In Chapter 2 of Out of the Crisis, Deming presents his 14 key principles for transforming an organization’s management, and by “management,” I mean “the way things are done,” not just specifically a certain organizational layer. As Principle 14 tells us, “The transformation is everybody’s job.”
This was a fascinating chapter, not just because of the principles themselves, but because I could mentally compare and contrast them with how organizations I’ve worked with have been run as well as what business/agile consultants talk about when they speak of transforming an organization. A lot of things consultants talk about a lot are not in that list, and vice-versa. It was also interesting to see the points Deming chose to really hammer on. Pages and pages are spent on the single-vendor principle (Principle 4), for example. I didn’t count, but that one point may have more ink dedicated to it (in this chapter) than any of the others. When leading a software development team, our “vendors” are not just equipment and software vendors, but they are also the people who give us our requirements, so I had to do some uncharacteristically intense cogitification to think through how that principle might apply to that area.
But those details aside, I wondered why his principles seemed so alien to American business. I mean, the man almost singlehandedly rebuilt Japan’s economy and brought them from being a nation shattered by war into a lead contender in the world economy. When you think about it, that doesn’t leave the rest of us with very many excuses, does it?
“I’d love to take the time to focus on quality, but our sales were lagging last quarter, and we really need to just get some things out there to meet some marketing deadlines. We’ll track back around and improve things, later.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Times are tough. Last quarter, someone dropped atomic bombs on our major cities. So, you know, that’s similar.”
If Deming’s principles can bring your business to roaring prosperity after that, it seems like more people would be doing these things, or at least talking about them, right? He had worked with organization after organization, employee after employee, manager after manager, country after country. He wasn’t infallible by any stretch, and his thought came out of a particular context, but still – why does it seem so different than what people are on about, today?
I think one reason for this is that Deming had a different end-game for businesses than most of us. In Deming’s eyes, businesses existed to build a nation’s wealth and increase the prosperity of her people. It’s really been interwoven through everything in the first couple of chapters. Businesses that follow his principles prosper in the market, which enables them to provide more and more better-paying jobs to more people for years and years to come. The idea that a business exists primarily to make a lot of money for an individual (or small group of individuals) to be discarded when it has served that purposes seems kind of alien to his way of thinking.
In Deming’s mind, if I start a business, it should be so that I can increase the prosperity of as many people as I can for as long as I can. This is business eschatology. This is the telos of your organization: to keep as many people employed as possible, paid well, happy and gratified, and improve your country and ultimately the world in this way. Of course, as a by-product, you’ll be increasing your own prosperity, too, but you increase your own prosperity by focusing on helping first.
Perhaps this is way his notions of focusing on quality, building long-term vendor relationships, continuous improvement, ditching evaluations, and building systems that bring out the best in your people seem so out of place in the current business consulting climate. In American business, today, the goals of many business owners are to make as much money as they possibly can in as short a time as they possibly can. The goal drives your current behavior, which is why many of the discussions en-vogue today revolve around working faster, getting rid of people, getting lean by way of cost cutting, etc. A lot of businesses are just trying to make as much profit as they possibly can as quickly as they can. Everything else is driven by that. Quality is only interesting if it becomes a factor in how much money they can make. Improving their system is only important if it helps hit a certain profit target by a certain timeline.
I don’t have any statistics on this – it’s purely a personal hunch based on conversations, so don’t take it to the bank – but I’ll bet if you asked a group of startup owners what their long term goals were, a fair amount of them would say they’d want to get the business up to a certain value and sell it. I’m not condoning nor condemning that. It’s a perfectly legitimate choice. It is, however, very different from Deming’s idea of the role a business plays in the economy and in the lives of the people involved, and so the values are going to be different.
As for me, reflecting on things like high unemployment, the reputation for shoddy workmanship certain American products tend to have, the disparity of wealth distribution, an ever-growing class of “unhirables,” businesses that are here today and gone in three years, I don’t know. You almost get the impression the man was on to something. The crisis he wants us to get out of isn’t a crisis of bad business; it’s a crisis of national and worldwide economic proportion.