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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

The Enemy Within

“Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.”W. Edwards Deming

When I was first learning to play tennis and would hit poor shots, my instructor would say, “You shouldn’t be surprised. The ball went exactly where you were aiming.” I still think of this whenever I play tennis or golf and am beginning to see implications to business, as well.

Although companies face external forces that impact results, it is generally the internal forces that cause the major problems.  In fact, when it comes to organizational performance and improvement, we are our own worst enemy.  We continually throw up barriers that interfere with focusing on what is truly important . . . serving customers.

Countermeasure Without a Problem

There are countless examples in organizations today of initiative overload, where one or more “support” areas throw out a new system or policy that impacts the work of people throughout the company.  The reasons behind the new initiatives are not often clear – it could result from an article someone read or a meeting held in a corporate office – but on the front line, it does not appear that they came from a fundamental business need.  Although driven by good intentions, this type of activity tends to result in initiative overload for the people trying to serve customers.

The larger the organization, the more likely it is for people to get further away from the company’s purpose resulting in the creation of countermeasures that, although appearing to make sense, create more problems than they address.

Back to Basics

The only way to minimize initiative overload and the negative impact associated with the practice is to continually return to the basics and understand what does and doesn’t support the organization’s reason for existence.  This means getting people to regularly reflect on four basic questions:

  • What is our purpose?  Why to we exist?  Who are our customers and what value do we provide to them?
  • What is our value stream?  How do we deliver value to our customers?  Within the value stream, which activities directly provide value and which exist to support the direct activities?  This requires a significant commitment to go to gemba to talk to team members and see how things are done firsthand.
  • What is our ideal condition?  How would our value stream operate if we were absolutely perfect?  Although it may seem crazy to think you can ever achieve perfection, it is critical to get everyone focused on a consistent direction.
  • How do we compare with our ideal condition?  What are the gaps we need to address to move toward our ideal and what are the root causes of the gaps?  How can we support efforts to close the gaps?

A servant leader mindset needs to be created throughout the organization that questions every decision and initiative to assure that it supports the company’s fundamental purpose. Although not necessarily an easy task, the above questions can provide a framework for coaching discussions that can begin to create the type of culture where people start supporting, rather than interfering, with serving customers.


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


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