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Alan’s Apothegms with Alan L. Austin

Quality Insider

It Is a People Problem After All

Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 12:01

I’ve had a varied and interesting career, having lived and worked in the Middle East and West Africa. Specifically, we were in northern Nigeria, a region that suffers from corruption and poverty and the ever-present threat of violence from criminals and terrorists alike. I still check the online editions of the Nigerian newspapers to keep current on the progress (or lack thereof) being made by various initiatives around the nation. During a recent perusal, I came across an article that left me speechless.

According to a news article written by Joseph Omortionmwan in the Vanguard newspaper, the business manager of the Gwiwa Business Unit of the Power Holding Co. of Nigeria was flogged on orders of the governor for failing to provide light to his community. This was not some metaphorical flogging in the guise of a tongue-lashing. This was a whipping, pure and simple. Granted, Nigeria has a power problem, and the citizenry is often without electricity for days or weeks. One can easily understand that a high level of frustration would exist in such a situation. Nigeria is a country rich in oil and other natural resources, and yet it is unable to establish or maintain even a rudimentary power grid. But that is beside the point. Does flogging a business manager really have any hope of making things better?

When I posted a link to the article on LinkedIn expressing my incredulity that such things still occur, a Nigerian professional posted a comment, “If that will save Nigerians!!!” The problem is that it won’t.

Obviously in the United States we don’t have to worry about floggings, at least not the literal kind. But unfortunately too many of us have found ourselves on the wrong side of psychological and emotional floggings. And even more unfortunately, perhaps sometimes we have found ourselves to be the one doing the flogging. The problem is that flogging of any sort does not work. It never has as far as I'm concerned, and yet it still goes on. Literally in Nigeria, but metaphorically in our own organizations and homes.

Let’s use the business manager flogging as an extreme example of just how bad a strategy this is. If I were that manager and had just been flogged, I think I would be looking to transfer to a new location within the company. If I’m successful in doing so, how likely is it that someone else is going to be willing to take my place? If I’m unsuccessful in transferring, how am I going to approach my responsibilities? Is my focus going to be on making things better, or watching my own back—literally? Regardless, what is going to happen to the quality of management? Will the people who work for the power company be more focused on doing a good job or on never getting called to the governor’s office? If I’m a member of that community, am I now more likely or less likely to get reliable power?

Here’s the bottom line. Everybody loses! The governor looks like a thug. The nation looks barbaric. The business manager is physically and emotionally and psychologically scarred. The power company is less motivated to partner in a productive way. The average citizen has no lights, refrigeration, etc. And why? Because the governor was unable (or unwilling) to recognize that it is the system that is the problem.

The quality intelligentsia, people like W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, tried for years to get us to understand the need to focus on the process rather than the person. How well have we learned the lesson? We blame some politicians for problems that predate their tenure and applaud others for positive results that are the result of initiatives started well before they took office. We react like Pavlov’s dogs to whatever the most recent reported value is of some economic indicator of interest. We get angry at the wait staff for bringing us the wrong dish. We treat common cause variation like it is special, and we understand special cause variation not at all.

It is a “people problem” after all. But not the kind of “people problem” that can be solved by any sort of flogging. This “people problem” can only be fixed by recognizing our own responsibility to focus on the process and to help everyone in our organization to be better systems thinkers as well. Then maybe countries like Nigeria and organizations like yours and mine might actually be able to keep the lights on.


About The Author

Alan’s Apothegms with Alan L. Austin’s picture

Alan’s Apothegms with Alan L. Austin

Alan L. Austin is President of Targeted Learning, an organizational development training and consulting company. He is an INFORMS CAP (Certified Analytics Professional). He also holds Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) and Quality Engineer (CQE) certifications from the American Society for Quality (ASQ). Alan has led quality improvement efforts and held operational roles for a variety of organizations both in the US and overseas. He has a bachelor of science in statistics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the University of Houston, where he concentrated on studying statistics/operations research and finance.