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.

Deconstructing Deming VII – Adopt and institute leadership

7. Adopt and institute leadership.

W Edwards Deming Point 7 of Deming’s 14 Points. This point leaves me with some of the same uncertainty as Point 6 Institute training on the job. But everybody thinks they know what training is. Leadership is a much more elusive concept.

In a recent review of Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Times (London) 12 April 2014), Philip Collins observed as follows.

The problem with Brown’s book is his idea that there is a single entity called “leadership” that covers all these categories. It does not follow from the existence of leaders that there is such a thing as “leadership”. It may be no more possible to distil wisdom on leadership than it is on love. Every lover is different, I would imagine. There doesn’t seem to be much profit in the attempt to set out a theory of “lovership” as if there were common traits in every act of seduction.

Collins identifies a common discomfort. Yet there remain good and bad leaders, as there are good and bad lovers. All who aspire to improve must start by distinguishing the characteristics of the good and the bad.

Deming elaborates his own Point 7 further in Out of the Crisis and, predictably, several distinct positions emerge. I identify four but they don’t all help me understanding what leadership is.

1. Abolish focus on outcomes

Deming’s point is well taken that, for the statistically naïve, day to day management based on historical outcomes typically leads to over adjustment, what Deming called tampering. The consequences are increased operating costs that have been themselves induced by the over active management.

However, outcomes must be the overriding benchmark by which all management is measured. The problem with the over adjustment that flows from a lack of rigorous criticism of data is that it frustrates the very outcomes it aspired to serve. There has ultimately to be some measure of success and failure, an outcome. That is the inevitable focus of every leader.

2. Remove barriers to pride in workmanship

This is picked up at greater depth in Deming’s Point 12. I shall come back to it then.

3. Leaders must know the work they supervise

Alan Clark was a British politician, a very minor, and comically gaff prone, minister in the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He is now mostly remembered as a notorious self styled bon viveur and womaniser. His diaries are as scandalous as they are apocryphal. A good read for those who like that sort of thing.

In 1961, Clark published an historical work about the First World War, The Donkeys. The book adopted a common popular sentiment of mid-twentieth-century Britain, that the enlisted men of the war were lions led by donkeys. The donkeys were the officer class, their leaders. Clark helped to reinforce the idea that the private soldier was brave and capable, but betrayed by a self styled elite who failed to equip and direct them with commensurate valour. Historian Basil Liddell Hart endorsed Clark’s proofs.

To be fair there is legitimate controversy about the matter. But I think that now academic, and certainly popular, sentiment has swung the other way, no longer regarding the leaders as incompetent and indifferent, but rather as diligent and compassionate though overwhelmed. Historian Robin Neillands put it thus:

… the idea that they were indifferent to the sufferings of their men is constantly refuted by the facts, and only endures because some commentators wish to perpetuate the myth that these generals, representing the upper classes, did not give a damn what happened to the lower orders.

I find Deming content to perpetuate a similar trope about industrial managers in his writings. In Out of the Crisis:

There was a time, years ago, when a foreman selected his people, trained them, helped them, worked with them. He knew the job. … Supervision on the factory floor is, I fear, in many companies, an entry position for college boys and girls [sic] to learn about the company, six months here, six months there. … He does not understand the problem. and could get nothing done about it if he did.

I frankly don’t know where to start with that. It goes on. I constantly see Deming’s followers approving and sharing this sort of article. They all simply have the whiff of lamp oil about them. They fail to ring true and betray the same sort of lazy, chippy, defensive emotions as the donkeys attribution.

Other than in the simplest of endeavours, perhaps a window cleaning business, perhaps, the value of an enterprise flows from the confluence and integration of diverse materials, skills, technologies, knowledge and people. A manager or leader is the person who makes that confluence occur. But for the manager it would not have happened. Inevitably that means that the leader’s domain knowledge of any particular element is limited. It is the manager’s ability to absorb and assimilate information from a variety of sources that enables the enterprise. Leadership demands capacity to trust that other people know what they are doing, and to use the borrowing strength of diverse sources of information to signal when assumptions are betrayed. The hope that the leader can be a craft master of all he or she seeks to integrate is forlorn.

