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The Façade of Management Commitment -- And Why It's So Destructive

July 28, 2015
To see step-function improvement, company leaders must be willing to go "all in" in support of improvement initiatives --  even if that means they have to change along with everyone else.

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. – Business Fable

The first time I met Dr. W. Edwards Deming in the early 1990s, he saw from my name tag that I worked at General Electric and asked me about our improvement efforts. I shared that we were struggling with how to get started and we were debating which set of tools to focus on first, process mapping or root cause corrective action. This is how I remember his response (which stuck with me the rest of my career). “Mr. Dyer,” he said. “That is a most ridiculous debate. Instead, you need to put all of your effort into changing the minds and methods of your company leaders.” He recognized that the commitment of management was key to an effective improvement effort (which also explains why Deming's 14 points are written the way they are).

However, what does it mean to have “Management Commitment”? In my last article (Why Your Improvement Efforts Aren’t Driving Better Results: The Façade of Lean and Six Sigma), I mention three levels of commitment to lean and Six Sigma:

Level 1) Grains of Rice – Easy, common-sense ideas that individually don’t impact things too much but collectively can begin to move the needle

Level 2) Spirit of Lean and Six Sigma – Changes that require a fundamentally different way to manage, lead and execute processes

Level 3) Process Innovations – The implementation of new technologies, product designs and/or significantly different processes

It is fairly easy to get management commitment on the Level 1 improvements. These minor changes usually do not ruffle any feathers and require a minimum amount of time and investment. However, in many cases, the company leaders will only allow Level 1 changes. This way, they can claim that they are supportive of the improvement efforts without the need to change any of their own processes or behaviors.

Why is it difficult to gain management support for Level-2 and 3 changes?

The first step for making improvement happen is to admit that there is a need for improvement (and change). Many company leaders were mentored by their boss and their boss’s boss. So, there is a good chance that they are using management techniques that have been handed down for many decades. It is a difficult thing to admit that what worked in the 1950s (or 1990s for that matter) is not necessarily the right way to get things done today. A significant amount of courage is required to step out of a comfort zone 100 years in the making.

The following illustration may help highlight how difficult it is for company leaders to embrace significant change:

Mary stared out her office window and barely noticed as the first rays of sun appeared over the horizon, indicating that dawn had finally arrived.

“One month … one lousy month.”

Mary Jones, the new plant manager, had just been told by her boss that she had one month to turn the plant around or else. “Maybe I can stretch that to three months,” thought Mary. “My boss will be traveling out of the country and the final performance numbers will not come out until the end of the quarter. So, I might be able to wait until the next quarterly meeting, but we have got to show significant results or this plant and I will both be toast. Things must change in a radical way and be done quickly to see the kind of improvement that will have any real impact.”

Mary called out to her assistant who had just arrived. “Good morning, Joyce. Please get Jim Smith, the union president on the phone and ask him to come see me right away.”

“Will do,” said Joyce.

A short time later, Jim Smith walked into Mary’s office and plopped down in one of the chairs. “Well, what do you want?” he spit out with noticeable disdain.

“Thank you for coming to see me, Mr. Smith,” said Mary. “I need your help.”

“What? You need my help? Five plant managers have served here while I have been union president, and you are the first to utter those words. Is this some sort of trap?”

“We need to radically change the way we do things around here, and we don’t have much time. Our customers are extremely ticked off at us for late shipments, missing parts, cost overruns and poor quality. We need to work together to get everyone involved to try and dramatically improve our processes,” said Mary. “I am hoping we can start implementing lean manufacturing and eventually start using some of the Six Sigma tools as well.”

“No, no, no!” exclaimed the union president. “Not lean again! We all know that is just a disguise to fire dedicated union workers. The plant employees did not get us into this mess.”

A Process Improvement Pledge

“Hmm, it seems that the past leaders may have smeared the true meaning of lean and Six Sigma,” said Mary with a sigh. “What if I pledged that no employees will be fired for any process improvements?”

“Maybe if you put that into writing, I might believe you,” said Jim. “What did you mean by ‘smeared the true meaning’ of lean?”

“Joyce!” Mary called out to her assistant. “Please clear my calendar and call Mr. Smith’s supervisor and let him know that he will not be on the production line today.” She then turned to the union president, “Do you mind spending some time with me to review what lean and Six Sigma are really about?”

“I guess. Can I invite a couple of my vice presidents?”

“That sounds like a plan. I will invite the two production managers to join us as well. We might as well all learn together.” Mary spent the rest of the day walking Jim and the top plant leaders through her understanding of lean theory.

Later that week, Mary invited Jim to her staff meeting.

“What is he doing here?” exclaimed the leader of finance. “We have never had the union president join us before! How are we going to discuss private matters such as business finances?”

“Mr. Smith will be playing a critical role in helping us save this plant and business,” said Mary. “I have invited him to participate in all of our staff meetings and expect open, honest communications. If we are going to become a team, we have got to start trusting each other.”

