Drawing Lines

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

“The boundary of the system to be described…may be drawn around a single company or, around an industry, or as in Japan in 1950, the whole country.  The bigger be the coverage, the bigger be the possible benefits, plus the more difficult to manage.  The aim must include plans for the future.”
W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics

In the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11, I was invited to deliver a presentation on an integration of ideas from W. Edwards Deming, Genichi Taguchi, and others, to 70 graduate students, all pursuing a masters degree in business administration.   With my presentation scheduled for 1pm, I asked my university hosts to invite attendees of the presentation to meet with me over lunch.   About a dozen accepted my invitation.   After introductions, one of the students, John, commented that my lecture was preceded by a presentation the week before and that “it was only fair to mention” that the preceding presentation “would be a tough act to follow.”   Such a description quickly drew my attention, both for what was presented and for how to follow a presentation that was described as “deeply moving,” so much so that a classmate fainted.

Upon inquiring, I learned that the previous presenter worked for a biomedical devices company, one that both designed and manufactured pacemakers.   As to the tough act to follow, I learned that the presenter shared a video which included interviews with customers of their pacemakers.  The interviews were conducted before and after surgery and the contrast stirred significant emotion from class mates.   As to the tough act to follow, my mind raced to consider what videos I might have with me.  Even if I had one, in all likelihood it would be a video of a simulated assembly operation of a rocket engine.   Not quite a significant emotional event that would stir fainting.

Nonetheless, I listened carefully to the explanation of the excitement about the preceding presenter, all the while sorting through ideas on how to properly follow such a memorable session.  What followed was an explanation of how this biomedical devices company kept track of who makes each pacemaker, a practice that appeared to resonate with many of my lunch guests, including John.   As to why such a list was compiled, I learned that this list was used, on occasion, when a pacemaker customer visited the company and asked to meet the “team” for their own life-saving device.

Given the spirit of “Where to draw the boundary?” from the opening quote, used by W. Edwards Deming in Chapter 3 of his book, The New Economics, I asked the students to consider who would be included on the pacemaker “team” they had referenced.   I asked if I would be regarded as a “member of the team” if I had been the person that placed the order for the raw materials used to form the body of the pacemaker.    The reply, in the opinion of John, was “No, you wouldn’t be on the team.”   “What if,” I followed, “I was the person who wrote the check that paid for these raw materials, would I be included?”    The reply from John was a second “No, you would not be included.”   When asked why not, John’s matter-of- fact reply was “You have to draw the line someplace.”

At this point of inquiry, I unrolled a poster I had carried with me from Los Angeles, one made famous in southern California after 9/11.  The poster’s text “United We Stand” surrounded a picture of a waving US flag.  I asked John if he was aware of the reference.   His response signaled that he was an advocate of the expression.   I took the opportunity to refer to Dr. Deming and his ideas of systems that are forever open and endless, not closed, with lines drawn to demarcate boundaries.   To think with unity and act with unity, I asked how he could confidently draw a line in a way that separated “we” into two distinct categories, those who contributed and those who had not.  How could such a solid boundary be drawn without offending anyone left out, such as the buyer of raw materials and the co-worker who arranged for payment?   And, associated with the feeling of being left out, could there be an economic loss as well?   What if those who ordered the raw materials protested with malicious compliance?

Could it be that dividing work into value-added and non-value-added draws lines between those who do the two “kinds” of work?  What effects does such a classification have on those who do work labeled as non-value-added?  Is it really clear which category the work belongs in?  Can we continue to abdicate leadership and rely on a customer to define what adds value?  It would appear that making that decision correctly would require understanding correctly all of the interdependencies in the system – a tall order for a mortal.

According to Dr. Deming, management of an organization or a work group requires management of the parts and management of the relationships among the parts of the organization.   When the parts are people, the drawing of lines may have unforeseen and damaging consequences.  The damage can extend to the organization as a whole and its ability to survive and prosper.  Serious thought needs to be given to the value-add of drawing lines.  That is, if unity is deemed essential for teamwork.  As I reminded the business students in 2001, “if teamwork is not essential, continue to draw lines and don’t lose sleep in the process.”  Sadly, the consequences of drawing lines will be invisible to many.  If teamwork is vital, systems will be understood to be open, with the most important numbers both “unknown and unknowable,” to paraphrase a quote from Lloyd Nelson that Dr. Deming used to challenge his audiences.  Included in the unknown and unknowable are the vagaries of relationships that can be subtle and difficult to see and understand.   As I was often reminded by Sheldon (“Shel”) Rovin, former Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and a frequent co-author with Russell Ackoff (his so-called “tor-mentor), teamwork requires accepting the uncertainty of what Shel referred to as “boundary-less systems.”

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