Ten Hard Lessons Learned

hard lesson[Sometimes it helps to look back and try and find out why something that seemed so important, so necessary, years ago seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Statistician W. Edwards Deming and his followers greatly influenced me by their work to show us how to improve the quality of our goods and services.  After all, shouldn’t everyone of us be interested in improving things and doing so continuously at work, home, and at play? Isn’t the quest to improve that which we do a part of our culture? Isn’t that what we do in America?

I wrote the following article for the “Quality Progress” magazine to explain what happened in my city when top leadership changed hands.  I began to see that there were some things in our society, work and political systems that work against improving things. After reading this, you may find an answer to your question about why things don’t improve in your workplace like they should.]

QUALITY IMPROVEMENT AND GOVERNMENT:

TEN HARD LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED

 Chief David C. Couper

October, 1989

For the past four years, I have been working hard to implement a new way of thinking within the police department as well as within city government in Madison.

This new way of thinking involves quality improvement methods similar to those used by many companies in the private sector, particularly in the manufacturing arena.  These methods have been highly successful in providing not only better quality products and services, but have done so at a lower cost.

Attempting to put these principles to work in the public sector where the ever-changing world of politics often collides with the autocratic forces of the bureaucracies have been a unique and challenging experience for me, more difficult than I would ever have imagined.

Although my progress has been slow and the path difficult, I believe more than ever that these methods apply to the public sector.  It does require, however, some bridge building to see how Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points apply to government.  After all, who are the customers (citizens, employees, other departments)?  How does the reduction in variation apply to service systems (can services delivered be equated with manufactured products)?  How do we eliminate the annual rating system (particularly when evaluation is a part of performance pay)?

The answers haven’t come easy for the private sector, nor are they easy for public agencies.  With this in mind, the following are some lessons that I have learned from my experiences of the past four years.  I hope they can help others traveling the same road in government bridge the gap.

LESSON ONE 

POLITICS IS LIKE WAR.  WINNERS DON’T ACCEPT LOSERS’ PROGRAMS ÐÐ EVEN IF THEY ARE GOOD.

Most newly-elected politicians attempt to negate programs and successes of their predecessors; even the good things they accomplished.  They want, instead, to implement THEIR newly proposed programs.  They feel their programs must be unique and different than those of the past administration.  Every new administration (especially if the winner is from a different political party than the loser) starts as though it were the first, rather than building on past knowledge and experiences.  It’s as if every new explorer ignored the maps and journeys of their predecessors and had to personally explore the world and draw their own maps.  Everyone has to draw their own personal map of previously charted areas.  In this kind of system there is very little progress.

LESSON TWO

QUALITY IMPROVEMENT AND POLITICS DON’T MIX VERY WELL.

I don’t believe they cannot mix, only that they don’t mix very well.  Politics in America is very short sighted — a year, two years at the most, is all good politicians will invest before they expect a pay-off.  Simply speaking, a quality improvement effort won’t pay off in such short time periods.  The irony is that good politicians MUST start doing this for our future.  In the short term, quality should be implemented because it is the right thing to do.  Quality improvement is in some ways like affirmative action or employee assistance programs, they are necessary, but it is hard to see how dollars can be saved by implementing them.  Quality improvement cannot be viewed as a particular politician’s program.  If it is, it will only last the tenure of that politician.

LESSON THREE        

IF LEFT ALONE, GOVERNMENT WILL MAINTAIN TRADITIONAL WORK SYSTEMS AT THE EXPENSE OF NEW AND BETTER WAYS OF THINKING AND WORKING.

Maintenance of the status quo at the expense of constant improvement is the single most stifling force in government.  The nature of government has been to maintain the status quo.  The trouble with this is that it leaves no opportunity for growth and improvement.  Government has maintained a 19th century, authoritarian work system despite growing realization in the private sector of new and more effective ways of doing business.  In bureaucracy, authority, technology and specialization are more important than people, creativity and improvement.  Today, there are forward-thinking leaders who realize that their job is to empower and encourage their workers.  Many of the real problems of quality and productivity can be overcome by vision, leadership, a well-defined mission, teamwork, innovation and constant systems improvement.  These things are the responsibility of leaders, not workers; they are not things bureaucracies do very well.

LESSON FOUR

THERE’S AT LEAST TWO KINDS OF POWER USED BY BOSSES:  POWER BY FEAR AND POWER BY ENABLING OTHERS.

There are numerous ways bosses use power, most of these work to empower bosses, not other employees.  Using fear to get things done is the most common management technique in government today.  It is easy to use fear tactics because our culture supports it — bosses order, workers do.  It seems that simple.  It appears to be a well-ordered, stratified scheme of things; much like the way parents control children.  Is this the best way?  What do we know about bosses who use fear as power?  We find that their employees don’t talk to them very much and they receive little information from the rank and file; information that is necessary for them to make good decisions.  What do we know about bosses who empower their employees?  They treat them as adults, excite creativity in them as well as throughout the organization.  There is an atmosphere of trust and respect between the people who work there and the organization’s leadership.  Surprisingly, leaders who empower others appear, from what I have observed, to have gained MORE power through this sharing process.

LESSON FIVE

THERE’S AT LEAST TWO REASONS WHY BOSSES ACCEPT QUALITY IMPROVEMENT:  FEAR OF FAILURE AND INTROSPECTION.

