Do We Need to Find Management Ideas from Our Industry?

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Quite often, people are concerned that our industry isn’t the same as some example. And often, this leads to concerns that we can’t use the ideas.

Deming’s management system is not prescriptive. There isn’t a recipe for how to implement the ideas in your organization. This often frustrates people. But the lack of prescriptive details is intentional. Dr. Deming did not believe you can provide such a recipe that will work. The principles must be learned, and then practices must be adopted that work with those principles in the specific organization.

Dr. Deming was critical of those offering simple step-by-step instructions for how to manage which he called instant pudding. People are willing to buy instant pudding solutions. The problem is they don’t work.

A great benefit of Deming’s management system is we can learn from others, no matter what their industry is. Yes, there are certain conditions common to an industry group that have more importance in those industries than in others.

So, manufacturers will have some specific applications that are likely to be more easily appreciated by, and applied to, other manufacturers. And the same holds true for software developers or health care or government. But the overall management concepts, ideas, tools, and practices are shared and useful to most any organization.

One of the biggest weaknesses I have seen in the application of Deming’s management ideas, lean thinking, and other management improvement strategies, is the demand for examples exactly like the situation face by the organization looking to improve (first in their industry, but if that is found, then in their sub-industry, then of their size [national v. local v. international] and on and on). It really seems to me, mainly, about finding a reason to avoid trying to improve.

You can learn more from those organizations that are really making great progress. The concepts are transferable. The industry is relatively unimportant.

There are times when it is difficult to get a grasp on how to proceed, for example: how to improve in a research and development organization. Yes, it is easiest if you can see exactly how a few other organization have tried to apply Deming’s ideas in that environment. Manufacturing has lots of examples to view, which does make it a bit easier if you are confused. But there is also a risk in being trapped by the way others have operationalized concepts. It is easy to accept ideas that are good but that could be executed even better with a bit more thought.

I often think it is best to learn from what is similar in some ways, but also substantially different in important ways, what organizations have done. So, if you are a software development organization, look at what law firms or engineering firms have done. How did they show respect for people? How did they adopt an appreciation for variation? If you are a hospital, look at how hotels have focused on customers or cross-trained staff. If you are a sales organization, look at what accounting firms or architectural firms have done.

You want to learn about the ideas, most importantly, that don’t have anything to do with the industry. When you get down to some specific details on how to implement certain practices, it can be very beneficial to find an organization that has really figured out some great practices that work within a specific context (manufacturing, software development, medical research, etc.).

Another problem with the whole idea of matching industries is, often, the organization includes many of these functions. Many organizations have sales, software development, engineering, legal, customer support, accounting, computer system administration. . . functions. I don’t see much need for finding examples that are exactly like what you face. It is mainly an excuse to avoid learning and improving.

The desire for finding an exact match is often based on the false premise that what is needed is to find practices to copy for which finding an exactly duplicate of your situation would make some sense. But that isn’t what the Deming management system is about.

Related: What’s Deming Got to Do With Agile Software Development and KanbanEliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems ThinkingWe Need to Understand Variation to Manage Effectively

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