Seven Deadly Sins

Well, not so much sins as diseases – the seven deadly diseases described by W. Edwards Deming.  In these, he tried to explain why things go wrong and, to me, appreciating this is fundamental to any attempts at improvement.  I’ve already said I’m not a great fan of published programmes – they may have been successful elsewhere but, unless you understand the problems where you are, you can end up slavishly following steps that just don’t address the real need.  Understand the situation you are in and them decide what needs to be done.  There are programmes for that (and I’ll mention some elsewhere) but for now (and these are my interpretations of Deming’s seminal work:

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose.  Changing objectives, targets, systems, etc. every five minutes (figuratively speaking, that is) only means you’ll never get where you want to go.
  2. Short-termism.  Looking only for the immediate gains at the expense of the longer game.
  3. Focusing on individual performance and tying it to rewards.  Where salary depends on the outcome of an annual review, few people will be working for the organisation – they’ll be working for themselves.
  4. Too many, and too frequent, management changes.  If managers are continually changing their jobs, nobody gets an opportunity to get their job done.  It may not be popular for those looking to fast-track their way to the top but they risk not having an organisation to get to the top of.
  5. Management by numbers.  There is a saying, sometimes credited to Albert Einstein, along the lines of “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
  6. Deming listed excessive medical costs at number six; understandable, bearing in mind he was writing from the perspective of business in the USA.  More generally, and especially in the UK and countries where primary healthcare is free at the point of delivery, I say excessive regulation (aka red tape).  In this situation, the focus is diverted towards compliance with regulation and standards and away from the customer; the regulator ends up becoming the customer.
  7. The final disease also, as expressed by Deming, has a USA focus: excessive costs of liability, swelled by lawyer fees.  Rather than focus of the fee side (that, notwithstanding, is gradually becoming more significant) I look at the fear of failure.

Just as the seven diseases aren’t totally independent of each other, look at Deming’s 14 points and you’ll see connections (one reason why, personally, I would look first at his ideas if seeking the basis for an improvement programme.  However, seven aspects you will probably find in any organisation (unless you happen to be looking at the perfect one that has, so far, eluded me).  Address these sins (or cure the diseases) and you’re well on the way to driving improvement without having to introduce any new campaigns or jump on a passing bandwagon.