This column aims at the controversial. Deming’s ideas relating to people have been, if not controversial, very often not implemented. Why? Let us reflect…

First there is Deming’s ‘94/6’ rule. 94% of problem causes relate back to process, only 6% to people. But ‘people’ are often blamed first. Is this a question that 94/6 is simply not be lieved? Well, as TWI Job Relations step 1 suggests: ‘Get the Facts’. This includes finding out what rules and customs apply, and ‘be sure you have the whole story.’ I would hope many have now seen John Seddon’s video (on the Vanguard web site) where an insurance manager is absolutely convinced that 94/6 is wrong, but then listens first-hand to customer queries and ends up converted. It is as well to remember the old ‘Tell me how you will measure (and reward) me and I’ll tell you what I will do’. Mager and Pipe, in their classic work on performance problems, take a Deming-like view when they suggest four up-front questions: ‘Are resources available?’ (like time), ‘Is performance punishing?’, ‘Is non-performance rewarding?’ and ‘Does performance make a difference?’

Maybe the Western way to seek individual blame is the quick ‘n easy, but non-thinking first reaction. Eastern culture is much more about ‘us’. And then there is ‘respect’: expecting performance whilst not providing time, support, feedback, and real listening is deeply disrespectful… Are those characteristics hints to sustainability problems?

Then there is Deming’s ‘Profound Knowledge’. The four categories are a great checklist. The problem, said Deming, was with managers. Managers often:

  • don’t appreciate the system. They have a myopic view of their own tasks, but often fail to see the end-to-end system. Of course this works at many levels: shift-to-shift, section-to-section, site-to-site, end-to-end. The ‘solution’ is not to send people to row a boat in the Lake District, but to seek to understand the interactions.
  • don’t appreciate variation. How much reward and ‘punishment’ is handed out due to pure chance? If there is natural variation, good performance is likely to be followed by less good performance, and vice versa. Hence one may learn not to praise good performance, because poor performance will follow, but to warn about poor performance because good will follow. From Kingman’s equation, we learn that it is relative variation that is important, not absolute variation. Hence, overstandardisation is pure waste.
  • don’t have a good learning process, like PDSA – including (critically) experimental method and reflection. Do you have 20 years experience, or one year 20 times?
  • favour extrinsic reward over intrinsic rewards. The futility of extrinsic rewards has been popularly discussed in Daniel Pink’s Drive, and Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, but the myth persists. Recently, studies at Harvard have shown the power of motivation by continual ‘small wins’. Surely, this is further justification for good leader standard work becoming a basic requirement for lean success.

Deming laid these tenets 40 years ago. Wow! How long does it take to learn?