Why improvement plans fail (printed in early 1980s)

Managers usually are ones to blame

By: Tom Peters, of the Orange County Register; California

Comment by: Jay Salsburg

Jay’s comment: This piece is very good. It details a subject on people’s minds but the subject of which is avoided through fear of retaliation or alienation. I find it useful to send it to people who are in need of constructive illumination. The particulars in the article may not apply specifically to your situation but you can apply a little imagination and substitute your situation with the ones detailed herein, whether you are on the management side, the worker’s side, or the owner/operator side.

Time and again managers comment, "Your good-news stories are an inspiration, but tell me, then, why do so many well planned improvement programs fail so miserably?" With rare exceptions, the problem is you, Mr. or Ms. Manager!

Here are the dozen primary reasons that your change programs will likely fail:

1) No guts. Most firms, large and small, are overstaffed with managers by 200 percent to 500 percent. Staff cuts of 10 percent to 25 percent won't help much. You must step up to the brutal reality and act fast, not ignore it or drag it out over several years.

2) Schmoes or stars? Most managers really don't believe, down deep, that the average person, in the distribution center or the reservation center, is a would be star just waiting to be listened to. Three-quarters of the "people participation" programs I come across fail because senior, middle, and first-line managers do not truly believe in people's creative talents.

3) Not enough agony. Almost everyone gives lip service to better quality and superior service, but few managers truly agonize over every defective product or botched customer transaction. I often call Roger Milliken of textile maker Milliken & Co. the best chief executive in America. Although his firm has more than $2 billion in sales, every tiny defect is a source of unrelieved agony for Roger. That, above all else, is why his quality program is the best in the country.

4) Authority. Corporate chieftains often spend most of their time on the intricacies of various types of so-called 'dotted-line relationships" on the organization chart, ceaselessly pondering the nuances of "matrix" structures and other forms of overly centralized and complicated operations. Instead, they should be mimicking today's winning firms in every industry that are radically decentralizing into flat, responsive business units. Granting true unit autonomy, within a framework of shared corporate beliefs, is crucial to their success.

5) Machines over men. Strip away all the Labor Day rhetoric and you will find that bosses at most manufacturing firms harbor a Pollyanna vision of robots and computerized manufacturing systems rescuing them from their current doldrums. Computer Integrated Manufacturing clearly is an essential tool, but true quality improvement and the ability to slash manufacturing lead time by 95 percent (as many have) depends much more on people and organization than on automation.

6) Plans over emotions. Anyone who doesn't plan is plain nuts. Nonetheless, innovation has always come from charged up, passionate champions, not from sterile reports from a bevy of strategic planners. Computervision co-founder Philippe Villers calls entrepreneurship "unreasonable conviction based on inadequate evidence." Firms of any size that wish to innovate consistently need to encourage numerous bands of maverick champions with just such "unreasonable conviction."

7) Ego. When you launch your grand "people participation plan" after years of top-down and directive style management, most people will think that this is just a subtle attempt to con them into working harder. You will be rebuffed, laughed at, and made the butt of jokes and graffiti. You deserve it! Eventually, if you stick it out, a few skeptics will begin to listen. Remember, it took decades for your predecessors (and maybe you, too) to create thorough antagonism and skepticism; you can't turn it around overnight.

8) No guts-2. First-line supervisors, who you ask to stop playing cop and start being coaches, are often the major stumbling block to radical change. Re-train them lavishly. Counsel them. Be patient; to a point. If they still don't get it, can them.

9) The wrong numbers. Most managers get far more reports on cost and financial numbers than on product quality or customer service. These so-called soft traits can be measured precisely. Profit follows from putting these traits at the very top of everyone's daily watch list.

10) Vice presidents and memos vs. sales clerks. Do you spend more hours looking at staff presentations than chatting with serviced people, suppliers and customers? If so, you haven't got much chance of thriving, or even surviving. An army general speaking about effective combat command states, "You've got to love soldiers." Loving soldiers, like loving your family, means being with them.

11) Little minds. Consistency, it is said, is the hobgoblin of little minds; to which I add, great leaders. "Call a customer," we plead. We really mean you call two customers, each day, every day, forever. Three cheers for "little minds" who stoop to do so.

12) Start small, but aim very, very high. An appendix to Richard Schonberger's superb book "World Class Manufacturing" lists 84 factories on U.S. soil that have reduced manufacturing lead time, his chief criterion for assessing manufacturing excellence, by a factor of five, 10, or 20. To become and stay competitive, we must improve quality, service and innovation by an order of magnitude. I urge you to start, right now, with small, practical steps. But I beg you to do so in pursuit of very bold goals. Unless you're out to double, triple, or quadruple your scores on some key measures, you are not serious.

Sorry if my answers thoroughly depress you. But hey, you asked!

Tome Peters is co-author of "In Search of Excellence."