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No Satisfaction? (1/4/2013)

Posted in Government, and Management

I thought of the Rolling Stones song in connection with my probably developing reputation as a permanent malcontent, never happy with the way things are, always complaining about something, analyzing data, researching processes, generating ideas, suggesting changes, etc. I looked up the “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” lyrics and found, not surprisingly, that they have something to do with Mick Jagger’s pursuit of girls. Having caught a good one decades ago, I don’t have that particular source of dissatisfaction.

I am, however, discontented in other areas, but that doesn’t signal unhappiness. I find nothing more challenging and enjoyable than the process of identifying and diagnosing problems and designing and implementing permanent fixes for those problems. It is a discipline many of us learned in the 1980’s from Total Quality Management (TQM) gurus W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran and their disciples. Many saw TQM as a fad at the time, and it is true that we hear much less about it now than twenty years ago. But I believe the reason we hear much less now is not that it was a passing fad but that the lessons were learned, in manufacturing and business at least, and are now just part of the normal way of doing business in most successful companies. If only that could be implemented in government!

The TQM discipline seeks continuous improvement with occasional breakthroughs, accomplished by changing the processes, either industrial or human, by which things are done. Before TQM, many industry and business managers focused more on operating to standards than on striving for continual improvement. So, for example, a chemical manufacturing process might have a “standard” yield from raw materials of 95% of the theoretical maximum. So long as that process met that 95% standard, all was OK, but if it fell below that, even if such were just part of the normal variability of the process, managers in charge had to rush in and figure out why and get back to standard. I liked to call it the Red Adair management system, always putting out fires. With TQM, managers learned to focus on the missing 5% and identify and eliminate reasons for the losses. A general rule of thumb was the 80-20 Rule which said that 20% of identified reasons or causes would usually account for about 80% of the losses. It became management’s job, to not focus on the “standard,” but on changing the process to eliminate those biggest causes, stop the losses, and move that yield from 95% to 97% and maybe 98%.

An essential underlying emphasis of TQM is reduction of variability. It is based on the truth that a good process, whether human or chemical or mechanical, under control, always delivers the same normally distributed results and can, through experimentation, be adjusted to deliver improved and less variable results. An out-of-control process, on the other hand, produces widely variable results, is not subject to controlled experiments, and cannot be systematically improved. Therefore the first emphasis of TQM has to be on variability reduction with the goal of a controlled process that delivers consistent results, even if the results are not satisfactory. Only then can effective improvement efforts begin. The importance of process change to improved results is clearly expressed in the quote often falsely attributed to Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  (According to this site, the earliest documented occurrences of the quote were in the 1980’s, about 30 years after Dr. Einstein’s passing.)

So, what does all that have to do with typical complaints in the blog?  Unfortunately the major focus there has been on really big national problems, stuff I have little chance of affecting. I can fix a leaky roof or broken pipe or cracked window as part of a Home Works of America Project, but nobody in Washington is even interested in citizen ideas on those big national problems. Still, just for the record, here the ten big problems I would want to tackle if in a position of power in the government. This list includes no assumptions of guilt or premature diagnostics. It is a list of problems only, because that is the right starting point for improvement. Some of these problems may be causes for some of the others, but figuring that out is just part of the TQM process.

  1. Lagging GDP growth since 1974.
  2. Mismatch of secondary education with job opportunities.
  3. Polarized Congress focused on fund raising and re-election.
  4. Education and health care costs rising much faster than inflation.
  5. Breakdown of the traditional family.
  6. Rapidly climbing national debt.
  7. Increasingly negative cash flows in the federal government social insurance accounts.
  8. Too many undocumented immigrants.
  9. Too many careless and uninformed voters.
  10. A ridiculously complex tax code motivating bad behaviors.

Pendulums swing, and there is some possible good news on the horizon. With the huge natural gas reserves being discovered in the USA we may well be on our way to energy independence. That would help keep us out of the Middle East, reduce the threat of terrorism, and help reduce defense spending. Combined with the facts that wages are rising in China while lots of US workers are out of work, it may result in the USA becoming more competitive in manufacturing. A big GDP boost from that would alleviate lots of problems. (But it would just be part of the normal variation in an out-of-control process and would not indicate that any of our processes had been fundamentally improved.)

And, finally, we are close to another credit downgrade, and that is almost certain to get the attention of Congress and the president and motivate some corrective or compensating action on item 6 in the list above. Oops, that reminds me of another TQM Fundamental, the preference of prevention over compensation and correction.

But, in any case, I will always be able to get some satisfaction from tackling whatever the biggest problems are at the time, even if they were to shrink compared to those we currently face. I’m happy and you can be too, even if you are a member of the 113th Congress of the United States of America, if you will just get to work on understanding our dysfunctional processes, identifying problem causes, and implementing some permanent fixes in order to stop the continuous stream of compensating and correcting emergency actions. This continuous careening from one crisis to another is just not working. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, dissatisfaction is the mother of improvement. And real improvement is a great source of joy and happiness.