Trend prediction: Connections with customers matter

Barb ClearyAmong the “Ten top business trends that will drive success in 2016,” reported in an end-of-2015 Forbes article by author and consultant Ian Altman, was the point that “Top performing companies will focus on connecting customers.”

Citing examples that include Uber, Airbnb, Kickstarter, and others, Altman notes that these companies may own no real estate and have no funds to invest, and yet they are among highly successful firms in 2016. He attributes their success, in part, to the fact that in the case of Uber, for example, “they excel at connecting riders with drivers.” Baker predicts that “The most valuable companies will connect buyer to seller, or consumer to content.”

Does this signal a return to customer service as a priority?

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Sparking a chain reaction: Frederick Taylor, Deming, and work life

Barb ClearyWhen Frederick Winslow Taylor advanced the principles of “scientific management” in 1909, he was hailed as a master of efficient production. In the context of the new century’s focus on science, his principles were met with approval of manufacturers, who saw opportunities to improve productivity and enhance profitability.

The principles that Taylor advanced were based on the beliefs that there is one “right” way to do each job, that workers are motivated by money, and that close monitoring of processes assures that the most efficient methods could be applied. In one of his experiments, he studied the precise movements that were involved in bricklaying, timing each movement and outlining in specific step-by-step moves the most efficient way to lay bricks.

Taylor’s approach may indeed have improved productivity and streamlined processes in manufacturing. What it gained in efficiency, however, it lost in terms of pride of workmanship, individual responsibility, and the motive for innovation. Unfortunately, its effects linger even a century later in the attitudes of managers toward their workers and workers’ perceptions of their jobs. Its effects may even be seen in education, where rigorous testing assesses only master of highly specific content, with little emphasis on individual motivation or creativity.

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Are you bluffing quality?

Beth SavageBluffing in poker, if used wisely, can increase your chances of winning. Bluff too much though, and your opponents are on to you. Bluffing quality isn’t so different. Whimsical changes decreed from the top in the form of new quality teams, control charts displayed on large screens, and new buzzwords for everyone to learn might present a confident quality front to customers, employees, and auditors at first. These tactics might even, in some cases, result in improvements and cost savings.

At some point, though, your customers, employees, and other stakeholders will catch on. Unless significant changes in the way the organization operates are made, the gains will eventually slow to a crawl or stall completely. Why? Because the decrees at best temporarily change behavior, but the organization that created the quality issues remains fundamentally the same. When the “heat and light” that was used to alter the behavior is removed, the organization reverts to its former behaviors.

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Data management means better timing and an understanding of the wider system

Barb ClearyAs World Quality Month celebrations are replaced with attention to holiday celebrations and November’s focus fades into the distant past, facing a new year in the darkness of December may represent an opportunity to pay attention to issues related to developing and managing technology and contemplating the future of a company or organization.

Last month’s issue of Harvard Business Review, with a cover story related to “What really keeps CEOs awake at night,” addressed the timing of innovative technologies in an article authored by Ron Adner and Rahul Kapoor (https://hbr.org/2016/11/right-tech-wrong-time). We all know of technological innovations that have been released too late and missed the revolution (the article cites Blockbuster’s failure to address the shift from rentals to streaming, for example), as well as those that have been ready too soon, falling into a market that does not perceive their value.

To avoid the “right tech, wrong time” scenario, Adner and Kapoor suggest looking more closely at the ecosystems that support technologies. Understanding the competition between the new and the old ecosystems can help to assure more accurate predictions about the timing of transitions, and to render decisions about allocating resources more effective.

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In final months of the year, celebrating world quality

Barb ClearySetting aside time to celebrate quality offers an opportunity not only to reflect on our own quality improvement efforts, but also to recall other years and other celebrations, and to consider the history of the designation as well as of our own quality improvement efforts.

National Quality Month (October) started in 1988 in the U.S. and Canada, while Japan has been celebrating Quality Month (November) since 1960. World Quality Month was instituted in 2010, acknowledging the global impact that quality improvement has had on organizations, and recognizing that quality in products and services is important for organizations throughout the world.

The role of W. Edwards Deming and others is not to be forgotten as we reflect on the meaning of this month and recall its history.

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Diminished by misuse: Statistics in an alien world

Barb ClearyStatistics has gotten a bad rap. People love to quote Mark Twain (“There are lies, damn lies, and statistics,” alternatively attributed to Benjamin Disraeli), Vin Scully (“Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination”), or Stephen Leacock (“In ancient times they had no statistics so they had to fall back on lies”).

For statisticians, these jokes have become quite tedious. Avoiding small talk at cocktail parties where quips are likely to come up or lying about one’s profession (“I’m a kind of mathematician” sometimes works) are not really satisfying alternatives to the lines that people have saved to shower on the innocent professional. What’s a statistician to do?

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Myron Tribus: A legacy of quality

Barb ClearyMyron Tribus, friend of PQ Systems, died August 31 in Pensacola, FL at the age of 94. Tribus, known as an organizational theorist, was director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Study at MIT, and taught thermodynamics for much of his career. He is best known among quality professionals as a friend, supporter, and interpreter of W. Edwards Deming. For more than 20 years, he shared his expertise at quality conferences and through his prolific writing.  For his work with Pensacola in applying Deming’s principles, he was awarded the keys to the city, and received innumerable awards from quality professional organizations.

Tribus attended many of PQ Systems’ annual conferences, and in 1992 addressed participants as a keynote speaker, where he shared reminiscences about interactions with Deming. I recall a colorful story he shared in his presentation about his first meeting with Deming. This account had a lasting impression on me, as well as on other participants.

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Deming’s 14 Points: Innovation as An Outcome

Barb ClearyIn a rapidly changing business environment, it’s sometimes hard just to keep up with everyday demands—never mind having time to develop new and better approaches to changing requirements, needs, or markets. Staying ahead of the curve sounds as if it might demand working longer hours, hiring more people, or cloning oneself, none of which seem likely in the short term. So how does one manage to innovate in this environment?

The word “innovation” itself summons images of new products, or dramatically new approaches to customer needs, or a new version of a product or a new application of technology. Per Byland in Entrepreneur asserts that innovations often involve simply rethinking supply chains or factory operations, even in small ways that improve processes. With respect to Henry Ford’s car and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, “the factor that made these companies great wasn’t primarily technology; it was organization.”

By developing a mindset that continually asks, “How can this process be better?” organizations will find that innovation comes naturally. Fostering such a mindset lies at the heart of improvement as well as innovation.

It may be time to recall W. Edwards Deming and his 14 Points for Management that he outlined in chapter two of Out of the Crisis (MIT Press, 2000). Generally seen as keys to product and process improvement, they also reflect the process for innovation. Perhaps we can see these tried-and-true management principles in a new light.

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Statistics and asking the right question: Who IS the best home run hitter?

Barb ClearyBaseball generates what may be the greatest array of statistics of all sports. Aficionados love comparing records of home runs, hits, runs, doubles, triples, errors, batting averages, and other performance details, not only for individual players and teams, but also against historic records, sometimes collecting ammunition for a discussion with their brothers-in-law about who’s the best player or team, and how that player or team compares to record-breaking plays and players.

As with all statistics, sports statistics can be painfully distorted or innocently quoted to “prove” a point about a player or team. But statistics being statistics, they demand that any use of data respond to an appropriate question. Stats can be specious if the wrong question is being answered.  Let’s see how this works. Can you answer this simple baseball question? (Feel free to look up statistics to support your response.)

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