Deconstructing Deming VIII – Drive out fear

8. Drive out fear.

W Edwards Deming Point 8 of Deming’s 14 Points and quite my least favourite of all his slogans. As Harry Lime averred in the motion picture The Third Man:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

It’s a wisecrack and not analysis but I quote Lime to remind myself that fear isn’t inevitably the debilitating sentiment that Deming made it out to be. Inspirational writer Helen Keller vividly captured an alternative reality.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of humankind as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.

In Out of the Crisis, Deming recounts several anecdotes of corrosive fear in the workplace. He directs his criticism at managers who threaten their subordinates with dire consequences for future outcomes that are, in fact, beyond the control of the workers. There is a recurring theme in Deming’s writing, and it is a good one, that many of the factors that determine an outcome are often outside the control of the person superficially held answerable. Any business process is influenced by diverse sources of variation. The aggregate of those sources determines the capability of the process and provides a fundamental bound on its future performance. An incapable process will never meet the aspirations of the business. Berating the person who works within it will never improve it because intervention is needed to re-engineer the process. Blind attempts to coax more out of an incapable process generally lead to over adjustment and even worse outcomes.

However, there have to be some people in an organisation for whom it wasn’t my fault isn’t available as an analysis of unsatisfactory outcomes. Some people willingly and enthusiastically own the goal of re-engineering the business process, of achieving higher and higher degrees of capability, of influencing the organisation’s environment, desensitising the system to external variation, of (following Eliyahu Goldratt) bringing the constraint back inside the system, fostering radical thinking, of managing unknown and unknowable risks.

Brian Joiner used to argue that it was wishful thinking to expect a prescribed outcome next year when the responsible manager had been incapable of achieving it last. Yet business is always a matter of resources and priorities. Typically, people do not energetically pursue objectives whose importance has not been urged upon them. They already have plenty to do. It is simply disingenuous to suggest that telling somebody that something is critical, and that they will be rewarded only for achieving it, is ultimately inexpedient.

Some people must manage and take responsibility for outcomes. They are responsible for the business system. They can change it.

There is nothing wrong in holding those who have the power to effect change responsible for outcomes.

Alternatively, some employees are responsible principally for operating a process in a disciplined and repeatable way. They are not responsible if that process is ultimately incapable but they are answerable for any lack of discipline. Their managers expect them to operate in a disciplined way, so do their co-workers. They should have no comfort that safety and security will be the consequence of failure to do their job.

Those workers will though, I fear, not be able to rest easily just because they turn up and do their job conscientiously. If management fail to take on the goal of the continual improvement of the alignment between the voice of the process and the voice of the customer then their diligence will be in vain. As business leader Ian MacGregor observed:

Management is a calling and people ought to be dedicated to it. British managers have far too much security. A poor manager should be dumped. What’s at stake is the happiness of society, not the comfort of managers.

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