Deconstructing Deming XI A – Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce

11. Part A. Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce.

W Edwards DemingI find this probably the most confused part of Deming’s thinking. Carefully reading Out of the Crisis (at pp70-75) Deming’s attack is not on standardised work, that is advocated as central to his message, but against specifications for the volume of work: calls answered per hour, finished parts per day.

Deming recognises management’s need to predict costs and revenues but condemns quotas as destructive of achieving productivity.

Deming also deprecates such quotas as corroding workplace pride. I shall return to that in Point 12.

Deming’s criticism of work quotas goes as follows.

  • Some individuals may achieve them easily and their productive capacity will then stand idle.
  • Some individuals may struggle and suffer poor moral.
  • Some individuals may compromise quality so as to make a quota or so as to make it sooner.
  • Achievement of quotas may be frustrated by faults in “the system” which are outside the individual worker’s control.

Deming gives the following example of how he would advise financial planning in a call centre of 500 people (at pp73-74).

  1. Set a preliminary budget.
  2. Make it clear to every one of the 500 that their aim is to give satisfaction to the customer, to take pride in their work.
  3. Everybody will keep a record of calls made.
  4. Customers with special problems will be referred to the supervisor.
  5. At the end of each week, sample 100 individuals’ record and summarise the data.
  6. Repeat steps 2 to 5 for several weeks.
  7. Analyse the data.
  8. Establish a continuing study following the above steps but on a reducing basis.
  9. Use the data to predict costs.

Now there is much merit in forecasting costs based on actual data. Further, improving performance based on the relentless criticism of historical data is essential. However, I think Deming’s prescription naïve and idealistic. The trick is to extract the ideals and industrialise them.

Planning

The simple matter is that any new enterprise has to be established on the basis of a robust business plan. There is competition for resources: people, capital, infrastructure … and everyone has to make their case. It is impossible to do that without judgment. No matter how much historical data or even qualitative experience is to hand we cannot simply project it into the future without establishing further conditions (RearView). It is unlikely this can ever be done exactly in a new establishment.

That competition for resources then prevents us from taking an overly conservative view of what can be achieved. Setting the bar too low for call centre operators starts off from an uncompetitive position. Further, the modest answering rate in the plan has to be resourced with infrastructure. Intentions to improve the answering rate post-launch are all very well but what will happen to the personnel and materiel that we bought in to accommodate the unambitious start-up?

Sometimes work needs to be set at a rate that is recognised by a team of co-workers and other parts of the organisation. Excess production is as contrary to the philosophy of lean operations as is shortage. The idea of takt time allows production lines to be balanced, receipts and deliveries co-ordinated, stock turns to be minimised and cash flows improved. In many situations that is sufficient to answer Deming’s fears about individuals distorting production to bank an accomplished target.

Stretch

What is now proved was once but imagined.

William Blake

Is it so wrong to set a target that nobody involved has seen achieved before? Deming would say that it was fine so long as there was a plan defining the means by which this could be achieved. There are many compelling stories from sports science telling how records have been broken by incremental improvement (e.g. Dave Brailsford and the GB cycling team).

But what about setting an ambitious stretch target without a plan for achieving it? That would be brave indeed. It would be based on no more than an exhortation to the call centre operators to work more furiously, more furiously than anyone had ever done before. I cannot say that would never work. In my athletics days I ran some of my best times when team mates were urging me on from the sidelines. However, as a business strategy it faces the social realities of employees’ collective ability to resist quietly that to which they do not assent. With a carefully recruited and motivated team it could work. It would certainly require a high degree of collective problem solving and improvement by the operators. But of all strategies for operational excellence it looks the most limited and the most risky. There is no obvious Plan B.

The Ringelmann effect

There is a tension between unrealistic stretch targets and a further problem that Deming ignores entirely, the Ringelmann effect. It may sadden the hearts of those who believe in the inherent fulfilling joy of work and best intentions of workers to do a good job but evidence is overwhelming that there are situations where individuals exert less effort in a group environment than they would if acting individually.

In 1913, Max Ringelmann conducted experiments that showed that individuals pulled less strenuously on a rope when pulling in a group than when pulling alone.

A realistically set and communicated takt time can assist in concentrating effort and communicating common work standards and the expectations of peers.

The poor supervisor

If Deming was so pessimistic as to believe that workers would sacrifice quality to hit targets then they would surely be more than happy to shunt enquiries off to their supervisor in order to post commendable performance. All that Deming’s proposal does is to divert the whole problem of difficult calls to the supervisor who, presumably, is either beset with his own performance problems or operates outside business measurement.

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The truth behind takt time

A few months ago my wife ordered a hole punch from Amazon one evening. It cost £5.49. The following morning at 8.00 there was a knock at the door. The hole punch was delivered.

