An MBO Case Study in China

WSJ.com – In China, 3,500 Test the Waters Of the Pearl River

I’ve written before about how polluted China’s rivers are, the cost of unbridled factory growth and an unregulated environment.

While you might think the article linked to above is about pollution and attempts to clean it up, I find a lesson about “management by objectives,” metrics, and leadership. The story starts off on an optimistic note:

Lu Daxin, a 32-year-old boatman paid to fish garbage out of this industrial city’s waterways, says he has seen everything from dead chickens and pigs to much worse.

Yet on Wednesday afternoon, just a couple of miles downstream of Mr. Lu, thousands of people were gathering to dive into the Pearl River. They were participating in a half-mile swim from Sun Yat-sen University to Xinghai Concert Hall organized by the government to prove that a decade-long effort to clean up the polluted river has finally paid off.

Ah, so the rivers are getting cleaner. The fact that all these people are willing to swim in it (3,000), that’s proof things are cleaner right?

No, it’s proof that through fear and coercion, you can accomplish anything. That’s a lesson I remember far to well from my days in not-so-lean factories that practiced old style “MBO” type management (note, the wikipedia article ignores the downsides of MBO, as Deming would have pointed out).

According to the official news agency Xinhua, the big swim was conceived when a bureaucratic gauntlet was thrown down in March of last year by Li Changchun, a prominent official of the Communist Party Central Committee. According to Xinhua, Mr. Li asked Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua, “How about the Pearl River pollution?”

Mr. Huang replied, “Preliminary effects will be shown this summer.” Mr. Li asked, “So I could swim in the Pearl River this summer?” Mr. Huang said, “Yes.” Mr. Li pressed on: “Could Guangzhou residents swim there next year?”

The next day, the official newspaper Guangzhou Daily announced the event.

So an objective was set by an official. Pretty arbitrary. Not based on data? This reminds of plant management pushing employees — how many units can you make tomorrow? You’ll make 450? You’re not sure? Make it happen! No excuses. Go do it. It was no matter if the system is actually capable of that. Using MBO, you set a goal and you push people to make the goal. MBO often doesn’t focus on the process capability at all, it just forces you to do “whatever it takes” to make a numerical goal. The downside in manufacturing is that people will cut corners on safety and quality if they are pushed hard enough. Would a government cut corners and pressure people into swimming in a dirty river, risking their health just to prove a point, to meet an objective?

Many agree the river’s water quality has improved in recent years. Some, if not most, of the river’s murky color, which ranges from shoe-polish brown to moss green, is natural in origin, coming from its silt. But human waste is still funneled into the waters. Some local residents voiced concerns that the swim could leave participants with infections, rashes and worse.

The swim was conducted across a cleaner, broader stretch of the Pearl, not at one of the narrow points where garbage tends to accumulate. Still, the Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Department this month rated the city’s section of the Pearl River at level four, the second-worst grade, which, according to local regulations, means that the water is “applicable for industrial water use and entertainment water use when there is no direct human touch allowed.” Level three is considered suitable for swimming.

I’m sure the government would have canceled this, knowing how dirty the river really is? Could they really hit a goal of 10,000 swimmers? 10,000 “volunteers?”

An original goal of 10,000 swimmers was reduced to an official count of 3,500 by Wednesday. Leading up to the event, rumors circulated that officials were having trouble getting people to sign up and were pressing students and employees of state-owned companies to participate. A local newspaper reported that several government officials declined to take part.

An official of the Information Office of the Guangzhou municipal government called the reports “rubbish” and said that both the governor of Guangdong province and the mayor of Guangzhou made the crossing, along with almost all the municipal leaders below them.

I’ll give them credit, at least leadership was “on board” (in the river).

Lin Yaohui, a retired swimming-pool manager who coached three groups that participated in the swim, said participants were aware of risks. Participants were asked to wear goggles to protect their eyes and check in with doctors on standby once they had finished. They were given forms to fill out with questions about how they felt afterward, whether they had gotten sick or whether their eyes hurt.

For hours before the swim, motorboats carried men with nets who scoured the river for any floating debris. They plucked stray pieces of garbage that would have put swimmers and trash in the same snapshot, as local photographers fanned out to capture the heavily promoted event.

Yuck. They fell under the pressure to hit their objective (conduct the swim and get the PR benefits of saying the river is clean) and they made things “look good” (removing garbage) rather than really fixing root causes (such as apartments with toilets flowing directly into river-feeding canals).

Again, you can “accomplish” anything through aggressive goal setting, coercion, and a disregard for people. Are you pressuring people to achive the impossible without supporting them and making the work environment better? Lean is about leading and managing people in a different way. We can learn from the bad lessons around us (or in China).

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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