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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

The Exception or the Rule?

The improvement battle continues

Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 14:39

As a consultant, it’s easy to lose touch with reality and become a platitude-spouting machine. I always like hearing from my readers because it keeps me grounded—and I try my best to reply to them all. My heart lies with the hard-working front-line folks doing the real work.

As long as I can offer real solutions and reassurance to people passionate about improvement, as in the unedited conversation below, my passion for helping practitioners like this to create a culture where improvement is embedded into the organizational DNA will not fade.

It started innocently enough with a comment on my article, “What Are You Tolerating?”

I guess I’d say that based on an I-MR chart [i.e., individuals-moving range chart], there is no statistical proof that the improvement efforts they made have done anything to reduce the number of falls. Basically, this year and last year are not significantly different.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the improvement efforts that they’ve done so far are all a waste of time, does it? Surely, there is a way to have an impact.

I’m curious: What would your advice be?

My reply
Thanks for reading.

Wouldn’t one like to think that activity = impact? There are indeed no special causes or any evidence of improvement. Wouldn’t one hope that with all that (vague) activity, there would be a dramatic decrease that should be visible on the run/control chart? That activity may have added a lot of unnecessary complexity. Or, they may be good ideas, but they haven’t penetrated the culture—for reasons made clear in the first part of “What Are You Tolerating?”

So, in my opinion, one should proceed in the manner of my previous “Common Cause Strategies” series of articles:
• Start by aggregating all 125 incidents and thinking of ways to stratify them to do a Pareto analysis.
• Or maybe even do a two-way stratification as I talked about in one of my old Quality Digest columns, “A Common Cause Strategy for Count Data.”

I would bet that three such focused opportunities would be exposed that could now result in real improvement.

Doesn’t this seem to be a saner strategy than just “trying a lot of good stuff?” As Deming liked to say, “Any theory is correct in its own world, but does it make contact with this world?” The chart is the proof of the pudding.

What do you think? I hope this helped.

What industry are you in? This could just as easily apply to a manufacturing plant’s safety or attempts at “cost-cutting.”

Best wishes and please keep in touch.

The deeper issues of everyday reality for a true change agent emerge

The person then replied
Thanks for the feedback.

Yes, I actually did plug in the numbers and create an I-MR chart, and yes, I agree, there were no special causes, no statistical sign of improvement.

I’m in [high-tech] manufacturing. And actually the Pareto chart is one of my go-to tools when trying to get people to focus on the “vital few” causes that will give us the “biggest bang for the buck.”

And often the biggest problem I have is what you might call a culture thing. A program manager or other department manager will lament some problem and ask for solutions from all involved. I’ll do an analysis, often a Pareto chart, and show them where we should focus, and suggest we put a small ad-hoc team together to address those causes, then disband.

But often, sadly, nothing more happens. Often it seems that what the person was really hoping for was a magic bullet that would fix the issue without any real effort (i.e., expenditure of time or money from their budget). And half the time they will “talk to people,” send their emails pleading for better results, and the next month things will get better (by chance), and they’ll say, “There, I fixed it”—until, inevitably, the next month, or the one after that. And the cycle repeats. It seems like they will either fund some bloated, wasteful, overkill “Six Sigma” project, or nothing.

It’s frustrating. It amazes me—in this day and age, we still have so many people in leadership positions that don’t “walk the talk.” They don’t know how to manage people, and they don’t use proven quality tools to address problems. Even folks in “quality” positions, even folks in some of the world’s largest high-tech companies.

I find myself almost giddy with happiness when I can get them to actually spring for some real, common-sense problem solving and truly fix a problem. But my batting average at convincing people to do that isn’t much better than a typical major leaguer’s batting average. But I like to think that every success makes it more likely that they’ll do it again next time.

Thanks for trying to help more people “get it” and for helping to improve the knowledge of those who want to “get it better.”

My reply
Thanks for your note. I’d say what you describe is “disgustingly normal,” “spot on,” and typifies what most people are still experiencing. I’ve become fascinated by cultural psychology, and many quality professionals continue to bore a resistant culture to death—and continue to confuse activity such as I describe with impact.

I’ve talked to people who work in (allegedly) “good” companies “committed” to quality, and they smile and tell me that any resemblance between what is touted and what really goes on is purely coincidental.

I think Deming had it right—the whole system of management must change to embrace statistical thinking to make true progress. I don’t know of one company who truly “gets” it.

Thanks for your refreshing honesty, and please know that you have a stealth colleague here who is willing to help you in any way... or at least be an understanding ear for your frustration.

I’ll keep writing... for people like you.

What a waste of passion and talent

The person’s final note
Like you say, it’s not like there is a lack of need for what folks like you and Dr. Wheeler (another of my favorite people to learn from) have to teach.

