Creating a high-performance society...

Your community wants you

By Darcy Hitchcock - Axis Performance Advisors, Inc.

So, you've implemented a total quality culture in your organization. People are empowered and processes are under control. You've also partnered with your vendors and suppliers.

The problem now is that your improvements have stalled and the root causes are things outside your control: job candidates who can't do math, government regulations and red tape, a dearth of qualified applicants for certain positions, and employees distraught about vandalism in the parking lot. In other words, the problems of our society are knocking at your door.

Build stronger fences or...? Those of us in the total quality field are in an excellent position to be part of the solution because the problems our communities face are reflections of problems we have fixed in our organizations. We have the knowledge and methods which can help transform our society. Using total quality principles and techniques, we have eliminated waste, delighted customers, and empowered those on the front lines. Why not do the same on a larger scale?

We've enlarged our focus by partnering with customers and suppliers. Why not throw the net a little wider to encompass more interdependent segments of our communities?

A call to action - If you watch the evening news, you are assaulted with the forces that tear at the fabric of our society: drugs, crime, homelessness, hate, the break up of the family. Our task may seem overwhelming but it has never been more urgent. This article is your call to action; let's join forces to transform ourselves into a high-performance society.

A look at a system out of control

You don't have to look far to find waste in our world - within organizations, across organizations, and between sectors of society:

How did we get into this mess? We got into this mess by using the same type of thinking to design our society as we used to build our organizations. Our communities are simply a macrocosm of the problems found in traditional organizations. Just as we created functional, stovepipe organizations where work was broken up into groups doing similar tasks, so have we created a functional (not to be confused with practical) society.

A society separated by silos and stove-pipes... Using reductionist thinking and a mechanistic paradigm, we separated our society into segments as if dissecting the organism would help it live better. We delegated:

No wonder citizens feel disempowered!

Let's be all we can be!

Now imagine a society where total quality and high-performance principles are imbedded in every sector of society. The principles which have guided the transformation of our organizations are equally applicable on a larger scale:

Even if all we can do is to fully implement these within our organizational sectors, we would make great strides. In fact, many successes are already in progress, but we can and should go further.

Imagine a future community

Can you imagine how things might be different in a high performance society? What would the community be like if:

Strengthening the ties that bind us together - Now imagine a world where the interconnections between sectors were strengthened. What would it be like if:

Wanted: a few good men and women

We know how to implement total quality principles within organizations. How might they be applied on a broader scale?

Focus on the customer - Many sectors of our society operate as monopolies or cartels (not as the public utilities envisioned by Adam Smith) with protected markets. How would you rate the service and value for cost of the following sampling of protected organizations:

While most of these now experience some competition, their customers are still largely captives with only one choice for service.

Power to the customers! The single most powerful action you can take to change the status quo is to give customers information and choice:

Let's get radical...

Wherever possible, customers should be given the power to choose between options or choose the service provider: schools, doctors, caseworkers, job training programs, transit systems, garbage pickup. Once an organization's market is at risk, it is motivated to investigate customer needs. This is when all our knowledge about how to stay close to the customer becomes useful. Even in services where you would only want one provider at a time (such as fire departments and building departments), governments can bid out the services - this would introduce the element of competition to public service. To paraphrase Osborne and Gaebler, authors of Reinventing Government, government should steer and not row.

Organizing public service around the customer

When choice of providers is not truly viable, the system must be organized around the customer. In Reinventing Government, the authors describe a young, pregnant woman on welfare with a juvenile record; she was served by a half-dozen caseworkers. This system is obviously not organized to meet her needs or to make efficient use of tax dollars.

People trapped in the current welfare system require Herculean organizational skills to dash from one office to another, fill out forms, gather documents and wait in numerous lines. Instead, citizens should have a one-stop shopping center for addressing related needs. For example, in Michigan an Opportunity Card was proposed to coordinate life-long learning. The Opportunity Card, as proposed would be a "... smart credit card, with a computer chip, which would go to every Michigan citizen of working age. Citizens would have a social security card for retirement, a driver's license for transportation, and an Opportunity Card for lifelong education and training. They would bring their card to any Opportunity Store, where a counselor would insert it in his or her computer, read the data from the person's last entry into the Human Investment System, and advise them about how and where to find the training or education they wanted." The idea, unfortunately, was derailed by a lack of political consensus.

Eliminate waste through coordination and collaboration

Perhaps it is our rock-ribbed faith in the free-market economy that stops us from coordinating efforts between and across sectors.

We leave too many things to chance.

Would somebody please introduce these people? The Pacific Northwest is currently reeling from smaller timber harvests. Lumber mills have been idled and small communities devastated. At the same time, Meadowood, a small innovative company, has devised a way to make pressboard from waste grass straw (thus at once reducing the need for the polluting field burning and the need for cutting trees). Meadowood's problem: they cannot keep up with demand for lack of equipment and capital.

Currently, we have no forum or process in our society to resolve problems like these. In a simpler age, serendipity and the free market may have worked fine, but with a global economy and information overload, interactions in the marketplace now look more like Brownian movements (random motion in a petri dish.)

Can we create self-directed communities? Compare our approach to the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. These community cooperatives are integrated systems with a bank at the hub. The bank, which receives deposits and direction from the community, is responsible for funding new ventures. They become partners in the effort and offer reduced interest rates to socially needed endeavors or struggling ventures. This system provides a vehicle for managing the community's needs - investment, jobs, and products/services.

One more important point: these Spanish cooperatives are owned by their employees and major policy decisions are decided on a one-person, one-vote basis. They will never be slaves to traders on Wall Street, yet they have yielded the highest productivity per person in Spain and have weathered gyrating political and economic environments. This is not a planned economy in the way the former Soviet Union was; it is simply a forum for coordinating (without bureaucrats) the resources and needs of the community. It is a self-directed community.

