Using Deming’s Ideas – When Your Organization Doesn’t

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

When someone asked Dr. Deming what they should do if they tried to get their company to adopt Deming’s ideas on management and the company wouldn’t, he often suggested they work on their resume and find another job. Of course, a tricky part of this decision is determining how much effort to put into getting the organization to change (and what methods to use in that effort). I am actually not going to address those questions here; for some ideas, see: Transforming the Management System of an Organization, How to Start Applying Deming’s Ideas on Management and How to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept Adopted).

Instead, I want to address what to do if you want to take advantage of Deming’s ideas, your organization has no interest in doing so, and you like your job and want to stay anyway. In practice, my advice is very similar to the advice I give leaders on how to transform their companies. The difference is, you have to focus on being successful within the existing structure instead of moving toward total transformation of the organization. Granted, I would prefer working to promote the transformation, but if you are not in a position to do that, there are still plenty of opportunities to apply Deming’s ideas.

  • First, you can transform yourself.
    You can transform your understanding and how you learn, with an appreciation for the Theory of Knowledge and what conclusions you can and cannot draw from the data you use. You can transform how you act.
  • View your organization with an understanding of Deming’s management ideas.
    Think of the organization as a system. Even if you can’t persuade others to do this, you will understand the situation more clearly and be able to think of solutions that take advantage of this understanding. System thinking will allow you to find leverage points that can be used to multiply the benefits of improvements
  • Use an Understanding of Variation to think about data effectively.
    While it will be frustrating to watch as the organization reacts to random variation as if it were meaningful, you can avoid being misled yourself. You are limited, but you are not completely blocked from using this knowledge. In combination with an understanding of Psychology (which will help you understand which items will create big problems – such as fighting against a practice that people are strongly attached to), and an understanding of the organization as a system (and which practices could result in the biggest gains if they were changed), you can determine where to put your effort.
  • Understand Psychology – and how people will view you and your efforts.
    If the organization doesn’t accept they are on a transformational journey, you will likely be seen as a problem. As you challenge existing practices and how things are done, even when you’re trying bring about improved practices, people will become frustrated with you. If you push too hard, those seeking to undermine you will gain allies. One of the realities of working in an organization that is not interested in moving toward a different way to manage is accepting this perception and taking it into account – which includes doing much less than you would otherwise do.
  • Persuade, inspire, and befriend others without antagonizing them (as little as possible).
    Charisma is even more helpful in a situation such where you are attempting to practice ideas contrary to the existing culture. This would be true no matter what. Imagine attempting to promote top-down, command-and-control ideas in an organization long used to pushing decision making to those closest to the problems. Either way, a charismatic personality is always helpful.
  • Accept what you cannot change.
    In any system, there are certainly components that cannot be changed in reality, even if they could change in theory. This is even more true of systems that exist in a context in which the organization is not interested in Deming’s ideas. You can still think in the same ways about how to improve the system, but you also have to realize many more constraints exist on change than if the organization were seeking continual improvement.
  • Many tools can be adopted in a traditional organization successfully.
    Using those tools in a more Deming friendly management system will often make them even more powerful but they have value even if the benefits are going to be limited by the organizational structure. Mistake proofing is a good example. It is hard for anyone to argue against good mistake proofing solutions. Not that it being hard will prevent people, but they will have more difficulty. You need to consider the system you work within, if the culture acts based on the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) don’t bother with mistake proofing suggestions that the HiPPOs won’t support, that is just a constraint to include when looking for good solutions.
  • Examine process failures and find a common root cause that has a sensible countermeasure.
    Then you can propose a change that will fix not only the current problem but prevent these other problems from recurring. Assuming this doesn’t create other issues (work for other departments…) you should be able to persuade people to adopt this solution. You have to accept more limitations on what solutions are realistically going to be possible but you can still use that thinking and improve. The same idea applies to other quality improvement tools.
  • Get others involved.
    In most organizations, there is some flexibility to work with others to improve. If you see a chance for a good mistake proofing solution to a problem that someone has been tasked with dealing with you can volunteer to work with them. Over time you will discover some other people appreciate some of these ideas and you can work with them to make improvements. One of the biggest losses in deciding to work within an organization that isn’t seeking to adopt Deming’s methods is the loss of including everyone in seeking continual improvement. This is a huge loss, but in reality this is often a constraint of the existing system that is not going to be changed.
  • Consider what is within your sphere of control.
    Within that sphere you will have much more freedom to act. It could well be that you have plenty to keep yourself busy within your sphere of control. Again, you will face more constraints than if the organization were seeking to improve the organization as a system. Any time you need change outside your sphere of control you may not have that option (to have others change how they work), or you may have very limited ability to persuade in some small ways. That is just a reality you must accept. And if you seek solutions understanding these constraints you will be much more successful than if you find “wonderful solutions/improvements” if only the others would be sensible (in your mind, anyway).
  • Appreciate the importance of allowing people interruption-free time to concentrate and work. Even if you can’t persuade the organization to gain this same appreciation through an understanding of psychology and appreciation for the organization as a system, you can redesign your part of the organization given this understanding. You just need to understand what the requirements for the rest of the organization are, and design a solution that meets those requirements (and yours). For example, you could create a point of contact for all urgent needs (so only one person is interrupted to deal with most issues, and only 5% of issues will require interrupting others). Or, you can block days or half days where certain workers are not available for meetings. Again, whatever you propose has to fit with the organization requirements, so you have to be flexible – but it can be done!
  • Remember how the existing system determines your value.
    In many organizations, power is gained and lost through recognition, which functions as a kind of credit that people accumulate. If you wish to gain influence – or not lose the influence you have – you need to make your case within that system. If you need to claim credit for results on your performance appraisal, or suffer the consequences of not being an important player, then at  times you will need to make your case for individual credit – even when you understand the system is driving most of the results. Alternatively, you could just ignore getting credit and accept that the existing system will not appreciate your efforts. But this will have consequences that make your ability to implement more improvements more difficult.

There are certainly ways to transform yourself and your sphere of control based on an appreciation for Deming’s ideas. Doing so is certain to include many frustrations in interfacing with other parts of the organization, given the constraints you will face (it is often frustrating even when the organization is attempting to transform). If you want to think positively it is possible that you can be successful and grow your sphere of influence and help to spark a transformation of the organization. But that is an extremely difficult task for an organization you originally determined wasn’t interested (the premise of this post).

Still, if you like to have an optimistic outlook, go ahead. In any event, you can use an understanding of Deming’s ideas yourself, even if the organization does not share your desire.

Related: Distorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the SystemDeming and Software DevelopmentEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often Wasted


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