Replicating Success

"Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?" – Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi

Change for the Sake of Change

In my previous post, I talked about how people tend to be drawn to the visible, novel, and dramatic which distracts them from following any process at all. In addition, I’ve observed that even when a process has been implemented and proven successful, many people, especially in management, seem compelled to change the process just for the sake of change.

I’ve been on projects that were successful in large part due to the overall process, which includes Embedded Quality. During the post-project review, everyone agrees that the process was great and was largely responsible for the success. However, very often, when managers are planning the next project, they want to do something completely different.

And Now, For Something Completely Different…

I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of change for the sake of change ever since my dad, a Ford engineer, complained about Ford’s new CEO in late 1990s. He felt that Jacques Nasser had abandoned Ford’s highly successful focus on "Quality is Job 1" and that this change would hurt Ford. In their book, Hard Facts Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense, Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer use Nasser’s failure to stick with "Total Quality Management" as a major reason for Ford’s decline by 2001. They point out:

"Managers, and for that matter, academics and the business press, pursue novelty often for its own sake. Perhaps sticking with proven practices is boring, but we need to acknowledge – even glorify – old ideas if we want to debunk bad management practices and improve good ones. After all, isn’t bland old excellence a better fate than an exciting new failure?"

They also point out that Ford returned to a focus on quality after that. However, they changed the name from "Total Quality Management" to "Six Sigma" so it would still seem like management came up with something new.

Isn’t Stagnation the Alternative?

Of course, some people will argue that following a successful process over and over again will lead to stagnation that will eventually kill a company. This would be true if you never improve a process. I am advocating for continuous improvement of a successful process rather than radical changes based on the latest fad.

Sutton and Pfeffer support this concept when they say, "It sounds ironic, but even creativity is mostly sparked by old ideas. Both major creative leaps and incremental improvements come from fiddling with ideas from other places and blending them in new ways… This holds for even the most creative companies like Apple, 3M, IDEO, Genentech, Google, Capital One, and Cirque du Soleil."

Replicating Success

When you have a failing process, you should definitely change it, and possibly change it in major ways. However, once you have found a successful process that works well for your company, "acknowledge – even glorify" it. Make sure you know what you’ve got so you don’t "Pave paradise and put up a parking lot."

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