More on societal waste

As total quality professionals, we are skilled in analyzing processes for non-value added activities and waste which often show up in the form of storage, delays, waiting, transportation, and bottlenecks.

Where are these elements of waste in our society?

A focus on prevention...

TQM's maxim that you can't add quality back into a process also applies. We must focus on prevention, rather than rework. Why do we spend more on fighting fires than preventing them? Often 20 percent of a city's entire general fund is spent on fire departments and our fix-it-after-the-fatal fire approach yields one of the highest fatality rates in the industrialized world.

Healthcare in Oregon...

The State of Oregon has received a lot of attention for its healthcare initiative which focuses on prevention. Since funds for health/medical care are limited, the state has identified which practices are most likely to be worth the investment. Preventive interventions such as prenatal care are given priority over things like organ transplants - the cost of preventing a quality/birth defect is a fraction of the cost of fixing the problem later.

Make fact-based decisions

As Duncan Wyse, director of the Oregon Progress Board says, "Data will make you free but first it will tick you off." It is the outrage that gets many of us involved.

The Oregon Benchmarks process...

The Oregon Progress Board assembled with community input a set of measures called the Oregon Benchmarks which track indicators of societal health.

The indicators are groups in three categories: people, quality of life, and the economy. Current data has been gathered on such results-oriented measures as:

Twenty year goals have been set and state funding is now being tied to an agency's ability to show a direct impact on these Benchmarks. The state legislature is required to review progress on these every two years.

It is hoped that these Benchmarks will align the activities of all sectors to solving the priority issues and root cause problems of Oregon's communities. Even organizations such as the United Way are using the Benchmarks to focus their efforts. Community involvement is occurring through the creation of local Progress Boards and Adopt-A-Benchmark outreach activities.

Empower the front line

Peter Block, in Stewardship, makes a compelling case for employees and managers becoming partners. It seems somewhat patronizing to treat employees as partners when in fact they are not, to ask them to take ownership when in fact they are not owners. Treating people like partners is the first step; making them partners is the next.

An employee owned fire fighting firm...

Scottsdale, Arizona has contracted out its fire department to an employee owned company, Rural Metro, a move which has left Scottsdale with approximately half the costs of similar-sized communities and a 15 percent decrease in fire losses.

Real ownership means people have decision making power...

It is not enough to be employee-owned, for many organizations jumped on the ESOP bandwagon purely for tax incentives. People must have a say in their organizations. Like the Mondragon cooperatives mentioned earlier, some organizations are run on democratic principles or even make employees owners. Examples include Baldrige-winner, Johnsonville Foods of Sheboygan, Wisconsin and Semco in Brazil. While not well known in this country, labor-owned cooperatives are a viable business structure which have been able to compete effectively. Given the problems inherent in selling your soul to gamblers on Wall Street, I think this is a structure worth investigating.

Re-empowering citizens...

We also need to re-empower our citizens, most of whom are overcome with learned helplessness. The problems of our society seem so overwhelming and each person's influence minuscule. But we have to take the power back. We gave it away to various institutions, we can take it back.

Begin the transformation with manageable units...

Consistent with the African saying that it takes an entire village to raise a child, we must reinvigorate our communities. First, we must focus on neighborhoods because people cannot identify with hundreds of thousands of people. On this small scale, ownership, responsibility, and volunteerism are more easily achieved.

Volunteerism and responsibility in Maine...

Topsham, Maine (population 10,000) has reinvigorated their community through the use of volunteers. The town has only 70 paid employees with approximately 15 percent of the work being donated by volunteers. While this has saved the community an estimated $6 on their $16 per $1000 tax rate, the primary pay-back has been in bringing people together. George Deans, who runs the recreation program says, "Topsham has a real close feeling now."

Technology is opening doors to citizen empowerment...

With innovations such as Internet and interactive TV, we are on the threshold of taking our democracy back. Citizens could sign up to electronic mailing lists of issues which concern them and then make their opinions known immediately to their representatives. Some decisions which are now decided (for us) by our legislators might again be voted on by citizens from their homes. How much faster could we change our society if we didn't have to wait for the second Tuesday in November to make a decision. Our legislative process still operates as if the representatives ride horses to the capitol. Perhaps technology will enable all citizens to get more involved in our own self-governance.

Mission Possible

What can you and others in your organization do? Here are two suggestions:

Everyone has a contribution to make and if we align our efforts, we can make a difference.

There is a risk if you take on this mission

The downside of creating a high-performance society, of course, is that we won't be able to blame others (legislators, regulators, bureaucrats, school administrators...) for their incompetence in the same way that disempowered employees complain about their executives.

I know it's a tough choice - to take responsibility or to whine. But the stakes are high. We as quality professionals have the knowledge and the methods to make this a better world. So what is our choice - Move out!

This article was originally published in the Journal for Quality and Participation and is copywritten by the Association for Quality and Participation, 801-B W. 8th St., Suite 501, Cincinnati, Ohio 45203, Tel: 513-381-1959, Fax 513-381-0070: all rights reserved. You may download and print it for your own personal use. If you wish to share it with others by photocopying, e-mail or by placing it on another online service; reprint it in a newsletter, or reprint all or a portion of it in a book for resale, or in a packet included in a course for fee you should contact Ned Hamson, editor at the address or numbers above or at for permission.

"This is the time, we are the people, let's work together... Now!"

About the author:

Darcy Hitchcock is president and co-founder of AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to leveraging human potential through performance systems, training, and teamwork. She has over 15 years experience in training and management. Hitchcock has written a number of articles for this Journal and is one of the co-authors of the AQP/ Business One Irwin book, Why TQM Fails in Most Companies and What to Do About It.