4. Leaders understand variation

I dealt with this under Point 6. It is a strong point. Without understanding of statistics, rigorous criticism of historical data is impossible. Signal and noise cannot be efficiently separated. That leads to over adjustment, tampering, increased costs and frustrated outcome. Only managers who are not held to outcomes will ultimately be indulged in an innumerate pursuit of over adjustment. But it takes a long time for things to shake out.

The role of a manager of people

Deming wrote under this head in his last book The New Economics. There are another 14 points with overlaps and extensions of his original 14. A lot of it expands Principal Point 12. I will need to come back to them at another time. However, Deming certainly saw a leader as somebody with a plan and an ability to explain the plan to the workforce.

Attempts to define leadership abound yet no single one is, to me, compelling. However, part of it must be engagement with strategy. Strategy is the way of dealing with the painful experience that plans do not survive for very long. I liked the way Lawrence Freedman put it in his recent Strategy: A History.

The strategist has to accept that even when there is an obvious climax (a battle or an election), the story line will still be open-ended … leaving a number of issues to be resolved later. Even when the desired endpoint is reached, it is not really the end, The enemy may have surrendered, the election won, the target company taken over, the revolutionary opportunity seized, but that just means there is now an occupied country to run, a new government to be formed, a whole new revolutionary order to be established, or distinctive sets of corporate activities to be merged. … The transition is immediate and may well be conditional on how the original endpoint was reached. This takes us back to the observation that much strategy is about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination. Rather than think of strategy as a three-act play, it is better to think of it as a soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes. Each of these episodes will be self-contained and set up the subsequent episode. Unlike a play with a definite ending, there is no need for a soap opera to ever reach a conclusion, even though the central characters and their circumstances change.

That leads us to my first response to Deming’s Point 7.

  • Leaders take responsibility for aligning outcomes to targets.
  • Targets are in constant motion.
  • Continual rigorous statistical criticism of historical data is the way to align outcomes and targets, by avoiding over adjustment and by navigating the sort of strategic soap opera Freedman describes.
  • Leaders need to trust that their team know what they are doing.
  • Leaders use the borrowing strength of diverse data to monitor performance.

There is much else to leadership. I have not addressed people or engagement. That takes me back to Deming’s Principal Point 12 (yet to come). I want to look closely at those topics at a later time within the framework of Max Weber’s ethics of responsibility.

I also want to come back to Freedman’s narrative approach to strategy and the work of G L S Shackle on statisics, economics and imagination. It will have to wait.

Deconstructing Deming VI – Institute training on the job

6. Institute training on the job.

W Edwards Deming Point 6 of Deming’s 14 Points. I think it was this point that made me realise that everybody projects their own anxieties onto Deming’s writings and finds what they want to find there.

Deming elaborates this point further in Out of the Crisis and several distinct positions emerge. I identify nine. In many ways, the slogan Institute training on the job is no very good description of what Deming was seeking to communicate. Not everything sits well under this heading.

“Training”, along with its sagacious uncle, “education” is one of those things that every one can be in favour of. The systems by which the accumulated knowledge of humanity are communicated, criticised and developed are the foundations of civilisation. But like all accepted truths some scrutiny repays the time and effort. Here are the nine topics I identified in Out of the Crisis.

1. People don’t spend enough on training because the benefits do not show on the balance sheet

This was one of Deming’s targets behind his sixth point. It reiterates a common theme of his. It goes back to the criticisms of Hayes and Abernathy that managers were incapable of understanding their own business. Without such understanding, a manager would lack a narrative to envision the future material rewards of current spending. Cash movements showed on the profit and loss account. The spending became merely an overhead to be attacked so as to enhance the current picture of performance projected by the accounts, the visible figures.

I have considered Hayes and Abernathy’s analysis elsewhere. Whatever the conditions of the early 1980s in the US, I think today’s global marketplace is a very different arena. Organisations vie to invest in their people, as this recent Forbes article shows (though the author can’t spell “bellwether”). True, the article confirms that development spending falls in a recession but cash flow and the availability of working capital are real constraints on a business and have to be managed. Once optimism returns, training spend takes off.

