img_0156I'm working on a change management course for a friend of mine right now and in doing so, of course Dr. W. Edwards Deming's research on quality improvement always comes to the surface. I know that Total Quality Management is considered so passe among the elite consulting set, but like an old and comfortable pair of shoes, I go back to it regularly.  If anything, I think most of the things we are trying to do these days still go back to Deming's interpretation of Shewart's work, and we just keep improving on it each time (which is exactly as I think he would have wanted it).  I also took the time to take a bike ride with my friend and colleague, Chief Ed, to get away from the computer for a little while, so as it works, one thing crosses with another to provide some inspiration for the ol' blog.  

We were talking about improvement on the process and issues that we, as well as many others, experience daily in their organizations. We actually got to talking about a few of the initiatives we are moving forward with and the continued issues of getting from Point A to Point B, realizing there is a little bit of travel that has to be endured between those two points.  You don't just "get there" and as any parent who has driven with children can appreciate, our subordinates, peers, and bosses all want to know "are we there yet?"

Dr. Deming discussed regularly the need for organizations to optimize their processes and "refine", or make small adjustments to improve, all the while turning the organization into a finely tuned machine.  Unfortunately, when we are creating change, we have this idea that as things turn and we start to see the fruits of our labor, we begin to believe we have accomplished our task. In fact, we have really just begun; we have to then look at what we have, start at the end, and work our way back up through the process to tighten it up. Here, really, is the moment is where change really begins to create friction.

To truly optimize your organization, the leadership must educate the players on what the process is and what part they each play in it, so they can begin to understand how every part inter-relates to the bigger picture.  I have used the analogy of the football team before: only eleven people working together in harmony can create success.  You can have the best quarterback, the best linemen, the best receivers, the best backs – but if one part lets down the other, disaster is likely to ensue. In healthcare, you can have the best surgical team, the best nursing staff, the best of everything, but if we can't work together, we find the patient suffers.

Cooperation must be established between all the components and the breaking down of barriers (Dr. Deming's Ninth Point) is very important. By knowing what WE contribute to the end process, and by being the experts at THAT part of the big picture, WE can create positive change by analysis of what we do and tweaking it to develop an even better result.  We can get feedback from those who "give us our supply and materiel" and from those we "deliver our part to" which permit us to better understand the process.   But the reason this is the part that breaks down is like I have said before, because no single raindrop wants to believe it is the cause of the flood.

We look at our own contribution to the project as something we have literally given birth to, and we are reluctant sometimes to say that either our part needs adjusting, or our approach needs refining, or maybe even that our contribution is irrelevant and should be removed from the process (THAT is a hard one to deal with). It is important, though, that if we truly believe in what we are doing and whether we want to provide what is best for the customer or not, if our contribution is problematic, we must adjust.  And that goes straight to the suppression of ego for the good of all.

There are changes going on in both the fire and the EMS sides of the business right now in which we have to really consider that what we are doing now may be entirely irrelevant soon.  We must begin to ask the hard question as to what it is we do and how we plan to adjust for the changes in the future.  These are not easy questions, but we can ask them, or someone will be asking them in our absence.  If we want a say in the process, I'd suggest we initiate the dialogue rather than stick our heads in the sand and pretend that it isn't going to happen. These are changes that really go straight to the heart of what we believe today to be the best way of doing things, that tomorrow may be exposed as not helpful.

If your department isn't having conversations like these right now, I can reassure you, there are others that are.  While some of you are disagreeing as to whether or not fire apparatus should be red or some other color, there are those who are considering "How could we do the job without fire apparatus?" You can call me crazy all you like, but trust me, there will be a time in your future where you will be saying, "Maybe he had something there."

The Swiss watchmakers (while many of you have heard the story, you'd be surprised at who has not) were considered to be the most exacting and amazing craftsmen of their time.  Their product, the Swiss watch, had the reputation as a highly accurate, amazing piece of artwork and they were highly prized by customers who owned them. The impact of the quartz movement watch, ironically, developed by the Swiss, forced the Swiss watch workforce to their knees, dropping the number of workers in this industry from 65,000 to 10,000 in just ten years. We can choose to understand the changing expectations of our constituents, or we can ignore them at our own peril.

