Not walking the walk

Many organizations talk about and attempt to use quality improvement management tools, such as those drawn from the Toyota TQM, Lean, and other recent popular management paradigms. 

Among the driving principles for Toyota's development and successful use of these approaches was a recognition that central planning for improvements tended to:

  • Be slow to start new projects, and recognize and respond to failure.
  • Not involve the key players and therefore be based on incomplete and inaccurate information and assumptions.
  • Respond more to the needs of management than needs driven by quality product or process concerns.
  • Not fully understand the jobs affected or the practical implications of the changes enacted.
  • Be very risk averse and limited to thinking inside the box, because of both limited numbers and limited range of perspectives.
  • Create large and difficult to deploy or roll back (and therefore costly) solutions.

As a result, their QI systems and accompanying management approaches were aimed very explicitly at avoiding those problems:

  • Move the improvement process as much as possible to the front line, both in terms of geography and responsibility, usually by having the work on a process be done by a group dominated by the workers doing that process, and at the location where the process occurs.
  • Change the role of management from devising and deploying change to supporting and coordinating front line workers who devise and test change. (A change from director and controller to supporter and coordinator.)
  • Devise processes like the A3 that would allow as much work as possible to happen quickly but carefully, without bureaucratic barriers, and specifically with a minimum of meetings, which they saw an inhibiting creativity and impairing productivity.
  • Recognize the inevitable but often denied fact that the overwhelming majority of innovations and attempts at change fail, despite good faith and high quality attempts to plan. 
  • Therefore, aim for multiple parallel small changes that are monitored for impact, in order to find out what works and what doesn't, before any attempts at deployment on a larger scale. (This is encapsulated in the 'Fail often. Fail fast. Fail cheap.' aphorism cited by people like Jobs, Immelt, Brin.)
  • Minimize the role of centrally planned large improvement projects.
  • Create a culture where improvement is seen as a local and universal responsibility, and where everyone feels empowered to initiate change. 
  • Avoid a culture where workers feel helpless to suggest or make change.

There is considerable irony in the way many organizations pursue centrally driven change using tools that were specifically designed to move away from centrally driven processes. The underlying philosophy is invariably misunderstood, and essential parts are either misused or missing.



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