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Barbara A. Cleary


Deming’s Chain Reaction Gives Meaning to Work

The critical link is an understanding of quality improvement

Published: Monday, September 28, 2015 - 11:14

Last year’s Gallup poll of worker satisfaction revealed that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from the work at their jobs—a shocking revelation that has apparently been repeated in many polls.

Barry Schwarz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of Why We Work (Simon & Schuster, 2015), suggests that “Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to,” citing examples of call center employees who are monitored to be sure they end calls quickly, or office workers whose keystrokes are monitored to guarantee productivity. During a recent visit to the nation’s most popular coffee spot, I remarked to the barista that it seemed that they served drive-up customers much faster than those who parked and came into the facility. Lines of cars were often served before the first indoor customer had been greeted. “Yes,” she said. “We’re told that we have to be as fast as we can.”

This sounds like a systems problem.

It’s worth examining approaches that promote a sense of meaning to work life. After all, we spend more than one-third of our days not only at work, but also engaged in the effort to get to our jobs and return to our homes. It would be challenging to find joy in work if one is discouraged from engaging with those whom they call, or with customers whom they serve. The Frederick Taylor model of efficiency, born out of the Industrial Revolution’s insistence on productive factories, denies the engagement with work that gives meaning to one’s day-to-day employment.

How does one find meaning in work, then? It would seem that while individuals can seek ways to give meaning to their jobs, like the hospital janitor who found purpose as he looked for ways to bring joy to patients, this individual approach might ultimately lead to cynicism and disengagement when the organization does not support the effort. The example of the call center employee is apt; this person has opportunities to identify real needs of customers, and to offer ways to serve these needs. But if the job calls only for quantity of customers reached, rather than the quality of calls, there can be no sense of meaning in performing the task. Drive-up customers can be served faster than those with whom the barista has to actually interact personally, apparently.

The Gallup poll demonstrated that finding meaning in work has nothing to do with the money. Examples of low-paid workers who looked forward to work, as well as highly compensated employees who hate their jobs, abound.

In The Transformative Workplace (Transformation Press, 2015), David and Carole Schwinn point out that it’s possible to transform the workplace through support for meaningful experiences. A transformative workplace, they argue, “...creates the context in which people can grow and develop to their highest potential as fully aware and conscious participants in the evolution of life on our planet.” This context depends on leadership in organizations that recognizes the need of people to “grow and develop to their highest potential”—another way of offering meaningful work lives to all employees.

W. Edwards Deming offers a primary way for organizations to find meaning in their work, and for employees to take meaningful roles in the work of the organization. His “Chain Reaction” of quality offers a clue to this approach:
1. Improve quality of products and services—a step that will in itself begin to instill pride in workers who contribute to an organization’s quality improvement.
2. Costs will decrease as a result of this emphasis on quality rather than quantity.
3. Productivity in fact will increase as workers see meaning in their efforts.
4. Organizations can expand their market share by increasing productivity.
5. This will allow them to stay in business.
6. This will also expand the opportunities for workers by adding jobs and improving training.

While this chain reaction can affect a single organization’s outlook and improve worker engagement in that organization, it also applies to companies whose mission is to help other companies improve quality. PQ Systems is one of these, and the company’s awareness of the effect of Deming’s cycle is clear. Employees know that they are genuinely helping customers to benefit from the chain that begins with their understanding of quality improvement.

Notice that this chain extends outside the company’s walls, offering support to other organizations by helping them to improve quality and, ultimately, provide more jobs. It is essential that employees feel that they are contributing to something beyond their own needs for compensation. Working for money, data show, is not enough to give meaning to that work. Working “because we have to” hardly seems like a lifetime career goal.

In a classic discussion, Frederick Herzberg noted that “the absence of such... factors as good supervisor-employee relations and liberal fringe benefits can make a worker unhappy, but their presence will not make him [or her] work harder.”

What in fact may provide motivation to workers is the sense that their contributions matter, that others outside themselves benefit from the work that they do, and their work indeed has meaning and order in a world that may be characterized by chaos in many respects.


About The Author

Barbara A. Cleary’s picture

Barbara A. Cleary

Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is a teacher at The Miami Valley School, an independent school in Dayton, Ohio, and has served on the board of education in Centerville, Ohio, for eight years—three years as president. She is corporate vice president of PQ Systems Inc., an international firm specializing in theory, process, and quality management. She holds a masters degree and a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. Cleary is author and co-author of five books on inspiring classroom learning in elementary schools using quality tools and techniques (i.e., cause and effect, continuous improvement, fishbone diagram, histogram, Pareto chart, root cause analysis, variation, etc.), and how to think through problems and use data effectively. She is a published poet and a writer of many articles in professional journals and magazines including CalLab, English Journal, Quality Progress, and Quality Digest.


Out of the Crisis diagram

I think that you should have included Deming's Chain Reaction (page 3) and his view of a system (page 4).

I enjoyed your article

I enjoyed your article Barbara, I think it is very important that we find meaning in many areas of our lives in order to keep growing, learning and succeeding. And when we spend so much of our lives at work I think it does us such a disservice to be unhappy, diconnected, and to feel unrecognized. I wanted to add that feeling a part of a greater goal (connecting to the end result for the consumer perhaps) can also be affected by the connections of the people who work at a company. You cited "The Transformative Workplace" which is a wonderful book which speaks about the humanness that can exist in the workplace. I have noticed in many articles and books that people who work at a company are referred to as the workers and spoken about in 3rd person. I think something as simple as using inclusive terminology (We) to recognize that we are ALL a part of this system could be helfpul. This would be a small way to recognize that, no matter the role within the company, any one of us may be working to find our own meaning and connection to the work to keep us going. This could potentially add to the felt level of connection to the system as a whole which may increase a sense of found meaning as well. Just a thought. Thank you for sharing your article.

Deming's values recognised

It's great to see Deming's values being recognised. 

Deming stressed the importance of “breaking down barriers” that companies in recent years have gone to great lengths to build.  He stressed the importance of people working together as a team rather than being directed by an artificial hierarchy of people trained in defects nonsense (that Wheeler describes so eloquently as "a triumph of computation over common sense") and holding belts, who imagine they know better.  Companies shopuld be heading in the opposite direction to what they have been, and building equality and recognition of all workers.

It is no wonder employees are dissatisfied when "gurus" such as Mikel Harry state, “In short, numbers-oriented thinking applies to people as much as it applies to processes and products.” Treating people as numbers rather than individuals is indeed short sighted.

Great Post

Thanks Barbara, great post and reminder on the importance of Deming's Chain Reaction. Systems thinking is critical as you noted. Too often people believe we have a zero sum game relative to quality, cost and schedule. Glad to see you writing. We miss Michael! Best regards, Cliff

If You Don't Like Your Job

Most people get angry when corporate systems prevent them from serving the customer.

If you can't change the job so that you enjoy it, find another job.

If you don't like your boss, find a new one.

If you don't like your employer, find a new one or create your own business.

We often complain about our job because we are too lazy to find a better one.

This is bad for you and your employer.

Good Advice

Deming told me in 1981 in an elevator (Crystal City Shearton), "If you are working for someone and not learning from them, you should think about getting another boss." Great advice and consistent with your post.