Some choice words on managment by slogan – What Works

Some choice words on managment by slogan – What Works – employee motivation

Tom Terez

They call him Poster Pete, and by all accounts, he’s a nice guy. He likes to tell jokes, he coaches T-ball, he remembers everyone’s birthday. He always has a smile, and when the going gets tough, he’s ready with his trademark can-do attitude.

Pete manages a maintenance facility for a metropolitan bus company, and he’s well liked by the 20 people he supervises. But they like him in spite of the posters. And the more they talk about those seemingly innocent wall-hangings with the catchy slogans, the more their fondness for Pete turns into frustration.

When I visited the mechanics to conduct an interview for my book, the posters were the first thing I noticed. They’re hard to miss–just about every wall is plastered with slogans calling on workers to “Get It Right the First Time” and “Make Safety Your Priority” and “Be a Quality Worker.”

At first I didn’t make much of them. Many workplaces are emblazoned with slogan-bearing posters. Not a big deal, right?

Wrong. Way wrong. The posters at this maintenance facility were, in the straightforward words of one mechanic, “pissing everyone off.”

I was going to interview the mechanics about job satisfaction. My notepad had about 10 questions, and I planned to go through all of them in our half hour together. My first question asked something general about the work environment, and in the first minute, someone raised the issue of those irksome posters. For the next 29 minutes, that’s all they could talk about.

“Get it right the first time!” one of them said with a sarcastic tone. “I’d love to, but have you seen some of the tools we’re using? Even the best mechanics have trouble doing a quality job when you’re working with worn-out stuff like we’re working with.”

Another person brought up safety. “We’re doing everything we can to prevent injuries, but a lot of this safety stuff is out of our control. We’ve been asking for better safety goggles for a year, and we haven’t heard a damn thing.”

A third mechanic took the posters personally. “The day I first walked in the door here, I was a quality worker. I don’t need a poster telling me to do good work.”

As my research took me to other organizations, I kept an eye out for more slogan-bearing posters. Whenever I saw them, I asked about their impact. Most managers surmised that the posters were motivating the employees to focus on goals–albeit general goals like “quality” and “excellence,” Others theorized that the posters motivated some employees and were ignored by the rest. None of the managers had data to support their conclusions, and no one thought the posters were doing any harm.

I heard a very different perspective in my conversations with non-managerial staff. Just about everyone echoed the mechanics from the maintenance facility. “What is quality, anyway?” asked one thoughtful employee whose workstation was near a “Quality the First Time and Every Time” poster. “We’ve never had any conversations around here about what quality really means and what we could do to achieve it. The poster went up and that was it.”

If W. Edwards Deming were alive today, he’d surely give a knowing nod to these workers. Deming was a statistician with some radical ideas about management and organizational effectiveness. He proved that when things go awry in the workplace–when parts are late, for instance, or when a product or service has a defect–it’s almost always the fault of the system and not the workers. It’s unfair and futile to push workers to work harder and do better and produce higher quality if the systems are flawed. The power to change the systems is almost always in the hands of management.

In 1980, NBC broadcast a TV program titled “If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?” It showed how Japanese companies had achieved stunning quality and a resurgence in world markets by putting Deming’s ideas to work. Suddenly, American companies started paying attention.

Much of his philosophy is captured in his 14 Points for Management. Here are five of them, using his own words: create constancy of purpose toward improvement, cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality, improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement, and break down department barriers.

As for the motivational posters at the maintenance facility, Deming’s Point No. 10 is unequivocal:

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

If you’re reading this column, Poster Pete, I hope you won’t be offended by any of the above. But those little two-by-three wall-hangings are causing major heartburn among people in your shop. Your mechanics hate doing a job over; they’d love to get the job done and move on. In fact, they emphatically told me that they don’t need a blankety-blank poster reminding them. They’d also like to know the status of that equipment order they’ve placed with you, so they can finally replace those worn-out drills. And at least two of your mechanics are tired of asking you for permission to attend that workshop on computer diagnostics, or when they’ll get new safetly goggles.

Come to think of it, maybe you should sit down with the mechanics. Let them vent about the posters, but go further. