Eliminate Slogans, Exhortations and Targets

By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

Point 10 on W. Edwards Deming’s list of 14 Points for western management:

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

Slogans are a way to say you care about quality without actually demonstrating you care. To improve results the system needs to be improved. Slapping up a slogan doesn’t improve the system. Normally all a slogan does is result in blaming people for not delivering what the slogan promises.

The reason that the organization failed is because the systems are producing what they will produce (along with the expected variation) not because an employee isn’t doing their part. To change results change the system.

Nearly everyone knows slogans and exhortations are pointless. If you listen to what people say outside of the meeting all you will hear is derision. Inside a meeting often no-one will object. If so, you should examine your management system. Why do people allow bad practices to go officially unquestioned? It is a bad sign and points to serious management problems. And it is also a common condition.

Targets are less universally seen as pointless. But Dr. Deming understood the damage targets cause.

if management sets quantitative targets and makes people’s job depend on meeting them, “they will likely meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.

W. Edwards Deming, quoted in Profits Beyond Measure by H. Thomas Johnson (in the forward to the book).

I achieved my goal but not my aim. That happens a lot, we honestly translate aims to goals. And then we do stupid things in the name of the goal get it the way of the aim. We forget the aim sometimes and put the goal in its place.

Mike Tveite, Achieving goals but failing to achieve the aim. Watch this short video for a great story illustrating this problem in action:

YouTube video

There may be cases in which incentives work only as intended, but I suspect they are relatively rare. The trouble is that we are usually dealing with complex systems (people and organizations) that may behave not at all like our myths would predict. The best policy may be to avoid incentives altogether and focus instead on creating systems in which intrinsic motivation, cooperation, ethical behavior, trust, creativity, and joy in work can flourish.

Gipsie Ranney, The Trouble with Incentives: They Work

To improve results, as Brian Joiner said, we have 3 options, to: distort the system, distorting the data or improve the system. Improving the system is by far the most difficult. If the focus is just on meeting a target improving the system is not a sensible strategy.

Distorting the numbers, a form of creative accounting aimed at looking good rather than doing well, is rampant in American business.

Given a standard to reduce employee turnover, one vice president of human resources simply changed the formula for calculating turnover. This change reduced the turnover ratio while improving nothing. Distorting the system often occurs because performance appraisal encourages individuals to squeeze or circumvent the system for their short-term individual gain, rather than improve it for collective long-term gain. The sales force pulls out all stops to meet one quarter’s sales quota and sales sag in the following quarter.

Peter Scholtes, Total Quality or Performance Appraisal: Choose One

Related: Where There is Fear You Do Not Get Honest FiguresEliminate Slogans (motivational poster)Dangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of DataThe Defect Black Market

Some people will think of experience they have had where they found slogan, exortations or targets useful. Some of these fall into just a silly example of you used a slogan and had success and think there is causation. You will often see such stroies about successful sports teams and how their season long slogan helped them succeed. Of course, every other sports team that lost also had such a slogan and didn’t succeed. It seems pretty silly to act as though the slogan of the winning team mattered.

There is a second way that people have found slogans or targets as useful that is more compelling, in my opinion. This gets into tricky teritory but I think it is worth talking about (this is just my own take on things – which might stray a bit from a conventional understanding).

When a slogan becomes a manifestation of a vision that drives how the organization makes decisions it can be seen as useful. What has happened in these cases is the aim (which Deming discussed as important) and constancy of purpose have been given a focus in a slogan. When this happens and the organization is managed as a system the unifying vision is helpful. But this benefit results from a unified vision that is shared by everyone in the organization. The slogan is not what is helping, it is that unified vision and an understanding of managing the organization as a system.

The truth is, in my opinion, if you use a slogan that is consistent with the aim of the organization and which helps people remember that focus it can actually be useful. I realize this sounds wrong within the Deming context. But it really points out the way an aim and a slogan can be very close to each other. While they can seem very close they are very different in how they impact a management system. Helping everyone remember the core aims of the organization is very useful. The way that is done could seem very similar to how slogans are used in a poor management system. But they are not similar. An aim should impact how all decisions are made. A slogan is an empty platitude that isn’t used to make decisions and is just used to blame people when results disappoint.

The customer is the purpose of our work is a nice quote from Gandi I found on the wall of an Indian restaurant I frequented in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. If the organization used that to focus their vision. If when an employee was thinking what should I do now, kept that idea in mind and decided what to do based on that thought and management provided training to help employees understand how to take action based on that aim that would be wonderful. In this case it wasn’t at all. It also didn’t do any harm, it just sat ignored on the wall, as most slogan are. Most slogans don’t really do much damage in my opinion. In those cases where the slogan is actually used as a hammer to blame employees when results disappoint is when it does cause damage.

If the slogan actually embodies the management system then it isn’t really what point 10 was warning about. Then the slogan is an aim that is truely an expression of the core values that determine decisions made by all employees (including executives). But that is not often the case for those slogans that are slapped on posters and put in the workplace.

Ritz-Carlton has the motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” When, as I believe Ritz-Carlton does, that motto is used to make decisions in all cases and not just used to blame an employee when things go wrong it is useful.

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