Guest blog by Dennis Sergent, Principal Consultant, Sergent Results Group
Like many people, my introduction to W. Edwards Deming was the NBC Special (termed a “Whitepaper”), “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” His questions within resonated with me immediately, as I was a new supervisor for Bell Telephone. “What can we do to work smarter, not harder?” rang out at the beginning of the program, and I was hooked. The early emphasis on productivity in the program was a familiar theme at my work and the telecommunications business. It was technologically advancing at a very rapid rate that was in evidence every day. It also became clear that these productivity problems were everywhere in our American economy, they were complex and crossed the economic boundaries of industry, education and government.
The evidence built throughout the program excited me when the crisis for our economy and our country became clearer, the systemic flaws in my own thinking caused me to ask myself what I could do. The pitting of management versus worker was demonstrated to be corrupt and I was challenged to look for causes and effects on a systemic scale in my own work. It was also transformational to my thinking about the power of trust in self-managed work teams and breaking down the barriers with cooperation between people engaged in common purpose.
As I learned in the Whitepaper, the featured expert who taught the Japanese and a growing collection of American companies was W. Edwards Deming. The last 15 minutes of the program focused my attention on the philosophy that would guide my learning and the improvements in hundreds or areas of my professional life. He described a philosophy that would help me work smarter, not harder. I had to learn more.
While I never met Dr. Deming, nor did I work in an industry where he met many thousands in his Four-Day Seminars, my journey so far has transformed me by using his philosophy, principles and methods. This personal and professional transformation started in 1980 with the NBC Special, and my exposure to him has been through studying and applying his 14 Points for Management, and learning about the Deming Philosophy through the numerous Deming Institute programs and conferences. Meeting other Deming colleagues and learners, as well as his family members, has helped me get to know his philosophy, too.
When asked how I started to apply the Deming Philosophy, I offer that I began by questioning my thinking and the notions prevalent within my organization. This led first to questions about the importance of understanding what the customer needs and how we could collaborate across boundaries of departmental silos and across the boundary of management and worker. I discovered the power of not knowing and getting the evidence of improvement by asking questions and testing theories of improvement with people, instead of testing these theories “on” people. This led to ask people on our team what I could do to help them improve our processes and system. I made mistakes along the way, to be sure, and I learned to adapt the management processes I had previously used to align with Dr. Deming’s 14 Points and management philosophy and methods, primarily by respecting people, from suppliers to the customers and all of my co-workers in between.
Ever inspired by Dr. Deming, during encounters with customers and partners in learning and improvement, I ask questions that he frequently asked, such as “what business are we in?”, “what is our aim?” and “how could they know?” Borrowing a favorite statement from him, “I make no apologies for learning” by consistently monitoring the effects of my system, and the statistical evidence from customers and their systems. I continue to use Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles for learning and improvement, and control charts. In fact, I still update a set of three control charts to measure team perceptions about non-priority work for the last 27 years.
I also have to balance the growing knowledge I have with the humility that the boundary of what I do not yet know grows, too! Learning is essential for our survival as a society. As I merge my purpose with the broader purpose of my customers and suppliers, the complex interaction of stakeholders in the system means I must continue to apply the Deming Philosophy and continue to transform myself while working with others to transform “our” system.