There may be many more reasons why bosses accept quality improvement methods, but these two appear to be recurring themes.  When bosses are afraid they may lose their job or the company may begin to falter, bosses will try anything, even quality improvement methods.  Would General Motors and Ford have listened to Dr. Deming ten years ago?  No, it was only when Japanese competition began to create a threat.  The second primary reason I have observed bosses implement quality methods is they have become introspective in their own right.  They try it because quality seems to be right thing to do.  They are people who get excited about new ideas and will seek out the best methods of running their organization.  They tend to be bosses who have always been out front, taking risks and leading their organizations, trying to find the best known methods to do things.  Government has not experienced the kind of crises that the private sector has had to endure.  Therefore, for government to move forward and adopt this new philosophy, it will take leaders who are introspective, forward thinking and risk takers.

LESSON SIX 

EMPLOYEES DO WHAT THEY THINK THEIR BOSSES WANT MORE THAN BOSSES THINK THEY DO.

Employees watch their leaders much more closely than anyone imagines.  Employees key in on the negative as well as the positive things that they do.  Our society is much more authoritarian than most of us would like to admit.  We do follow our leaders.  This can be good as well as bad.  Independent action and creative ideas under the command of a boss who favors only the status quo is nonexistent.  Bosses set the tone and pace of the work place.  If the boss uses fear to suppress creative behavior it may be years before an idea surfaces again in the organization.  On the other hand, bosses who encourage their employees to think and be creative are surprised at the results.

LESSON SEVEN

YOU CANNOT EXPECT UNIONS OR FRONT LINE WORKERS TO CARRY THE TORCH FOR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT.

Although the implementation of quality improvement methods is in the interest of all employees, the fear that permeates governmental organizations and the lack of power employees have makes it a mean trick to say that the quality revolution will start within the ranks of front line workers and their unions.  Managers have hundreds of ways to block union efforts to improve the quality of work.  Unless managers are willing to listen to employees and share power with them in order to come to the best work decisions, employees will be prevented from being a partner in work improvement.  Most work systems we have in place today are barriers that prevent managers, as well as employees, from having pride in their work. Despite the obvious benefits to workers in a quality organization, traditional thinking (We’ve always done it this way) often overrides improvement thinking (What’s the best way of doing this).  It is a mistake to think that an organization can transform itself without employees and their leaders working together.  Only by working together can quality improvement methods become a way of doing business in government.

LESSON EIGHT

THE GREATEST DETRIMENT TO QUALITY IMPROVEMENT IS COWBOY MANAGEMENT.

American managers have been trained to shoot fast from the hip and to take immediate action, with six-guns blazing, even if it may prove later to be wrong.  The cowboy analogy goes further: cowboys work alone and not with other people, they are strong, silent, macho, and always know what needs to be done.  They are lords in their environment, whether it be on the prairie or in the board room.  Cowboy managers survive against all odds; one riot, one ranger.  Whatever the problem, it can be fixed with force; force of will or force by fear.  Americans have been trained for years in our nation’s business and public administration schools as well as on-the-job to follow this management model.  What cowboy management does is disregard the importance of the group, input from the front line workers who do the work, the need to have mutual respect and trust between managers and workers, using teamwork which has been proven to produce the best results, facilitating open communication, and acceptance of women and minorities in the work place.  Cowboy management should be as out of date today in the work place as a cowboy is in Manhattan.

LESSON NINE

THE SECOND GREATEST DETRIMENT TO QUALITY IMPROVEMENT IS THE WESTERN EGO.

By ego I mean the I over the we.  It means hanging on to America’s greatest and most damaging myth — that the individual is better than the team.  This nation was built on teamwork, not individual, independent effort.  The whole IS greater than the sum of its parts.  We have empirical data on the power of group decision making to prove it.  The ego is particularly damaging to organizations in the political world.  Employees are simply not given credit for their contributions and efforts — they are constantly robbed by their leaders.  Most every kind of work depends on teamwork in order to do it effectively.  There are few (if any) exceptions.  We need to continually train ourselves and others how to work effectively in teams and take pride in being an effective team.  Few sports teams with the league-leading scorer goes on to win the championship.  It is teams with the best cooperation, harmony and teamwork that take home the prize.

LESSON TEN

IT’S A LOT EASIER TALKING ABOUT QUALITY IMPROVEMENT THAN DOING IT — AND DOING IT IS HARDER THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE.

Talk is cheap.  Doing new things, trying new methods involves personal risk.  This is a lesson I should have be wise to as a teacher.  It was much easier for me to explain to my students what they should do than it was for them to do it.  Once you take on the challenge to drive fear from the work place, institute leadership, trust, respect and joy in work, the true task has only just begun.  Few are willing to take that risk — even if it seems to be the right thing to do.  Once you decide to take the risk, seeing the results of your implementation efforts will take you much longer than you expected — maybe twice as long.  It is a long-term, five to eight year effort.

These, really, are just a few of the lessons that I have learned in attempting to implement quality methods in a municipal agency.  Our efforts are ongoing.  I am learning every day.

For leaders interested in undertaking an organizational transformation, there is a lot to learn.  You need to think of all work as systems.  You have to know of the kinds of statistical variation, when to take action on work systems and when not to.  You need to learn the ways to plot data so that you can better see what your work systems are doing to make better decisions.  You need to enable and empower the people who know the work systems best — your employees — to work with them to solve problems and create improvement for your customers.  You need to be a passionate and committed leader, willing to train everyone in the organization — from top to the bottom — about quality improvement.  And you need to be an untiring and persistent champion for quality and your employees.

Everyone in the organization must see that things done in the name of quality improvement really improve their work life; particularly those on the front line.  From these successes it is but a small step to apply these methods to external customers — citizen taxpayers. [i]


[i] David Couper, Quality Progress magazine, Milwaukee, 1989.