Take Five: Bending Granite for continuous improvement
Madison’s perspective on change management and quality improvement is explored in a new book titled Bending Granite: 30+ true stories of leading change, and while there are more than 30 Madison case studies worth reading from familiar names in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, there are five editors. Tom Mosgaller, Maury Cotter, Kathleen Paris, Tim Hallock, and Michael Williamson edited the book in consultation from Dave Boyer and Guy Van Rensselaer.
Mosgaller, past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the Madison Area Quality Improvement Network (MAQIN), wrote two of the 30 stories, which detail how the contributors cultivated positive change in their respective organizations. In this Take Five interview, Mosgaller discusses how he and his fellow authors were able to “bend granite” in order to make transformative change and how their examples are applicable to today’s business environment.
There are some familiar names among the authors, including former mayors, police chiefs, and prominent Madison executives. Is there a common thread in the stories they tell?
“An important caveat is that so much of the kind of work in continuous improvement tends to be in technical language or a historical chronology of events, but not a lot is told in good stories. So, when we wrote Bending Granite, we approached people we thought represented a broad spectrum of people in all different kinds of fields, from business to education to health care to government. Some are doing it now. Some did it historically. We wanted to make sure we tapped into that broad talent pool through the storytelling method.
“The thread that runs through it is that all of them are people, are leaders, who, in different situations, stepped up and wanted to make things better, whether they are at Madison College like Turina Bakken, who is the provost; or Ben Reynolds, representing a 100-year-old moving company, who got his MBA and embedded in that was learning these kinds of principles and practices; or John Wiley, the former chancellor of UW–Madison; or David Couper or Paul Soglin. These are all people who were committed to leaving things better than they found them.”
You shared two stories about quality improvement — “Walk in Their Shoes” and “Good Enough for Government Work.” I was wondering how much “QI” changed has over the years because there was a big push for it in the 1980s and early 1990s because Japan was eating our lunch and we had to do something about it. Back then, it was about a continuous commitment to improvement with input from the people actually doing the work. Has it changed since then?
“My experience was that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that’s when we got a whack across the head that the Japanese particularly had adopted a lot of the principles of quality that Dr. [W. Edwards] Deming and Dr. [Joseph M.] Juran brought to them because they were not prophets in their own land, meaning the U.S. They helped Japan get on the road to emphasizing continuous improvement. We sent people over there because a lot of our companies were anxious to learn what the Japanese were doing and what they found was quality circles. What they saw was the obvious — people getting together in circles or small groups to improve things — but we missed the real point of what was really going on. That was part of it, of course, that it’s bottom-up and trusting people closest to the work, but it’s also about using data to make decisions. It’s about listening deeply to your customers rather than selling style and glitz over good, quality products. It took us a while to make that transition. By the late 1980s, or the mid-’80s when I started in this work, we finally realized that it took more than just a bottom-up commitment of the people closest to the work. It also required being clear on what the aim of our company is, why we’re in business, how we serve our customers, and being data driven as well.”
From your reading of the book, what are the business lessons that will be particularly applicable if we are, as some economists fear, entering a period of stagflation (slow growth, high inflation)?
“The stories in the book really highlight, in a lot of different sectors, how leaders in organizations, as Peter Block in his testimonial on the back cover describes, that it’s there for the taking, that there is a discipline to this. That it isn’t just being reactive but actually having an approach to how you are going to create a fitness system for your company. I always use that metaphor of a fitness system, but that means every day you’ve got to build in the habit of continuous improvement. It can’t just be reactive around, ‘Well, something is broken, and we whack on it.’ It has to be something we work on every day in our companies and build that discipline up, so that when we do go through these times of volatility and uncertainty, we can use these timeless and universal methods to actually improve the way we do business.
“In business schools now, a lot of this is embedded. We call it Agile, we call it Scrum, we call it Six Sigma, and we call it Lean, but a lot of people are being exposed to it. The issue, in my opinion, whether the cultures in those companies are embracing it and actually making it part of the culture, is that continuous improvement is just the way we do our business if we are going to deal with a fairly unpredictable environment in the next five to 10 years.”
Since there is a good deal in the book about business culture transformation, what do the stories/case studies reveal when it comes to best practices in diversity, equity, and inclusion?
“I really feel, at least in my experience in working with hundreds of teams in all kinds of sectors all around the world, that the tools of continuous improvement, which is a neutral platform that gives you a disciplined approach to facing tough ‘hairballs’ in organizations, gives you a way to address a lot of these issues. I’ve had the good fortune of helping teams of people — and we don’t look at color, creed, or sex, we look at the process we’re trying to improve — and the relationships that get built across the table are much more around those things we want to work on and have common aim to improve. As a result of that, a byproduct is that we break down barriers around equity and inclusion and build up a less hierarchical environment and one that is built much more in appreciating and trusting each other as a community within our businesses.
“And today, more than ever, when we have businesses struggling to find good employees and build great cultures that attract talent, the need for continuous improvement as a method, not the only method but a method that can help break down those barriers with a disciplined approach to what I call purpose, process, and people — the three Ps — is absolutely essential.”
What business lessons can Madison entrepreneurs, like the kinds that are part of this book, teach to business operators in the rest of the country?
“Those of us who are authors in this book have looked at a lot of organizations over the years. Too many of them are what I would call ill-defined, ad hoc, and personality driven. They are reactive and they do not have a fitness program in place to allow them to be agile. The three Ps, which are the theme of the book and of the stories, really focus on the importance of having a clear sense of purpose. You cannot have a system for doing anything without a clear aim. So, number one, that requires leadership to define the aim. What is the compass for our company?
“Number two, what is our way of doing things? What is our method? Do we have a discipline by which every day we are continually improving the things that we do in our company?
“And number three, do we have the leadership and teams in place that can move quickly and agilely and trust the culture enough to step up and give the discretionary effort it’s going to take to be really successful entrepreneurs in a very competitive environment? As Deming would always say, collaboration before competition.”
Are there any other points you’d like to make?
“I’m working on a number of efforts to keep young teachers in our schools. We’re losing about one-third of our teachers right now after the first year and 44% leave after five years. I’m trying to help these young teachers be empowered by understanding the basic premises of continuous improvement, and that is what I learned from my mentors, who learned it from their mentors — the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, the PDSA cycle upon which Bending Granite is basically built. And that is, young people today oftentimes are not being trained in the discipline of figuring out what you want to do, having a plan, testing it out, using the scientific method one thing at a time, and checking on what happened. What did we learn? And then, finally act. Adopt, adapt, or abandon, but continue that cycle of continuous improvement. Build that into the way in which you teach, in the way in which you do surgeries, in the way in which you drive a bus or plow snow. Trying to get that into people’s thinking, as opposed to just reacting to a crisis, is an important lesson that I’d like to pass on to more people.”
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