Fellow influential voice Dr. Suresh Gettala, talks about a recurrent theme in his “Talking To the C-Suite About Quality” blog. His excellent views reminded me of a lecture with Dr. Deming that I attended back when I was a post-graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell in the early 90’s.
One day, professor Paul Kales, one of my UMass mentors, announced that the next class would be in an auditorium and that Dr. Deming himself would be the speaker. What a shock for a young engineer from San José, Costa Rica!. I sat next to Vipin and Sesham, both Indian students and a couple of American classmates whose names I don’t remember. After an incredible lecture, Dr. Deming had time for a couple of questions. One of the Americans next to me asked him this: “Dr. Deming could you please give us examples of outstanding American managers such as (he gave the name of a very important car industry executive of that time)?” What followed is still very vivid in my memory. Dr. Deming was 90 years old by that time; he had hearing problems so he needed assistance to listen to the question. I think he was assisted by one of his daughters that day. So it took some time for the message to go from my classmate to Dr. Deming’s assistant and then from her to Dr. Deming. Once he got the question, he gave my fellow student a killer look and stayed silent for what seemed an eternity. “What?” he finally said, “(famous car executive name)” is an idiot. I have met some great executives, and they are those who understand variation”.
What and answer! And what a lesson! An executive who knows variation was Dr. Deming’s definition of a C-Suite effective manager.
Almost 25 years later, there are still few C-Suite executives who can handle variation and uncertainty the way Dr. Deming wanted. A quick example, one of my clients, a really large Fortune 100 company with operations in Costa Rica, measures customer satisfaction on a weekly basis. The metric goes from the operation to a mid level manager who sends a report to her boss, and then to the next boss, all the way to an important VP. If, from one week to the next, there is a decrease in the number, the VP demands immediate actions to stop “the trend”, so the next level down shouts to the next level and so on all the way down to operations. If the opposite happens and from one week to the next a number goes up, there is down spiral of congratulations. So we did and experiment (sorry for what I’m about to confess…). One of my business partners, Javier, taught SPC to a group of future Green Belts. He took the infamous metric as an example of statistical control, and explained that the maniac reaction from the VP and down just increased the variation with constant non-systemic changes. We agreed with the students not to follow their bosses’ instructions for a month so we could study the actual behavior of the system. Funny as it may sound the team received sound congratulations from all the chain of command. They did nothing; they just let the system settle to its natural variation.
So, for me, it is not that the quality professional does not speak the C-Suit language. The C-Suit is guilty of listening only to the shareholders, forgetting the Voice of the Customer, the Voice of the Employee and the Voice of the Process. Understanding variation and understanding uncertainty is still the same urge as it was 25 years ago. There are some great C-Suit managers out there. They are the ones who listen to the many voices in their environment and are capable to understand variation and uncertainty.