Monday, November 30, 2009

It's the Improvement, Stupid

Apologies if the title offends. I'm borrowing a phrase from a presidential campaign in the 90's to help make my point. In this presidential campaign, the usual back and forth between candidates occurred but the phrase "It's the Economy, Stupid" summed up the disconnect between the candidates and effectively showed how one candidate (my guy, unfortunately) was not connected to the real issues that people were struggling with. This phrase was pretty effective, my guy lost the election. We then spent the next 8 years trying to define what "it" is but that's a post for another time.

So, why do I recall this story? It relates quite well I think to the attitudes that many companies out there have about continuous improvement programs. In the late 80's and early 90's much noise was made about how Baldrige winners were outperforming the stock market. It seemed that Baldrige may have been the secret sauce behind those successes, or at least that was the story. The other side of that picture though was that some of those companies subsequently failed miserably or at least suffered significant downturns in performance, such as ST Microelectronics, Dana Corp, IBM, Xerox, and Motorola. In each of those cases it could be argued that other factors led to the declines seen, and I believe that is true. Winning the Baldrige award does not lead to failure directly. The point in highlighting that some award winners fail is this, winning the award is not the point of the exercise. Certainly it is nice to receive the recognition for a job well done, but the point of having criteria like Baldrige and other similar types of standards is the improvement that comes from applying a consistent standard and measuring performance against that standard. The point of the exercise is the process of improvement that an organization undertakes towards the award criteria, not the award itself. Many companies that have won these types of awards subsequently take their eye off the ball and lose focus, lose their connetion with their customers, lose the drive to improve, become complacent or even arrogant in thinking that they have arrived because they won an award. As Dr. Deming said, "It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory". Dr. Deming's meaning here is that change is a constant, competition drives change and those who chose not to continually improve will not survive.

So to paraphrase the political quote from the 1992 presidential campaign, It's the Improvement, Stupid.

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