As I fine tuned my Leadership and Culture Development for Higher Health and Safety webcast presentation, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons learned from the quality movement and the widespread failure to apply those to workplace safety. Starting in the late eighties and eventually morphing into Lean/Six Sigma, the quality movement completely revolutionized management thinking throughout much of the western world. That’s led to exponential increases in quality and productivity – especially in manufacturing, logistics, and other process industries.
My second book, Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, was published in the early days of the quality movement. Here’s an excerpt that we need to re-examine in looking at current attitudes and approaches to workplace safety:
It’s amazing how many managers still treat people like rechargeable batteries. They are consistently searching for bigger, better, and longer lasting ways to “keep our people motivated” or “get them charged up.” “If we could just get them turned on to the need for improvement, we’d be all set.” W. Edwards Deming (an American statistician who was a giant force and guru in the quality movement) not only considers what he calls “exhortations” useless, but finds they actually demotivate: “Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.”
A study done by the American Society for Quality Control (now ASQ) found that the common exhortation to “do it right the first time” is, in fact, demotivating. ASQC says this “slogan… will backfire in America” because it implies workers don’t do it right now. Telling workers to “do it right the first time” is too often just another manifestation of the underlying assumption that the reason they don’t is lack of conscientiousness, care, or concern.
There’s no question that the more excited and energized employees are about improvement, the higher service/quality levels will go. But the real question is; why aren’t they motivated? The answer is to be found in the day‑to‑day environment, not in short‑term bursts of hype. While inspirational sessions can help kick off or revive a service/quality improvement drive, this approach has little lasting power on its own. All the best intentions and resolutions to do better will have only minor effects if skills, strategies, processes, structures, practices, and systems are weak.
“Sloganeering” and Internal Marketing
A great many organizations have fallen into internal marketing traps. They’ve developed slick internal campaigns with snappy slogans on buttons, posters, hats, T‑shirts, coffee mugs, and so on. These have often been combined with convincing executive speeches, videos, kick‑off rallies, newsletters, and the like, all aimed at urging, prodding, or inspiring front‑line performers to improve.
There is nothing wrong with solid internal marketing. In fact, the best service/quality providers are masters at it. There’s a big problem, however, when marketing is too far ahead of real change in the culture, or it constitutes the majority of the improvement effort.
Deming considers slogans to be just another form of exhortation. And just as deadly. Both come from the same deep-rooted assumption that the workforce creates most of the organization’s service/quality problems. “What is wrong with posters and exhortations”, thunders Deming, “(is that) they are directed at the wrong people. They arise from management’s supposition that the production workers could, by putting their backs into their job, accomplish zero defects, improve quality, improve productivity, and all else that is desirable … in fact most of the trouble comes from the system.”
This is exactly the problem with many of today’s safety improvement efforts. We need to move from blaming workers for safety problems. The 85/15 Rule provides plenty of evidence that errors or breakdowns in an organization — such as “accidents” are caused primarily (85%) by the process, system, structure, or culture.
For the sake of the many people being hurt and killed every day at work let’s learn the lessons from quality improvement and refocus our attention. We must join the small (but growing group) of organizations with years and even decades of incident and injury free production. To paraphrase the famous 1982 PBS special that raised Deming’s North American profile and incited the quality revolution, “if they can, we can too!”