is golf. Managing one’s own golf play, although an individual game, has similarities to managing people in enterprise. The golfer must manage the system, i.e., the interactions in the system in order to produce a harmonious relationship between the components, e.g., the clubs, the swing, the course, the golfer’s knowledge and mental state. Everything must come together to produce the intended outcome. When that occurs, the golfer has scored and orchestrated a whole in one.
A “whole” is defined as a healthy, coherent system or organization of parts fitting or working together as one. My friend, Tom O’Connell, a PGA Golf Professional Scottsdale, Arizona, put it this way:
Every golfer has a model, a picture in mind that represents the proper swinging motion. Some models can produce excellent performance, others will produce poor performance. The model must be clear, complete, and in a harmonious relationship with the individual. The golfer should practice and play in an environment that is completely safe and free of intimidation.
When the swinging motion is a unified whole, everything is just right, in sync, together. There are no separate parts, no shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs, or feet. They all interact as one to accomplish the purpose of the activity — to send the ball to the target. The hands don’t try to dominate the feet. The arm swing doesn’t dominate the body rotation. The eyes don’t look wherever they please. It is as if the body as a whole knows what to do to optimize performance of the whole. The interaction of the club with the ball and the consequent speed and direction of the ball is pure physics, but golf is not only a physical-mechanical process of applying force to the ball. It is an inseparable interaction between the physical, physiological, and psychological qualities of the individual and the system.
The aim of the golfer is not to achieve a hole-in-one each time. That is not realistic because the system produces variation in outcomes over time. Good scores will follow as a consequence of consistently following a good model. Consistency results from a stable process and is the basis to learn and improve. If one focuses on the score rather than the process, then he or she will tend to react to the result of each shot as if that result was due to the takeaway, weight transfer, swing path, planeclub face angle, etc. This can cause the golfer to overcompensate, reducing accuracy and consistency. Golfers need to guard against overdoing any one part of their swing. If the golfer does not manage his or her system as a whole, performance will be poor, and the individual will be frustrated and angry. This, in turn, likely will cause the person to try to overcompensate even more, which will further degrade performance. To focus on the parts without regard to the whole is to ignore the harmony that produces exceptional results. The quality of the relationships between the parts makes the difference in the quality of overall performance.
Jim Benson’s presentation at our 2015 International Deming Research Seminar explored how to manage the workload better to improve results.
We want to help people become happy so that they will build better products. We fundamentally believe that happy people do exactly that.
Companies that understand this important idea have a big advantage over those that retain a theory x management system that they believe is needed to control people.
When we understand our work and we are given the ability to improve it – we will. We don’t have to be told to, we just do it. Thats a fundamental human action – to improve the environment that is around you. It is alien to us to allow ourselves to live in substandard conditions.
People that working aren’t doing that naturally, why not? At the moment they need some reassurance. Years of top down, Taylorist-style management has given us bit of learned helplessness. We’ve tried to help in the past; we’ve been kicked in the head. We said “I am not going to do that again.”
People need some reassurance that their work isn’t in vein.
A few pioneers will take the leap and accept a management system that claims to offer the prospect of them taking pride in their work again. But it is going to take a long time to persuade many others to believe the promises. Be patient, retain constancy of purpose and nurture the belief that this time really is different. Transforming the management system and people’s belief in it provides great rewards to those organizations that persevere.
In the talk Jim provided examples of the value of making work visible and limiting work in progress. Those two simple (though not as simple to do as to say) ideas are the core of his consulting efforts.
“We need more structure, but I’m afraid it will kill our culture.”
“Our culture is perfect. We don’t have processes and rules. We hire great people and weed out poor performers.”
Culture. When it’s good it’s great. And in today’s connected world (and thanks to sites like glassdoor), when it’s bad, it’s bad news.
What is culture, really? Your answer to this question will likely define the path culture will take in your organization.
Culture is an enigma. In my 25-plus years as an employee, consultant, manager, and leader, I’ve seen a few companies take a run at culture change; and even fewer are successful at it: from token gestures such as free food, games in the break room, and jeans Fridays – to years-long, staffed “culture change” initiatives that include road shows, music, and pyrotechnics (it’s true). Rarely – and even in the case of the million-dollar extravaganza – have I seen these efforts succeed. “Fixing” culture by traditional management methods reminds me of a week in Vegas: blow a bunch of money, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and walk away trying to figure out what just happened. Between culture work on these terms and Vegas – the odds of success are better in Vegas.
Culture is your company’s currency
Your company’s culture is part of your employer brand. In a full employment economy, culture is a major factor in recruiting top talent. Once your talent is in the door-it’s a major factor in retaining them, but the reason why might surprise you.
The culture we know through our traditional management lens is often described in terms of people, the work environment, and perks, to name a few. Take a minute and think about how you would describe your company’s culture to an outsider. What words come to mind? These things you describe would make most interview candidates feel pretty good about working at your company: jeans days, community service days, free lunches, quarterly happy hours. But what happens when it’s time to get the work done?
This is where the retention comes into play. My long-time mentor recently offered me a gold nugget and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “culture is the product of an organization’s system and processes, AND peoples’ attitudes about them.” Wait! What???
That moment – those words – completely upended my understanding of culture. Once the people equivalent of the Heisenberg Principle (one cannot know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time), culture became a perfectly defined element on my Periodic Table. So while he kept talking, my inner voice furiously ran through test cases:
Consider a start-up business with ill-defined roles and responsibilities, no processes. The company grows – more and more effort required to get results. Employees become fire-fighters just to get the work done. Managers tighten budgets – “do more with less” – because profitability suffers.Culprit? Lack of focus on process.Impact on attitudes? Workforce is demoralized because they are powerless to improve the system.