But as US satirist P J O’Rourke observed:

Getting people to give vast amounts of money when there’s no firm idea what that money will do is like throwing maidens down a well. It’s an appeal to magic. And the results are likely to be as stupid and disappointing as the results of magic usually are.

The tragedy of so many corporations is that training budgets are set and value measured on how much money is spent, in the idealistic but sentimental belief that training is an inherent good and that rewards will inevitably flow to those who have faith.

The reality is that it is only within a system of rigorous goal deployment that local training objectives can be identified so as to serve corporate strategy. Only then can training be designed to serve those objectives and only then can training’s value be measured.

2. Root Cause Analysis

The other arena in which the word “training” is guaranteed to turn up is during Root Cause Analysis. It is a moral certainty that somebody will volunteer it somewhere on the Ishikawa diagram. “To stop this happening again, let’s repeat the training.”

Yet, failure of training can never be the root cause of a problem or defect. Such an assertion yields too readily to the question Why did lack of training cause the failure?. The Why? question exposes that there was something the training was supposed to do. It could be that the root cause is readily identified and training put in place as a solution. But, the question could expose that, whatever the perceived past failures in training, the root cause, that the training would have purportedly addressed, remains obscure. Forget worrying about training until the root cause is identified within the system.

In any event, training will seldom be the best way of eliminating a problem. Redesign of the system will always be the first thing to consider.

3. Train managers and new employees

Uncontroversial but I think Deming overstated businesses’ failure to appreciate this.

4. Managers need to understand the company

Uncontroversial but I think Deming overstated businesses’ failure to appreciate this.

5. Managers need to understand variation

So much of Deming’s approach was about rigorous criticism of business data and the diligent separation of signal and noise. Those are topics that certainly have greater salience than a quarter of a century ago. Nate Silver has done much to awaken appetites for statistical thinking and the Six Sigma discipline has alerted the many to the wealth of available tools and techniques. Despite that, I am unpersuaded that genuine statistical literacy and numeracy (both are important) are any more common now than in the days of the first IBM PC.

Deming’s banner headline here is Institute training on the job. I think the point sits uncomfortably. I would have imagined that it is business schools and not employers who should apply their energies to developing and promoting quantitative skills in executives. One of the distractions that has beset industrial statistics is its propensity to create a variety of vernacular approaches with conflicting vocabularies and competing champion priorities: Taguchi methods, Six Sigma, SPC, Shainin, … . The situation is aggravated by the differential enthusiasms between corporations for the individual brands. Even within a single strand such as Six Sigma there is a frustrating variety of nomenclature, content and emphasis.

It’s not training on the job that’s needed. It is the academic industry here that is failing to provide what business needs.

6. Recognise that people learn in different ways

Of this I remain unpersuaded. I do not believe that people learn to drive motor cars in different ways. It can’t be done from theory alone. It can’t be done by writing a song about it. it comes from a subtle interaction of experience and direction. Some people learn without the direction, perhaps because they watch Nelly (see below).

Many have found a resonance between Deming’s point and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. I fear this has distracted from some of the important themes in business education. As far as I can see, the theory has no real empirical support. Professor John White of the University of London, Institute of Education has firmly debunked the idea (Howard Gardner : the myth of Multiple Intelligences).

7. Don’t rely on watch Nelly

After my academic and vocational training as a lawyer, I followed a senior barrister around for six months, then slightly less closely for another six months. I also went to court and sat behind barristers in their first few years of practice so that I could smell what I would be doing a few months later.

It was important. So was the academic study and so was the classroom vocational training. It comes back to understanding how the training is supposed to achieve its objectives and designing learning from that standpoint.

8. Be inflexible as to work standards

This is tremendously dangerous advice for anybody lacking statistical literacy and numeracy (both).

I will come back to this but it embraces some of my earlier postings on process discipline.

9. Teach customer needs

This is the gem. Employee engagement is a popular concern. Employees who have no sight of how their job impacts the customer, who pays their wages, will soon see the process discipline that is essential to operational excellence as arbitrary and vexatious. Their mindfulness and diligence cannot but be affected by the expectation that they can operate in a cognitive vacuum.

Walter Shewhart famously observed that Data have no meaning apart from their context. By extension, continual re-orientation to the Voice of the Customer gives meaning to structure, process and procedure on the shop floor; it resolves ambiguity as to method in favour of the end-user; it fosters extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivation; and it sets the external standard by which conduct and alignment to the business will be judged and governed.

