Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.
In the spirit of standardization that is growing in popularity in organizations around the world, is there room for diversity? That is, is variety really the spice of life, or does it represent a non-value added effort, if not simply waste? In other words, should variation always be reduced to zero? Is there a place for an aircraft manufacturer to offer their airline customers 108 shades of white paint, as did an aerospace company in the 1990s? Or, would it be better to remove color as a potential market place differentiator and, instead, offer “Any color you like, as long as it’s white”? And, what about inventories? From waste to non-value-added efforts to defects, is less always better for the system at hand, striving for zero? In consideration of the manufacturing concept of “single-minute exchange of dies,” why not “single-second”? In regards to finances, what can be said about cost goals? Should they, as well, always be less-is-better, in which case we buy on price tag alone, shunning Dr. Deming’s fourth point (from his infamous 14), even when selecting a surgeon? Can the same be said for cycle time? Is faster always better? At what expense and, with what return on the investment? Is less fat always better, or, do whales, as well as humans, have body fat for a reason? What about salt intake? Is less always better? In late-breaking health news, a recent New England Journal of Medicine study found higher risks of high blood pressure for excessive salt intake, yet higher mortality from “cardiovascular causes” for low salt intake. Might there sometimes be value in a middle ground goal?
While organizations pronounce that “standards are everything,” what can be said of the limits to uniformity and variability reduction pursuits, pulling towards zero? Does context matter? In consideration of a greater system, is less variation always better, with a goal of zero? Should everything be standardized, including language and right-handedness? Or, should advancements in the implementation of standardization include a context for advocating when and where to pursue standardization? At times, multiple languages and multiple software systems, assisted by translators, might provide a more systemic solution. That is, a more economically viable solution, in which the investment in variety is off-set by the systemic savings.
From Zero Defects to “Just-in-Time” production, zero remains an admired stretch goal and also represents one of the two endpoints of “Management by Extremes.” The other is infinity, as in the pursuit of better, coupled with the ambition to continually improve. For example, a friend once shared her work goal of recruiting, week after week, new members to a health club. Upon suggesting to her supervisor that adding more members would eventually require a facility with more space and more exercise equipment, without which lines would form and members would defect to competitors, she was advised to focus on recruitment. Meanwhile, working in isolation, while pulling in an opposite direction, a co-worker focused on reducing costs by not investing in additional space and equipment. As expected, customers came and left. I liken this organizational behavior to my left wrist and right wrist being given different goals for pulse, not to mention my lungs being given an independent respiration goal, with my urinary system, vision system, and pulmonary system given their own goals. What would happen to my body if these goals were simultaneously achieved? While pulling in opposite directions, mindful of many of Dr. Deming’s admonitions (“People get awful tired, get nowhere, pulling in opposite directions.”), would I live long to tell about it?
In reviewing goal setting, let me also flash back to my engineering training in heat transfer and fluid mechanics, when my graduate school advisor drilled me and my peers on how to address the technical assignments we would receive once employed. “There will be situations,” he predicted, “where you will be given five minutes to perform an analysis and, in most cases, there will be three possible answers; zero, one, and infinity.” He coached us on how to quickly assess the context and choose from these three options. Little did I appreciate how often zero and infinity would appear together, as stretch goals, as they do in Management by Extremes. Years later, in my studies of “Robust Design” under the mentorship of Genichi Taguchi and Yuin Wu, I was reminded of the grouping of “zero and infinity” as two of the three common goals when applying Dr. Taguchi’s “methods” of quality improvement. An early consideration was the selection of the performance (quality) characteristic for the product or process being improved, and its corresponding goal. Characteristics which were ideally zero were known as “Smaller-is-Best.” Those ideally infinite were labeled “Larger-is-Best.” The third category was reserved for situations where a finite value was ideal. As with salt intake, these were branded “Nominal-is-Best” characteristics. Upon reflection, Dr. Taguchi and Yuin Wu eventually explained the potential systemic weakness of both “Smaller-is-Best” and “Larger-is-Best” goals and encouraged the wider use of “Nominal-is-Best” goals, with appreciation of a greater system for end use.
Standardization or diversity? Mind the Choice, consider the greater system at hand, and let context be your guide.