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Davis Balestracci


Resolve to Simplify and Evolve

No more Cro-Magnon mediocrity

Published: Monday, January 16, 2017 - 12:03

In spite of the overwhelming odds against me, every new year I firmly resolve to reignite my relentless passion about creating a critical mass of colleagues committed to practicing improvement as “built-in” to cultural DNA using data sanity.

Will this be the year you join me?

Here is a challenging road map of 12 synergistic resolutions for those of you willing to take this nontrivial risk.

1. Resolve to ask yourself, “Have I unintentionally evolved into a qualicrat?”
The formalization of organizational quality improvement efforts into a separate silo with increasing (and excruciating) formality has been an unstoppable evolution. One could look at it as evolving from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon. But improvement seems to have settled for and is stuck in the “good enough” mediocrity of Cro-Magnon.

I suppose one benefit of this evolution has been serious acceptance of quality as a viable career path. But the consequence of this has been an expensive, self-sustaining training subindustry—not all of it competent—with countless certifications and belts.

Jim Clemmer pinpoints this trend perfectly. “The quality movement [has given] rise to a new breed of techno-manager—the qualicrat,” he says. “These support professionals see the world strictly through data and analysis, and their quality improvement tools and techniques. While they work hard to quantify the ‘voice of the customer,’ the face of current customers (and especially potential new customers) is often lost. Having researched, consulted, and written extensively on quality improvement, I am a big convert to, and evangelist for, the cause. But some efforts are getting badly out of balance as customers, partners, and team members are reduced to numbers, charts, and graphs.”

(His brief article containing this quote is well worth reading.)

Training programs, completion certificates, or professional credentials are important only when they contribute to real quality on the ground, as experienced by your customers, both internal and external, on a sustained basis.

2. Resolve to stop taking charts like this too seriously.

3. Resolve to unclutter your mind.
This is taken from No. 48 of John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership (Amazon Digital Services, 2015), which takes each of the original Tao te Ching’s 81 gems of wisdom and brilliantly adapts it to a context of becoming a truly great leader:

“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.”

4. Resolve to take a break from a natural human bias for action.
Matthew E. May has 10 “brutal, even ruthless” questions that you should consider en masse to refrain from a typical beginning-of-year, blind, gung-ho charge to change your world.

Answer honestly:
• What’s really driving your need for change?
• What new aspirations guide your goals?
• What truth is not being addressed?
• What do you need to understand better?
• What new ways of thinking and acting are needed to support this change?
• How will you facilitate the development of these new behaviors?
• To what degree do you truly understand and own the change process?
• What are major learning objectives that support your change effort?
• What new perceptions, values, and experiences will be critical to your success?
• What is the most positive way in which you can proceed?

5. Resolve to answer those questions in a way that allows personal accountability.
And that allows you to go far beyond settling for vague, mediocre, Cro-Magnon organizational improvement success. Despite 35+ years of increased quality awareness, attention-deficit executives—and promotion processes that are perfectly designed to perpetuate them—are still the norm. Isn’t it time to acknowledge that improvement efforts have consistently failed to produce a necessary critical mass of leaders who develop the competence and confidence to practice improvement as built-in to daily cultural DNA?

Have improvement professionals truly examined their role in contributing to and compounding this serious problem, possibly by 1) boring executives to death while proudly wearing qualicrat hats; and 2) getting vague results from vague solutions to vague problems that somehow never manage to go away? These certainly don’t help to get you the respect your role deserves.

6. Resolve to own this problem.
These are issues that certainly aren’t going away any time soon unless some innovative overall approaches to improvement itself are developed.

7. Resolve to stop confusing activity with impact.

8. Resolve to read John Miller’s book, QBQ! The Question Behind the Question (TarcherPerigee; 1 edition, 2004).
It will take you less than an hour to read, and it will help you to think differently about what you are doing vs. what you should be doing.

9. Resolve to first (quietly) get results that grab executives’ and leaders’ attention.
And then let them get all the credit. Hint: It probably won’t involve the things they tell you to work on. May I suggest that addressing data insanity at meetings might be a good place to start? 

10. Resolve to focus on reducing “the four other Cs.”
These would be confusion, conflict, complexity, and chaos, rather than costs. Imprint in your brain that focusing on costs always increases costs!

11. Resolve to simply “plot some dots” to change some conversations.
Then enjoy the reactions to your eye-popping results... and increased respect.

12. Resolve to read the following two quotes at the beginning of every workday.
Jim Verzino:
“Nobody plans for poor quality management solutions. But over time, harmless little decisions can derail a quality management system.

“Each time we choose to sacrifice the good of the system for one person, or allow an ineffective, outdated legacy practice to continue, we take small steps toward lower and lower standards.

“When we have a culture that puts quality and environmental attainment at a lower priority than feelings and keeping the status quo, slowly we make the hundreds of decisions that eat away at total performance....

“Every week tens, if not hundreds, of little decisions like these are made in a large company. Any one decision will not make or break the system. However, hundreds of decisions being made with a priority on entrenched personnel or ideas rather than the higher goals of continuous improvement will bring the system to its knees over time....

“In the end, nobody plans to have poor quality or environmental performance. It sneaks up on us... [as] the sum of so many bad decisions.”

Mariela Dabbah:
“Enough of attending meetings that lead to building a bridge to nowhere, enough of asking what I’m supposed to ask rather than what needs to be asked, enough of praising people who are undeserving of praise, enough of valuing form over substance, enough of accepting good when what is needed is outstanding, enough of enabling people to act as victims when they need to take personal responsibility. 

“Inevitably, this kind of shift doesn’t happen unless a substantial number of leaders put their collective foot down and say ‘Enough!’ in unison.”

These are hardly your typical empty motivational calories. If you’ve been reading my columns long enough, you know what to do. As Lao-Tzu says in one of the most famous quotes in the Tao Te Ching, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Take it. Plot a dot that makes people “sweat!”

Please know you have a colleague here who would gladly be with you every step of the way. I sincerely hope many of our paths cross in 2017, and we get to do some great work together. Is this the year you finally say, “Enough!” to Cro-Magnon mediocrity?


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.


In a rut?

I have always disliked data and statistics. People playing number games to get reactions. For example if two out of four people are smokers they would say 50% are smokers. It’s still true that two out of four is half or 50% but you cannot solicit the same reaction by saying only two people 50% has more punch.

It’s funny I come across this article today as work has been slow and I was pondering improvements to my department. I decided to poke my head in on Quality digest in hopes it might zap my brain.

I work as the calibration tech in a manufacturing plant. When I took over the position it was a train wreck/ traffic jam/ landfill of a department. The first six months were spent trying to prevent the bottleneck crippling production, while detangling the previous employees’ methods. At the same time trying to locating better methods and create my own guides from the mountain of forms, papers, and processes (most completely useless) that existed.

The department is night and day different from when I started and I finally tossed all the mountains of copied copies of paperwork.

I have incorporated many methods and chopped them to the bare bone. Still I feel like I have reached that place, as you put it “Cro-Magnon mediocrity”.

I find myself now in a rut, I know more can be done but I refuse to sacrifice quality for the sake of time. I have removed the overly redundant processes and reorganized the steps (you have to make the sandwich before you can eat it) so they flow smother.

 I’m not trying to get a big head but can you reach a point where you have hit the ceiling? The only place I can think to improve is equipment. To request equipment I’ll need to brush up on my dentistry and start to pull teeth. *Grumble* do I sling (chokes on the word) DATA, to shock them into putting pen to checkbook?