Nov 042013
 
W. Edwards Deming--statistician...saint

W. Edwards Deming–statistician…saint (Photo credit: Kazanjy)

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.

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Nov 012013
 
The Deming Institute mentioned you on Twitter!

People smarter than I am who understand Deming liked the article

It’s pretty cool to have an article about Deming’s thought approved by the actual Deming Institute.

I’ll get back to actual blog posts, soon, and stop the shameless self-promotion, but it’s been really gratifying to have that article picked up by such prestigious parties.  Can’t wait for all the fast cars and money to start rolling in!

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Oct 282013
 
Different speed limits apply for day and night...

Different speed limits apply for day and night time on this stretch of the U.S. Highway 1 on the Florida Keys (in a Key Deer habitat). Note the nonreflective backing of the day speed limit number. At night only the number on the lower sign is visible in the headlights. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A little less than a year ago, Ben Barreth and I were racing at Sadlers, and he asked one of the attendants what the secret was to a low time.  The attendant told him: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

See, if you go tearing around the track at top speed all the time, you’ll end up doing things like drifting around corners, brushing up against walls, and having to do massive changes of direction.  You feel this when you race; if you take a sharp corner at top speed, your wheels lock up against the track making that terrible screeching noise, and it takes all the speed out of you.  You have to start building up speed all over again.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the fastest way to get all the way through the system is not to crank up to your top speed the whole time; there are key times when you need to slow down to navigate difficult areas and, in the process, you end up going faster as a whole.

I’ve been getting back into my W. Edwards Deming reading (a man who was very clear that problems in American management are process problems, not people problems), and in the opening chapter of Out of the Crisis, he makes the main point that low quality is what’s holding many organizations back.  Low quality necessitates rework.  It makes customers unhappy.  And it isn’t free – someone gets paid good money to put those product defects in, and then someone gets paid to take them out.  He captures the “quality chain reaction” in a diagram that looks like this:

Improve quality -> Costs decrease because of less rework, fewer mistakes, fewer delays, snags; better use of machine-time and materials -> Productivity improves -> Capture the market with better quality and lower price -> Stay in business -> Provide jobs and more jobs

(Deming, Out of the Crisis, Chapter 1)

As one of many illustrations of various facets of quality, he brings up an example of a superintendent he was advising.  The first thing they did was measure the amount of defects produced over time, and they found that although the rate was variable, it was also fairly predictable (average 11% defective products over 30 days).  So, they had a nice, predictable system for producing bad stuff.

How do you get this number down?  Well, in this case, the people defined what counted as acceptable work and unacceptable work with examples of each, and made sure everyone understood.  This one act alone brought that 11% down to 5%.  That’s at least a 6% gain in productivity.  Then you start thinking about that remaining 5%.

The point is, a huge gain in speed was made when the group made a firm decision on what work would and would not be acceptable, and everyone knew what that meant.  Does that mean that it might have taken a little extra time to ensure what you were working on met the acceptable standards of quality?  Probably in some cases.  Would taking the extra time to meet quality standards take longer than finding the deficiencies later and fixing them?  Probably not.

Lowering your amount of rework is the cheapest, least disruptive way to move faster.

And there are many other benefits as well, especially when it comes to customers.  Defects take a toll on the customers who receive them.  It wears down trust, goodwill, and can ultimately drive them to look for someone else.  Driving your workers to produce faster at the expense of quality denies them the ability to feel pride in their work and a sense of craftsmanship and accomplishment.

Focusing on the quality of your work helps you get more high-quality product into the market faster, is more appealing to your customers, and is more enjoyable to your professionals.

Do you know empirically how much re-work accounts for your total workload and costs?  Do you have clear definitions of what’s acceptable quality and what isn’t?  Does everyone agree on those and agree what should happen when work is unacceptable?

Everyone wants to go faster, but just remember that productivity isn’t an open straightaway; it’s a system with sharp curves, critical decisions, and a dependency on a support structure that can only take so much wear and tear.  Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

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