A successful company thinks it is successful because it eliminates processes and rules. Instead focuses on hiring strong performers and weeding out poor performers. What happens? Competition among “top performers” creates intense focus on short-term results, which has long-term impact on company profitability.Culprit?No process, hyper focus on individual performance drives internal competition instead of collaborative focus on how to improve the system.Impact on attitudes?Workers are overworked and stressed – trying to figure out how to get ahead of their peers.
The traditional management framework doesn’t recognize culture for what it is. Culture is an outcome which is based on an organization’s processes and workers’ attitudes about those processes.
A Teenager’s Gym Clothes – a cautionary tale
Treating a symptom rarely, if ever, eliminates the root cause. When it does, it’s called luck. If you feel lucky, go to Vegas.
I offer for consideration my teenage son’s gym clothes. Here we find a stark reminder of the cost and futility of masking symptoms instead of addressing root cause. He brings his gym clothes home twice a year: after mid-terms and finals. It’s pretty unpleasant. When asked how he tolerates the stench during gym class, without batting and eye, he replies, “Axe.” Of course! Axe, the ultimate teenage boy body spray. Each eye-watering treatment only masks the stench of the layers that came before. Traditional culture programs are a lot like Axe. A free lunch here, a happy hour there, a ping-pong table in the break room. The momentary fog of delight fades away and we’re left with the root cause – fermentation breaking down the fibers that could have evolved into a truly great culture.
Think big – start small
I’ve seen companies do big things in an attempt to manipulate culture. It never ends well. I’ve also helped companies work on small but highly impactful processes – and this work sparked the beginning of a culture shift. The former implies something “done to” the organization in hopes workers would get on board the culture train. The latter requires management to provide workers with the tools and support they need to focus on improving the work. Workers come together to apply their knowledge and experience – and data – to improve processes so everyone wins. And so begins a virtuous cycle that creates an environment where workers feel they are learning, contributing to something of value, and they feel appreciated.
“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process…”
“…you don’t know what you’re doing.” The words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming are even more powerful today. I’ve been told many times over the years, “We don’t need process documentation. My team knows what to do.” When I hear this, I take to heart another of Dr. Deming’s well-known admonitions, which he learned from Ed Baker: “Don’t just do something – stand there” (observe, collect data, and learn—then act).
Double down on process
So let’s go back to where we started. Business growth. The need for, and fear of – structure. Purposefully avoiding process. In the absence of visible processes, much of how work gets done is left to chance. As companies grow and (in the absence of process) focus turns to individual performance as a way to “get things done” – culture will suffer. Don’t let Vegas odds dictate your organization’s culture currency. Double down with a focus on process and you’ll beat the house every time.
Heather Groom’s presentation on Creativity at our Deming in Public Administration seminar.
In discussing the roadblocks to creativity she mentioned the imposter syndrome. I have seen imposter syndrome mentioned very frequently recently (the last year or two). I find it interesting how concepts become popular and are widely shared for a while. Normally those concepts stop being shared fairly quickly – though a few people remember them and carry on sharing them even once the popularity fades.
Heather also talked about how fear stifles creativity. Our education and management systems often create conditions where people learn to fear straying from the expected behavior. Obviously when we create systems that do so we place constraints on creativity.
We have to be able to let kids create. We have to give them the freedom of being playful, asking questions and not being afraid of failure.
Which is also pretty good advice for employees. Let employees create. Let them play and ask questions and take risks.
In February 1989, Professor Doug Fox, from Western Connecticut State University’s Ancell School of Business, received a reply to his invitation to Dr. Deming to speak with his classes. Dr. Deming’s letter, dated February 11th, began with:
I thank you for your kind invitation to speak with your classes. It would please me. I should not only be interested in your classes but a session with your teaching in the schools of business, engineering, and psychology.
It is necessary for survival that a change of state take place from the economics of rugged individualism, win, lose, to another kind of economics, which I characterize as cooperation, win win, everybody win – not equally, but everybody win.
I wonder how many schools of business perpetuate the present system of management which has leveled off and led us to destruction. Changes must be made in the school system. The so-called merit system in business, government, and education, and the grading of children from toddlers on up through the university will for survival be abolished.
These thoughts form part of the content of my 4-day seminars, list enclosed.
The problem is to find a date. I have not a date in 1989. Some Tuesday in 1990 might be possible. You must tell me what you think would be good dates. I could possible come in the morning and stay through the day. You could not possibly pay to me my fee: I would do this as a public service, which is the motive behind my teaching – 42 years now at New York University, and 5 years at Columbia University. I remain with appreciation.
A year later, Dr. Deming visited with Doug Fox on Tuesday, February 6, 1990. He delivered 3 lectures, two held in the afternoon (one for students and the other for faculty), as well as an evening lecture, which can be found in a previous blog.
It was my first opportunity to meet him. Future blogs will include a link to one of the afternoon lectures, as well as more of his correspondence with Professor Fox, and my first impressions of his theory of management. Enjoy the video of his evening lecture, which, sadly, I did not think to convert sooner to a digital format from the VHS version Professor Fox kindly gave me. While the video faded, Dr. Deming’s voice comes through loud and clear and, with ample humor, as noted by Mark Graban in his highlight reel of this lecture . (Link here to listen to an audio version of the evening lecture.)