The Productivity Paradox

File:City of London skyline at dusk.jpgThis last week saw a further report from the Bank of England that UK productivity has fallen inexplicably behind the nation’s aspirations. There is a compelling picture of the development of productivity over time on the Office of National Statistics (“ONS”) website here.

There is general puzzlement, and disquiet, among UK economists as to why productivity is not improving. It seems to suggest that cutting the costs of production is not at the top of UK business agendas. It’s true that there are other important things to worry about: design and redesign of products and services, reputation, customer experience, workplace engagement, safety and sustainability.

But I suspect that there is nothing more important than productivity. It is only by learning how to do more with less that resources can be freed up to develop novel income streams. Even on matters of safety and environment, it is the efficient organisation that finds the resources to take those matters seriously.

The road to increased productivity is well mapped out. The continual improvement of the alignment between the Voice of the Process and the Voice of the Customer, by the means of diligent criticism of historical data is an open secret.

Bang! UK Passport Office hits the kerb

Her Majesty's Passport OfficeThe UK’s Passport Office is in difficulties. They have a backlog that is resulting in customers’ passport applications being delayed. This is not a mere internal procedural inconvenience. The public has noticed the problem and started complaining. Emergency measures are being put in place to deal with the backlog. Politicians have become involved and are looking over their shoulders at their careers.

It is a typical organisational mess. There is a problem. Resources are thrown at it. Personalities wager their reputations. Any hero able to solve the problem will be feted and rewarded. There will be blame and punishment. Solutions will involve huge cost. The costs will be passed on to the customer because, in the end, there is no one else to pay.

A suggestion for investigation

From the outside, it is impossible to know the realities of what has caused the problem at HM Passport Office. However, I think I can respectfully and tentatively suggest some questions to ask in any inquiry as to how the mess occurred.

  • Had any surprising variation in passport processing occurred before the crisis hit?
  • If so, what action, if any, was taken?
  • Why was the action ineffective?
  • If no surprising variation was observed, were the managers measuring “upstream” indicators of process performance in addition to mere volumes?
  • Was historic data routinely interrogated to find signals among the noise?
  • If signals were only observed once it was too late to protect the customer, was the issuing process only marginally capable?

“Managing the passport issuing process on historical data is like …”

… trying to drive a car by watching the line in the rear-view mirror.

Myron Tribus

And, of course, that is what HM Passport Office and every manager has to do. There is only historical data. There is no data on the future. You cannot see out of the windscreen of the organisational SUV. Management is about subjecting the historic experience base to continual, rigorous statistical criticism to separate signal from noise. It is about having a good rear view mirror.

A properly managed, capable process will operate reliably, well within customer expectations. In process management terms, the Voice of the Process will be reliably aligned with the Voice of the Customer.

Forever improving the capability of the process gives it the elbow room or “rattle space” within which signals can occur that the customer never perceives. Those signals could represent changes in customer behaviour, problems within the organisation, or external events that have an impact. But the fact that they are unnoticed by the customer does not mean those signals are unimportant or can be neglected. It is by taking action to investigate those signals when they are detected, and by making necessary adjustments to work processes, that a future crisis can be averted.

While the customer is unaffected, the problem can be thoroughly investigated, solutions considered calmly and alternative remedies tested. Because the problem is invisible to the outside world there will be no sense of panic, political pressure, cash-flow deficit, reputational damage or destruction of employee engagement. The matter can be addressed soundly and privately.

Continual statistical analysis is the “rear view mirror”. It gives an historical picture as to how well the Voice of the Process emulates the Voice of the Customer. Coupled with a “roadmap” of the business, some supportive data from the “speedometer” and a little basic numeracy, the “rear view mirror” enables sensible predictions to be made about the near future.

Without that historical data, properly presented on live process behaviour charts to provide running statistical insight, then there is no rear view mirror. That is when the only business guidance is the Bang! when the organisation hits the kerb.

It looks like that is what happened at HM Passport Office. Everything was fine until the customers started complaining to the press. Bang! That’s how it looks to the customer and that is the only reality that counts.