Leading Effective Change: Working in the System and on the System

The author offers some suggestions for methods that can be used to enact positive change within the civil service system.

One advantage of a lengthy civil service career is the knowledge, insight and sometimes wisdom you can gain from working “in” the system. Readers’ responses to my articles illustrate the frustration that many people have with the civil service system and the system of government. My question for the readers is “What can you do or have you done to improve the situation?” If the latter, I encourage you to share your success stories and the lessons you learned.

Early in my career while working as an auditor for the Department of Defense, I had the opportunity to attend a four-day seminar conducted by W. Edwards Deming. As I mentioned in my previous articles, Deming’s methods provide a new paradigm that introduces a fundamental change in how we can resolve problems and make better decisions.

The irony of the seminar was that Deming provided a management theory that, when understood and applied, provided the methods and tools to improve the system as well as the awareness that changing the system often must come from those outside the system. Consequently, as civil servants, we can serve two roles: working in the system to help improve efficiency (doing things right) and working on the system of government to improve its effectiveness (doing the right thing) as part of our responsibility as an American citizen.

When plotting points of performance trends, evidence of success in the two roles would include an upward trend in the number of things done right and a downward trend in the number of things gone wrong. Successful outcomes would result in the need for less government, which is also a good indicator of an improving society. In Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison identified an ideal for government in his statement:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Improvement or Tampering?

The downside of career longevity is that it’s easy to become skeptical about new or repackaged change initiatives. This skepticism is due to the fact that most change initiatives that are intended to “improve the system” often represent what Deming referred to as tampering. Tampering is treating common cause variation as special cause variation or in more common terms, implementing a solution that doesn’t address the real problem. Tampering results in spending more resources to get the same or worse result.

The second-order and third-order effects of tampering include creating and sustaining a sense of learned helplessness, where employees conclude that “nothing will change” and/or “this too shall pass.” This results in a demoralized and less productive workforce, which leads managers to conclude that they have too many unproductive workers that they can’t “get rid of.” When Deming received questions about poor performing employees, his response was:

“Managers talk about getting rid of deadwood, but there are only two possible explanations of why the dead wood exists: 1) You hired deadwood in the first place, or, 2) you hired live wood, and then you killed it.”

The recent study “The Best Places to Launch a Career in the Federal Government” by the Partnership for Public Service found that “Federal workers who have been on the job for three years or more report far less satisfaction than those who have held their positions for a shorter period of time.”  The three-year mark resulted in the most significant drop in satisfaction. The example is somewhat anecdotal but reinforces Deming’s point of “hiring live wood and then killing it.”  The solution presented in the article—better training and leadership—may provide an example of tampering if changes do not result in systemic improvement.

Changing the Prevailing Style of Management – “By What Method?”

Deming would challenge anyone proposing a change to a system with the question: “By what method?” In his case, he reinforced the imperative of the need to change the prevailing style of management. His proposed method was transformation through the understanding and application of what he referred to as a System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK), which includes four parts:

  • Appreciation for a system
  • Knowledge about variation
  • Theory of knowledge
  • Psychology

Typically, I hear a significant amount of groaning when the term “Profound Knowledge” is introduced. I refer to the term and concept as applied uncommon sense or what you don’t know you know.  Brian Joiner, a colleague of Deming integrated the components into what he referred to in his book as fourth generation management: Fourth Generation Management: The New Business Consciousness.

The SoPK components are either stated or implied in the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and in what Productivity-Quality Systems refers to as the Foundations of Quality principles. The principles include interrelated components that introduce a system view for improving efficiency and effectiveness.

The Foundations of Quality principles are listed below. I also included questions that may help you relate the concepts to your job and/or organization. Note that the term customer is interchangeable with stakeholder.

  • The Customer Principle. The intent of this principle is to identify everyone who provides feedback on the quality of your systems and processes. What are the needs and wants of your customers? What products and services do you provide? What are the customers’ expectations and what feedback do they require showing that you’re doing the right things?
  • The Systems Principle. How do you convert needs and wants into products and services that will meet expectations?
  • The Variation Principle. Everything varies. What feedback measures are being used to assess variation and performance? Is the variation in systems, products and services getting better or worse?
  • The Knowledge Principle. Is the variation in your systems capable of meeting requirements and expectations? Competence in applying this principle requires an understanding of the common and special causes of variation, the two types of processes and the two types of mistakes.
  • The Planned Change Principle. Of the thousands of processes and systems within your organization or the few that you personally use on a daily basis, which ones need to continue to be sustained and which ones need to be improved? What’s the near-term, mid-term and long-term plan for improvement? The majority of systems and processes fall under the sustainment category. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are typically used to align, stabilize or sustain the system. Common terms for stable systems are habits or routines.
  • The People Principle. People drive change. Are you and/or other employees provided with purpose, motivation and direction? Are you aware of what you need to do to su
    pport the planned change principle? Is training available to help develop an awareness and understanding of variation?

A Way Ahead

It’s generally accepted that federal agency budget reductions will be a constant in the foreseeable future. To resolve the economic challenges facing our country, some Americans believe that a bigger government is necessary, whereas others believe that a smaller government is needed. (By the way, this isn’t a new argument in our nation’s history.) No matter whether they want a larger or smaller government, most Americans will probably agree that the government needs to provide higher quality services at less cost. Applying the Foundations of Quality principles is a better method than applying the prevailing style of management to achieve this goal.

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.