Tom Pyzdek  |  01/29/2009

Flavor of the Month

Their charms may fade, but quality fads do help move our profession forward.

We’ve heard it before: “______ won’t be around long. It’s the flavor of the month.” Fill in the blank with the latest management fad: zero defects, quality circles, SPC, TQM, systems thinking, balanced scorecards, reengineering, and most recently, Six Sigma and lean. What exactly is meant by tagging something the flavor of the month (FOM)? Should practitioners even care when their special initiative is the target of this unwelcome label?

Originally, of course, the FOM was a marketing promotion for Baskin-Robbins. It still is. December’s FOM was, appropriately, Egg Nog. But who really cares what last month’s FOM was? It’s yesterday’s news. This is one of the defining properties of the label. It’s here today, gone tomorrow. Lots of hype, enthusiasm, and fanfare. Then… nothing.

Despite the cynicism and naysaying, savvy corporate politicians know that FOM programs are opportunities to grab resources, expand empires, and extend jurisdictions. Many FOMs are a response to the problems created by hierarchical organizational structures. Although this is the dominant form of organization in use, modern organizations add customer value by way of “heterarchies,” not hierarchies. A heterarchy is a network resembling a fishnet. Authority in a heterarchy is determined by knowledge and function. When we use tools such as process deployment flowcharts or interrelationship diagrams, we’re creating heterarchy diagrams.

Our process approach to organizations offers an antidote to many of the ills created by hierarchical organizational structures. By looking at organizations cross- functionally, we’re able to increase the flow of value, improve quality, and lower costs. These processes are not owned by a functional manager. As such they, and the resources allocated to them, are often up for grabs. I’m sure that many readers have witnessed the intense discussions surrounding questions about who “owns” lean, Six Sigma, ISO 9001, et al. If leadership isn’t vigilant, the FOM will become just another reorganization. Incidentally, reorganizations are often FOMs themselves.

There are lessons to be learned here. FOMs appear as a response to a real need. In the case of process-excellence-related FOMs, it’s the need to improve business processes. If others in the organization don’t see the need, or if they perceive a risk to their status within the organization, they may resist the efforts of the leaders to make the change. In other words, the FOM doesn’t start out as a FOM, but it becomes one when members of the organization successfully resist the efforts of the leaders to create change. In such cases, the FOM program may produce some results before it fails, but at best, it will still be perceived as a limited success and labeled a FOM by its detractors.

FOMs fill a solution vacuum. Naysayers and cynics may find an audience among the like-minded, but they offer nothing positive. Other solutions may help, but they’re not adequate. Leaders in search of real solutions become aware of efforts undertaken by other organizations that seem successful. Reasonably, they think, “Perhaps it will work here.” Often the leaders jump into the solution without completely understanding it. For example, many organizations sent delegations to Japan during the early 1980s to see how successful Japanese companies “did it.” They returned only to report that there was nothing to see. The Japanese companies just seemed to be able to do things better. They did it using the same technology, the same suppliers, and the same techniques as their U.S. counterparts. Experts such as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran, who helped the Japanese in the early days of their transformation, were able to coach U.S. business leaders and help them understand. Some U.S. companies were able to make the transition. Between 1979 and 1985 Ford Motor Co. went from losing more money in one year than any company in history, to making more profit than any company in history. (A transformation I’d love to see Ford repeat today!) Other companies were unable to adapt to new competitors and ceased to exist. In other words, at some companies the new emphasis on process excellence was a transformation; at others it was a FOM.

FOMs will continue to appear. Successful efforts in one organization will be FOMs in another. The world is a dynamic place and the need for change will never go away. As long as organizations seek to adapt to new environments, they will try different ways of doing things. Some of these change attempts will fade and become FOMs. Others will achieve limited results and then be replaced by the next big thing. Still others will result in permanent changes to the organization’s culture. As change agents, we can’t let ourselves be deterred by failure or partial success. We should listen to thoughtful critics and ignore cynics whose only contributions are derisive comments and labels.


About The Author

Tom Pyzdek’s picture

Tom Pyzdek

Thomas Pyzdek’s career in business process improvement spans more than 50 years. He is the author more than 50 copyrighted works including The Six Sigma Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Through the Pyzdek Institute, he provides online certification and training in Six Sigma and Lean.