Think about the last time you asked someone about his or her job. The usual response is “fine…” or a sarcastic “living the dream,” yes? As I turned the corner into my 40s, work – to me – was a means to an end. I envied the “lucky” ones who seemed to find the perfect career where work and fun we interchangeable.
My 20-year consulting practice is about making work, well, work – helping people adapt to changes at work. I’ve always enjoyed my work with people – but the constructs within which I worked often sucked the joy right out of it: having to compete with my co-workers for certain “glamour” projects; having to stifle my creativity for fear of losing favor with the boss, focused on revenue targets instead of project outcomes – there were times I wondered how I’d get the real work done. Here’s the irony. I was shown the solution at 25, but the solution for what? The problem emerged, largely unbeknownst to me, over 20 years. And just as Glenda the Good Witch reminded Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, my inner Dr. Deming said, “you poor dear, don’t you know you’ve had the answer all along?”
It’s true. In 1995 I was three years out of college and was recently dismissed from my first “real” job. It was an awful job. The company was circling the drain and, in response, management replaced the carpet and upgraded the conference room furniture (I saw this happen more than one time in my career). My manager didn’t want to manage and the C-suite was looking for their next gig. In Deming’s terms, our system was not understood therefore output was unpredictable. Every “remedy” was a shot in the dark and usually created more problems. In truth, this haphazard system did exactly what it was created to do and on a Monday morning, my severance package was the output. There I sat – sobbing – like Scarlet O’Hara (slightly disingenuous because it’s Scarlet after all) – as she surveyed the devastation; the loss of a system she didn’t create and nonetheless depended on. There was no going back; nothing to return to.
The next morning, channeling my inner Scarlet, I took control of my world. That week I incorporated my first business, which was the means through which I met my mentor – the one who introduced me to the world of W. Edwards Deming, his System of Profound Knowledge, and a new way of thinking about the world of work. If you’re not familiar with Deming’s SoPK, it’s build upon four pillars: Appreciation of a System, Knowledge of Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology.
I began my Deming journey with my mentor and friend in 1995. I was fresh out of college and as such, it was difficult to pin the learnings on any prior work experience. So off I went to explore the world of work – and most of what I learned is “what Deming wouldn’t do”. It’s been fun in the way we all talk about work. We actively seek the aspects of work that make us feel okay about spending a disproportionate amount of time doing something that’s not our passion: friends, travel, great money, exposure – whatever it is. But with each experience, I was left feeling incomplete. I now know the thing that makes the incomplete complete is the secret sauce…it’s the part about management investing in us, valuing our contributions, and showing us how that thing we spend so much time doing has meaning. It’s about dignity in our work.
As a 25-year-old, I saw Deming’s world, including the complementary work of many others, as vast and overwhelming. Upon reflection, it’s simple and elegant. I needed to experience it through contrast: lack of a systems view of the organization, reactive management decisions, performance incentives that pit worker against worker and inhibit overall company performance, sales and productivity targets, and my all-time favorite – performance management with forced rankings: where there’s only room for 2% of employees to be top performers! Why would companies want to limit the number of top performers? Money!
Last year I accepted what would become the pinnacle of my “contrast” journey. Without a doubt, the worst management ever. Dr. Deming would have had a field day with this one. The violations of SoPk were off-the-charts egregious (think about the last Quentin Tarantino movie you saw – it was THAT outrageous). In most organizations, the by-product is a lukewarm workforce and marginal success. This company (or the three people at the top) were making piles of money and the workforce was absolutely demoralized. Young people – for many, their first jobs – hanging on because they were deluded into thinking this would be a great place to launch their careers. An outsider would call it Stockholm Syndrome. I stayed long enough to show my direct reports a different way of doing things – and then I left with my sanity still intact. Many left shortly thereafter and, with each resignation, management continues to believe the problem is with the worker.
Our social news feeds are full of quick reads about what we can do to make our work meaningful; what WE can do to find value in our work, etc. Here’s the thing, friends. What WE can do is important, but there’s a critical missing piece: it’s the responsibility of management to lead the organization and create a system that sets employees up for success – where they can feel valued. That’s not trivial. In Deming’s terms, the organization needs to be articulated in terms of a system in a way that everyone in the organization can understand (if you don’t understand your organization as a system – and you don’t have a common aim – you don’t understand your business); people in the organization need data to know whether the system is performing consistently (so it can be improved); and the aim needs to be clear to all so everyone in the company can work on making the system more efficient. When people are paid fairly and are trained to do the right things, everyone works together to make the system more efficient. Management values its workers and the workers feel valued. Then we have a virtuous cycle and everyone benefits because the business grows.
Here’s the kicker – SoPk is an elegant management framework and the process of introducing it into an organization is incremental – not scary, and with each step, everyone sees progress. Companies that employ SoPK celebrate success daily because employees understand the system and its aim, and have a framework for continuing to improve the system’s performance. The genesis of dignity and joy in work.
So this is the mission: bring joy and dignity back to work. We’ll explore SoPk, Deming’s 14 Points for Management, and the works of Peter Scholtes. I’ll share some of my favorite contrast experiences – and more importantly, the successes of companies that get it. We hope something will resonate and make you want to dig deeper into Dr. Deming’s work for the benefit of you and your company.