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Departments: SPC for the Real World

Davis Balestracci

Why Deming Was Such a Curmudgeon

Quality statistics aren't just about using control charts.



I attended a talk several months ago given by a world leader in quality who presented the data that became the basis for my column last month ("A Handy Technique"). I wrote and asked him for the data, then shared the analysis. Our e-mail correspondence follows:

World leader in quality: "A subtle issue you did not tackle is the political- managerial issue of communicating such insights to [the two special-cause counties] and the counties that thought they were 'different' but, statistically, aren't. I wonder what framework one could use to approach that psychological challenge."

Davis : "As I say to my audiences, 'Hey... I'm just the statistician, man!'

"I'm going to be hard on you here, but I think the issue is how people and leaders like you plan to facilitate these difficult conversations, which will be profoundly different--and more productive. This is the leadership that quality gurus keep alluding to and which seems to be in such short supply.

"I'd be a willing participant in these discussions, but my job is to keep you all out of the 'data swamp.'

"Although I'd love to pilot some of these conversations with you or other leaders, we must first figure out what this process should be. What we decide could help the quality improvement movement take a quantum leap forward, and that prospect is exciting.

"My point is that this 'language' must be a fundamental piece of any improvement process. People who understand the language and who are promoted because of it must lead the process. If this trend could become culturally inculcated, then the defensiveness would stop.

"The discussion would then focus, as it should, on process.

"I've seen far too much concern about 'hurting people's feelings.' This new focus would change that, as well as support conversations that could lead to appropriate action.

"That's what I've been saying for the last few years: We need new conversations, and this could be a key catalyst."

World leader in quality: "Nope. I don't buy it. Yes, I am a leader and need to carry the message. But I know you too well to let you off the hook. I'd love to see you try to lead these conversations and experiment with approaches. You're a leader, too."

Davis: "Give me an opportunity, and I will do my best to lead that conversation (and feel that we could begin by co- facilitating it). Have you fathomed the potential of this?"

I sent that last e-mail more than five months ago. I'm still waiting for a reply and/or opportunity. I haven't received a response to further e-mails.

Many of last month's examples of statistical principles are similar to what W. Edwards Deming demonstrated in his seminars. After 20 years of trying to teach these principles, I'm still amazed at the abject cowardice I see in leaders who abdicate the responsibility of understanding simple variation, not to mention the power such an understanding offers. Deming himself said, "If I had to reduce my message for management to just a few words, I'd say it all had to do with reducing variation."

To summarize this five-month sojourn into the deeper issues of quality, let's consider root cause analysis, another term bandied about.

An excellent article, "Root Cause Analysis: The Seven Deadly Sins of Quality Management," by John Dew ( Quality Progress, September 2003), discusses the seven issues that are considered root causes of quality problems--all entrenched in a culture of which my e-mail exchange is symptomatic:

1. Placing budgetary considerations ahead of quality

2. Placing schedule considerations ahead of quality

3. Placing political considerations ahead of quality

4. Being arrogant

5. Lacking fundamental knowledge, re-‑ search or education

6. Pervasively believing in entitlement

7. Practicing autocratic behavior that results in "endullment" rather than empowerment


Regarding items four and five, I believe that quality professionals have made huge strides in speaking the language of senior management. However, in many organizations, senior management still doesn't understand the fundamental lessons of quality and, frankly, isn't interested in learning them. Could it be that few quality managers make it into senior management positions because senior management doesn't really believe in quality concepts?

So, am I the only one who sees the potential implications of this simple example? The only people who truly don't seem to "get it" or want to get it are collecting large salaries to: draw circles around numbers; look at smiley faces, bar graphs, trend lines and traffic lights; compare numbers to goals and throwing tantrums; and teach and take L-E-E-E-E-dership courses.


About the author
Davis Balestracci is a member of the American Society for Quality and past chair of its statistics division. Visit his Web site at www.dbharmony.com .