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The Instant Pudding Myth
W. Edwards Deming was once asked to share the secret for creating a highly productive organization. The person making the request told Deming that he would pay whatever the price might be for this secret. And here’s how Deming replied to this request:
“There is no instant pudding.”
I doubt that any of us would disagree with what Deming said. Our experiences in moving through life, both professional and well as personal, have made clear to us that “there is no instant pudding.” For example, more than a few of us have been lured into trying one of the “instant weight loss” programs only to realize that long-term they don’t work. Some of us have bought copper bracelets based on claims that they would instantly relieve the pains of arthritis. They don’t.
Despite this, it would be the rare organization that hasn’t fallen prey to the “Instant Pudding Myth” in one or several of its manifestations. The siren call of “instant pudding,” pain free change, is remarkably seductive. For example, companies continue to engage “instant pudding” consulting organizations who promise that they can deliver virtually instant, major improvements in productivity, moving beyond what some refer to as “the limitations of continuous improvement.”
What nonsense. Recently, I listened to a podcast from a company selling a quick improvement process. They claimed that continuous improvement thinking was an impediment to fast progress. And, of course, they claimed that their process could deliver some quick major improvements in work processes.
Not true. Well, maybe it is true in a very narrow sense of the word. Their system might deliver some quick, even perhaps big buck, improvements. That said, these improvements won’t be sustainable. The same forces that created the wastes that inhibited productivity in the past will resurface and continue to inflict damage on the productivity of the organization.
And why is this? I believe we all know the answer to this question. Albert Einstein said it best when he observed:
“The world we live in is a product of the way we think. It can’t be changed without changing the way we think.”
Driving sustainable change depends upon changing the way employees think. All of us know how difficult this is. We also know that it can happen. It’s happened to each one of us at various stages of our life. We also know it has to happen if the organization we work for is going to achieve the level of sustainable continuous improvement that is the hallmark of winners in the 21st Century economy.
So how do we transform an organization from being one in which process improvements are episodic and unsustainable to one in which process improvements are continuous and sustainable? I believe Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of the Toyota Production System, had the best answers to this question. Ohno said:
“I cannot use my authority to force workers to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good quality products. What we must do is to persistently seek understanding from shop floor workers. After all, manufacturing is essentially a human development that depends heavily on how we teach.”
And he also said:
‘The slower but consistent tortoise causes less waste and is more desirable than the speedy hare that races ahead and then stops occasionally to doze. The Toyota Production System can be realized only when all the workers become tortoises.”
And what’s the point of Ohno’s tortoise/hare analogy? It’s this. The hare is driven by external forces, the tortoise by internal. The hare is prodded by various techniques intended to produce quick results. His thinking processes haven’t really changed. The tortoise on the other hand is continuously looking for ways of eliminating waste in work processes. His thinking processes have changed.
And why is this important? Henry Ford, another key architect of Lean manufacturing, gave one of the best answers to this question. Ford said:
“Quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.”
The significance of Ford’s observation is obvious. Reliable quality depends upon workers with an internal drive to do quality work. It depends upon workers whose ways of thinking about work have changed. Likewise, sustainable continuous improvement can only happen if the way workers think is changed. And this happens one employee at a time. It takes years of very focused training and coaching and listening to employees. There are no magic bullets.
A number of years ago a plant manager told me he was disappointed that a lot of the process improvements his workers had made were just “singles.” He said he wanted some “home runs.” I told him there had been a “home run.” He asked what it was. I told him that line employees had generated hundreds of ideas on potential process improvements. They were becoming Taiichi Ohno’s “tortoises.” This was their “home run.”
We all need to resist the instant pudding myth however persuasive its proponents may be. When it comes to driving sustainable continuous improvement it just doesn’t work.
Neither do copper bracelets.
Photo: W. Edwards Deming, by FDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.