That really is as much as I know for a fact about Amazon’s business processes. I was, therefore, shaken by an item on BBC News alleging Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’. I don’t think the quotes make that anything other than an alarming headline. The item trailed a BBC documentary The Truth Behind The Click. UK readers can see the documentary here on BBC iPlayer. I thought that I would wait until I watched the documentary before I commented.

Having now watched it, I think it is difficult to draw any conclusions from the programme. Its tone was so plainly tendentious. The BBC had sent a covert reporter with a video camera into an Amazon warehouse, he having misrepresented himself as a job seeker. Some of the video, taken from the perspective of an Amazon employee picking in a warehouse, looked to me as though it was shown speeded up.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an expert in public health, was shown the video, I presume the same limited and selective one shown on the BBC. He observed that:

The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows, increase the risk of mental illness and physical illness.

Sadly there is no analysis. We were not told what characteristics, what the supposed levels of safety or what the supporting evidence. There was no quantitative data drawn from more than one individual.

Part of the problem with the programme was, I think, that three principle issues have been conflated here.

  • The general nature of repetitive manual work.
  • The psychological impact of working to an externally set “drum beat”.
  • The physical and cognitive effects of working at a particular rate.

Repetitive work

Repetitive work has always been with us. Some people find in it dignity and liberation. The Buddhist practice of samu, repetitive physical work performed with mindfulness, is part of Zen spiritual dicipline and the quest for enlightenment. Conversely, socialist pioneer William Morris believed that we should all be composing epic poems in our heads while sat weaving at the loom.

That being said, such work is not for everybody. I got the impression that Amazon were fairly clear to new employees as to what was involved. This is where recruitment is a key business process, identifying people who will fit with this type of role and stick with it.

However, I see nothing in general sinister about such work.

Drum beat

What delivered that hole punch so quickly was the “drum beat” that regulates work along the supply chain. This is a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System and lean operations generally.

The takt time specifies the rate at which products are being despatched to customers. That sets the rate at which pickers need to work. If the pickers work too quickly then packages build up in front of the despatch area. If too slowly, the despatch area stands idle. Both entail cost or delay that has to be passed on to the customer. The customer suffers.

The programme interviewed workers who felt the “drum beat”, announced through the bleep on a hand held electronic scanner, dehumanising. The BBC journalist clearly shared their view. The workers felt this deprived them of autonomy. They felt that they were not encouraged to think of [them]selves as human beings.

We do not show enough respect for boring work. We tend to sentimentalise and even glamorise the sort of active participation in work that too often results from having to resolve a non-conformance, a defect, a delay or an emergency. That is not useful work, no matter how much satisfaction it offers the employee.

I sometime sense a bien pensant nostalgia for the days when millions were employed in repetitive tasks on piece work. I think the BBC especially self indulgent on this matter. Piece work of course incentivises a worker to produce as much as they can even if that increases costs to the company in storing it until it can be used, if it ever is. The benefit of the drum is that the worker is required to produce no more or less than society needs. The laudable aim of lean operations is to reduce waste, Toyota use the Japanese term muda.

What I think was missing at Amazon was engagement of all employees in improvement. The usual quid pro quo for diligently following the drum is that part of the day is spent off-line in improvement work where an employee can, if so inclined, exercise their ingenuity. However, I am aware that the BBC reporter was recruited for the Christmas rush. That is not a period that anybody devotes to improvement work. Production is king. Improvement should have been prioritised earlier in the year when volumes were slow.

I think though that there is still an opportunity for a periodic review of the voice of the customer with all staff. It is focus on the customer that ultimately legitimises and justifies the discipline. I think Amazon staff would appreciate being reminded of just how quickly their orders are getting to customers, the variety of desires satisfied so promptly and the volume of transactions despatched, all through their discipline and focus on the drum.

Perhaps Amazon do this but the reporter didn’t stick around long enough to hear.

Work rate

This is the toughest part of the allegations to analyse. Was the takt time just set too quick for human capability? There is probably some flexibility in setting the rate for any individual as capacity can be increased by employing more pickers. There must be some limit on the number of pickers as the warehouse aisles will only accommodate so many on the move. However, as I said above, I found the overall tone of the programme so tendentious that I cannot take its criticisms at face value. No analysis by Professor Marmot was presented. Amazon have serious legal obligations to provide their workers with a safe system of work and to carry out health surveillance. Amazon have to cope with the real costs of absenteeism, staff turnover and litigation. I would be surprised if they had not analysed work demands thoroughly and diligently.

I do confess to feeling uncomfortable at the practice of terminating employment on the third consecutive day’s sick leave but, ultimately, it is a matter for Amazon.

I think that my conclusion from watching the programme is that it is critical to maintain all employees’ extrinsic motivation by the voice of the customer through constant review and emphasis of how an individual’s discipline contributes to the overall market impact. Goal deployment helps. Beyond that, I’m not persuaded by the BBC’s criticism.