Are Slogans Always Bad or Can They Inspire?


Many of you know I'm an alum of Northwestern University, graduating just prior to the Rose Bowl season of 1995. I'm a huge NU football fan and I was exhausted from watching the Outback Bowl on New Years Day, the 38-35 overtime loss to Auburn, what might have been one of the wildest finishes ever in college football.

Northwestern men's basketball, however, is still fighting its way into respectability. Will they reach the same level of success as NU football? Can I tie this into lean?

As our 1996 Rose Bowl coach, Gary Barnett, had always said, “There are no moral victories for Northwestern.” This was true on Friday, but I was proud of our Wildcats for fighting back from two 14-point deficits and never giving up. That's a great “lean” personality characteristic to have, always working and fighting in the face of adversity on the football field or in any workplace.

While we are clearly no longer the perennial doormat of the Big Ten, the football team went without a bowl appearance from 1949 to 1996. We still haven't won a bowl game since 1949, losing all seven of the games we've played in the last 15 years.

The NU basketball team has the unfortunate distinction of being the ONLY team from one of the six NCAA Division 1 “power conferences” to NOT make the NCAA men's basketball “March Madness” tournament. The team was in the news this week for cracking the AP Top 25 rankings (at #25) for the first time in forty years, the longest drought in major college hoops history.

While watching the hoops team lose to Michigan State Saturday night, I read this blog post from ESPN that talked about the basketball team slogan for the year. These slogans are often used for marketing purposes. From ESPN:

…this year's Northwestern fan and team slogan is incredibly funny. It is, simply, “Make Shots.” Usually team t-shirt slogans are something inspirational or ostensibly full of deep basketball insight. Not this. “Make Shots” might be the least inspirational, and therefore the most honest, team slogan of all-time. I love it.

I'm not sure I love it. Ah, slogans, one of the things Dr. W. Edwards Deming railed against. We've all seen our share of silly slogans and posters over the years. This one might rank up there with the most inane of them.

Gary Barnett, again harkening back to the early 1990's, instituted a new football team slogan that said “Expect Victory.”   While “Make Shots” is just an exhortation, there was much more meaning behind “Expect Victory.” People had become far too comfortable with losing at Northwestern and Barnett wanted to shake that up lethargy. He wanted people to be upset if we lost (and this included the players).

I guess this was a case of a slogan working… but it was far more meaningful than “Make Shots.” I think I'm not just making excuses for “Expect Victory” because that slogan led to good results, eventually.

In a factory, “Make No Defects” would be an empty slogan. Would “Expect Quality” be more meaningful?

On the whole, I'm still not a believer in slogans, especially when there's no change to the system to help make the goal of the slogan possible. What do you think?

Oh, and as current Coach Path Fitzgerald (a national Defensive Player of the Year on that NU Rose Bowl team) ends every interview or press conference…. “Go Cats.”

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Slogans are most often bad. But like most things they can be used in ways that help or hurt. The main problem is they often substitute for a method to achieve the aim. If the slogan serves like a mission statement, to focus people on something useful to focus on, AND it is one minor part of a system to achieve a result it can be fine and even useful.

    The issue, to me, is not so much that slogans are innately horrible. It is that, in practice, slogan are used in harmful ways most often (especially outside of sports). They tend to substitute for system improvement. The main work of shifting psychology (we do expect to win now, we do expect a focus on reducing bugs in our code…) after years of creating a different culture has to be in changing methods, priorities, values… Slogans are just a way of focusing on the change, if done right.

    Unfortunately, they also tend to be used as a way to focus criticisms on individuals. Don’t you KNOW our slogan say zero defects. Can’t you read. Jeez, I even put up a huge slogan saying zero defects and you can’t even do what it says in this beautiful poster? Well I will give you a bad performance review now. You can’t say you don’t have that coming after you failed to do what our slogan told you to.

    Dilbert does a great job on slogans:

  2. Good question. Deming said in point ten that slogans and exhortations are bad (point 10). That being said, I think some slogans or mottos aren’t bad. Hunter already said most of what I would have said so I won’t rehash that stuff except to reemphasize his point that any slogan used to direct blame is bad.
    When I was in the Corps an old gunny told me that the best mottos (kind of like slogans) were about choices (as opposed to a result). Our motto for the whole corps was “Semper Fidelis” — always faithful. Faithful is choice – you can’t always be fast enough, strong enough, accurate enough, etc. You can do your best to be those things but they are outcomes. You can decide to be faithful. Officers and Non-commissioned Officers had another slogan, “troops first.” The rule was that water, food, and medical treatment (within triage groups designated by Navy medical pros) were to be distributed in inverse order of rank ALWAYS. That’s a choice. It’s a choice that Marine leaders have made for generations. The gunny also taught me that they should appeal to a higher purpose and morality.
    Applying the gunny’s rule Make Shots isn’t a very good motto but Expect Victory might make the cut.
    I don’t know if this adds or detracts from the discussion. Other than that I pretty much say what John said.

