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Davis Balestracci



Stop being perceived as the ‘13th clown’

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 12:03

During recent visits to Twitter and LinkedIn, I’ve become increasingly shocked by the devolution of the posts to vacuous nonsense. I felt a Network moment of, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Is your organization getting to the point where executive reaction to what’s perceived as another unremarkable result for a massive investment in improvement is pretty much, “Any clown could have gotten that result?”

Most initial—and many times dramatic—success with lean and Six Sigma results from working on the classic “low-hanging fruit.” In process terms, much of this waste has been exposed through value stream mapping and consists only of special causes that have been hidden and tolerated. W. Edwards Deming didn’t consider such beneficial results improvement, and would say that only after they have been addressed does true improvement begin. Also, this rate of alleged improvement will not continue.

From Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon

Since the early 1980s, quality has been evolving from its former entrenched quality assurance mindset to more of a quality improvement mindset. Think of it as humans’ beneficial mutation from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon.

I certainly remember the Neanderthal days of:
• “What part of ‘the goal is 100 percent’ don’t you understand?”
• “We said, ‘No child left behind.’ What could be simpler? That school principal must be held accountable!”
• “I don’t like those lousy numbers—do something about it!”
• More quality! Better quality! QUALITY! Take pride to do it right the first time!” (Or else…)

But despite this progress, lean conferences bemoan consistent, 70- to 95-percent failure rates and many marginal, 18 months to two-year alleged successes that fade—no doubt due to an executive mindset that lags in its evolution while accelerating its attention-deficit tendencies.

But the quality improvement mindset is also lagging. Isn’t it time to evolve to the 21st century?

Many improvement practitioners have gotten stuck in Cro-Magnon mode. It’s time to go beyond tolerating the “pretty good” mediocrity of “bolt-on quality.” My eyes glaze over at the unnecessary, ubiquitous use of the words awesome, incredible, fantastic, and amazing to describe results and work cultures that are, in terms of moving organizations’ “big dots,” unremarkable... and perfectly designed to stay that way. Can we have a moratorium on those words, please?

(Of course there are many truly awesome, incredible, fantastic, and amazing people, but as Dale Dauten, the Corporate Curmudgeon, says, “What’s another way of saying ‘workaholic?’ Employee of the Year.”)

Don’t the times require a revolutionary mindset of “getting better faster, and staying better,” as originally promised by most improvement approaches—at least in theory? Let’s call it “built-in improvement,” hardwired into organizational DNA, vs. quality that’s bolted on to the status quo.

“If there are 12 clowns in a ring, you can jump in the middle and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience, you’ll just be the 13th clown.”
—Adam Walinsky

Natural selection is ticking, and there’s no time to lose. The next bolt-on quality panacea and its subindustry of formal training (agile lean Six Sigma?) are mutating out of the improvement ooze even as I write. And its proponents are getting ready to steamroll our less flashy, more efficient and effective improvement efforts by labeling us as 13th clowns and part of the act. (For a great visual, click on the Dale Dauten link above. Dauten's thoughts on this are well worth reading, too.)

Fight back. Start with some simple applications—perhaps by addressing a red/yellow/green indicator that causes a dreaded monthly meeting or quarterly review? Quietly move a big dot!

Daily reminders

Print out and post the following quotes by two authors and read them at the beginning of each work day. The first is from Jim Verzino:
“Nobody plans for poor quality management solutions. But over time, harmless little decisions can derail a quality management system.

“Each time we choose to sacrifice the good of the system for one person, or allow an ineffective, outdated legacy practice to continue, we take small steps toward lower and lower standards.

“When we have a culture that puts quality and environmental attainment at a lower priority than feelings and keeping the status quo, slowly we make the hundreds of decisions that eat away at total performance....

“Every week tens, if not hundreds, of little decisions like these are made in a large company. Any one decision will not make or break the system. However, hundreds of decisions being made with a priority on entrenched personnel or ideas rather than the higher goals of continuous improvement will bring the system to its knees over time....

“In the end, nobody plans to have poor quality or environmental performance. It sneaks up on us... [as] the sum of so many bad decisions.”

The second is from Mariela Dabbah:
“Enough of attending meetings that lead to building a bridge to nowhere, enough of asking what I’m supposed to ask rather than what needs to be asked, enough of praising people who are undeserving of praise, enough of valuing form over substance, enough of accepting good when what is needed is outstanding, enough of enabling people to act as victims when they need to take personal responsibility.

