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Davis Balestracci


What’s the Hurry?

The benefits of plotting an important number over time

Published: Monday, April 17, 2017 - 12:03

Many talk about reducing variation to improve quality. Does that include human variation, where everyone takes a different approach to improving overall improvement processes? What would happen if this variation were reduced?

Would some of you lean folks be interested in spearheading an effort to standardize how the “implementation of improvement” is actually implemented? Lean and nonlean practitioners would no doubt thank you effusively. (I can hear you all: “Davis, what planet are you on?”)

Nah, probably not a good idea. But could we all agree that a useful initial strategy might be to address the routine organizational use of data?

Consider: By reducing daily variations in how routine data are used, we’d find that less tampering (i.e., treating common cause as special) helps boost the credibility of more formal efforts, regardless of the approach. Think how much that liberated time and reduced chaos would increase your effectiveness.

One of W. Edwards Deming’s quotes made a lasting impression on me when I first heard it more than 30 years ago: “A good organization will take five years to turn around. Most will take 10.”

So what’s the hurry?

Many of you have been using a bolt-on “push” strategy for improvement processes. Its guaranteed result is dealing with ongoing, relentless frustration that never seems to show signs of abating, and it almost guarantees vague results—or gains that seem to evaporate. Your current actions and results have already created a perception about the value you and your organization’s improvement philosophy offer. Maybe it’s time to rewind and reconsider an improvement process that’s built into the organization’s DNA.

What if you began to facilitate several key results using everyday data? Such a “pull” strategy lets results, rather than you, do the talking. Simultaneously, you could reduce cultural human variation by creating a common improvement language for everyone. By that I mean a basic understanding of process, variation, “plot the dots,” and common vs. special causes.

Be careful when doing this, though: A lecture about “quality” could be perceived as patronizing. This was a lesson I learned the hard way. People are proud of how hard they already work, and to them, that’s “quality.”

But what if part of their education involved them in implementing some everyday practices that made their work lives easier? This would help foster a culture that routinely asked:
• Are we “perfectly designed” to get this result?
• What would plotting the dots tell us?
• Is this a common or special cause?
• How can we find and focus on the Pareto principle’s vital 20 percent?

For Deming adherents, be especially careful not to let “uneducated enthusiasm” sabotage you! Until you have personally facilitated some eye-opening results (with the data to show for it), declare a temporary moratorium on phrases like, “Dr. Deming says...” and “profound knowledge” as well as one-off demonstrations of the red bead experiment or quincunx.

If you can’t restrain yourself from demonstrating the red bead experiment, be sure you have the competence and confidence to schedule a post-demonstration dialogue with each person or work group in the demonstration. Your purpose should be neither to teach nor lecture, but for you and the attendees to understand their daily “red beads.” The ultimate objective is to help improve the situation about a number that makes them “sweat.” 

How should you undertake this thousand-mile journey in your organization? By remembering Lao Tzu’s words and beginning with a single step. Here are three to consider:

Step 1: Plot over time an important number
This will increase your understanding of variation and help you change conversations about data.

Step 2: Recognize and solve invisible opportunities
These are the ones currently surrounding and quietly screaming in your organization’s everyday work. Realize that these opportunities either will have nothing to do with current project work, or are merely symptomatic of their manifestations. Then use the Pareto principle: What are the 20 percent of routine numbers that cause 80 percent of the organizational perspiration?

Step 3: Demonstrate competence
Get results first, quietly and without fanfare, before you exhort everyone else to do it. Develop a reputation for being a competent practitioner (one who lets colleagues get all the credit for any results).

Know that top and middle management will initially fight you every step of the way. Lectures, logic, and one-off demonstrations won’t even begin to make a dent in their mindset and could actually backfire. You must develop the competence and confidence to facilitate any situation while on your feet. Who are the 20 percent of the leadership that could possibly account for 80 percent of your success? Here are a couple of short-term strategies:
• Create a critical mass of 25 to 30 percent of your leadership interested in consistently practicing data sanity, and help them get results that move their C-suite “big dots.” Let them have all the credit while encouraging them to educate your culture.
• To avoid an ulcer, make this your daily mantra: I need to swallow my ego 10 times before breakfast and another dozen more times before lunch.
• Remember that the people in your organization aren’t stupid. They will know you were responsible for the results and deeply respect you because you let other people get the credit.

As a huge bonus, if any of these initial results involved the frontline and ultimately made their lives easier, you’ve made a pure-gold investment in your improvement process and earned a ton of credibility in their eyes. They will be especially appreciative when you have seriously reduced the number of tantrums thrown at them to “get better numbers.”

For lean practitioners, the synergy of all this could create an open door to begin to consider kaizen. 

For everyone, how many statistical tools have I used here? How many of Deming's 14 points does this process address? (Answer: all of them.) Have I formally referred to any?

Are you ready to go beyond “Cro-Magnon quality” now?

Until next time....


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.