Lean and Deming’s Anti-Slogan Views

Earlier leanblog.org post and comment

Last week, I posted about Deming’s 14 points and I got an interesting question from a blog reader, Brian:

I found # 10 confounding: “Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets.”

Slogans are sometimes used to communicate change. While they are just a tiny ingredient in a large recipe for communicating change, they can be effective.

We use targets in our Lean improvement workshops so the team can measure their success at the end of the week.

Is Deming really for eliminating these or am I not understanding his intent? Are some of our Lean practices in opposition to his principles?

Here is my take on it, based on my experience and study of Dr. Deming’s teachings. First thought is that when I visited NUMMI in 2005, I saw a lot of large banners with slogans, including their annual Quality Slogan. I thought this was surprising, considering the influence Deming had on Toyota, but someone explained that slogans are OK as long as they aren’t “empty slogans.” I would never put up signs during a hospital Lean project that exhort people, “Quality is YOUR responsibility.” No, it’s management’s responsibility. We have to improve systems, not exhort people.

I agree that slogans and sayings can be helpful. One team I’m working with now has really embraced the expression, “Don’t let best get in the way of better.” We don’t have it on signs all over the place. Is it a slogan? I guess. Is it bad, I don’t think so, since the expression encourages them to take a PDCA approach, try something and see how it works, rather than obsessing over a perfect solution.

Now for targets… my take is that targets and measures for improvement are a good thing. I consider them “goals” more than “targets” and I think there’s more to that than the choice of words.

For example, in a project, we expect to improve testing Turnaround Time from XX hours to XX minutes, based on analysis of the process and knowing how much waste there is. Tracking the improvement goals isn’t a bad thing. What would be bad is setting an absolute “you must hit this or be punished” target for a project team or staff. Setting quotas such as “you must draw blood from 10 patients per hour, or else” would be a very bad thing, something that Dr. Deming railed against.

What we’re trying to avoid is the old “Management by Objectives” sins of managers just hitting targets and then waiting to see the results. We need managers involved in managing and improving the process, not just hitting targets that are often unrealistic. If you set quotas or targets and threaten punishment (or lack of reward) then people will distort the data or they will distort the system – something we really want to avoid.

I hope that helps. What are YOUR perspectives on the use of slogans and targets? I hope we can agree that exhortations are bad, right?

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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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4 Comments on "Lean and Deming’s Anti-Slogan Views"

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  1. Andy Wagner says:

    Good and bad slogans, unfortunately, are often in the eyes of the beholder. Naturally a “lean” slogan is acceptable!
    Seriously, though, I think that slogans and targets that refer to thinks outside the workers control are what Deming was refering to. As you said, Deming railed on quality being management’s responsibilty–the system’s responsibility. Slogans and targets that ask people to do the impossible are never helpful.
    Another downside to targets is that, depending on the metric, they can encourage gaming the system over improving the system.

  2. Brian Buck says:

    Thank you for your response. It makes sense the way you explained it. The definition of improvement target versus a management-directed target is super clear.

    I agree with his comment about exhortation so I didn’t cry foul on that one!

    Your blog is outstanding. Thank you for all of your hard work.

  3. curiouscat says:

    I think one help is to avoid “arbitrary numerical targets.” Arbitrary eliminates “facts of life” – we have to cover our cash flow needs… I go into my thoughts on this in detail on: Deming on the problems with targets or goals. And on eliminating slogans.

    The problem with slogans is largely the empty claims that some slogan replaces management. Slogans that a group adopts, in the right situation may be fine. The problem is I really don’t see how they can help much and most often they are setting your organization up for employees to think of managers as pointy haired bosses so I would suggest thinking of them as dangerous and being careful.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Deming’s main point was that everything is based in a system. A system involves random variation. A goal (arbitrary target) ignores the concept of process, system, and random variation. “If you can meet a goal by setting it, why not make it double or triple?…and get really outstanding results.” No, the goal would need to be based on statistics and be achievable else, it is nothing more than easy (lazy) or very hard (to exhaust) morale. Either way “irresponsible”.

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