Picture Picture

  Performance Improvement    by H. James Harrington

Families of One

It's time we apply to our family lives the same quality principles and methods that work so well for us in industry..

The Nelsons--father Ozzie, mother Harriet, sons Ricky and David--represented the typical American family during the 1950s. They owned their own home. Ozzie earned a decent salary at his job and could support the family without Harriet working to bring in additional income. Harriet dedicated herself to managing the home and family, and helping at school and other selected activities. Her life pivoted around the family. At that time, the American mother had the most satisfying, important, valuable and difficult job in the world. She epitomized the heart of American culture, where life was good and morals high.

 That scenario may have held true in the 1950s, but today's families live in a much different world. Less than 10 percent of families whose breadwinners are 35 years old or younger fit the Nelson mold. They run the gamut from same-sex parents and parents whose children come from previous marriages, to unmarried, single and traditional parents. Typically, when two partners are involved, both work, and someone else takes care of the children for most of their waking hours. Family members spend more time watching TV than they do talking with each other, and now they need additional time for the Internet. The nightly family meal, unless it's a quick stop for fast food or a special holiday dinner such as Thanksgiving, has become a thing of the past.

How can families expect home-cooked, well-balanced meals every night when the parents are holding down three full-time jobs: their careers, their parental responsibilities and their jobs as family managers. Is it any wonder that they have to make some very undesirable tradeoffs?

The traditional family of four is now four families of one, all living under the same roof. Each family member has his or her own goals, objectives, visions and agendas that don't necessarily line up with the rest of the family's. Unfortunately, it's not poorly managed corporations and government that have adversely affected the United States today, but families failing to meet their responsibilities.

We train people to use computers but not to select and live with a mate. We teach people how to communicate via the Internet but not how to communicate with their children and parents. We drop children off at school and think they're safe, but 40 percent of boys over 10 years old carry weapons to school for protection. Tax breaks are given to cover child care but not to parents who stay home to care for their own children. We've broken many barriers against women in the workplace but discriminate against and belittle men who stay home to care for their families.

Ask yourself this question: Do I spend more time with the team at work than with my family? Keep a log for a week to find out; you may be in for a shock. Which team is more important to you? Rate each on a scale of one to 10, with one as the least important. Then divide the number of hours you spend with each team by their importance rating. The result is your priority index.

If your family index stands at three and your work index at six, your work has twice the priority of your family. If this is the case, hopefully some of you will consider changing your priorities. The comment, "I have never seen a person on his or her deathbed say, 'I wish I had spent more time at work,' " is as true today as when it was first spoken.

Most organizations today focus time and attention on teams to improve working conditions and morale. An estimated 50 percent to 70 percent of the U.S. work force has received training for working in a team environment. That number will increase to 70 percent to 80 percent by the end of this century. No one debates the value of teams. Team problem solving develops understanding and cooperation, and ensures that the group fulfills its objectives.

We should use the same tools in our family circles that we do in our quality circles. Holding regularly scheduled meetings, listening to all ideas, agreeing on how money will be spent and setting group objectives works as well at home as at the office. Group tools such as brainstorming, cause-and-effect diagrams and control charts can be used to improve the processes that hold families together.

We should not measure our value by what we own or how much money accumulates in our bank accounts. The quality of our family life counts as the true measure of our worth. Too many of us become successful managers in business but complete failures in our family lives. It's about time we apply to our family lives the same quality principles and methods that work so well for us in industry.

About the author

H. James Harrington is a principal at Ernst & Young and serves as its international quality advisor. He has more than 45 years' experience as a quality professional and is the author of 12 books. He is a past president and chairman of the board of both the American Society for Quality and the International Academy for Quality.

Harrington can be reached at 55 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113; telephone (408) 947-6587, fax (408) 947-4971, e-mail jharrington@qualitydigest.com. Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com.


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