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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

If Deming could see what you’re doing...

When making a change shouldn’t be simply copying someone else’s idea

Published: Friday, July 15, 2011 - 16:12

If W. Edwards Deming could see what you are doing, he’d punch you in the face. OK, not really. He may have been brutally honest in his lectures but I don’t think he ever punched anyone. However, he would have plenty to say about how often one business copies (I believe the term today is “benchmarks”) the good ideas from another business with no thought about context. Why is it in business that if we see an idea from another organization – that claims to have a positive influence on their business performance – we’ll try to copy it?

What got my attention as the maddest business improvement idea of the day, was the USA’s “take your dog to work day” on June the 24th. This was given a full page spread in the London Guardian newspaper (18th June 2011, Work Supplement) on the fully flowing positivity of taking an animal to the office. There on the newspaper in bold typeface was a survey conducted by the Bio Agency (why they cannot do research on something that could benefit all of humanity escapes me) that from a survey of 3,000 office workers; “55% of those canvassed admitted they would feel more motivated if they did have a pet in the office”. Before all you pet lovers (that does also include me) start sharpening your poison pens and write a letter to me, please let me expand on why copying an improvement idea from one business to another is not always the best plan of action.

A good friend of mine likes to call me up now and again to talk over ‘business’. Once he asked for some advice when he was tasked to do an investigation that was initiated from a customer complaint at his business. The problem was so significant, that his company tasked him to lead a small team full time, taking him away from his normal duties, until it was fully resolved. From his investigation he found that the factors that led to the failure were many and complex.

Now and again, when he was struggling to see the end of the analysis tunnel, when all he could see were problems layered on problems, the deeper he would sink. So I would keep him focused on the “system” that created the failure and why that system had not prevented the failure from escaping the factory gates. This he would hesitantly admit, as he is rarely does because he’s a stubborn chap, helped him significantly.

Over a beer and pizza sometime later, we caught up before his mammoth report, packed full of evidence, was due for submission to his upper management. Talking over the contributing factors to the failure, he described the following sub-cause to the failure, and it went something like this:
“Well, the assembly that the failure was centered around didn’t get its final check before its despatch on the late Friday afternoon pick-up”.

“Why did that happen?” I asked

“There were no technical approvers around to support and approve, and with it being an urgent delivery, it had to go.”

So we talked about why his organization delivers only on a Friday, the culture in the business, the methods used, and finally the “system”. I had learned that there were no technical approvers as their “Human Remains” function (his words) changed the working hour’s policy for the technical department, so they could have the Friday afternoons off.

I sat there stunned, partly by what he said and partly because my brain was screaming at me that layers of taste buds were being melted off by the liquid magma cheese in the pizza crust. My mind flicked into gear like a racing driver making an overtake maneuver at the Monaco Grand Prix, my question followed the cooling effects of a glug of beer:

“So why would your HR give the tech guys Friday afternoons off, if they are a part of the manufacture and delivery process?”

“Well at work over the last year the technical department lost a lot of engineers to companies around us in the north side of town. These companies offer a similar salary package, however, with a nine day fortnight”. This means that they have every other Friday off work or nine day working days out of ten. Other than thinking that was a sweet deal, and how do I apply, I enquired “so what’s that got to do with your tech team?”

“The dead heads in Human Remains”, I was quickly getting the impression my friend wasn’t enamored with his personnel support organization, “wanted to stop the attrition through introducing the nine-day fortnight. Upper management wouldn’t agree, as we’re active all through the working week, so the compromise was for half-day Fridays”.

Here we have it, a perfect example of why not to copy an idea that works for another company. Through not understanding the cause of staff turnover, management – with the best of intentions I believe – made a change to improve the situation. By not assessing the risks or potential impact of the change, business took a turn for the worse, which resulted in a customer complaint. I’ve personally learned, at times the hard way, that you cannot just perform a cut and paste from one business model to another.

Long ago, Deming, when providing consultancy to Ford cars said “American management thinks they can just copy from Japan – but they don’t know what to copy” (The Deming Management Method, Mary Walton, 1986). His comment was as relevant then as it is very much today for my friend. It is easy for anyone to emulate others in the short term, however it is a test to learn for oneself and the rewards are far greater, for longer.

Staying with Deming, I mean no offense with the opening line of this article. I believe that he was a peaceful individual and a generous soul. After reading “The World of W. Edwards Deming” by Cecilia Kilian, I learned that he would donate his lecturing fees, during his travels in the 1950s in Japan, back into the improvement of the devastated country. My opinion that he was a brilliant philosopher was changed, to thinking that he was a great human being.

So returning to the mad idea of pets at work; why is it mad? If I were to bring a box of kittens or puppies into your place of work, would you honestly focus on your customer that day?


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.