If W. Edwards Deming could see what you’re doing, he’d punch you in the face. OK, not really. He may have been brutally honest in his lectures, but I don’t think he ever punched anyone. However, he would have plenty to say about how often one business copies (I believe the term today is “benchmarks”) the good ideas from another business with no thought about context. Why is it that if we hear about another organization’s idea—particularly one that claims to have a positive influence on business performance—we’ll try to copy it?
One of the maddest business-improvement ideas I've seen recently was “Take Your Dog to Work Day,” which swept through U.S. workplaces on June 24, 2011. That story, all about the fully-flowing positivity of taking an animal to the office, was treated to a full-page spread in the Guardian. Included in bold typeface was a survey of 3,000 office workers conducted by the Bio Agency (why these outfits can’t do research on something that might benefit all of humanity escapes me). Apparently 55 percent of those canvassed admitted they would feel more motivated if they had a pet in the office.
Before all you pet lovers (that does also include me) start sharpening your poison pens to respond, let me expand on why copying an improvement idea from one business to another is not always the best plan of action.
A good friend of mine likes to call me up occasionally to talk over “business.” Once he asked for some advice when he was tasked to head an investigation that had been initiated in response to a customer complaint. The problem was so significant that my friend’s company assigned him to lead a small team full-time, which took him away from his normal duties until the issue was fully resolved. From his investigation he found that the factors leading to the failure were many and complex.
Now and again, while he was struggling to see the end of the analysis tunnel, he’d remark that all he could see were problems layered on problems, and that he was just sinking deeper. So I would keep him focused on the “system” that created the failure, and ask why that system had not prevented the failure from escaping the factory gates. That he would reluctantly admit to this (a rarity because he’s a stubborn chap), helped him significantly.
Over a beer and pizza sometime later, we caught up before his mammoth report, packed full of evidence, was due for submission to his upper management. Talking over the contributing factors to the problem, he described the subcause of the process failure. Our exchange went something like this:
“The assembly that the failure was centered around didn’t get its final check before its dispatch on the late Friday afternoon pick-up,” my friend explained.
“Why did that happen?” I asked.
“There were no technical approvers around to support and approve it, but because it was an urgent delivery, it had to go.”
So we talked about why his organization delivers only on a Friday, the culture in the business, the methods used, and finally, the “system.” I learned there were no technical approvers around because the company’s “Human Remains” staff (his name for HR) changed the workdays policy for the technical department so it could have Friday afternoons off.
I sat there stunned, partly by what he said and partly because my brain was screaming that layers of taste buds were being melted off by the liquid magma cheese on the pizza crust. Then my mind flicked into gear like a race driver overtaking a rival at the Monaco Grand Prix. I framed the obvious question, which I managed to voice following the cooling effects of a glug of beer: “So why would your HR give the tech guys Friday afternoons off if they are a part of the manufacture and delivery process?”
“Well, during the last year the technical department has lost a lot of engineers to companies on the north side of town,” he said. “These places offer a similar salary package, but also a nine-day fortnight.” This means that engineers at the other companies have every other Friday off work, or nine working days out of 10.
Other than thinking that was a sweet deal, and how do I apply, I inquired, “So what’s that got to do with your tech team?”
“The dead heads in Human Remains”—my friend clearly wasn’t enamored by his company’s personnel support—“wanted to stop the attrition by introducing the nine-day fortnight. Upper management wouldn’t agree because we’re active all through the working week, so the compromise was for half-day Fridays.”
There you have it, a perfect example of why not to copy an idea that works for another company. Through not understanding the cause of staff turnover, management—with the best of intentions, I believe—made a change to improve the situation. But because the risks and potential impact of the change weren’t assessed, business took a turn for the worse, which resulted in a customer complaint.
I’ve personally learned, at times the hard way, that you can’t simply cut and paste from one business model to another.
Long ago, when consulting for Ford, Deming said, “American management thinks they can just copy from Japan—but they don’t know what to copy.” (The Deming Management Method, Perigee Books, 1988). His comment is as relevant today for my friend as it was for Ford. It’s easy for anyone to emulate others in the short term; however, the true test is to learn for oneself. The rewards are far greater, and they last far longer.
Continuing with Deming, I mean no offense by this column’s opening line. I believe that he was a peaceful individual and a generous soul. After reading Cecilia Kilian’s The World of W. Edwards Deming (SPC Press, 1992), I learned that he would donate his lecturing fees, during his travels in the 1950s in Japan, back into the improvement of that devastated country. My opinion that he was a brilliant philosopher was changed to believing he was a great human being.
And now to return to the idea of pets at work. Here’s why it’s mad: If I were to bring a box of kittens or puppies into your workplace, would you honestly focus on your customer that day?