Don’t Let Culture Hold You Hostage - Creating a Deming-based Culture of Continual Improvement

Sheila Ronis

Mental models provide the context for our lives that help us make sense of our reality. The downside of them is that many people feel comfortable only within their mental model, writes Dr. Sheila Ronis in this week’s Deming Files. And that’s why it is so difficult to inculcate a culture of continual improvement in an individual, organization, or nation, where it didn’t exist before. Here’s what you can do about it.

Through the years I’ve been fortunate to encounter, and work in, a variety of "cultures" including commercial, academic, governmental, and national. My work in national security, for instance, has put me in a position to observe the thinking about continual improvement in multiple, vast bureaucracies which include millions of people and multiple "cultures". In contrast, my responsibilities at the university have taught me to navigate a very different culture; and how to influence it for continual improvement.

Cultures, be they ethnic, national, or organizational, including businesses, not-for-profits, universities, et cetera, are inculcated sets of values that are interpreted by an individual’s mental model. Changing the values of a person, organization or nation requires changing the mental model that holds the values in place. And, once a person, organization or nation has been inculcated and the mental models set, the person relies on them through good times and bad; even when a change in a mental model would be helpful. For that reason, our mental models can sometimes resemble a cage that holds us prisoner.

Nevertheless, we DO replace old mental models with new ones. So, what causes us to do so, to examine and integrate new mental models? And where might we look for useful mental models?

Deming’s Useful Mental Models

The mental models set out by Dr. W. Edwards Deming are very useful. For example, business leaders once held the mental model that improved quality results in productivity going down and costs going up. Deming changed all that, showing us that quality and productivity could go up as costs went down.

Of course, there are organizations that still have not embraced Deming’s model for achieving quality. This puts them at an ever-greater disadvantage as our highly competitive "global marketplace" demands the Deming model of high quality and low cost and, indeed, continual improvement. For those organizations that have embraced the mental models of Deming quality, the time is ripe for them to move their continual improvement efforts beyond just Deming quality –to Deming’s mental models of how to lead organizations.

Mental models are wonderful because they help us learn how to conform in a democratic society in a positive way. Mental models provide the context for our lives that help us make sense of our reality.

Mental models also have a downside. They colour our understanding of our surroundings. In fact, many people feel comfortable only within their mental model. A reason it is so difficult to inculcate a culture of continual improvement in a culture, individual, organization, or nation, where it didn’t exist before is that it is a new value which is likely to be rejected by the prevailing mental model. Just as common wisdom once rejected Deming’s quality mental models, common wisdom these days, too often rejects Deming’s management mental model.

Some of our prevailing mental models help us make sense of our rapidly changing world. Others do not; they merely cause us to cling to the familiar models, and that can be dangerous. In fact a person’s mental model may fail them when the person needs to "see beyond" the filters that a mental model may impose.

Risks in and out of the Cage

And this is where it gets complicated because a smart person will know: "There is risk associated with changing my mental model." Let’s face it, our existing mental models are the ones that helped us to have the success we have had so far. "So, do I really need to escape from my cage of my mental models?"

The answer is both yes and no, simultaneously. That is because most of us rely on our mental model cages to do analysis well. Yet, we typically do synthesis better if we move beyond the existing mental model and incorporate new thinking.

This is an important concept because an organization is a system. A nation is a system. The world is a system, as well. They are all complex systems. Leading complex systems efficiently and effectively requires both high-level analysis and synthesis. It also requires self-insight. Do the mental models that prevail about management today give us deep insight into ourselves and our systems? I don’t find much evidence of that.

More than 2500 years ago, the ancient Chinese Philosopher, Sun Tzu, said in his masterpiece, The Art of War, "If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will suffer a defeat. But if you know neither yourself nor the enemy, you will succumb in every battle." This describes analysis and synthesis. Someone as insightful as Sun Tzu, had he lived for 2500 years, would have updated his mental models periodically as the world became more complex. I argue that we want to do the same.

Complex Systems: Hard to Control Yet Must Be Led

Probably the most important characteristic we need to remember about complex systems is that they can rarely be controlled – yet they must be led if we are to create a world that is safe, prosperous, and healthy. Deming knew and taught that it is folly to try to lead a system by command and control but that we, nevertheless, have to lead them. He advised that we can lead those complex systems if we have mental models which enable us to see, understand and take actions which make sense holistically short term and long term. For specifics on those mental models I refer readers to Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge as he describes it in The New Economics.

My early education was as a physicist. I believe in the mental models of gravity and motion. Most people do – even politicians. Although we carry mental models of gravity and motion in our heads it is difficult to see gravity and the laws of motion. To do so we need to apply the scientific method rigorously to seek scientific proof, testing the mental models against reality.

The same applies to the mental models of leadership: they are hard to see. Oddly enough, many of the management mental models in place today seem to have the same high level of belief as our belief in gravity –yet, they fail scientific rigor every day. Several come to mind: forced rating and ranking of staff into categories 1-5, top-grading, which really means firing the "bottom" 10% of workers every year, establishing quotas for quality metrics, and creating incentives and rewards for reaching goals, no matter what the cost is to the overall system.

Such mental models of leadership violate research, logic, and deep understanding of causes and effects and are thus harmful. At a superficial level they may appear to get results and to be useful, but deep down, they don’t last and thus fail the scientific rigor of being both true today and true tomorrow. They seem to be true today but only because leaders accept them as true. But they are not like the mental models of gravity and motion. They do not last.

Working in the world of complex systems, which is the real world of today, requires proven theory; proven mental models. We need mental models that have been rigorously time-tested, that are still relevant today and that will be relevant, tomorrow.


Two Key Questions and An Answer

Interestingly, the answer to "how can we escape from the cage of our mental models to create a culture of continual improvement?" may be the same answer as the answer to the question
"how do we change our risk averse leaders and risk averse cultures so they will adopt Deming’s proven and relevant mental models of continual improvement and enlightened management?"

Let us start with an answer that is disarmingly simple: Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA). Deming was a proponent of using the rigor of the scientific method in the form of PDSA experimentation. Using the PDSA tool we can create small, contained, no-risk or low-risk experiments with management methods. Such incremental tests of our old beliefs and new ones help us learn what is really, truly cause-and-effect outcomes versus what is merely an outcome based on coincidence or correlation. Both coincidence and correlation are likely to mislead us. Such PDSA experiments help us examine and test our present mental models so we can retain the ones that serve us in a more complex world and so we can replace the ones that don’t.

PDSA is a very powerful tool not only because it makes it safe for us to try on new mental models without taking on risk, it is also the fundamental tool of continual improvement! Thus, with PDSA we not only are able to step outside of the cage of our mental models, we also get to create and support a culture of continual improvement. We do this by involving people, including leaders, in PDSA activities so everyone can safely embrace continual improvement, rather than having it forced on them.

Deming examined the prevailing mental models of quality and management. He found them wanting. He provided alternatives that changed the world of quality. He also provided alternatives to transforming the mental models of management. If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to try his mental models of management via low-risk PDSAs. They will create a culture of continual improvement and inculcate powerful mental models simultaneously.

Editor’s Note: The columns published in THE DEMING FILES have been written under the Editorial Guidelines set by The W. Edwards Deming Institute. The Institute views these columns as opportunities to enhance, extend, and illustrate Dr. Deming’s theories. The authors have knowledge of Dr. Deming’s body of work, and the content of each column is the expression of each author’s interpretation of the subject matter.