The BaldrigePlus Newsletter
Issue 6, Sunday February 20th, 2000

Failure to thrive
Individual programs that set out to improve organisational performance often start with widespread enthusiasm, but run out of steam after a few months or years. Often, some gains are achieved, but it's difficult to keep energy levels sufficiently high in longish-term projects that don't have pre-determined end-points. Why's that? Well, for example, project management may be high fashion in your workplace. Teams assemble for specific jobs, get done, and break up. There may also be a high staff churn, with new people always needing to be fitted in and brought up to speed. The transferable skills of mid-level and upper managers with the vision and ability to get quality and performance improvement efforts underway are sought after, and their sponsorship may be lost as they move up or out of the organisation. It's no wonder slippage occurs, and the hard, long-term stuff gets parked, then forgotten.

There are two fairly common underlying, generic, reasons for this 'failure to thrive' syndrome, though. The first is poor design – too many people are able to say .. .

"Sounds like empowerment! There's no way I'm going to let my people start calling the shots—after all the years it's taken me to get to this position. What are senior managers for anyway? Include me out."

"I'd love to see this happen—but there's no chance. She'll never get this bunch to cooperate on this one. I don't want to be the dummy out in front like the last time."

"We should stick with what we know works. It's time to clear out some dead wood and show everyone we're serious about getting results."

"Next we'll be having group love-ins and discussing our innermost feelings. I hate it when people bring up emotional stuff at work. Let's just get on with running the business!"

… and get away with it.

Thanks to David Hutton for those imagined quotes – the response to a proposal something like "Why don't we aim to become a great organization by working more as a team, really focusing on the needs of our customers, and by giving our people the knowledge and tools they need to do the job?".

For some assistance on getting programs off to a sustainable start, and turning mission statements like that into reality, visit David Hutton's web site

The second common cause of failure to thrive is people heading off in different directions. Top management know where they'd like to go, but the troops are marching to a different drum. In the Baldrige terminology, the key concepts here are alignment and deployment.

At the recent international research conference on quality in Sydney, Australia, Dr Robert Hunt offered a good illustration – with a story about a Qantas (Australia's national airline) senior executive in the US who set out to test American Airlines' reputation for thoroughly deploying its key strategic goals. Checking in, he asked a bag snatcher whether she knew what the key strategic objectives were for that year. “Yes sir,” she said, ”We're gonna protect market share in the US and kick butt in Europe!” She had operationalised the strategy to her level. Her European customers were gonna get extra special attention. Her personal goals were aligned with those of her airline.

“Sadly,” said Dr Hunt, “this experience is a rare exception.” His solution? The subject of his conference paper (Strategic QFD: The missing link to drive TQM/Business Excellence implementation) – Quality Function Deployment and Hoshin Kanri. Originally developed in Japan, this approach provides the daily-work-to-strategic-focus link. For more (caution – there are mixed opinions on this subject. It's not easy, requires a sophisticated and well-established quality culture, and demands high levels of commitment) try the QFD Institute (Yep, there's an INSTITUTE, it must be the real McCoy).

If you've got – or are attempting to advise others about – failure to thrive, the diagnosis is likely to involve leadership (look at Baldrige Category 1, senior leadership direction and organisational performance review; and Category 2, strategy development and strategy deployment – relevant narratives at BaldrigePlus).

Six Sigma
It's not promoted as a 'failure to thrive' solution, but six sigma's high energy focus and dedicated soldiery (the green belt, black belt and master black belt brigade) may have the required structural steel. It's certainly got buzz (a new dedicated column in Quality Progress, for example, by Mikel J Harry, the cowboy hero of six sigma; and a new book – Implementing Six Sigma, ISBN 0-471-29659-7 – by Forrest W Breyfogle III), and it's getting good ink in the quality and management literature (and no, that's not an oxymoron).

Developed by Motorola in the 1980s (and a big factor in Motorola's Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award), six sigma has since been adopted by AlliedSignal, GE, Texas Instruments, Bombardier, and many others. There's a growing cadre of specialist consultants. So what's it about?

First, a common measure for all process outputs – defects per unit (DPU), calculated by dividing the number of defects found at a particular review point by the number of units processed through that point.

Second, performance expressed in defects per million opportunities (DPMO, multiply DPU by one million, divide the result by the average number of opportunities). A defect may be a failure to respond to a customer inquiry in at least four hours, an error on a purchase order, an incorrect invoice, and so on. Defects may apply to internal as well as external customers. Four sigma – approximately where many companies are today, according to Stanley Marash, Chairman and CEO, STAT-A-MATRIX/The SAM Group – means 6,210 DPMO, while six sigma means 34 DPMO, a process with 99.99966% of its outputs defect free.

The third big difference is the corps of highly qualified business process improvement experts (the green, black, and master black belts) who wield the tools needed to achieve the enterprise's strategic objective. Expensive to train (up to US$30,000) and deployed for the medium to long-term, these highly motivated and skilled individuals focus on corporate sponsors (for the leverage required to overcome resistance to change, obtain additional resources, and align strategic objectives), make sure that the right metrics are identified, and continually signpost progress to cement-in both corporate and front-line commitment.

Sidebar. Where you aim is situational. Four sigma performance in the US would mean, for example, 500 incorrect surgical operations per week, 20,000 incorrectly filled pharmaceutical prescriptions each year, and 2,000 lost articles of mail each hour. Suppliers and customers have to agree on what's important – in an airline operation, an unsafe aircraft, a lost piece of luggage, a slightly late arrival, and poor food are all defects. But which ones require six sigma quality? For safety, six sigma quality – say three fatal crashes per million takeoffs and landings – would be unacceptable. For luggage handling, on the other band, four or five sigma would probably represent a significant improvement, according to Marash.