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Davis Balestracci


Two Valued Stealth Mentors

To help turn your organization upside down

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 11:03

In my last column, I reflected back on my career to date and issued a challenge. Based on the relatively lukewarm response, let’s see whether I can engage a few more of you to join me on my quixotic journey.

“Trying to manage your career or your organization in a world changing as rapidly as ours is like dancing with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired. You stop when the gorilla gets tired.”
—Dr. Sheila Sheinberg

I heard Sheila Sheinberg speak at several Deming-based conferences almost 30 years ago. She might be one of the few people who can actually make me look sedate. Hardly a curmudgeon, but rather a provocateur and visionary. During the 1980s, in the early days of the improvement renaissance, she developed the following:

15 New Rules for an Organization Turned Upside Down
1. Hierarchy is out!
2. Functions are out! Processes are in!
3. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
4. Relationships are key.
5. No more heroes.
6. Employees are volunteers, not hostages.
7. Expect exceptional performance from everyone.
8. Recognize that the organization is no longer the center of the universe.
9. Challenge “business as usual.”
10. Observing leadership demonstrating desired behaviors is critical for “order.”
11. Quality is a necessity.
12. Empowerment determines managerial success.
13. Communication is at the core.
14. The changing organization is a learning organization.
15. Lovers of change win.

Sheinberg also proposed rule 15a, specifically for middle management: Change or die!

This was a brilliant, inspiring framework that for me went hand-in-glove with W. Edwards Deming’s evolving philosophy. But what’s happened during the ensuing 30 years?

Inspiring—at the time

Here are excerpts from two speeches from a leading speaker in healthcare improvement I heard within 10 years of Sheinberg’s talks.

“[I]n healthcare... we have made the needed preparations for change. Our preparations are sufficient. We have studied enough. We have reviewed our cultures enough. We have spent the time we needed, enough time, in training and planning and filling our kit with new and useful tools and methods. We know how. Now, we must remember why....”

I was inspired... in 1993.

“I want to see health care become world class.  I want us to promise our patients and their families things that we have never before been able to promise them... I am not satisfied with what we give them today... And as much respect as I have for the stresses and demoralizing erosion of trust in our industry, I am getting tired of excuses....

“To get there we must become bold. We are never going to get there if timidity guides our aims... Marginal aims can be achieved with marginal change, but bold aims require bold changes. The managerial systems and culture that support progress at the world-class level... don’t look like business as usual.

I was inspired... in 1997.

This excerpt was taken from a January 1999 article by management consultant Peter Block:

“I would like to see a six month moratorium on the following conversations:
• The importance of having the support of top management
• How workers do not want to be empowered
• That leaders need to provide a good role model
• How to hold people accountable 
• How to get people on board and aligned 
• The need to be customer focused
• How to do things faster and cheaper
• How to give more choice to the people close to the customer
• The need for a clear and common vision
• The ground-rules for dialogue, consensus, teamwork, decisions, and feedback 
• The importance of systems thinking and whole system change 
• The call for servant leaders and the end of command and control
• The need for continuous improvement
[As well as this additional point of mine: Dramatic and/or humorous demonstrations and discussions of Deming’s Red Bead Experiment]

“All of these points are true. It is just that they have become useless to talk about. They have become habitual language, and we have become anesthetized to their meaning and depth. These words, because of their popularity, now belong to someone else, not to us. The phrases get used for persuasion and political advantage, not for their capacity for human connection. They have become the party line and evoke unconsciousness and keep us frozen in the comfort of routine.”

By 1999, I, too, had ceased being inspired by such content. And here we are almost 20 years later, continuing to hear these and similar worn-out phrases over and over and over, delivered with passionate lip service by alleged leaders and empty-calorie motivational speakers. The inspiring speaker of 1993 and 1997 now charges $40K per speech and delivered this “inspiring” gem in 2013: “Maybe we should all just be kind.” (I was not inspired.)

As Block also said in 1999

“Too often we try to change a culture by focusing on the structure, on the rewards, or on the roles and core competencies. These carry a certain logic, but are best preceded by an effort to talk about things that matter in a way that we have not done before. It is the newness of our words to each other that creates the groundwork for changes in practices. Joel Henning nicely frames it with ‘the way to change the culture is to change the conversation.’ Optimism is born the moment we are surprised by what we say or surprised by what we hear.

“The first step is to agree to stop having the old conversation. When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.” 

Is it time for you to “stop digging” and take personal accountability for changing organizational conversations? New results = new conversations.

One suggestion for folks in improvement:

Stop talking to each other about how “busy” you are. Might this indicate you don’t like what you do very much? (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said this in my career.) And if you’re tempted to say, “But I am too busy!” then read this stunning little gem.

Start talking about the daily frustrations you tolerate that keep you engaged in frantic activity with little to show—and what you plan to do about it.

Each of you ask (a la QBQ!): “What can I do about it?” and, “How do I keep myself accountable for doing it?”

“Impossible,” you say? “I need to go to (yet another) conference to get my batteries recharged,” you say?  

Then get out of improvement!

Or... might you be willing to consider learning a language based in data sanity that could become a large part of these new conversations? As well as the catalyst for creating a culture where Sheinberg’s 30-year-old, 15 New Rules can flourish? (If the whole concept of data sanity is somewhat new to you, click here for a no-nonsense summary and example of its eye-opening mindset.)

From what I’ve seen, there is no conference that does this. Even almost 20 years after Peter Block’s observations, many conferences have evolved from inspirations to (profitable) delusions creating attendee illusions.

Going back to 1993 and 1997:

“We know how. Now, we must remember why... I am getting tired of excuses... To get there we must become bold.  We are never going to get there if timidity guides our aims... Marginal aims can be achieved with marginal change, but bold aims require bold changes.”

Data Sanity accepts this challenge by giving a results-based leadership framework emphasizing Sheinberg’s and Deming’s needed mindsets, using a very simplified tool set. Like the speaker above, I’m getting tired of excuses.

If you’ve done your “homework,” you don’t need a conference. Just join me. The horses are lining up to tilt at the windmill of data insanity. Do I have any colleagues who wish to create a great team and critical mass of convincing results?


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


Whew! "Drinking from a firehose"

Mr. B. –

   WOW – two articles, seven pages, > 3,100 words!

   Great ideas and info. Challenge: Finding time to "drink from the firehose" (as someone said about study at MIT).

   Saved in text (with URL links inserted for those who won't or can't use click links) and now time to read and reflect. How many people, thinking they are busy, will make that effort? (Lack of feedback for 1st article provides a clue.)

  Idea: How about a checklist of steps to learn and apply QBQ, to put your helpful thesis to work?

Dick Webster <webster.1@osu.edu>

Thanks for reading!

So, are you asking, "WHEN is someone (else) going to tell me how to apply this?"


I'mj going to put it back on you take personal accountability for this (as John Miller of QBQ! would do). 

Are you satisified with the results you're getting at your job?  If not:

Read QBQ!

Read the Verzino quote from the previous article.

Ask yourself, "What am I tolerating day after day?" Make a list.

Look at each tolerated behavior in the list and ask yourself: (1) "WHAT could I DO (or could have done) to prevent that from occurring?"; (2) Why didn't I do that at the time? (exposes potential "cultural handcuffs")

Apply the same approach with co-workers, especially when you all anticipate how those "thems" allegedly sabotage your work or will sabotage your efforts to implement improvement.

Let me know how things work out!

[I smiled when I read your initial comment.  The term "fire hose" has been applied to me on more than one occasion]