  3. Slogans without substance are bad. But slogans do have a place when tied to real efforts to improve, especially, as Bruce mentioned, when there is a choice to be made.

    ‘Just Pull It’ (with acknowledgement to Nike) might be a good one for the andon cord.

    I had a boss a long, long time ago who used to say ‘Hope is not a method’, which goes well with requiring people to countermeasure KPI misses with real actions.

  4. In the case of the Northwestern basketball team and its poor performance, “Make Shots” is a great rallying cry. This slogan serves as a basic guiding principle to encourage team members to focus on an important action. “Make Shots” will only be effective, however, if the coach and others emphasize offense, not defense.

    While Deming advocated against slogans, we have to acknowledge we live in a different world today, the world of attention deficit disorder. Coaches and other leaders need to cut through the clutter, get people’s attention, and help them focus on the key actions they must take.

    And as a Northwestern alum myself, I have suffered through many losing seasons with the sports teams. And I’ve had to do more than my fair share of explaining to high school classmates, friends and certain family members in my home state of Oklahoma as to why I was willing to leave behind Oklahoma sports teams for Northwestern academics. (Duh!)

    But when I want it all–brains and brawn–I’ll chant “Make Shots!”

    P.S. “Make Shots” and “Expect Victory” are certainly more motivating than my high school football team’s cheer: “Kill, kill. Blood makes the grass grow.” Enough said.

  5. Mark has raised an interesting point. This is one of Deming’s teachings that I have never fully agreed with. In the USA slogans and exhortations by authorities may seem unnatural, while in more socialistic countries like Japan or China slogans feel quite natural. Even “don’t drive drunk” is a slogan. Is that slogan a bad thing?

    We need to understand what Deming meant by slogans and take it within the context of his 14 points and overall teaching. A banner on the wall that is empty of true action may be a slogan, while a phrase like “genchi genbutsu” or “go see for yourself” repeated again and again becomes a thought process, then a behavior and then a driver of great results. Phrases like these may not inspire, but they remind. Is “go to gemba” a slogan? If it is, there are many slogans at Toyota and within TPS.

    The question is not whether slogans are bad, but why Deming said they should be avoided.

  6. In a similar era, I was in the Vanderbilt University Marching Band, perennial doormat of the SEC. We had an exciting new coach who coined the slogan “have fun, expect to win” with similar thinking to Barnett’s “Expect Victory.”
    Of course, this quickly became “Have Fun, Expect two wins”… which is what we got.
    I think Deming’s principal objection was to empty slogans, with the qualifier that most of them are just that, empty.
    Ford started advertising “Quality is Job 1” in the early 1980s. It was about 1986 (after switching slogans) that my dad came home from work and said “I think they might really mean it.”

  7. I think it’s a fair qualifier to say “empty slogans.”

    But, pages 65 to 67, Dr. Deming doesn’t mince words. He says “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force.”

    He doesn’t say “Eliminate empty slogans.”

    Why are slogans bad? Dr. Deming writes, in part, “They are directed at the wrong people. They arise from management’s supposition that the production workers could, by putting their backs into the job, accomplish zero defects, improve quality, improve productivity, and all else that is desirable.”

    “The management needs to learn that the main responsibility is theirs from now on to improve the system….”

    On that measure, I think the NU basketball slogan is worse (maybe the players just aren’t talented enough… is that their fault?). Maybe they could practice more or work harder…

    The NU football slogan was, as much as anything, directed at the fans, not just the players. I’m more tolerant of that old slogan, not just because “it worked”.

  8. Dr. Deming saw that slogans almost always caused harm. He saw that given the existing management systems they were a way for managers to shift responsibility (in their heads not really) from their need to fix the system to someone else by just pointing to a slogan.

    If you first tell someone not to use a hammer in that way and show them how it should be used 10,20,50,100 times eventually I think you just say – Don’t use hammers. This isn’t exactly what Dr. Deming did but I think it is close. He does say “don’t use slogans” and then he explains why You can assume those are the biggest reasons he had a the time for not using slogans. If you avoid those and get a large benefit it might not be so bad to use them.
    .-= John Hunter ´s last blog ..Hospital Providing Better Health Care While Reducing Costs =-.


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