High Performance Paradoxes
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High Performance Paradoxes by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine December 1999

I first began preaching about the need for total quality to the general public at the start of this decade.  At that time, “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We” was a popular video and the threat of Japanese market domination was an effective motivator for encouraging the use of quality principles.  As the decade matured, the gap between U.S. and Japanese quality narrowed, and the use of this motivator became less effective. In recent months, we have heard about massive layoffs at many of the once premier industries in Japan, including Nissan and Mitsubishi. With the Japanese commitment to lifetime employment finally being challenged, we can only wonder about how long it will be before the phrase “been there, done that” is heard in the board rooms of Japan when the topic of total quality is brought up.

I have wondered for years if layoffs and total quality can co-exist in an organization.  Think about it -–why would anyone try to use quality tools in order to be more productive if it means that they, or their peers, will be laid off?  The “average” front line employee is not so self-centered as to continue to suggest improvement ideas and work as part of a team to put those improvements in place if a threat of job loss exists, even in those cases where financial incentives are tied to higher levels of performance.  These employees might do a great job of making it look like they are making a difference, but they will always hold back the really good ideas if it means saving someone’s job.

This logic represents one of two key high performance paradoxes that are usually ignored as organizations attempt to install total quality work systems.  The second paradox represents the inverse of this situation.  Imagine that all of the companies in a given industry were highly successful in applying these theories and tools.  As the customer continued to receive higher and higher levels of service at lower and lower costs, someone would eventually lose out.  In a true customer-oriented system, planned obsolescence is not an option.  We are beginning to see this in today’s automotive industry.  Without some total quality failures, coupled with some intended product decay, we would all eventually work ourselves out of a job.

This is similar to realizing total quality success in a stagnant industry.  Without increasing sales and/or new product development, a good employee / team member would eventually find their job no longer challenging.  There are only so many improvements to be made.  On the other hand, I imagine that there are more than a few people out there that have held back on their improvement efforts in order to save the jobs of some of their co-workers as well.  What does this all mean?  Is continuous improvement merely a marketing ploy that does not play out in the realities of the business world?  Will total quality only succeed in those organizations that have steady growth and a “no layoff” policy?

At this point in time I don’t have answers to these questions – thus the paradox.  I do have opinions however that have been validated to-date in many instances.  Total quality will have little chance for marked success in any organization that regularly lays off a significant number of its employees.  There have to be some total quality failures – there is not enough market demand in any business to support high levels of performance among all competitors.  A successful total quality effort will run out of gas if the business it is a part of becomes stagnant or loses market share.

Am I advocating a certain degree of complacency?  Am I saying that it is okay for employees to temper their improvement efforts in order to save a few jobs?  People that know me would say “Of course not – this guy advocates continuous improvement as much as anyone!”  They would also say however that I prefer to err on the side of practicality.  By that I mean that I don’t set high expectations for a company’s quality process, or individual efforts, if the “conditions aren’t right.”  If you want consistent, high levels of performance from a majority of your workforce, the various work  systems have to be designed to support it and you have to have something unique to offer in your line of business.

In closing, don’t expect people to become fully committed to a total quality effort if your organization cannot be fully committed to them.  Don’t expect front line employees to become actively involved in putting improvements in place if you are not willing to compensate them fairly and to provide a stable, if not growing, business.  You can however expect your stellar employees to work themselves out of a job – just don’t expect them to stick around unless you have something more challenging for them. Keep improving!

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