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Davis Balestracci


Déjà Vu All Over Again?

This summer, take the three-step challenge to start new conversations

Published: Monday, June 17, 2019 - 12:03

Recently, I’ve had a sad, increasing sense of déjà vu. Twitter has become even more vacuous, and LinkedIn has quickly devolved into a business version of Facebook. Literally right after I finished this draft, I read a newspaper headline: “Twitter Use Eroding Intelligence. Now there’s data to prove it.”

Peter Block suggested a radical solution 20 years ago: new conversations. From a 1999 article of his: 

“I would like to see a six-month moratorium on the following conversations:
• The importance of having the support of top management
• How workers do not want to be empowered
• That leaders need to provide a good role model
• How to hold people accountable
• How to get people on board and aligned
• The need to be customer-focused
• How to do things faster and cheaper
• How to give more choice to the people close to the customer
• The need for a clear and common vision
• The ground rules for dialogue, consensus, teamwork, decisions, and feedback
• The importance of systems thinking and whole-system change
• The call for servant leaders, and the end of command and control
• The need for continuous improvement”

To which I add:
• Dramatic and/or humorous demonstrations and discussions of W. Edwards Deming’s Red Bead Experiment.

All of this is now being recycled and repackaged in the context of the latest buzzwords agile, big data, AI, and “Joy in work!” (along with perennial favorites lean and Six Sigma). In today’s dizzying atmosphere of “bigger... better... faster... more... now!” people can hardly wait to “share” these concepts as innovative, profound thoughts, then see how many likes, retweets, or “So true!” comments they get.

Bob Emiliani has two observations that capture this trend perfectly:
Dilution widens acceptance. Acceptance widens dilution.
• Overproduced affection bears underproduced results

Block saw the potential damage long before Twitter and LinkedIn existed:
“All of these points are true. It is just that they have become useless to talk about. They have become habitual language, and we have become anesthetized to their meaning and depth. These words, because of their popularity, now belong to someone else, not to us. The phrases get used for persuasion and political advantage, not for their capacity for human connection. They have become the party line and evoke unconsciousness and keep us frozen in the comfort of routine. [My emphasis]

Let’s go back 15 years

John Dew, in “Root Cause Analysis: The Seven Deadly Sins of Quality Management” (Quality Progress, September 2003), came up with seven root causes buried and lurking in most cultures... and tolerated. 

They are:
• Placing budgetary considerations ahead of quality 
• Placing schedule considerations ahead of quality
• Placing political considerations ahead of quality (e.g., cultural tolerance of manipulation for personal gain)
• Being arrogant (i.e., a perceived attitude of, “I have nothing to learn,” or, “I’m so smart that I just need the 15-minute overview,” or, “I’m so busy that I only have time for red/yellow/green traffic-light summaries.”)
• Lacking fundamental knowledge, research or education (i.e., a deep knowledge of quality improvement principles beyond the 15-minute overview, especially process-oriented thinking and common/special causes of variation)
• Pervasively believing in entitlement
• Autocratic leadership behaviors resulting in “endullment” rather than empowerment (Many executives unwittingly create a culture of “learned helplessness” through their need for control and power. It takes a concerted effort to create an empowered workforce that takes true “joy in work.”)

Modern leaders need to mix some genuine humility and vulnerability into that arrogance.

From 30 years ago

I attended what may have been my best conference ever in 1989. One speaker gave a simple criterion for a transformed organization: The words “statistical” and “quality” will have been dropped as qualifiers because they are “givens.” How is your organization doing?

As Block also said in 1999:
“Too often we try to change a culture by focusing on the structure, on the rewards, or on the roles and core competencies. These carry a certain logic but are best preceded by an effort to talk about things that matter in a way that we have not done before. It is the newness of our words to each other that creates the groundwork for changes in practices.

“The first step is to agree to stop having the old conversation. When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”

Have Peter Block and I convinced you to stop digging?

I’m taking the summer off and hope to be back in September. (Correspondence gladly welcomed any time, though!) I now issue you the “Balestracci belt,” 2 1/2-month, three-step challenge. Use the following question behind the question (QBQ!) to get out of the hole: “How can I create new conversations?

1. “Plot the dots” to address “the routine organizational use of data” process and 1) facilitate changed conversations; 2) liberate people from dreaded “silly meeting time”; and 3) gain increased respect for your role. (The two brief articles to which these links take you are part of the “curriculum’s” required reading.) 

2. Work your way through the following suggested reading list, in this order:
QBQ! The question behind the question (TarcherPerigee, 2004). Very easy and to be revisited often.
Brian Joiner’s Fourth Generation Management (McGraw-Hill Education, 1994). Easy, but career-changing.
John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership (Amazon Digital Services, 2015). Deceptively easy and to be revisited often.
Data Sanity, chapters one through four (MGMA, second edition 2015). Couple this with Joiner, and you’ve got dynamite!

3. Reduce time on Twitter and LinkedIn by at least 50 percent.

I would love to get feedback from any of you who finish this curriculum, as well as any successful implementation stories. Sorry, there are no certifications or belts available. You will know you have “graduated” when the following verse from The Tao of Leadership (Green Dragon Books, second edition, 2015) finally makes sense, and you come to the humble realization that you neither want nor need them. You will now be able to practice holistic improvement:

No. 48: Unclutter your mind
“Beginners acquire new theories and techniques until their minds are cluttered with options.

Advanced students forget their many options.

They allow the theories and techniques that they have learned to recede into the background.

Learn to unclutter your mind.

Learn to simplify your work.

As you rely less and less on thinking you know exactly what to do, your work will become more direct and more powerful.

You will discover that the quality of your consciousness is more potent than any technique or theory or interpretation.

Learn how fruitful the blocked group or individual suddenly becomes when you give up trying to do just the right thing.”

As for those of you who have belts and/or multiple certifications, you will be amazed at how this modest time investment enhances your effectiveness.


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.