Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Six Sigma stupidity: Why “excellence” can be over-rated

Years ago, a watershed book came out called In Search of Excellence. Things have gotten crazy ever since.

The book was full of great insights. It was a wake-up call for a lot of corporations to improve processes, decrease waste, increase profits, and become more employee friendly.

Dozens more books on the same topics came flooding on its heels. The gold standard for manufacturing process – Six Sigma – came into vogue and everyone wanted to be a Black Belt. Whatever that was!

Buzz me up with quality!

Buzz phrases like continuous improvement, championing an organization, ISO 9000, Kaizen, benchmarking, re-engineering, and quality improvement process (QIP) filled business literature.

Books, seminars, and conferences spawned consultants and programs out the wazoo. And then there were the absurd metaphors about cheese, being zapped, and more.

“Huzzah! Excellence!” was the cry heard in office hallways everywhere. That was the holy grail of all our corporate efforts. Everyone wanted to win a Baldrige Award!

Companies went to great extremes to squeeze out every drop of value and achieve an zero percent error rate. Whatever these meant!

The wacky thing is that this feverish scramble for excellence yielded some really stupid behaviors. Probably because a lot of what was being promoted was based on improving manufacturing processes that relied on machines which didn’t always translate well when the “machines” were people.

There were times when the pursuit for excellence backfired and merely wasted time, got expensive, burnt people out, and more.

Excellence tactics gone awry

For example, working on a proposal for an aerospace company, the executive in charge wanted a full color glossy executive summary in the form a of large brochure. There was nothing in the RFP stating that this was a requirement or even desired by the organization we were responding to. But, the executive saw this as an “excellent” tactic.

So we produced the elaborate piece that was subsequently approved and printed. However, the proposal executive in charge changed his mind, deciding the color scheme of the piece was somehow “less than excellent.” No one could dissuade him and so we trashed the copies we had, redesigned and reprinted the piece as directed. Which added an additional few thousand dollars to an already over-strained budget. All in the name of “excellence!”

Our proposal lost.

Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Excellence can be an ambivalent target since everyone has a different idea as to what it is.

In the case of the proposal, a normal, well-written, nicely formatted executive summary would have been good enough, and thus an excellent choice.

Excellence is not synonymous with perfection

What many mean when they say “excellent” is “perfection;” and perfection to a specific personally biased standard that may have no bearing on reality. Especially when it becomes so myopically focused on a single element of a project.

When writing an article, even after it’s “done” it’s possible to tweak it forever; there’s always a different or better way to craft your sentences. But reality of deadlines says you’ve got to end it somewhere!

Excellence as applied to work or any situation needs to take in the entire range of effort.

To get an issue of a magazine out on time requires the completion of quality editorial copy, attractive design, and nicely done advertisements, among other tasks. Insisting that a specific article be re-written or a photo be re-taken until one person with abstract tastes decides they are “perfect” would cause the issue to be sent to the printer late causing it to be late to market – anything but an excellent outcome!

Good enough does not mean something is done without care or quality. Rather, it means everyone involved has done the best they could given the time and resources available.

Going in search of excellence doesn’t require following the path of perfection.

Good enough yields pleasant results without killing the doers, overrunning costs, gratuitously missing deadlines, or stroking one person’s warped ego.

There’s nothing wrong with good enough when that’s the best you can do.


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