Spend some time looking at what it is we do and ask; "Is there a better way?" And be honest with yourself, because the time will come that if you don't, someone else will. I'm betting you'd rather be on the side creating change than on the side having change forced down your throat.


  • Anthony Correia says:

    Another great “moment of Zen.” From the 1st time I learned of Dr. Demming and his work I admired his his understanding of people and how to succeed in a positive way. Had the fire service started using Dr. Demming’s processes back in the 80’s when it 1st broke big, the fire service might have done a much better job of keeping up with the time and world around us; instead of being decimated by politics. The fire service still lacks useful performance measurements of what we do and what our value is. We also would be well served by educating everyone in our organizations as to what their role is and why and then utilize their input to better the system. Our early indoctrination to the fire and emergency service does little to educate on who we are, what we really do most of the time and provide them the tools to challenge the status quo. Many don’t want to hear this, but the 1st month of a FF indoctrination should be to learn the holistic picture of what we do, our culture and where it appears we’re going. Yes this means another month of not being on the street, but they’ll deal with these items and issues related to the organization much more than providing emergency response services. This will position them to be more in tune with the organization they work for, as well provide them with a better foundation for success. Then we send them to basic training to learn the technical aspects of the job. Maybe next time you want to tackle why Emotional Intelligence should play a much bigger role in human resource development in the fire service.

  • “To truly optimize your organization, the leadership must educate the players on what the process is and what part they each play in it, so they can begin to understand how every part inter-relates to the bigger picture.”

    Don’t forget that it’s often the worker who must educate management on what their part is in the process, since they are the ones actually using the tools, interacting with the customers, and have the most awareness of the barriers to quality (the inefficiencies and variabilities within the system design).

    According to most experts, TQM, LEAN, Six Sigma, Toyota Production Method, (whatever you want to call it), fails about 90% of the time in organizations. American organizations in particular are famous for sending their managers through training, establishing a division responsible for quality, repeating all the right catch phrases, and not lifting so much as a finger to change the culture of the organization.

    The silos remain, existing bureaucratic processes are not dismantled, there is no constancy of purpose, you hear the same bromides, and workers are still regularly flogged for errors that are, by and large, problems with system design.

    • Mick Mayers says:

      “The silos remain, existing bureaucratic processes are not dismantled, there is no constancy of purpose, you hear the same bromides, and workers are still regularly flogged for errors that are, by and large, problems with system design.” To me, it all goes back to trust. Management doesn’t trust line to support the mission; line doesn’t feel like management has their back; divisions don’t trust “competing” divisions. The over-reliance on policy to govern, rather than the use of good people skills, is not a cure. Likewise, if workers see someone maliciously subverting the big picture, those people should be identified and removed. And the divisions should see themselves as partners, not as competition, all together striving to provide the best outcome for “Mrs. Smith”. Until we can all trust, and that requires going way out on a limb sometimes, we will not see reciprocal trust. And honestly, I go way out on that limb often and it’s a scary place to be. But when you see it rewarded, it is amazing what a difference it makes. Individuals need to be big enough, in all corners of the organization, to call out “bullshit” when they see it, and this should be able to happen without penalty (but perhaps when calling out “bullshit”, it can be done with some grace and diplomacy!) to improve the organization.

  • Robert Avsec says:

    FH Zen, another great blog with many interesting perspectives. I, too, am a “huge” Deming fan and have been for years. I try never to forget, kaizen, “When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen
    refers to activities that continually improve all functions, and
    involves all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.” Deming always spoke of those “small incremental improvements” that when strung together form the basis for meaningful change.

    I look at the “big issue” of firefighter deaths and injuries and there are so many “moving parts” to the ultimately solution and I think that’s what “scares” people. Hence, we’ve still not made that “meaningful change” in the way we do business so that people don’t get hurt or killed. But what if a department just focused on one meaningful change, e.g., no vehicle moves, anytime, without everyone aboard being seated and belted, for a quarter of the year? And then in the next quarter focused on everyone breathing cylinder air from their SCBA whenever they are in the hazard area, from fire attack through overhaul…in one year said department would have made 4 significant changes to decrease the risk of firefighter injury or death or long term health affect. Wouldn’t that be something BIG for any department?

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