Let us Stop Paying Lip Service to Excellence

Performance Improvement H. James Harrington

“We must not allow ‘good enough’ to be good enough any longer.”


Let us Stop Paying Lip Service to Excellence

The time has come to change our standards. Our companies must make fewer errors and permit fewer defects. Poor employee training, inferior supervision and one-way communication must be corrected. It’s time to stop accepting mediocre performance as “exceeds expectations.” An error rate of 3.4 errors per million opportunities isn’t good enough.

We must embark on a new philosophy of expecting processes to be done right, not wrong. Employees try to live up to a company’s expectations if management communicates with them and sets the example. If an organization doesn’t set standards, employees will set their own, and they’ll be lower than they could be otherwise. Because we’re behind in some areas doesn’t mean we should give up; on the contrary, that should provide us with new challenges. We’re a nation that can’t be counted out until the last bell of the last round. There’s no reason why we can’t overcome our industrial challenges. We must stop accepting errors and get angry about the billions of dollars that are wasted in our manufacturing and service industries because we—all of us—don’t really try to do tasks right every time. We fall far short of our true potential. We must not allow “good enough” to be good enough any longer.

The United States’ productivity growth rate must improve; it’s been a major factor in our worsening trade balance. Way back in 1983, at the White House Conference on Productivity, President Reagan said: “Improving productivity in this country lies at the heart of building and sustaining our economic recovery…. It is a vital part of our efforts to improve our competitive position in world markets and create more job opportunities for an expanding American labor force, and it is essential if we are to raise incomes and maintain stable prices.”

Here it is almost three decades later, and we’re still having a major problem with our balance of trade. One of the best ways to improve productivity is to improve the excellence of everything we do, thereby eliminating waste and providing customers with world-class products and services. In many areas, we still set the world standard for excellence, but that shouldn’t give us a sense of confidence. Thomas J. Watson Sr., the first president of IBM, said, “It is better to aim at perfection and miss it than to aim at imperfection and hit it.” If we don’t continue to improve, some competitor will improve its product and take our customers away. Remember, when we stop improving, we start to lose ground.

There’s no doubt about it: Our leadership has eroded not because we’ve lost our technological lead but because U.S. management hasn’t accepted and applied the technologies that were developed here. Management knows the importance of excellence but in many cases does nothing to improve. As Tom Peters, coauthor (with Robert H. Waterman Jr.) of In Search of Excellence (Warner Books, 1982), puts it, “Everybody talks quality, but most of that is lip service. I’m not terribly sanguine about the prospects of big business becoming very vital from an entrepreneurial standpoint.”

Everyone knows it’s better to win than to lose, to be good rather than bad, to do it right rather than wrong. And yet we live with such statements as “No one makes errors on purpose” and “No one can be right every time.” We can do error-free work; the only question is for how long. To produce error-free work for 30 seconds is easy, an hour is a little harder and a week might not yet be possible. We have to set goals that increase the duration of our acceptable performance.

The journey toward excellence is made on a never-ending road. Because some people see no end to it, they never take the first step. Others accept the challenge and continue down the road, forever improving and looking forward to tomorrow’s challenges. These are the people who will make real contributions to humanity.

Managers need a map to help lead their companies down the quality road and avoid dead ends. This map is called “the improvement process.” It’s not a program but rather an ongoing, continuous commitment. It’s a new way of thinking about all activities, from those on the manufacturing floor to the way company presidents run their offices and janitors sweep them. Designed to foster a more productive character in businesses, it has been used by hundreds of companies. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, 3M and Polaroid were all greatly influenced during the 1980s by quality professionals such as Philip B. Crosby, W. Edwards Deming, Armand V. Feigenbaum, Kaoru Ishikawa and Joseph M. Juran. These leaders should be considered heroes because of their great contributions to the United States’ future and prosperity.

Here we are in the 21st century, and we have no one to step up and assume the quality leadership role as these great men did during the 1980s.

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