Changing the System – Feedback from Readers

Writing the four-part series, “What Kind of Change to the Civil Service System Is Really Needed?” elicited a lot of feedback from readers. Here’s a sampling of what they said.

Writing the four-part series, “What Kind of Change to the Civil Service System Is Really Needed?” gave me the opportunity to introduce readers to the variation paradigm, why it’s important and how to identify and reduce variation. It also gave readers the opportunity to share their experiences, criticisms and perspectives on what hasn’t worked, what won’t work and why they thought several of the proposals were bad ideas. Here’s a sampling of what they said.

Barriers Abound

Some readers shared their perspectives on the barriers to change. The barriers mainly fell into three categories:

  • Resistance to change. Readers said that the barriers included status quo-oriented managers, managerial inertia and having change agents seen as threats.
  • Missing infrastructure. Readers noted that the barriers included a lack of oversight and accountability, a lack of training and a lack of incentives.
  • Counterproductive systems. Readers said that the barriers included having a reward system that rewards people who support the status quo and having a system that’s fraught with corruption and perceived to support a spoils system that benefits a few at the expense of many.

One reader noted that the barrier is that people are focusing on the wrong goal and suggested identifying those functions that would be better performed by the private sector or not at all.

Comparing Apples to Oranges

The feedback from readers included some criticisms in regard to making few distinctions when comparing dissimilar operating environments (e.g., profit versus non-profit, civilian versus military). However, there aren’t any distinctions. In the variation cycle, individuals use systems and processes to try to achieve the results expected by customers and stakeholders. The systems determine the majority of the results, and the results will always vary. This cycle is independent of the operating environment.

Baldrige Criteria Critique

Readers’ comments about the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence varied widely. For example, some readers questioned its appropriateness to government, noting that government is not a business. Other readers said that it’s another gimmick or “old news” that will continue to be ignored by federal managers.

However, a few readers were supportive of the Baldrige Criteria. One reader provided this counterview: “…the Baldrige Award and ISO standards are taken seriously almost everywhere EXCEPT government, although military and other contract specialists are very aware of the latter….I remember buying a pre-TQM car that carried a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty – whichever came first. The world outside government has come a long way.”

Another reader introduced a statement from W. Edwards Deming that reinforced the importance of continual improvement in the public sector: “In most governmental services, there is no market to capture. In place of capture of the market, a governmental agency should deliver economically the service prescribed by law or regulation. The aim should be distinction in service. Continual improvement in government service would earn appreciation of the American public and would hold jobs in the service, and help industry to create more jobs.”

I would like to re-emphasize the last statement in the quote, “… to help industry create more jobs.” These are the jobs that generate the tax revenues that fund our salaries and benefits.

A performance management framework like the Baldrige Criteria provides a proven method that can be immediately applied within an organization to change the system and reduce variation. In the case of government, citizens expect agencies to be effective (doing the right thing) and efficient (doing things right). The Baldrige Criteria is one way of measuring progress toward the ideal of striving to do the right thing.

Paradigm Pushback

I was expecting and received some pushback on the use of the term “paradigm,” but it is a term that is accurate. Back in the 1980s, Joel Barker popularized the concept of paradigms and paradigm shifts in his training video “The Business of Paradigms.” In his updated video “The New Business of Paradigms, 21st Century Edition,” he notes that:

  • A paradigm shift is when you change from one set of rules to another.
  • The paradigm effect describes a situation in which a person with one paradigm sees something that is imperceptible to someone with a different paradigm.

Reducing variation on a grand scale requires the application of a new set of rules, so it is a paradigm shift.

It was interesting on what was not said by the readers in response to the variation paradigm which illustrates the paradigm effect. No one challenged that the new variation paradigm includes the understanding of common and special cause variation, the two types of mistakes, and the two types of systems. However, one reader misinterpreted the information and equated reducing variation with reducing defects in people, which sounded like “social engineering of the fascist type” to the reader.

Ideas and action

A few readers mentioned that the articles just talked about ideas and lacked substance. So, here are some examples of what you can do to better understand and help identify the two causes of variation:

  • Assess your knowledge of the variation paradigm with the “Quick Assessment.” In this exercise, you are asked to select the top performer from a group of people who received training and were graded by test scores. In his book Out of the Crisis, Deming recommended the abolishment of grades and individual performance appraisals because he considered such evaluations as one of the seven deadly diseases of management. I thought this was one area he got wrong—until I understood the “new rules.” So, in addition to assessing your knowledge of variation, I encourage you to review the section on the case against grades.
  • Plot points. As I suggested in a previous article (Part 3), you can develop a trend chart to identify variation in a personal process such as commuting time. Another example is developing a trend chart to identify variation in your weight. For the next 30 days, record your daily weight in a trend chart. Then calculate your average weight and add an average line to the chart. Apply the rule of seven (seven consecutive data points in a row above or below the average line or seven consecutive points trending up or down) to see if there is special cause variation.
  • Plot points on a key measure that you care about or that is used within your organization or the country. Assess if the process got better, worse, or stayed about the same. If the process got better or worse, was that change the result of common cause or special cause variation?
  • Given the recent drop in the stock market, plot the monthly or yearly performance of one of the stock funds in the Thrift Savings Plan. Did the drop represent a common or a special cause of variation? Did you tamper?

“Follow Me!”

One reader placed me in the unenviable position of leading a charge with no followers, invoking the U.S. Army Infantry motto “Follow Me!” He said, “Mr. Clark is in the uncomfortable position of a platoon leader who
says to his men ‘Follow me!’ as he leads a charge against an entrenched enemy, only to find when he looks over his shoulder that his troops have effectively opted out of the battle and are still hunkered down in the trenches.”

I expect only a few civil servants (special cause) to “Follow Me” (e.g., plot points). However, I do hope and challenge my fellow citizens (who also might happen to be civil servants) to develop and apply their knowledge of variation to improve the quality of government and the services it provides. Deming had an interesting perspective regarding the incentive for change: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark retired from the federal government with 35 years of service. He is a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He retired at the rank of Colonel, with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S. Army, National Guard and Army Reserve. He is a strategic analyst with the American Center for Quality Leadership and is active in economic and community development in a small rural county in Indiana.