L AST WEEK 's column - 'Adrift in a parallel universe' - about the perversion of management provoked an eloquent, sometimes passionate, response. The depth of concern about what is being done in the name of management, among both managers and the managed, was sobering and unmistakable.
Something is badly wrong. 'We've failed,' said one educator simply, convinced that for all its apparent advances, management is worse now than a century ago. Others noted that the bad really was driving out the good, making it ever more difficult for the voice of real management to be heard among the cacophony of fads, numbers, league tables, meaningless exhortations and hucksters selling 'solutions'.
But, as one reader also noted, it's not enough to resist the forces of darkness. We also need a campaign for the light. How are we to drag ourselves back from the parallel universe into the real one?
In the spirit of a positive alternative, a prime text is W Edwards Deming's 14-point programme for transforming management, drawn up in the 1980s. Deming, now remembered as the philosopher of the quality movement, was originally a statistician who was acutely aware of what could and could not be done with numbers.
He would have been dismayed by their casual and ignorant use in public-sector league tables and targets, in the measurements applied by private-sector companies and the massive, unnecessary costs organisations heap on themselves as a result. Although honoured these days mainly in the breach, Deming's points - and the 'deadly diseases' that get in their way - have as much to say now as two decades ago.
Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service with the aim of becoming competitive, staying in business and providing jobs. That is, management is about providing things or services people want to buy, not financial engineering, outsourcing or doing deals. The enemy of constancy of purpose is the deadly disease of pursuing short-term profits.
Adopt the new philosophy . More than ever with the rise of China and India and increasing burdens on the public sector, we can no longer tolerate systems constructed to turn out waste and turn off customers and citizens. Time to transform management from top to bottom.
Cease dependence on mass inspection. This is equivalent to managing for defects, acknowledgement that the process (management's responsibility) is not up to it, and applies as much to service as to manufacture - much of the cost of banking consists of employing staff to verify each other's work. The better (cheaper) alternative is to build quality into the service from the start.
End the practice of awarding business on price alone . 'Price,' notes Deming, 'has no meaning without a measure of the quality being purchased'. It's total cost that matters. Gate Gourmet, endless friction between supermarkets and their suppliers... enough said.
Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs . Management's job.
Institute training on the job . A vast amount of training is wasted. It should be on demand as necessary for managers to understand and act on the issues preventing people doing a good job, for all to understand and act on customer needs.
Institute leadership . Deceptively simple. It means helping people and machines to do a better job, no more, no less.
Drive out fear . One of the most interesting of Deming's points. He knew that fear makes people stupid. But by forcing them to meet arbitrary targets, fear is also the biggest hidden corrupter of the statistical data essential to improving systems and processes in the first place.
Break down barriers between departments . In other words, look at the process as a whole. This single insight was later reformulated and packaged as 're-engineering', making several author-consultants a fortune.
Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce . Targets are among the deadly diseases: 'What do they accomplish? Nothing? Wrong: their accomplishment is negative.' They stifle teamwork, create adversarial relationships and, in conjunction with fear, corrupt data. Kill them off.
Eliminate quotas on the production floor and management by numbers and numerical goals . Substitute leadership. It takes a statistician to say that - and to compound it by adding that the most important figures for managing a business 'are unknown and unknowable'.
Remove barriers that rob both workforce and managers of their right to pride of workmanship. This means getting rid of performance and merit rating and annual review, according to Deming one of the most virulent of management diseases. Statistically, a fair rating is impossible because of variation in the system, which is the overwhelming determinant of performance but in any case, though alluring in concept, the effect of merit rating 'is exactly the opposite of what the words promise. Everyone propels himself forward... The organisation is the loser.'
Encourage education and self-improvement . It's hardly rocket science, is it?
Put everyone to work to accomplish the transformation of management practices . It's everyone's business.
Some of Deming's points seem disarmingly simple, others counterintuitive. Note that there is nothing about shareholder value, or, at the other extreme, about being nice to people - just a powerful system for focusing everyone's attention on doing the important things better. As he often remarked, observing the huge amounts of waste created by management methods in most companies: 'Doesn't anyone care about profit?'
The Observer, 4 September 2005