‘We Are Different’

Don’t stand in the way of your own improvement efforts

by Mike Carnell

A few months ago, I was speaking with a prospective client about continuous improvement, and I mentioned another organization I helped. "I can see how it worked for them," he said in the conversation. "But we are different."

I have heard the comment "We are different" so often during the past two decades that, for me, it has become the proverbial "fingernails on a chalkboard"—assuming anyone remembers what a chalkboard is.

That irritating little phrase in my brain triggered some partially atrophied synaptic connection to regenerate itself. It makes me remember a list of obstacles to improvement written about by W. Edwards Deming.

I had buried it in a file on my computer, and eventually I found the list. It had been documented in Mary Walton’s The Deming Management Method,1 which I had read in the early 1980s. The list of obstacles to improvement reads like this:

  1. Neglect of long-range planning. In Deming’s time, a five-year annual operating plan (AOP) was standard in larger companies but frequently ignored in favor of dealing with emergencies. With today’s increasing speed of change driven by a technology engine, long-term planning receives little to no serious attention.
  2. Supposition that solving problems, automation, gadgets and new machinery will transform industry. We choose to automate before we improve, believing the latest and greatest automation, computers or software will clean up everything.
  3. Search for examples. The book says examples teach nothing. People are looking for examples to copy. This is a chronic request in training classes in which people cannot extrapolate a concept from the classroom to their own application. These examples can lead to more in-the-box thinking rather than understanding. Without examples, there is no artificial understanding of concepts.
  4. Our problems are different. This is pure resistance to change. Common processes such as lean and Six Sigma can be employed in a generic model simply because the problems may be superficially different, but the underlying data manifestations are similar.
  5. Obsolescence in schools. Management theory and effective management practice aren’t being learned in a practical application environment.
  6. Reliance on quality control departments. Quality belongs in the hands of the people actually performing the tasks in a business. They are the groups that have to own the issues. Quality control departments tend to be more reactive than proactive.
  7. Blaming the workforce for problems. People inherently try to do the job well. Deming’s proclivity to address management and the management system as the root cause is well documented, particularly in his 14 points.
  8. Quality by inspection. This is an inane, antiquated practice that requires high defect rates to have any sort of effect. In processes with low defect rates, capability is more effective.
  9. False starts. Ineffective implementation of new systems has created the "program of the day" resistance-to-change mentality. It has a cumulative effect that makes each new implementation more difficult. How many times have we engaged in massive training exercises with no change to the way we do business?
  10. The unmanned computer. This is closely related to No. 2. It doesn’t do anyone any good to have computers full of data that nobody is doing anything with.
  11. Meeting specifications. The goalpost mentality—anything between the upper and lower specification—doesn’t drive increases in quality and productivity.
  12. Inadequate testing of prototypes. The term "throwing it over the wall" is well engrained on many factory floors as products are forced into production without sufficient understanding of how they will perform in a production environment.
  13. Anyone who comes to help us must understand all about our business. Albert Einstein once said, "We cannot solve problems at the same level of understanding we were at when we created them."2 In conference rooms, people often refer to the value of a fresh set of eyes when in reality they believe it takes an intimate understanding of their business to improve it. They turn to more of the same for innovative solutions and get instant replays of old solutions, thoughts and beliefs.

After reading through the list, it is amazing that, after more than two decades, nothing has changed. The list is alive and well and applies throughout the global economy. During my business dealings in the last 12 months, I have witnessed every single item on that list at least once.

Since Walton’s book was published, we have seen total quality management, quality circles, cycle-time reduction, lean, Six Sigma and lean Six Sigma, and we still can’t seem to move past the same obstacles that were apparent to Deming during his time. Why can’t we seem to get out of our own way?

Same but different

The statement "We are different" is probably true on some level. Conversely, "We are the same" is also true. That has to cause you to ask, "Why is our first instinct to identify the differences rather than look for and leverage the similarities?"

The first time I read Deming’s list, I was working for Motorola. A production manager had hung a sign on the wall behind his desk that read: "Now that you have told me why it won’t work, tell me why it will." The simple expectation that hung there had a significant impact on the way business was conducted.

When you are in that same situation and someone has explained why something won’t work, simply ask them why it will. The silence is deafening, as someone who has honed his or her skills at avoiding change will try to find reasons to make something succeed.

Perhaps resistance to change has become so engrained in our psyche that we no longer recognize it for what it is.

The paradox to this entire issue is that if we take similar ideas and concepts, type them into a computer and title the paper "best practices," we can get an entirely different reaction. The resistance to change lessens or disappears.

Certain managers will drive the implementation and demand to know why these things have not been implemented. They will do all of that without any data or information concerning where these practices came from, who identified them, how old the list is or how effective they were.

Why the difference? Perhaps a lack of culpability. "After all, they are best practices—it can’t be my fault," you might say. As an IT manager once told me, "Nobody has ever been fired for buying IBM."

As you scan over the rest of the list, at least two other points jump out.

No. 3 is "Search for examples." When you look at discussion forums around the industry, there is always a request for a case study. It seems there is great difficulty in taking time to understand a concept and extrapolate it to a person’s own situation.

Perhaps the most entertaining is No. 13: "Anyone that comes to help us must understand all about our business." In The Deming Management Method, the commentary around that obstacle is it is possible to know everything about a business except how to improve it. This incestuous tendency extends beyond improvement. You see it most often in job advertisements in which experience in a specific industry is required—simply a more arrogant version of "We are different."

Without a doubt, Deming continues to have an impact on the business of quality improvement and the business of management. Information about his system of profound knowledge and the 14 points for management can be found all over the internet. That begs the question, "Why are we so willing to use these contributions and at the same time ignore the obstacles to improvement?" It certainly can’t be because we lack obstacles to improvement.

During my time at Motorola, we were required to get the director of quality to approve all new product launches. If the various requirements for product launch were not complete, this was typically a less-than-pleasant experience. It wasn’t unusual for the program managers to end up standing in front of a mirror when they couldn’t adequately explain what had gone wrong.

Perhaps the list of obstacles is more about a mirror in which we choose not to reflect.


  1. Mary Walton, The Deming Management Method, Perigee Books, 1988.
  2. The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com/quote/23588.html.

Mike Carnell is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.

Nice information
--Ashutosh Bhardwaj, 09-08-2018

Average Rating


Out of 1 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers