A New Day for the Global Voice of Quality

It has been a while since I explored the world of those committed to improving “quality.” My own work at the U.S. Department of Labor was focused on this for nearly 15 years. The quality improvement movement grew from the need to rebuild shattered economies and industrial capacity after the second World War. But the brilliant pioneers of the quality improvement movement, Deming, Juran, Feigenbaum, Scholtes, and others, all saw that improving manufacturing processes to improve results, was only the tip of the iceberg.

The real goal is a combination of continuous improvement to organizational processes, and the relentless inquiry-exploration-observation-adaptation necessary to influence outcomes and coherence in the most complex systems and challenges. This is a form of “both…and…” thinking and doing, that requires leadership awareness, shared commitment, distributed cognition and accountability, and the fearless journey through uncertainty.

For many years I worked within ASQ as a member-leader. I have seen the “global state of quality” rise and fall in both government and industry. Today, as ASQ turns the page to new executive leadership, it is my hope that we may see renewal and new directions not only in the movement for organizational improvement, but in ASQ’s own processes and outcomes, as the global champion of change.

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Integrated Improvement Initiatives: Addressing Both the COMPLICATED and COMPLEX Challenges of Government

Following is my submission to the http://www.challenge.gov challenge on improving Federal government performance management, processes, and outcomes.  The opening points are not on the submission itself, but provide additional context and background.


So, a few key concepts, in no special order:

..the dominant discourse, or paradigm, in government management today is essentially that of goals and measures. This is the basis for GPRAMA, and in fact harkens back to the Management By Objectives model, taught to Fed managers for years by OPM and OMB.

..Einstein famously noted that “there are things that are easy to measure that are not important. There are important things that can not be measured.”

..our predominant culture focuses on the things that are easy to measure. These are mainly outputs (how many or how much). We have a harder time with outcome measures (how well..) because these are inherently harder to measure.

..everyone knows that many of the policies and programs of government are in fact clearly complex. Middle East peace. Teen abuse of prescription drugs. Development of highly complicated IT systems. National health(care).

..everyone knows that measuring outcomes in these complex programs, policies, and processes, is difficult if not impossible.

..and yet… Stakeholders and managers commonly treat what are truly complex, and difficult to measure, challenges/processes/programs, as if they were the sort of technical and complicated problems that can be easily controlled and measured.

..as the 2013 GAO report noted, a small percentage of Federal agencies currently uses traditional methods for policy and program assessment. Fewer still use the analytical data to drive improvement. Although the GAO report mentions him in a footnote, nowhere does GAO acknowledge or recommend the use of Michael Quinn Patton’s Developmental Evaluation methods in addition to traditional formative or summative methods.


To transform Federal agency performance, I believe we need…

..a Presidential mandate for a SUSTAINED COMMITMENT TO IMPROVEMENT. Everyone empowered. Everyone informed. Everyone aligned. Everyone involved. Everyone responsible. Everyone providing feedback and data. Everyone learning and adapting continuously as needed.

..a core methodology that is built not on a single improvement architecture, but on a short set of core operating principles (small teams as the basic unit of change. Top leadership support and involvement. Decisions informed by quantitative and qualitative data wherever available. Decisions by consensus. Etc.).

..implementation through open collaboration and partnership between management and union leaders. Change processes built on the foundations of trust and full. Engagement. Empowerment, responsibility, and accountability on both labor and management sides.

..the recognition that not all processes, policies, programs, and problems are the same. There are two basic types as described by Harvard’s Ron Heifetz. Technical, and Adaptive. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework goes further, with Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic domains for our challenges. Critically, each has its own optimal way of responding. Federal agency leaders must learn the differences, and the various methods and tools now in use globally, to address each type of problem in its own fashion.

..the commitment to relentless open and honest gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data on process results. Yes, the stuff of GPRA- in those cases where we can establish that a given program or process even has the capability of achieving its stated or assigned goal. But also narrative and related qualitative data, that is best interpreted by human sensor networks- the people working in the system (and note the connection here to the actual people-centric Toyota Production System, which is the presumed basis for current Lean practice).

..the use of both traditional (formative or summative) assessment methods ONLY in cases of Simple and Complicated processes/programs, and Developmental evaluation, with its constant loops of feedback, reflection/analysis, and adaptive change in theory, goals, and measures as needed.

This is a critically-needed paradigm change. It does in fact reflect an underlying reality that has always been present, and which everyone knows in fact. But it is easier to set simple and allegedly measurable goals, and hold people accountable for results, than it is to journey through the ambiguity and uncertainty of influencing outcomes in complex problems.

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Negentropic: The 2d Law of Thermodynamics and Sustaining Improvement Efforts

ASQ has “graduated” me to the status of a “Voices of Influence Alumni” blogger.  Hopefully my advanced studies in Blogology have helped me, and those reading this blog :-)

Recently, in his monthly “View From the Q,” ASQ Executive Paul Borawski raised a great question about how organizations can sustain their quality and organizational improvement efforts over time.  Paul cited the example of Corning, and you can read his post here:


The issue of sustaining and even growing success over time, points to a unique characteristic of human systems.  In both mechanical and many natural systems, if the system is closed, then over time the system will “wind down” and eventually stop.  Think of a classic grandfather clock, for example.  Unless you keep winding it periodically, the clock will stop.  This principle in science is called ENTROPY, and is known as The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The tendency of a system, absent any new input of energy, to dissipate and stop over time.

But human dynamic systems like communities and organizations seem to defy the Second Law.  Not only do we keep going in our evolving social endeavors, we tend over time to adapt and evolve to higher levels of complexity and order.  We have NEGATIVE ENTROPY, or in other words, complex human dynamic systems are NEGENTROPIC (and note that this is one time being “negative” is actually POSITIVE!).

How do we do it?  Well… physical systems need to be open, and keep receiving new energy to stay in gear.  Where’s the energy to keep human systems – like improvement initiatives – sustained and “negentropic” over time?  Maybe you have already figured it out…  our COMMUNICATED IDEAS are the “energy” that keeps feeding our systems.  The collision of ideas old and new can spark the innovation that will help us leap to a new level of performance.  Words of encouragement and support can fuel our ongoing motivation and even perseverance in tough times.

The path to sustained excellence and improvement is clear enough, even if it is at times very challenging.  I encourage organizations to follow this four-dimensional approach:


  1. COMMITMENT: This has to be clear to everyone.  If some are committed, but others, through words or actions, give up, your improvement efforts will suffer.
  2. CONNECTIONS: The energy that will sustain your improvement efforts has to be able to flow throughout your organization.  As a change leader, make sure that everyone is connected.  Enable connections without fear.
  3. COMMUNICATION:  Remember, this is the energy that enables growth and sustained success.  If it isn’t coming in positive ways from you, why would it flow from others? Enable both the connections and the communications among your people to be open and without fear.
  4. COURAGE:  It is not always going to be easy to lead and sustain change and improvement.  Noted Harvard Professor of leadership, Ron Heifetz, teaches that “leadership is dangerous.”  Sometimes the idea you send out will not be what some people agree with, or want to do.  Sometimes some people will resist, or even actively work to undermine or sabotage your efforts.  They are adding ideas and energy to the system, just as you are.  But colliding ideas, like other kinds of collision, don’t always end up creating something bigger and better.  In the classic words of the Cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What’ve they got that I ain’t got? COURAGE!


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The Heat Of the Moment: Sense-Making in the Midst of Crisis

So, a guy I know, tells a story about seeking, and obtaining clarity of vision for our work in change and leadership.  He claims that “things get clear when the house is on fire.”  Yes, I have seen people suddenly forget all about their differences and come together in the midst of a crisis.  But generally, that is not what happens.  

First, and I think foremost, is the notion that “things get clear when the house is on fire.” On this point, I’d have to disagree.  We get a clear signal of danger, and we get a shared sense of urgency.  Those factors do often lead to more rapid collective sense-making and decision-making.  But are we able to do a meaningful analysis in the moment of crisis, and choose a path to survival and success?

Not really.  In a time of crisis, two things happen.  Our ability to perceive and make sense of what’s happening is often significantly narrowed.  Then, the information we are using to make what may literally be life-and-death decisions, is often incomplete, inaccurate, and changing moment-to-moment.

For those unfamiliar with the story, read about the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire in Montana.  Conditions changed, and past knowledge/experience failed.  The leader, in the very literal “heat of the moment” ordered a counter-intuitive tactic.  But his team refused his direction.  The leader survived.  Two lucky members ran but found a way out.  The rest relied on what they thought they knew- deliberately ignoring their leader- and died.  See especially, the points on pages 5, 7, and 9.


The real enemy of success is complacency.  We stop scanning for emerging disruptive forces.  We stop adapting to changing markets or technologies.  John Kotter teaches leaders to create and sustain a “sense of urgency.” Learn to be mindful and adaptive BEFORE the house burns down, and you’ll have a better chance of survival and success.

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Road to (K)nowhere: Conversation, Change, and the Leader’s Journey

How do we feel when we are in conversation with others about a seemingly important issue or challenge, and the talk seems to lead nowhere, and resolve nothing?

Perhaps you feel the way some popular leadership coach/consultants do, that “real” or “outstanding” leaders won’t tolerate these “butterfly” conversations – ones that seem to flit about without really landing on, or impacting the issue at hand.  You may be one of those folks who get frustrated if all the talk does not lead to clear consensus, decisions, or action.  Maybe you believe that every problem can be addressed and responded to by people if they just say what they mean, and get on with things.

Or maybe you have been fortunate to learn a few other things about conversation, dialogue, and the work of “thinking together.”

Yes, it is true that some conversation, some of the time, does not overtly lead to consensus, decisions, and action aligned with objectives.  Such is the nature of conversation itself.  As you point out, Dan, people say – and don’t say – things for many reasons.  Not all challenges are the same.  When everyone knows the right answer, our conversations can move quickly and easily to consensus and action.  When a great answer is knowable by asking experts, we can still examine the options together and make a choice.

So why doesn’t this happen often and easily? In my experience, it is the two-headed dragon of power and fear.  The things we say in conversation reflect our sense of ourselves in the org; our sense of our relationship to others; and our sense of what to do together.  But we are constantly pushed and pulled by the dynamics of power relating, which typically reflects some set of fear(s).

The work of conversation- even conversation that does not seem to produce a clear outcome and actions – is both hard, and fundamental to really leading change.  Here are three links to great thinkers/teachers/consultants whose work with how we can and do converse, shows us a way forward. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always important:

Patricia Shaw describes her very unique approach to “changing conversations in organizations.” This is the title of her book, and the essence of her approach to both consulting and change leadership.

Here, Chris Rodgers, author of Informal Coalitions, reviews Patricia Shaw’s ideas, and offers a great analysis of how conversation happens in organizations, and how we can think about, and work with it to influence change.

Here is a summary from the great Peter Block, about the “six conversations that matter.” Peter was among the first to recognize that “the conversation IS the work.” If you have ever been with Peter in a workshop, you know he doesn’t believe in report-outs from table group conversations, etc.  We change in the moment of being engaged in conversation.

Enjoy, learn, lead.


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Above & Beyond: My First Visit to Nordstrom’s

Recently I was happily responding to the excellent questions posed by organizer’s of the weekly #custserv tweetchat on customer service.  One of my responses caused another participant to mention something about Nordstrom’s.  I replied (within the 140 character limit of Twitter tweets) that my first visit to a Nordstrom store had been extraordinary.

And so..

At the end of October in 1989 I spent a week in San Francisco.  I was there on critical business for the U.S. Department of Labor.  My task was to persuade the leadership of the DOL’s principal employee union to agree to a unique labor-management partnership initiative proposed by the Department.  We were at a hotel just off Union Square, a bustling center of the city.

Around the corner was a large Nordstrom department store.  At that time we didn’t have Nordstrom stores in new Jersey, where I live.  I had heard about the legendary Nordstrom customer service, and I had also heard about the seemingly impossible spiralling escalators in the store.  So one day at lunch, I walked over to Nordstrom. From the street level, you entered the department that most stores put front and center – perfumes and cosmetics.  I was looking for a shirt to get as a gift for my son, who was then 2 years old.  Like many kids, he liked to play with masks and costumes, pretending to be Batman, or a cowboy.  I approached the perfume counter and asked the woman working there if she could tell me where the boys’ clothing department was.  Her response was not like anything i expected, or had ever encountered in customer service before.  Where I expected “oh… that is on the fifth floor, towards the rear,” what I was told was “I’ll take you there.”

The perfume counter woman was going to TAKE ME to the boys’ clothing department?  She quickly got someone to cover the perfume section, and came around to escort me.  As we walked and rode the escalators, the perfume sales woman asked me a series of questions.  In short order, she knew my name, where I lived, and all about my son and what I came to look for that day. Why is she doing this?  She sells PERFUME, not kids clothing!

It was only a few minutes to the boys’ department.  When we arrived, the perfume sales woman introduced me to the boys’ clothing sales person.  “Jim,” she said, “this is Mr. Waltuck, from New Jersey.  He is visiting us for the first time today, and looking for a  Western-style shirt for his son Miles, who is two.”  I was stunned! NO ONE treated their customers this way!

The woman shook my hand, and left to head back to the perfume counter.  The boys’ department salesman showed me several racks of shorts in my son’s size.  I quickly spotted on that was perfect.  A cool western geometric print, and on sale at a great price.  When we got to the register for me to pay, the salesman handed me his personal business card. “I’m sorry we didn’t have a bigger selection of these shirts for you today.  Call me, and I’ll send you the catalogue from the manufacturer.  We can get you any style.” 

What planet was I on?  Had the spiral escalators taken me to another dimension where incredible service was actually REAL?

As I took the salesman’s card, he gave me the signature “Nordstrom final touch.”  He walked around from the behind the counter, bringing me my bag with the new shirt.  He handed it to me, and offered his handshake to thank me for my purchase.

I left in a daze.  I had read about Nordstrom’s legendary customer service.  This was far more than anything I had ever experienced (before or since, I should add, although the next year, a newly-opened Nordstrom in New Jersey did an equally remarkable job serving my then three-year-old son as he shopped for and got a new pair of shoes), and far more than anything I had expected.

