H. James Harrington  |  03/31/2009

Is Perfection the Enemy of Good?

That premise will lead you nowhere… or worse.

As I’m writing this column, the U.S. government is debating the approval of a trillion-dollar-plus stimulation package, the Dow Jones average has dipped into the 7,000 range, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off work last week, and poor-performing companies throughout the United States are looking to the government to take money from the well-managed companies so they can continue to perform poorly.

Our new president hasn’t learned from the mistakes made in the last stimulation package as he pushes for approval to spend the trillion-plus dollars of our money without a well-defined plan on how the money will be spent (i.e., given away). The Bush stimulus package went to the banks, many of which didn’t need or even ask for the money.

The general response to the people who want a well-documented and clearly defined stimulus plan is “perfection is the enemy of good.” The government claims that it needs to step in right now to stimulate the economy and it can’t wait to design the details of the package, even though much of the money won’t be spent this year. There is a need to do something, but this approach is how big business ran in the 1970s. They didn’t worry about the scrap in the process; they just increased the input to get more output, and then passed the added cost to the customer. You don’t just pour more into the beginning of the process to get more output; you correct the scrap and rework operations to make the process more efficient and effective for the desired results.

Haven’t we learned that striving for perfection in both business and government should be our goal? We’ve got to stop saying, “That’s good enough for government work.” Rather, government officials need to say, “We are the government and our processes must be well-defined, controlled, understood, and the best in the world.”

If we are going to stimulate the economy, let’s define the programs that will stimulate it, fund each program independently depending on its expected return on investment (ROI), and then measure each one independently. If we don’t get the projected ROI, or close to it, those who voted for it should be held accountable for what they are doing, just as the CEO of a major organization is held accountable.

Our new president has made a big step forward by creating a new federal government position, chief performance officer, but wasn’t that what Al Gore was supposed to be doing when he was vice president? Unfortunately, the individual selected for the new position had to withdraw due to tax problems. Hopefully the president will make a better selection next time. I hope the new person responsible for government performance will separate the pork and bull from the steak and potatoes. I can still remember the “$500 toilet seats.”

It’s not just the way our federal government addresses the affairs within the United States--our international politics are even worse. Throughout the world, the perception of the United States is at its worst. We can’t buy friendship and goodwill. One of the most important jobs of our federal government is to build relationships with other countries. Here again our processes are failing. The “big ugly American” sentiment is growing. There is a big difference between respect, friendship, and fear.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the United States. I think it’s the best governing system in the world, but here again, I disagree that perfection is the enemy of good. I am not saying that the republicans or the democrats are right or wrong. Rather, it’s the system of “I will not vote for your bill unless you vote for my bill.” Every vote from the people who represent us should be based on how the bill will affect our beautiful country.

To live up to our worldwide responsibilities, we need to have processes that are as near perfect as possible. Our government system is managed by lawyers who have had little or no quality background. It’s time for our quality Ph.D.s to get into politics and run for the senate, the house of representatives, and state governors. It’s time to put quality and respect into politics. It’s time to measure our elected officers based on the percentage of their promises given during their electoral campaigns that are realized during their time in office.

The time is long overdue to apply quality methodologies to the way U.S. government is managed. I believe this is the biggest future challenge and opportunity that the quality professional has. I would hope that one of the people doing his or her master’s or doctorate thesis would take this on as a project. Quality politics would eliminate the need for war. Let me know if you are willing to take on my challenge.


About The Author

H. James Harrington’s picture

H. James Harrington

H. James Harrington is CEO of Harrington Management Systems, which specializes in total quality management (TQM), Six Sigma, lean, strategic planning, business process improvement, design of experiments, executive management mentoring, preparing complete operating manuals, organizational change management, ISO 9000, ISO 14000, and TRIZ. Harrington is a prolific author, having written hundreds of technical reports, magazine articles, and more than 35 books. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional. Harrington is a past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the International Academy for Quality (IAQ).