Delta Partners Management Consultants
Your trusted advisors.

Bringing the Factory to the Office: Applying Deming - Part 1

Phil Hawkins

The work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming is well known as it applies to quality in manufacturing, though when asked, people will give different interpretations of his work - usually as it applies to them.

My view is that Deming understood more than people give him credit for, (more of this later) and that a lot of his methods can be applied to non-manufacturing work.  Deming is famous for the introduction of statistics into quality programs, and, while this is not as valuable in office work, there are many other things we can use in his 14 steps.

The Office as Factory

We need to look at the similarities between an office environment and a manufacturing operation.  How can we apply manufacturing practices to office work?

First, we need to adopt - as an operating principle - that quality is meeting requirements. In manufacturing a part is defective if it does not meet the requirements of the next stage in the process or of the customer.  It is usually thrown into a bin.  It can be counted at the end of the day.  You can't avoid seeing them; you have to go round the defective parts bin to get to the washroom.



In an office there are also defective parts. 

If a person receives what he or she needs, but something is missing, or it is later than required, or if it is not in a usable form – that is a defect.  The person cannot continue the process – or to put it another way, cannot do his or her job as defined.  But we do not put defective parts in a bin (maybe we should), so it is not so easy to count them at the end of the day.

Defining the Defect

Transmission factory-375x249What a defect looks like in an office environment:

  • More work for the receiver (customer)
  • Re-work of the information into a usable form
  • Time spent trying to find the missing information

To put it in more technical terms, the customer has to go outside his or her process step to get information that should have been provided.  This is hard to count, and the stress and overwork are often regarded as normal.  Along with this stress often comes frustration with not being able to resolve the issue.  Worse yet, when a person has to step out of the defined process it is often regarded as “doing someone else's job”.

You can’t always get what you want.

There are many reasons for a person not getting what he or she needs.  Maybe the person who is supposed to supply it just doesn't have it.  Maybe the supplier provides it, but too late to meet the other person's needs.  Maybe they don't regard it as their job to provide that information.

This is when an adjustment to the process is required.  Often, in an organization there is no mechanism for this, no procedure, no one who thinks it is his or her job to sort these issues out.

This, I find, is where much of the frustration lies.  It becomes especially problematic if the process concerned flows over departmental or divisional boundaries, and to change work flow would involve other management structures.

Bottom Line 

Accept that work is about people.

A process is about people getting what they need to do their jobs - a process is not lines and boxes and arrowheads. 


Does this view reflect your experience?


Coming soon: Part II – Driving Out Fear


This is a great post. Demming’s work has very relevant applications to organizational issues and processes. Indeed, I only wish that HR practitioners and those involved in change management and leadership development projects would study Demming to understand his enormous contribution over many decades. It’s akin to American automotive manufacturers who ignored Demming, who then shared his ideas with the very receptive Japanese. And we know how that story unfolded.

Thanks Phil!

By Jim Taggart on 2011/03/08

Hi Phil,

Your metaphor is an extremely helpful insight as to why efficiency in most office work has such a poor reputation. Automation has been the default response when trying to improve support services and indeed much improvement has taken place. However, I lament the grow loss of that of service that only people involvement can provide.

By Alcide DeGagn on 2011/03/10

Test response - my last one was rejected!

By Phil Hawkins on 2011/04/10

Alcide and Jim, thanks for your comments.  I am responding to both as I see a common theme.

Certainly the current trend in change management and support service is look to technology.  If you look at a process diagram nowadays it looks more like a computer data flow diagram - a far cry from a description of human interactions.

I think the acquisition of software is seen as an alternative to an otherwise lengthy effort to define a suitable process.

However, like buying a suit off the rack - it often doesn’t quite fit.  There is much staff training and redefining of internal procedures required, who is in charge of this?  Not the IT department, I bet.  To make matters worse, these organizations are usually not equipped to measure the effectiveness of the process solution that they have inflicted on their employees.

The good news is that, like the suit, it can be modified to fit, but that and suitable re-training must be take in to account when creating the business case.

By Phil Hawkins on 2011/04/10

Add a Comment

Notify me of follow-up comments?

About this Article

Posted by Phil Hawkins
Posted on March 8, 2011

Share |

Categories: process improvement, productivity, quality, strategy