This is the twelfth in a series of discussions of quality guru W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points of Quality and their ramifications on data quality. Here I describe Deming's quality point 8, "Drive Out Fear," a requirement for enabling sustainable data quality improvement. Deming's eighth point of quality addresses the fact that data producers cannot perform to their best unless they feel secure. Data quality will not be achieved unless data producers are free from fears of making mistakes or feel free to point out problems and suggest improvements to the processes. The eighth point of quality states, "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company."1
A Barrier to Data Quality
"The economic loss from fear is appalling," Deming says.2 When people are afraid for their jobs, afraid of management, afraid of being punished for making mistakes, productivity suffers--and it suffers considerably. Fear in the workplace, no matter how subtle, does not improve productivity. In fact, fear drives people to counterproductive behavior. People who are afraid invest energy and take whatever action is necessary to remove the source of fear.
A common data quality problem in banks is the daily cash shortages and overages bank tellers have compared with their accounting balances. While the discrepancies are generally quite small, sometimes the differences can be substantial. Dr. Joyce Orsini cites an example of how one bank executive "solved" the problem:
A chief executive of a New York bank noticed the [teller shortage/overage] problem and decided he would eliminate it the old-fashioned way. He just wouldn't tolerate it. He issued an edict that any teller with more than two differences a month would be placed on probation. Any teller on probation for three months would be terminated.
Most of the differences disappeared. The chief executive was elated. He reported the results to his board along with an explanation of his form of management. All that was necessary, according to him, was for him to put his foot down and not accept errors. The board of directors was also elated. This was obviously sound management. But why tolerate two differences a month? No one could think of a good reason, so the rule was changed. Just one difference placed a teller on probation. All the differences disappeared.
How could differences disappear so quickly and so completely? In fact, a simple but sophisticated system had been developed by the tellers to deal with the problem that management denied existed. The tellers began operating their own pools of money when the new policy was initiated. When overages occurred, instead of being reported, they were saved. When a teller came up short on a given day, he would withdraw from the funds saved on the days he was over. Those who needed funds borrowed from those with excess funds. A sophisticated system of borrowing and lending had evolved.
This was, of course, contrary to bank policy, but it was the only way of surviving in the bank. Everyone in the bank knew of the existence of these pools of funds except management.3
Whenever fear exists in the workplace, people will develop defense mechanisms for survival. This further decreases productivity, because people work first for survival based on how they are judged. Then they give their next efforts to accomplishing their work objectives.
Many knowledge workers and data producers resist information technology and systems fearing job elimination. The Information Age is a two-edged sword. One edge cuts away unnecessary work that is no longer required due to new ways of doing work or reduces the number of people required to perform it. The other edge of the sword causes work to be transformed and performed in new ways with new skills. It creates new jobs that could never be performed without the technology or the information that the technology enables to be acquired, maintained, manipulated and shared.
The reality of the Information Age is that work is, and will continue to be, transformed. All workers must embrace that reality of change and see it as opportunity. No worker can live in the dream world that work will stay the same--or the way I want it to--forever. Deming's point 13 addresses the fact that we cannot rest on our laurels of today's successes. Rather we must proactively engage in opportunities for self-improvement. Point 8 requires management to decrease sources of fear by providing open communication and resources to enable data producers to develop to their potential.
Information systems personnel can also decrease the fear factor among business personnel by recognizing people's fear of the impact of information technology on their job security. Information systems personnel must adopt a partnership relationship with the business in applications development. Planning and analysis for application systems and databases must focus on what processes add value to the end customer and define data that can enable knowledge workers to add new value. Information systems management must be accountable for building applications and databases that add value and not automate redundant or non-value adding processes. This kind of application development simply creates obsolete jobs that will have to be eliminated later through process improvement steps.
Everyone must see information technology as a means of improving work. If so, they can participate in application development with eyes open to completely new ways of adding value in what they do rather than fearing loss of their job (i.e., "This is the only way I can do this work.") Meter readers praised the hand-held computers that read the utility dials, making their work easier and minimizing data quality problems. New chip technology embedded in utility meters to electronically transmit the meter readings will completely eliminate the "job" of the meter reader. Management must help meter readers to see this technology as an opportunity to define a new place for themselves to add value to their end customers.
People are also paralyzed by the fear that if they point out problems, they will be blamed for them or penalized for "insubordination." Unfortunately, "so seldom is anything done to correct problems that there is no incentive to expose them."4 Management can reduce this kind of fear by encouraging and rewarding problem identification that leads to data quality improvement. Management must reward whistle blowers who reveal wrongdoing and waste within the organization--not punish them. They are the ones who call attention to things that cause waste with higher cost and lower quality to the customers.
In the past, the way to keep your job and move up the corporate ladder was, "Hunker down, keep your nose clean and don't make waves." But, this recipe causes enterprise failure in the Information Age. Management must remove the barriers of fear of suggesting new ideas, being punished for missteps when learning new skills and for making mistakes in one's work when they have not been trained adequately. Perhaps Tom Peters captures the new Information-Age credo best when he encourages workers to, "Hunker up, keep your nose dirty, and splash like hell."5 Management must create this environment of "unfear" or the new job security, so all employees can contribute to continual improvement of the enterprise.
1 Deming. Out of the Crisis. P. 23.
2 Walton. The Deming Management Method. P. 72.
3 Aguayo. Dr. Deming. P. 78.
4 Walton. The Deming Management Method. P. 72.
5 Butler, Charles. "Tom Terrific," Successful Meetings. December, 1997. P. 33.
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