The Human Side of Quality Improvement
Deming’s four points for good management engage people in the workforce.
The relentless focus for continuous improvement in the workplace didn’t surface until the emergence of Japan as a leading producer in the world markets. This came about after World War II with the assistance of Drs. W. Edward Deming and Joseph M. Juran, who were dispatched by the United States to help Japan’s management and technical expertise.
After more than a half-century of the continual stress for continuous improvement, however, there is still much room for improvement in the process of engaging people in the daily pursuit of improving their workplace. In fact, it’s been reported by some experts that only about 30 percent of American workers feel engaged. In other words, 70 percent are actively disengaged!
This dismal record should be at the forefront of many senior managers’ minds, but the evidence doesn’t indicate much has changed to reverse this trend. Disengaged workers are indifferent to poor processes that erode quality and service performance levels. In the United States, there are tens of millions of workers who don’t care about—or actually hate—their jobs and work environment. This results in errors that go unreported and high costs due to poor quality or indifference to service interaction with customers, resulting in losses of billions of dollars annually.
Improvement Every Day
It would seem logical that American business leaders would be doing all they can to change this environment—to motivate and engage their workers. In 1991, I wrote a thesis on employee engagement that focused on suggestion programs. After investigating several companies, we found that about 80 percent of ideas come from employees, which hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years. Yet in the United States, 70 percent of employees are not engaged. Consider the missed opportunities!
When organizations make a concentrated effort to engage and involve workers in continuous improvement, they can achieve great things. One of the classic examples involves Toyota, which after 60 years of using a suggestion system, still implements one idea per month over a workforce of several thousand. In addition, I was involved in creating an aggressive program at a large manufacturing facility that generated significant results, and I learned it can be done reasonably well with the right management support. It doesn’t have to be difficult.
How is it possible for Toyota and others to find improvement ideas every day?! Doesn’t it become impossible to find improvement ideas soon after a large number of people become engaged in looking for ways to improve their workplace? The answer is “not really.” One way to engage more people is for leaders to lower their “minimum viable idea,” or the smallest improvement that is possible for everyone, every day. For Toyota and others, that threshold may literally be a couple seconds. For most American companies, however, they wouldn’t bother with ideas this small, so there are a lot of missed opportunities to engage their workforce and boost profitability!
The Human Challenge
Changing the culture, however, and engaging the workforce isn’t easy. A company can’t just say “they want every job to be designed to help people do their best every single day,” and that magically happens. One of the greatest challenges comes from the human side of improvement.
Improvement means change, which triggers emotional responses: fear of exposure, embarrassment, punishment and other fears that trigger reactionary or unintelligent behaviors. Acceptance of change is as much (or more) of an emotional exercise as an intellectual one. Too often, organizations overlook this human side of improvement.
It might be helpful to recall four of Dr. Deming’s famous 14 points for good management and see how these ideas can simplify an overcomplicated approach to engaging people in improving their workplace. These four points include: removing slogans, eliminating quotas, removing barriers between departments and removing fear in the workplace.
Removing fear in the workplace is the connecting thread to building acceptance to change in the workplace. Deming observed that demotivation was a much bigger problem than motivation: when people are demotivated, they tend to be disengaged. As he said, “If management stopped demotivating their employees, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about motivating them.” He stressed that people are naturally creative and want to do a good job; we just need to remove the barriers that are blocking their efforts.
Engagement For All
If organizations want to engage everyone in quality improvement, they must demystify and broaden the definition of quality work to include not only the outputs of the work, but also how the work is done: safely, at a low cost and with a minimum of stress for people. This includes reviewing the process for making improvement easier so everyone can engage in it. The engagement process itself must be relatively simple and easily understood—and it must be well thought-out.
At the beginning of an initiative, the emphasis should not be on results, but rather on building a robust process for participation based on open communication and trust. If organizations are able to achieve this level of understanding, a culture of engagement and commitment will flourish, with positive results following.
On the other hand, if organizations emphasize short-term profits, incentives will be created to look only for big wins—rewarding the lucky few (who lay claim to the ideas) while demotivating the majority of employees. After all, if organizations believe that continuous improvement is truly important and that quality processes yield quality results, shouldn’t continuous improvement be paramount in the effort to build reliable, flexible and capable processes that are improved daily by a well-trained and valued employee base?
Once organizations truly realize the connection of an engaged workforce to profitability, they will finally focus on reversing the environment that’s preventing the majority of workers from being involved. iBi