“Well, Mr. Smith is not going to like my first order of business,” said the finance leader. “I recommend severe cost cutting to take place immediately in order to right this doomed ship. This will include cutting 20% of the work force.”

“Wait a minute!” stammered the union president. “We can’t keep up with orders now, and you want to cut 20% of the workers?”

“No!” said Mary as she pounded the table to get everyone’s attention. “We will not cut anyone. Our strategy will be focused on meeting and exceeding our customers' needs in order to drive more volume. That will reduce our cost per unit as we get more product out the door.”

“Well, I never…” said the finance leader. “I am not going to be a part of a plan that is destined to fail. You can expect my resignation.” With that, the finance leader abruptly stood up and left the room mumbling something about inmates running the asylum.

The union president was stunned. “I guess you meant what you told me earlier this week.”

“Mr. Smith,” said Mary. “I do not want to get us into a cost-cutting death spiral. I strongly believe we can turn this business around by working smarter, as a team. Now I need to promote a new leader of finance who shares my strategic vision of focusing on the customer. We will need their help tracking our progress and to make sure that this effort ultimately leads to a more profitable company.”

Over the next several weeks, Mary, Jim and the remainder of the employees formed several teams and worked to radically change many aspects of the way they manufactured their product. Mary spent most of her time on the shop floor talking to employees and listening to their ideas. They celebrated each idea that was implemented, and the entire plant erupted in applause the first time they got an entire week’s worth of orders out on time.

At the end of the quarter, Mary found herself in front of her boss making a presentation about their progress.

“So,” said her boss. “I must admit that progress has been made. But I am doubtful that this can be sustained or that this is the right way to manage a plant. I have gotten several letters from your finance leader who resigned a while back. He was convinced that you were running this plant into the ground using unconventional management tactics. We have managed this company a certain way for the past 55 years, and now you are trying to change all of that. Well, my decision will be to keep the plant open but I believe we need to make a change…”

Suddenly, the conference room door was thrown open and in walked Jim Smith along with several employees from both the office and the shop floor. “I would like to say something before any decisions about the future of this plant and who manages it are made. The past three months have been amazing. We were averaging 50 grievances a week before and now we have gone a full month without a single grievance. The employees are finally being listened to and the sense of pride is through the roof.”

“Well, that is all fine and good, but it does not add anything to the bottom line,” said Mary’s boss.

“You mentioned that the company has been managed a certain way for many years,” said Mary. “And the company is on the verge of going out of business even though demand is at an all-time high. Maybe it is time to try something new and different and that is what we are doing.”

“More improvement has been made in the past three months than in the 20 years I have worked here,” said Jim. “We have great momentum, and I would hate to see that stopped at this point due to any changes.”

“Ok, ok,” said Mary’s boss with a sigh. “You all have until the end of the year to continue to show me results, or I will not have any choice but to make significant cuts.”

After the meeting, Mary walked up to the union president. “Thank you Mr. Smith. You really made a difference today.”

“You can call me Jim,” said the union president. “My friends call me Jim.”

What Leader Would Do This?

How many company leaders would be willing to put their job on the line in order to change the way they lead the company even if it means going against decades of management "best practices"? How many would allow members of their staff, who were successful in the old way of doing things, leave or remove them for refusing to change? How many would take the time to educate everyone in the organization about the strategies using lean and Six Sigma tools and techniques? Dr. Deming understood that leaders who could make this transition were rare and needed to be admired and celebrated.

By the way, this discussion (the three levels of change and management commitment) applies to other areas outside of those that focus on improvement. A friend and colleague of mine, Quentin Prideaux, is focused on helping companies in the area of sustainability. Like lean and Six Sigma, sustainability focuses on eliminating waste (reduce trash, conserve energy, improve product life and reusability, etc.) Many companies have implemented Level 1 changes that have produced minor results. For example, a plant might put recycling bins in each office and say they are committed to sustainability. However, if not implemented correctly, even these minor changes may not have much of an impact. Many of the recycling bins might end up full of non-recyclable trash or they may be emptied by janitors who have no training on what to do with the contents. The office looks more ‘sustainable,’ but all that has happened is that dozens of plastic trash bins have been created using energy and oil, with little resulting commercial or environmental benefit.

      Quentin is researching ways to help company leaders commit to the Level 2 and Level 3 practices. This would require aggressive sustainability metrics that are analyzed and compared to expectations. Actions may include installing efficient lighting and variable speed motors, performing energy audits (similar to Gemba walks), and utilizing renewable energy sources (He is hoping to post a future article that will highlight additional examples).

      So, management must be more than just involved. They must also be committed and willing to change in order to help the improvement efforts be successful and impactful. Some leaders, however, are insincere about their commitment and will do minimum changes to try and show the world that they are supportive while in reality they just wish lean and Six Sigma would go away (a façade of support).

In order to see step-function improvement, company leaders must be willing to go all in and support the implementation of all three levels of improvement even if that means that they have to change along with everyone else.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI.

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