“Inevitably, this kind of shift doesn’t happen unless a substantial number of leaders put their collective foot down and say, ‘Enough!’ in unison.”

Can you get “mad as hell” and say, “Enough,” and jump out of the quality clown car in which you have been unconsciously riding?


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.


Making the journey to a "better" place... what it really takes.

Hi Davis,

My applause to your sentiments regarding what appears to be an increasing propensity toward pursuing more of the same-ol, same-ol, quick-fix oriented, snake oil and touting it as a 21st century cure-all (aka panacea) for whatever happens to be ailing businesses.  Yes, there definitely appears to be (as there always has been) a very high "failure" rate associated with most - if not all - of the most well-known and widely-pursued/attempted approaches to performance improvement... whatever they might be labeled.  HOWEVER, what's not typically mentioned in the context of these high failure rates is exactly what is meant/implied by the use of that term.  Certainly, it's always a good/reasonable strategy to shoot for a challenging target level of improvement.  In many instances, it may even be considered unattainable by the majority of stakeholders.  BUT, isn't it an endemic part of a TRUE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT MINDSET that attempting to do something is typically better than not attempting to do anything?  And, isn't it true that anyone who is committed to the notion and practice of continuous improvement is ready, willing, and able to live with might be considered a FAILURE?  Why?  It's because in the pursuit of a higher level of performance capability, COMPLETE (i.e., 100% or better) success is NOT always guaranteed.  And the LESSIONS TO BE LEARNED from that COMPLETE OR PARTIAL FAILURE are often more valuable to the organization than achieving a successful/desired/targeted outcome on the first try.

With those thoughts in mind, it should be obvious that any TRUE FAILURE (however that may be defined) exists in the eye of the beholder(s).  And in the eye of any truly committed practitioner(s) of CI/OpEx THINKING AND BEHAVING, the ONLY TRUE FAILURE that can occur does so ONLY under one of two conditions as follows: 1) there is no attempt made to garner and leverage lessons-learned knowledge from the experience of a failed CI initiative, or 2) the same mistakes made in an initial CI initiative are repeated and, thereby lead to another unsuccessful attempt.  So, where does that set of conditions leave the state of the CI/OpEx profession/practice?

Answer:  It leaves anyone and any organization that's TRULY/TOTALLY COMMITTED - to making a never-ending journey toward ever higher levels of competitive performance - facing the REALITY of the 21st-century business milieu.  What that means is that the pressures to deliver short-term financial results - that have to meet or exceed shareholder/investor expectations - are likely to increase and continue to dominate the prevailing THINKING AND BEHAVING patterns of those invididuals who are holding primary fiduciary responsibility for an organization's on-going performance results.  And until such a time as there is a general realization and acceptance of the fact that CI/OpEx endeavors often only accrue their maximum sustainable level of benefit (along multiple dimensions that impact both the top and bottom lines) over time, the perception - by those holding primary fiduciary repsonsibility - will be that any CI/OpEx endeavor that does not demonstrate immediate/short-term benefits - typically in the financial context - is a FAILURE.

So what's the ANTIDOTE for this sort of TOXIC THINKING AND BEHAVING pattern?  Well, for certain it MUST be administered first at the highest level of any organization.  And it MUST have the ability to counter-act the infectious and deliterious nature of short-termism virus (emenating from the financial services community).  Then, it MUST enable/facilitate the development and implementation of a TRULY COMPELLING and SUSTAINABLE TRUE NORTH ORIENTATION (TNO).  Once those antidote actions have taken effect, then it becomes possible to establish a WORKING ENVIRONMENT that pervades the ENTIRE ENTERPRISE; that is, a WORKING ENVIRONMENT which is most conducive to having ALL members of an enterprise join in both the individual and collective pursuit of a common/shared PURPOSE (as defined in the TNO).  Such a WORK ENVIRONMENT is one which "EMANCIPATES" the workforce in terms of utiliziing their fullest level of discretionary THINKING AND BEHAVING in line with the established TNO.  It also fosters the on-going development of critical/core competencies and distributes TRUE LEADERSHIP capabilities at ALL LEVELS throughout the enterprise.