Why "Conforming to Spec" Isn't Enough

Nigel Clements

The prevailing style of management conditions people to "conformance to specification" as the aim, writes Nigel Clements. This is a waste of human intellect and simply not good enough. Here's why.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming is often linked with approaches to improvement that carry labels such as TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean. However, the fact is that Dr. Deming’s work goes far beyond those labels in at least two significant ways:
  1. Deming’s OVERALL approach is about Transformation to a New Philosophy of Management. This New Philosophy embodies theories and practices to support ongoing quality, of course, and also to support the optimization and success of an organization as a system, while fostering joy in work.
  2. Deming’s approach to quality is far more encompassing and insightful than what is typically considered to be a "quality program" in most organizations –especially in regard to how quality is defined, achieved, and continually improved.
It is true that Six Sigma and Lean have made big contributions. One only has to do a simple Google search to bring up a vast number of articles and papers describing case studies of reduced defects, reduced costs, reduced cycle times, increased revenues and increased customer satisfaction as a result of these approaches. As important as those successes are, it remains true, however, that the successes are usually narrowly focused and thus are not transformational for leaders or for organizations.
Transformation to Deming's New Philosophy of Management
What do I mean by "transformational"? Basically, I mean that Deming’s view of the world demands that we move far beyond a "Conformance to specification" mentality – beyond meeting the Service Level Agreement, and going beyond successes that are presented in most case studies. Transformational means adopting the New Philosophy of Management.
In fact, "going beyond" neatly sums up my view of what the New Philosophy of Management and Deming-based quality is all about:
  • "Going beyond" the current needs of customers. Going to places that cause them to boast about your service. And looking to the needs of future customers.
  • "Going beyond" simply providing a job and income for your employees. Going to the point where they are excited about what they do, value what they do, and take joy in work.
  • "Going beyond" the needs of shareholders. Seeking wider gains for everyone, the community, society, the planet.
  • "Going beyond" the restrictions of current ways of thinking. Developing a constant thirst for learning.
For the purposes of this column, I want to stay focused on the "Conformance to specification" mentality, and why it isn’t truly Deming- based quality and why it isn’t transformational.
In many ways Six Sigma as (too often) practiced has deteriorated into conformance to specification reinvented –with the specifications narrowed by orders of magnitude. This in itself can be limiting because it provides merely a binary view of the world –"anything in spec is OK, out of spec fails". A second limitation, especially in service organisations, is the problem with determining (and truly knowing) if the breadth of the spec is useful and intelligent --and if it genuinely represents the Voice of the Customer.
Dr Genichi Taguchi’s definition of World Class Quality as "On-target with minimum variance" represents something which is far more revolutionary than just tighter specifications, and his World Class Quality is far more descriptive of Deming’s intention about how to perceive and achieve quality.
An example might be helpful. In the UK a long-distance train is regarded as being on-time if it arrives within ten minutes of the advertised schedule, and the service group is regarded as doing well if 90% of trains achieve this level. So 10% of trains can be 11 or more minutes late and everything is OK. Six Sigma says "we’ll stick with the 10 minutes definition of what constitutes a defect – but your new target is that less than four trains in a million should be 11 or more minutes late." This is not well understood, so if you mention this to anyone in the UK rail industry, they’ll wonder what you’ve been smoking!
The real intellectual challenge and opportunity comes when looking at this from the Taguchi viewpoint: an early train is as bad as a late train from a variation point of view.
The waste from being late is obvious, and because of their "quality training" people have been conditioned to do all they can to prevent late running trains and to minimize the impact of late running trains on the rest of the system. But the impact of an early running train is not considered a concern because it is regarded to be "within spec" even though getting in the way of other trains that are scheduled at particular points causes delays and ripple effect problems.
You need to consider the whole system - not just individual componants
People who have not had the benefit of Deming-based quality training are incredulous and ask me, "You mean we should hold our actual time of departure until the scheduled time as part of reducing variability of performance?" Absolutely.
"But, how does that help us assure that we will conform to specifications?" That is not the point. Well, it is and it isn’t.
The point is NOT to create a system that relies on conformance to specifications. The point is to create a system in which departures and arrivals can be predicted and be achieved as the normal course of how the system operates –and without special interventions or adjustments.
Of course you also want to ensure that your planned schedule is optimal for the customer and the network in the first place. That concept moves towards understanding Deming’s point about optimization of the system, not of system components, individually, but as a whole. That takes more thought than conformance to specifications, but the benefits of investing more thought and following a Deming-Taguchi path is that the Deming-Taguchi approach increases quality while decreasing costs—and does so year after year after year.
What does the customer want? Customer requirements of a railway service are multifarious, but at the very least they want the train to arrive at the time you state it will arrive, with minimum variation from that. This is quite different from what appears to be acceptable to railway managers.
A culture that is not seeking transformation perhaps is more likely to engender score-keeping that is subject to manipulation/interpretation; in the railway this is manifested by legions of people dedicated to explaining away delays and, if possible, seeking to pin the cause of delays on others to avoid the penalty payments that are contained in the vast numbers of contracts that seek to regulate relationships across the industry. This is such a waste of knowledge and intellect of the people involved, who could be so much more proactively engaged on real improvement –and who most likely would enjoy being dedicated to improvement rather than to shifting blame.
Englightened Leadership Goes Beyond
Leaders and managers using the New Philosophy would not create a corporate culture in which acceptable variance would be merely explained away. They would seek to engage these people proactively on real improvement beyond just meeting spec.
What can happen when the mind and creativity of a workforce is engaged under enlightened leadership?
Chart: Rail Freight Delays in Southern England
This chart shows weekly minutes delay suffered by one particular rail freight flow in the South of England. The improvement work was carried out in large part by member of the performance team who took the trouble to do some straightforward end-to-end analysis that simply hadn’t been done before. Previously managers had simply argued over who was responsible for delays on a geographical basis.
She rode with the trains, talked to drivers and signalers who could give real "scene of the action" insight that no-one had taken the trouble to gather before. Over time, she built up a real in-depth understanding of the flow, and discovered two very promising changes to improve performance; the effects can be seen in the two step changes in the chart. One was a small infrastructure/operating change, the other a small timetable amendment. You can see that at the start of the work this flow was suffering around 690 minutes delay each week; after the two step changes this has reduced by nearly 90% and some weeks now recording ZERO delay.
Note what has happened here: this is someone taking the time and trouble to study the system, trialing new plans seeking to eliminate ALL delay, not merely get inside a specification. Furthermore, the continuous improvement journey can continue, using the philosophy of "on-target with minimum variance". Her Deming-based approach, if adopted by management, could provide a basis for a meaningful transformation to the New Philosophy of Management –which is about creating an organization that has an aim to serve customers well while optimizing the organization so people can enjoy continually improving quality and productivity.
"Going beyond" to me really does encapsulate what Dr. Deming’s work is all about. My experiences of Six Sigma and lean show that, whilst they have made some significant contributions to improvement, they do not DEMAND the transformation of the way managers think. The prevailing style of management conditions people to "Conformance to Specification" as the aim, whether this is the service level agreement in the contract to the customer –and that is not good enough.
The New Philosophy of management "Goes beyond" that. The new target is the "aim of the system", now and for the future. The aim is such that everyone gains; customers, suppliers, employees, society, the planet; over the long-term.
When we define the problem differently, as the member of the performance team did, we can move beyond a case study of how to meet specs – to how to truly transform thinking and actions.
Copyright Nigel Clements 2011.
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.