This post is a tribute to W. Edwards Deming, born on this day in the year 1900.
The system works for you. At the start, anyway. Then it doesn’t. The cover sheet for the TPS report? Yes, that was part of a great joke from Office Space but it was also a part of the system. It was a good system at one time and then it somehow became less good. These less good systems are everywhere. Many of them are designed to compel and reward our compliance. We’re no longer sure as to why.
If you have to write a cover sheet for the TPS report, or any other report, and don’t know why, then you are clearly working for a system. It’s part of life. You have to serve many systems with no good reason. A phone tree. A procurement process. Your metabolism. These systems are built on rules and actions that reliably produce a particular result. The bureaucracy isn’t always bad. Is it confining? Sure. That’s the point. Confining but efficient. Tedious but reliable.
This is why we are cogs in the great big organizational wheel. Cogs who help the wheel turn. For now, anyway. It’s not a permanent gig, though, because software is going to automate the cog function soon enough. Just wait. Think the TPS cover sheet is a waste of time? They think so, too. It’s the best they have right now but they will find something that is less wasteful of time, something more efficient.
When they find a better cog, you will have to find a better job.
Or you can just be better regardless. You are not a cog, after all. That’s not the value you provide. The person who designed the system? They cannot see all its flaws. Neither can the customer. So you are needed because, unlike a cog, you can find ways to not merely help the wheel turn but actually captain the steering.
I’ll be specific: some of the most elaborate systems in the world are found in manufacturing. Decades of evolution in the practice has led us away from Henry Ford’s original Taylorism to the better philosophy of W. Edward Deming.
Here’s what Henry Ford said in 1923: “Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Just do what you’re told. Be a good cog. It served Ford well for many decades. He didn’t want your brain.
Then came the rise of the Total Quality movement with Japanese automakers beating their American competitors with a better way of doing things. There are many reasons this happened but there are few people to truly credit. One of the few, the one who should be most credited, was W. Edwards Deming. And the best way to summarize his ethos is the following quote made some fifty years after Henry Ford: “Quality is everyone’s responsibility”.
Everyone. Me and you. And them. All of us. So don’t be a cog. You are here to make sure this system serves us. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
That’s the opportunity. It might not be explicit in your policies and procedures but that’s just another system. One of poor quality. You can fix it. In fact, you must. As Deming said, it’s your responsibility.
The system works for you. Don’t tolerate anything less. Maybe your system is giving you a tiny, unnecessary problem—a staff report that’s too onerous to write. Or a compliance review process with too much redundancy. Fine. Fix it. Fix anything that makes it easier and faster to do the right thing. Fix anything that makes it easier and faster to get the same output. Or a better one. That’s the point of the system in the first place.
The challenge isn’t to get your boss to agree. The challenge is to get the courage to ask.
Cogs don’t ask. Cogs don’t improve. They just do their job, serving the system with their two hands instead of their brain. Just as Henry Ford wanted. But that was a long time ago.
Edwards Deming left a legacy for all of us. He’s one of the greats.