Of course, if I am ignored, I keep drawing a paycheck, but I may only get to keep drawing a paycheck for so long. My company may eventually not make it. Times are “lean” here, too, and two of the last three years there were no raises for salaried folks. We’re “meeting our financial goals,” for now, but they are not too audacious. I just hope I can help us improve and survive. I’ve been in, and had to flee, a sinking-ship company twice—not fun!

Note from Davis: I found the next paragraph powerful, touching, and wise.

I’m no guru. I certainly won’t threaten to knock off any Mensa-members in an IQ battle. But I’m smart enough to understand basic scientific principles, and I realize that, in true Pareto style, we can knock off 80 percent of our problems using basic tools of the trade, if only we would try. And I’m one of the 20 percent (or less) who will try, will push, will be an irritant to power people often enough to get to do at least some successful stuff. And I want to learn, and have folks like you and a few others to learn from.... So I have hope, cautious optimism, for at least incremental improvement—I just hope it is enough.

I guess we can take some solace in the fact that it is not only in “quality” that business people seem too hard-headed to listen to and adopt proven techniques and paths to success. In 1982 Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman wrote the (in my view) great book, In Search of Excellence (HarperBusiness, reprint 2004). It was a huge success by most measures, but even then the vast majority of its readers and fans still did not adopt a tenth of what the book prescribed. Tom Peters is today widely recognized as one of the top “management gurus” in the world, and yet he has basically the same laments as we do.

I appreciate your responses, and consider it an honor to add you to my small list of trustworthy resources and sympathetic ears.

[End of conversation.]

Is this person’s experience the exception or the rule?

As I like to say, “All I want is to do good work with good people”—and the person above is definitely “good people.” These are the folks I need to make it happen—and their job titles may not even contain the words “quality” or “improvement” because, to them, quality is implicit.


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.


[I've transferred this comment to a "response" below]

[See response to Shrikant Kalegaonkar below]

Good ... "good"

Exception is Mother to Rule, and viceversa; but who's the Father? The problem with any Improvement Battle is that - so far - it has no "soul", no inner afflatus, it is fought only because it has to be fought. Anatole France wrote "we believed we were killing each other for Freedom, but it was for the Banks' vaults, instead". I find the Standards' requirements for continual - or continuous - improvement as the most hypocrite ones: why don't the Standards' makers improve themselves, in the first place? Certainly they make the Rule, but allow themselves to be the Exception. Thnak you.


Hits home

A little too close.

Your reader's response is right on.  I've seen a couple of common tactics - 1) data taken to the point of minutia to demonstrate there is no problem, rather than addressing the commonality of the causes, and 2) creating a 'new better system' for tracking the problems that assigns responsibility for resolution and correction but avoids identifying cause.  Justification being the most important thing we can do is resolve it quickly to keep the shipment moving and the customter 'satisfied'.  When there is no improvement, the 'new better' system' is touted as the solution. 

The elusive question is how to move beyond that situation and actually drive improvement.

Like you, I wish it weren't so true

Hi, Tim,

Thank you for your spot on additional examples. Until cultures are created where the words "statistical" and "quality" are dropped as adjectives because they're "givens," "quality as bolt-on" mentality will continue -- and the status quo will win every time. Until improvement is "built-in" to an organization's DNA, these power struggles (with "quality" virtually always losing) will continue to be the norm.

And quality people have a role in this, too -- stop BORING people to death and solve MAJOR problems (Unilke this person:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdqRqRXeS-Q).  The person whose correspondence formed the basis of this article is on the right track. 


Spot On!

Dear Davis,

That was a great exchange. And, as Tim put it "too close to home". As I was reading your reader's points, I could relate to each one of them.

As quality professionals we tend to emphasize "Knowledge of variation" at the expense of "Knowledge of Psychology". We almost never address the "Theory of Knowledge" or practice the "Appreciation of a System". All four are critical to transform how we function.

Best regards, Shrikant Kalegaonkar (Twitter, LinkedIn, Iterations)

Thank you!

Nice comment. You're obviously a fan of Deming, as am I. I feel that his philosophy is still the most robust and no one -- I repeat, NO ONE -- has implemented it as he intended. Deming's "psychology" was the least developed of his four facets of Profound Knowledge, and it even goes beyond his emphasis on intrinsic motivation (Dean Spitzer has done some wonderful work on "demotivators." Look up his book "Supermotivation."  Chapter 4 & 5 of my book develop psychology as well). I've been fascinated by this and researched it heavily the last 15-20 years. Until the narcissistic, egocentric psychology of the "executive club" is cracked, it's going to be a long, ongoing struggle.  Passionate lip service is alive and well...and quality professionals "tolerate" it.  So, what are THEY going to do about it?  In my articles, I try to make suggestions.

Good luck!