Improving Performance

“It’s always safer to do nothing!” So said the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming again and again and again. Dr. Deming was one of the Americans who taught the Japanese and so many others around the world how to build high-quality products.

Whether consulting or giving seminars, he often ended his brilliant examples with “It’s always safer to do nothing!” He was being facetious. What he meant was that many managers were afraid to improve. Too many are scared to do anything but try to maintain the status quo. To do something different, something they haven’t done before, entails risks – but, as it turns out, not quite so much as doing nothing different.

Of course you can’t blame them. The higher you go, the better the offices, company cars and all the other perks. It’s not just the salaries and trappings of office; it’s the reputations. “What would people think?” is perhaps the scariest thought of all.

Who would want to risk all that by trying something new? Self-preservation is our strongest instinct, and there don’t seem to be a lot of managers who would be willing to risk their well-being, even a little bit, to save their companies. Instead, they just keep doing what they’re doing and hope results will somehow improve.

The bigger the company; the bigger the problem. It’s bad enough getting fired as VP of XYZ Company. How about getting fired as a VP of say GM or Ford? A few more people are likely to hear about it, and what do you do for an encore?

As it turns out, GM and Ford are both doing rather badly right now; both just got their credit ratings downgraded, skyrocketing the cost of their debt, and negatively affecting their stock prices.

Any idea why Toyota is doing so well in the same market? I don’t think luck has much to do with it.

Toyotas showed up in the ‘70’s, and everyone thought they were jokes. People who bought them wouldn’t brag about their new cars like buyers of other brands did. But Toyota knew how to listen to customers, as Deming had suggested, and its cars got better and better, eventually bringing Detroit to its knees. That’s when American automakers suddenly got interested in quality improvement.

The quality of American cars improved dramatically, and things got better. Unfortunately, we Americans tend to have short attention spans. Who wants to keep doing the same things over and over, even when they’re profitable? Continually improving quality can be a bit of a drag. It’s not as sexy as conceiving new styling features, for instance.

Meanwhile, Toyotas just keep getting better and better, and they come to the marketplace with the right cars. Not having fuel-efficient cars in this market isn’t bad luck, it’s a lack of quality in demand forecasting.

I imagine there must be managers at GM and Ford who are beginning to understand the game, but who wants to be first to say, “Hey guys, aren’t we missing the boat here?”

Toyota has been consistently and predictably cleaning Detroit’s clock for more than a quarter of a century (as have Honda and other companies). Why don’t we learn? How much more market share has to evaporate? How many more jobs do we have to lose? I wonder if we could get Toyota to buy GM or Ford and save our automotive industry.

Of course, the losing managers, the ones who were afraid to do anything, would retire as millionaires with their golden parachutes (at least they couldn’t do any more harm), but a viable management team could give the rank and file a chance at survival.

What about you? Has someone rewritten the rules in your industry? Are you hiding behind your leather sofa watching your tropical fish tank and hoping things will get better? You may not be in the automotive business, but there are very few industries that aren’t playing this game. You can’t consistently provide the better, faster, cheaper the market demands without a serious, top-priority continuous improvement program.

Yes, “It’s always safer to do nothing!” You just might get to keep that fancy office, but it might lose some of its luster when the rest of the building is empty.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States as well as in 12 nations in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax 894-6539;;

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