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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Challenging Organizational Assumptions With ‘What If...’

Through experimentation you can discover a better way to work

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 16:47

After WWII, W. Edwards Deming provided the spark that ignited Japan into making quality products. I like to refer to it as the greatest upset in economic history. How did such a small country with few economic and natural resources build a manufacturing juggernaut that could overcome the great resource advantages of the United States?

Some say the devastation that the Japanese suffered made them open to Deming’s ideas; others say that Asian culture allowed for the adoption of his ideas. Regardless, Deming came back to the United States and worked with American companies, where in 1985 he listed his original 14 points for the transformation of management at a Deming Users’ group meeting in San Diego (detailed in Nancy Mann’s 1989 book, The Keys to Excellence). Later, these 14 points were seen to flow from his System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK), which included appreciation for a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge, and psychology.

I have lamented for some time that Deming’s 14 points and SoPK, although both logical and rational, have done little to change or influence the practices of management. Few of Deming’s advocates have been in a position to coerce others into accepting these principles. And for the most part, the Deming community has failed—and I consider myself a part of this community.

The key words in the previous paragraph are “logical,” “rational,” and “coerce.” The first two are seen to work together in approaches to changing perspectives. If you believe that the logic is solid, you create a rational argument as to why you should change something. If you are in a position of power, then you can coerce others into compliance.

The problem with using logic, rationalization, or coercion is that none of these change a person’s mindset. You might get compliance, but most likely you won’t get acceptance. For a long time now, logic, rationalization, and coercion have been the most used methods of changing people’s perspectives. The problem is they do not work, or don’t work very well.

Changing perspective requires getting evidence you can see or hear for yourself. In other words, only you can change your own perspective.

The Deming community’s failure

Those of us who are a part of the Deming community have embraced the logical and rational approach, and have limited ourselves. I must admit that I am guilty of using coercion, too. The logic of Deming’s 14 points and SoPK is intoxicating.

For me, the reflection is that my rational and coercive approaches have driven people away from, and not toward, the desired perspective. Rational and coercive approaches create cognitive dissonance in an individual. Cognitive dissonance creates internal conflict because it challenges a person’s beliefs and assumptions. Individuals will distort and misrepresent facts when they are made to feel out of equilibrium. This is why coercion and logical and rational arguments have slim success. Been there, done that.

What to do instead

First of all, you need to understand that your organization’s design is built on beliefs and assumptions. Here are some examples of what I mean:
• If an organization has performance appraisals, rewards, and incentives, then the belief and assumption is that organizational performance is dependent on the individual. Deming, Russell Ackoff, and others believe the individual has only a small impact on an organization, and that most of the performance is dependent on the system you work in.
• If an organization spends most of the time on managing budgets and financial data, then the belief and assumption is that internal measures are a good way to manage. Deming and others say that the organization must focus on the customer, and the financials will take care of themselves. Managing with financials as the primary focus actually increases costs.
• If an organization is functionally designed to separate work, the belief and assumption may be that work should be separated and given to specialists. Others have found that customer demands should drive the design.
• If a service organization standardizes work, it might believe it faces many of the same problems as manufacturing. Others will say that standardization creates rework and unwanted callbacks, among other things.

The important point is that an organization needs to “take inventory” of the beliefs and assumptions it uses in its organizational design as well as the decisions it makes. Remember: All organizations are built on assumptions and believe that the way they operate is the best way.

When I work with clients, I take them through a model that begins by understanding how their customers interact with the client’s organizational design, and how this design performs for the client. Then I take them through an exercise to understand the assumptions and beliefs that created the design. I encourage anyone or groups to do this on their own and “pull” for help if needed. I have some axioms and principles that have shown great results, but who’s to say you wouldn’t come up with something better?

The next step is to develop a small-scale pilot to try different beliefs and assumptions. Through experimentation you will discover a new and better way to work—because work can always be improved. These improvements can lead to incredibly innovative breakthroughs that increase revenues, decrease costs, improve morale, and provide management focus.

Deming set forth some principles that differ from the status quo for improvement. He learned these principles as he worked with organizations. However, most managers and leaders have not taken this journey and find his principles... challenging. Understand that cognitive dissonance is at work, and you need to set up a small pilot to experiment away from the bureaucracy, functions, and rewards to see how using different beliefs and assumptions might work.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt is a service design architect who helps organizations discover a better way to improve thier service. His 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to try out different design ideas leading to better service.  Start by downloading his free ebook or book an on-site workshop. Babbitt can be reached at tripp@newsystemsthinking.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt