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Davis Balestracci


Is It Time for a Self-Check?

‘Too busy?’ Careful: It’s so easy to confuse activity with impact

Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 12:03

I always enjoy my fellow columnist Arun Hariharan’s musings. He has worked in the field of quality for more than 30 years and, like me, has obtained reasonable results. But he has also made his share of the inevitable growing-pain mistakes—lessons we both had to learn the hard way in an environment totally different from today’s.

I would like to share some of his thoughts about qualities that make one successful as an improvement professional regardless of circumstances. This column will focus on one of the most important.

Ability to execute or implement

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”
—U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower (1956)

Hariharan: “I’ve come across a few armchair philosophers who became quality professionals. They would complain that nobody in the business listened to them. I’ve learned that one of the most important qualities needed to be successful in quality is the ability to execute. Few people in the business will be interested in theories alone; the quality person must work with their colleagues in the business to implement what they preach.”

Armchair philosophers exist in all forms of improvement:
• “Dr. Deming says…”
• “94 to 96 percent of problems are due to common causes. They are management’s fault and only management can fix them.”
• “The tyranny of the prevailing style of management is a barrier to intrinsic motivation and joy in work!”
• “Tsk-tsk: How would they know?”
• “I am a certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and sensei!”*
• (Healthcare): “I have an IHI certification.”*

*That and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.

W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy remains the robust seed for most of today’s improvement practices. The human need for easier-to-understand, more formal structure has resulted in the development of, and increasingly rigid adherence to, pale, fragmented imitations such as Six Sigma, lean, and lean Six Sigma. Relentless impatience for immediate results guaranteed the toxic influence of one of Bob Emiliani’s laws of lean disillusionment:

Dilution widens acceptance. Acceptance widens dilution.

One common criticism of Deming’s famous four-day seminars was the perceived lack of his supplying any “how to” of implementation. I was among those critics after my initial exposure in 1982. It took faith and painstaking, tenacious, ongoing study until one day—30 years later—the light bulb finally came on: I had worked it out for myself—the final synergistic kick.

It is anything but a prescriptive formula and took Deming almost 40 years to develop—starting with “variation” in the mid-1940s. His experiences in implementation resulted in his empirical 14 Points as a robust framework for success in the early 1980s. Its further development culminated around 1990 as his synthesis of an underlying unifying theory, which he called a System of Profound Knowledge (unfortunately, a name that is often perceived as too pretentious for words).

For me, it took the will to do it, the belief that I (and my organizations) could do it, the wherewithal to keep learning, and shutting up and actually doing it. (See “A Four-Step Process That Could Change Your Career.”)

During the 1980s, I remember pontificating one too many “Dr. Deming says...” when an angry executive confronted me, “I’m so sick of this! Tell me exactly what you would do to ‘implement Deming’ starting right now!” My response was an embarrassed blank stare. Attention-deficit executives have become even more impatient with, and deaf to, the onslaught of worn-out platitudes.

The giddiness and naive enthusiasm of an initial intoxication with Deming (or Six Sigma or lean or lean Six Sigma) can lead to a very nasty hangover. All the belts and certifications in the world mean nothing.

Could you confidently and competently answer that executive’s challenge with a guarantee to move their “big dots” in the process?

A needed comment on Deming’s Red Bead Experiment
The Red Bead Experiment can be effective at creating quality awareness, but “dilution” due to overexposure and poor demonstrations has made it lose much of its novelty and shock value. It’s time to declare a temporary moratorium until naively enthusiastic demonstrators can develop the ability to execute or implement, i.e., the confidence and competence to formally schedule a post-demonstration dialogue with each person or work group in the demonstration. The sole purpose of this dialogue is to expose and create understanding of people's daily “red beads”—with an ultimate objective of helping them improve a situation on a number that makes them “sweat.”

Are you willing to redouble efforts to increase your will, belief, and wherewithal?

At the end of every week, look back at, and seek feedback on, your behavior and actions:
• Are you doing less armchair criticism?
• Do you find yourself increasingly asking for and plotting data over time as an initial response in a consulting situation?
• How many “silly meetings” have you made “data sane?”
• Do you find yourself falling into the “I’m so busy!” trap less and less—ideally, not at all?

Jim Clemmer: “If you're always talking about how busy you are, you must not like what you do very much.”

Click here to see what “I’m so busy!” implies (a very brief, worthwhile read).



About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


We need to stop parroting Deming, Juran and Shewhart

Davis, I've known you a long time. You just told us that it took 30 years for Deming's 4-day seminar to kick in.

Like most Lean Six Sigma training, that's too long.

Last century quality was about manufacturing. 21st Century quality is about Agile application of seven key tools in services (e.g., healthcare).

Let's stop talking about the history of quality and start talking about the future of quality.

I absolutely agree with you, Jay!

Let's just say that my 30 years of Deming (and Juran) study has made me "agile" in my ability to teach and practice their brilliant concepts without the usual "historical pontification."

Note that my self-assessment includes increasing the number of plots one produces of data plotted over time.  Simple, intelligent assesment of these will then lead to the more efficient use of the other tools you recommend. 

I have evolved to consulting with fewer, simpler tools and have never been so effective.  I guess the study got me fluent in a "language" that paves the way for a "future" based in "built-in" 'improvement' (as opposed to most current efforts mired in "bolt-on" 'quality').  Many people are still stuck in parroting vis-a-vis this needed fluency.