Six Sigma and more: The rise and failure of management practice

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn reflects this month on the implications of relying on numbers and standards when it comes to performance, and what Deming said about this reliance.

Let’s begin with yet another recent example of a lack of understanding of the Perversity Principle, from a Times of India report:

Authorities in India have reportedly arrested some 300 people and expelled 600 students in connection with a massive cheating scandal in the northeastern state of Bihar, as 10th-graders from across the country sit for crucial examinations this week that will determine their educational future.

The crackdown follows the airing of television footage this week that showed parents, relatives and friends of the students scaling the outer walls of school buildings so they could pass cheat sheets to test-takers.

Dozens of people — said to be family members of the students — were seen climbing the walls of an exam centre and flinging answer sheets into various rooms where their wards were writing the exam in Bihar’s western Vaishali district (Times of India, March 21, 2015).

As this incident demonstrates, when the numbers determine a youngster’s future, those who love them take desperate measures.

This month, however, I want to reflect on a broader issue, how seemingly excellent management practices fail.

One of these practices was addressed by Dr. Deming: “Focus on outcomes (management by numbers, MBO, work standards, meet specifications, zero defects, appraisal of performance) must be abolished, leadership put in place” (Out of the Crisis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA: 1982). His 14 points offer further guidance:

10. Eliminate slogans, exhortation, and targets for the workforce.

11. Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.

12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship. Eliminate the annual rating or merit system.

Contrary to Dr. Deming’s philosophy, goal setting sounds like a good idea. There is solid theory that goal setting encourages motivation. The theory, however, speaks mostly to goal setting made by the person doing the work. In most organizational settings, goal setting is done by managers or staffers whose job it is to set goals, not do the work. Whoops.

I’ve discussed in other columns that MBO in most organization is a top-down driven process. The theory talks about it being a developed set of agreed-upon goals and objectives developed participatively. Whoops.

I’ve similarly discussed in previous columns the silliness of work standards where skillful, well-intended industrial engineers set up procedures and times for workers to do their jobs. Part of the process is for the engineers to observe the operation in question. Because the workers believe the engineers want to use the process to lay people off and to create an unbearable work situation, they create fictional situations for the engineers to observe. I recently ran across an old process by which work standards in equipment warranty repair facilities that are created by the payer of the warranty costs. The repair work payment is based on the standard, rather than the actual time and expense of doing the repair. One more time, those standards ignored the need for the repair facility to diagnose the problem before doing the repair. Whoops.

That’s enough. As we all know, our organizations violate Deming’s management practices everywhere, to their own detriment. Top-down, goal-driven Six Sigma efforts even exist in many organizations.

Why do our well-intended and even sometimes well-conceived management practices fail? I believe that Deming may have captured it when he said the transformation begins with me. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the incompetence of managers comes primarily from two phenomena:

  1. The Peter Principle that says we get promoted because we did a good job in our previous position that actually required an entirely different skill set.
  2. We tend to do what our boss did after we get promoted, even though we thought what our boss did was wrong at the time.

Upon further consideration, I think there is a third reason for managerial incompetence. I think some managers believe that they got ahead because they were smart and hardworking. That may be partially true, but it covers up an unconscious assumption we tend to make after our promotion. Because we got promoted, we must be smarter and more hard-working than the people who work for us. That is an unconscious assumption that is not useful.

The takeaway for me from this reflection is that maybe we need to pay more attention and be more open to a personal transformation if we want to prevent the failure of well-intentioned management and leadership practices. Mike Cleary was, I think, one of those leaders who was open to personal transformation and open to others. Barb Cleary’s poem at Mike’s funeral captures what I am trying to describe beautifully:

“Tell me your life story.”

Drawing strangers into talk,
You listened.
Listening to the guest whose wife had dragged
him to her school party,
Listened to the car wash guy, urging him
back in school.
Visited the shoeshine stand to see how Clem’s
life was going.
Stopped by the little baker in town to check
progress on building plans.
The old woman on the lake road could rattle on,
A keen ear to soften her complaints.
You knew the one selling fresh peas by the roadside,
earth darkening her fingernails.
And the dry cleaner where you picked up shirts and
paused to check on lives.
Finding the minutia of life endlessly fascinating,
you connected.
Now, struck dumb in loss, we remember and know.
We know you saw in others the goodness of creation
Connected both in hardship and in joy.
We know you saw in us the face of God.

—Barbara A. Cleary, 2014

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.