iWhat Works-i Some Choice Words on Management by Slogan

October 24, 2002
They call him Poster Pete, and by all accounts, he’s a nice guy. He likesto tell jokes, he coaches T-ball, he remembers everyone’s birthday. He alwayshas a smile, and when the going gets tough, he’s ready with his trademarkcan-do attitude.

Pete manages a maintenance facility for a metropolitan bus company, and he’swell liked by the 20 people he supervises. But they like him in spite of theposters. And the more they talk about those seemingly innocent wall-hangingswith the catchy slogans, the more their fondness for Pete turns intofrustration.

When I visited the mechanics to conduct an interview for my book, the posterswere the first thing I noticed. They’re hard to miss--just about every wallis plastered with slogans calling on workers to “Get It Right the First Time”and “Make Safety Your Priority” and “Be a Quality Worker.”

At first I didn’t make much of them. Many workplaces are emblazoned withslogan-bearing posters. Not a big deal, right?

The posters at this maintenance facility were, in thestraightforward words of one mechanic, “pissing everyone off.”

Wrong. Way wrong. The posters at this maintenance facility were, in thestraightforward words of one mechanic, “pissing everyone off.”

I was going to interview the mechanics about job satisfaction. My notepad hadabout 10 questions, and I planned to go through all of them in our half hourtogether. My first question asked something general about the work environment,and in the first minute, someone raised the issue of those irksome posters. Forthe next 29 minutes, that’s all they could talk about.

“Get it right the first time!” one of them said with a sarcastic tone.“I’d love to, but have you seen some of the tools we’re using? Even thebest mechanics have trouble doing a quality job when you’re working withworn-out stuff like we’re working with.”

Another person brought up safety. “We’re doing everything we can toprevent injuries, but a lot of this safety stuff is out of our control. We’vebeen asking for better safety goggles for a year, and we haven’t heard a damnthing.”

A third mechanic took the posters personally. “The day I first walked inthe door here, I was a quality worker. I don’t need a poster telling me to dogood work.”

As my research took me to other organizations, I kept an eye out for moreslogan-bearing posters. Whenever I saw them, I asked about their impact. Mostmanagers surmised that the posters were motivating the employees to focus ongoals--albeit general goals like “quality” and “excellence.” Otherstheorized that the posters motivated some employees and were ignored by therest. None of the managers had data to support their conclusions, and no onethought the posters were doing any harm.

I heard a very different perspective in my conversations with non-managerialstaff. Just about everyone echoed the mechanics from the maintenance facility.“What is quality, anyway?” asked one thoughtful employee whose workstationwas near a “Quality the First Time and Every Time” poster. “We’ve neverhad any conversations around here about what quality really means and what wecould do to achieve it. The poster went up and that was it.”

If W. Edwards Deming were alive today, he’d surely give a knowing nod tothese workers. Deming was a statistician with some radical ideas aboutmanagement and organizational effectiveness. He proved that when things go awryin the workplace--when parts are late, for instance, or when a product orservice has a defect--it’s almost always the fault of the system and not theworkers. It’s unfair and futile to push workers to work harder and do betterand produce higher quality if the systems are flawed. The power to change thesystems is almost always in the hands of management.

In 1980, NBC broadcast a TV program titled “If Japan Can . . . Why Can’tWe?” It showed how Japanese companies had achieved stunning quality and aresurgence in world markets by putting Deming’s ideas to work. Suddenly,American companies started paying attention.

Much of his philosophy is captured in his 14 Points for Management. Here arefive of them, using his own words: create constancy of purpose towardimprovement, cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality, improveconstantly and forever the system of production and service, institute avigorous program of education and self-improvement, and break down departmentbarriers.

As for the motivational posters at the maintenance facility, Deming’s PointNo. 10 is unequivocal:

    Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking forzero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only createadversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and lowproductivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce.

If you’re reading this column, Poster Pete, I hope you won’t be offendedby any of the above. But those little two-by-three wall-hangings are causingmajor heartburn among people in your shop. Your mechanics hate doing a job over;they’d love to get the job done and move on. In fact, they emphatically toldme that they don’t need a blankety-blank poster reminding them. They’d alsolike to know the status of that equipment order they’ve placed with you, sothey can finally replace those worn-out drills. And at least two of yourmechanics are tired of asking you for permission to attend that workshop oncomputer diagnostics, or when they’ll get new safety goggles.

Come to think of it, maybe you should sit down with the mechanics. Let themvent about the posters, but go further. Focus on quality. Ask what it means tothem. Find out what systemic barriers keep them from getting it right the firsttime.

Now for the tough part: Be ready to take action based on what you hear. Ifyou don’t, your commitment to those slogans will be as thin as the paper they’reprinted on.

Workforce, October 2002, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!

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