Talk BAout Employees

How did we get to this point, where firefighting is standard operating procedure? And how do we get out? Thirty years ago, the godfather of quality, W. Edwards Deming, addressed a similar situation with his book, Out of the Crisis (MIT, 1982). Japan had begun making products with high conformance quality at lower cost than poorer quality products made elsewhere. Many U.S. executives assumed Japanese exporters must be dumping products at a loss, and responded with price wars, cost cutting, and blame for American workers. In his book, Deming focused on how leaders could shift their organizations from a short-term focus on manipulating numbers to more ongoing, sustained success. Although his work is generally applied to manufacturing or routine services, many of Deming’s “14 points for management” can be adapted to help managers in knowledge-driven, professional businesses to dig their teams out of constant crisis. Here are just a few:

“Create constancy of purpose.” Without a sense of the bigger picture — what you are trying to accomplish and why it matters — people naturally default to fixing problems. Unfortunately, this approach never creates the level of delight or innovation that wins you customers for life. Deming encouraged managers to focus explicitly on a mission and longer-term goals to counter-balance the pull of immediate issues. This means defining clearly what you are promising to your customers, so employees know what they should strive to deliver. Even in highly dynamic environments, such a meaningful mission can provide constancy while tactics and strategies shift.

“Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.” Most leaders these days strive to hire talented people and let them find their own way to a goal. Then, confronted with haphazard approaches, poor coordination, and embarrassing snafus, leaders gradually end up adding checkpoints, approvals, and red tape. Neither extreme is ideal. Deming’s approach to processes focused on building quality in from the start — reducing reliance on inspection and even individual performance reviews. Even for highly professional work, developing a few simple, repeatable processes for doing things right the first time can drastically increase your quality output.