Seek Capability - Not Culpability
November 2012   
David Skinner
The day started out like any other, we were on track to fill orders on time, then all hell broke loose and the wheels came off the wagon! This wasn't the first time something like this had happened, but it was certainly going to be the last!  "I want to know who is to blame. Who is the culprit? Who cost us this account? Someone has to pay!" Anger! Temper! Rage! These are the common reactions from owners, managers, team leaders on down the line that surface when . . . "what was so right, goes so wrong". There must be someone to blame! It's time for a lynching!

Who is to blame?

While maybe such a scenario is unfamiliar to you personally, it's not hard to imagine it happening in any business, manufacturing, distribution or service company. These are real human emotions confronting unintended consequences. Anytime anything moves, there are devils to deplore and regrettably most often the discredit for failure falls upon the shoulders of employees. Am I right or wrong?

The complexities of owning and managing a business are great. Ferreting out future defects during constantly varying circumstances and a changing environment are ever more difficult, so then who is the culprit when all else fails?  

To sort this out, I suggest we call upon the master himself, the Sensei, W. Edwards Deming for his opinion and his "Profound Knowledge" of human culpability versus endemic system dysfunction Deming's Theory of Management

One of Deming's Seven Deadly Diseases says (Taking one out of context is probably number eight):

"It's wrong to place blame on the workforce who are only responsible for 15% of the mistakes, when the system as designed by management is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences."

Placing Blame on Management -- Not the Work Force

Think about this for a minute. Deming's view is that failure in a "system of procedures' is more likely caused by management's failure in planning and execution than an employee gone rogue or the staff's inadequacies! This is a grand indictment! The fingers of failure point back to owners and managers as those responsible to consistently plan, evolve and avoid problems for the benefit of all. According to Deming, only a small percentage of defects in quality or production can be blamed on employees. Constant product improvement demands constant attention by a management aimed at constantly improving the process. Therefore: the solution to most problems is not found on the "back nine", but in the "front office".


Any business system whether in production, service or sales, even those once thought stellar and beyond reproach, will age and degrade naturally, unless there is equal or greater attention from those empowered to improve them - which is management's primary job. When management takes their eye off the ball - "failure creep" - will set-in to haunt everyone. Entropy and degradation are a natural phenomenon of any unkempt system. It is management's responsibility to be aware, on guard and defend against common failure by applying constant systemic improvement! Therefore when quality is at stake, the paramount course is to look to capable management rather than a culpable work force.

The following is inserted from a post by Aaron Swartz from his web site and reprinted here with permission. I recommend his series of articles. Raw Nerve by Aaron Swartz.

Fix the machine, not the person

The General Motors plant in Fremont was a disaster. “Everything was a fight,” the head of the union admits. “They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly. … It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States.”

“One of the expressions was, you can buy anything you want in the GM plant in Fremont,” adds Jeffrey Liker, a professor who studied the plant. “If you want sex, if you want drugs, if you want alcohol, it’s there. During breaks, during lunch time, if you want to gamble illegally—any illegal activity was available for the asking within that plant.” Absenteeism was so bad that some mornings they didn’t have enough employees to start the assembly line; they had to go across the street and drag people out of the bar.

When management tried to punish workers, workers tried to punish them right back: scratching cars, loosening parts in hard-to-reach places, filing union grievances, sometimes even building cars unsafely. It was war.

In 1982, GM finally closed the plant. But the very next year, when Toyota was planning to start its first plant in the US, it decided to partner with GM to reopen it, hiring back the same old disastrous workers into the very same jobs. And so began the most fascinating experiment in management history.

Toyota flew this rowdy crew to Japan, to see an entirely different way of working: The Toyota Way. At Toyota, labor and management considered themselves on the same team; when workers got stuck, managers didn’t yell at them, but asked how they could help and solicited suggestions. It was a revelation. “You had union workers—grizzled old folks that had worked on the plant floor for 30 years, and they were hugging their Japanese counterparts, just absolutely in tears,” recalls their Toyota trainer. “And it might sound flowery to say 25 years later, but they had had such a powerful emotional experience of learning a new way of working, a way that people could actually work together collaboratively—as a team.”

Three months after they got back to the US and reopened the plant, everything had changed. Grievances and absenteeism fell away and workers started saying they actually enjoyed coming to work. The Fremont factory, once one of the worst in the US, had skyrocketed to become the best. The cars they made got near-perfect quality ratings. And the cost to make them had plummeted. It wasn’t the workers who were the problem; it was the system. [End of Quotation]

Profound Knowledge

Does this sound strangely familiar? Like the words Deming would have voiced were he there? And yet his foot print remains in the Japanese business culture some sixty years later. His system of management, of quality controls, even the awards bestowed to 'best in class' were and are still Deming. (Again referring to the Deming System) When those GM workers returned with a new attitude they were simply dawning the cloak that Deming had bestowed years before; first in Japan and then in the U.S. at Ford Motors. There should be no doubt of the origins.

If there is a surprise in Deming's theory of management, it is how closely they come to hitting home. A home with a wife, a husband, children and pets; as much a system of production as could ever be. The work that goes into running a smooth household is not to be minimized or sullied. The responsibility of the household's management team to work and deliver the goods no matter the attention or gratification cannot be forgotten. A household is as much in need of a system as Deming would behold and deserves nothing less than his insights to perfect. 

So whether you are responsible for a factory's output, an assembly line's production or your family's input at the dinner table, there is one thing they have in common - Profound Knowledge. Of which there is a great shortage!

David Skinner October 23, 2012