As the tv credit card ads might say, “the value of Nordstrom service in establishing loyal customers: priceless.”

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“Moneyball Government” – Evidence and Trials in the “Court” of the Organization

In the past year, several ideas have dominated the discourse on improving government.  A couple of months ago, the President called for improving the management and results of government.  A recent OMB Memorandum, M-13-17, specifically calls for “evidence based management” and calls for the use of “random trials” to explore and experiment with promising new ideas.


There is much to think about in the advent of so-called “Moneyball government.” Another term for what is purported to be “evidence-based government.” it all SOUNDS sexy and good.  But… The notions of “evidence” in complex domain challenges don’t seem to be as claimed.  In large part because the presumed “evidence” is derived from highly variable interactions leading to significant differences in data.  Running government isn’t like doing a random clinical trial on a new drug.   Government leaders can’t isolate a system to a single variable, or control their sample population characteristics and behaviors. 

Big Data and predictive analytics will no doubt make many firms wealthier, but I must wonder if the so-called evidence-based practices wouldn’t be outperformed by the human sense-making seen in the “practice-based evidence” counter-movement.



For What It’s Worth, I agree with Dave Snowden, the principal of Cognitive Edge.  We think… and hope… that well-trained subject-matter experts, acting as an aligned team of observers and sense-makers, will outperform the “moneyballers.”  Time will tell

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Line ‘em Up & Knock ‘em Down: Leadership & the “Domino Dynamic”

Recently I was reading some stuff about leadership.  The writer was suggesting that leaders should aim at having things so well aligned, so well defined, that every action had the desired and intended consequences.  If only it were that simple! The single biggest leadership mistake I have seen, over and over and over for more than 30 years, is the mistake of treating organizations, their problems, and their people, AS IF they could be lined up like dominoes, and then just putting the first one in motion.


We humans are not dominoes.  While our actions do have consequences, and while we can act with good intentions, the 2d “law” we need to observe is the law of UNINTENDED consequences.  Every mind is different, every person’s sense- and meaning-making is different.  I could think my boss was avoiding me when they ducked into a stairwell, as we approached each other in the office corridor.  Or, they might just be a person who prefers the exercise of stairs, over the elevator (a real case story).

Over time, these small differences get amplified through iterations throughout an organization.  Suddenly, the small undesired consequence becomes a significant leadership challenge.

To lead effectively requires attending both to the consequences we intended, and especially to the impact and outcomes we never intended.  We can’t make our organizations and people all click like dominoes, but we can (and should) act to influence perception and relationship every day.

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From “I think I can…” to “I knew I could…”

Another in a series of comments I have written recently in response to some public discourse on leadership.


I think I can…I think I can…I think I can…

I knew I could…I knew I could…

Insights on motivation are helpful on many levels.  My experience coaching and facilitating hundreds of business improvement teams certainly confirms the value of pairing more capable people with those needing some improvement.

But I don’t see this as being about people holding negative views (“I think I can’t…) somehow getting more motivation than those willing to try.  People need to feel supported, encouraged, and hopeful.  They need to believe in the value to them and others, of the stuff they have to do.  And they need to believe that they can get better/stronger through their efforts.

In the end, I agree with the renowned community improvement leader Angela Blanchard: “you can’t build on broken.” Help your people see what assets and strengths they do have, and help them use those assets to grow in their work and lives.

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Us vs. Them: Leading for the Org, or for the People?

The following is a comment I wrote in response to someone’s notion that in leadership, you might WANT to put “people first,” but that you really have to put the goals of the organization first.


First, there is a difference between “balance” and “harmony.” The objectives of people, and of organization, might not ever be in true balance.  That means equal weight, equal force, and most important, no tension between the two.  It is DIFFERENCE – NOT being in balance – that creates dynamic tension. That tension is what drives creativity, innovation, and adaptive capacity.  Sometimes the “tones” of the people and the org are in harsh dissonance.  Usually reflecting too much difference between the two.  But, sometimes, even as there is difference between the tones of the people and the org, they produce a sweet harmony of productivity AND satisfaction.

Second, is that this is not some “Impossible Dream.” Rare, yes, but, possible.  How many organizations have achieved this harmony of people and organization? One, for sure.  Maybe two or three.  The one for sure, is Brazil’s Semco.  If you have never read Ricardo Semler’s now 20-year-old book “Maverick,” get it right now.  Read it today. He did it.  Other close examples include W. L. Gore, and Patagonia (see Chouinard’s book “Let My People Go Surfing”).

The challenge is to set core values and operating principles that maintain alignment to mission, while sustaining that “just enough, but not too much” level of difference and positive tension between your people and your org.

Nobody ever said it was gonna be easy ;-)

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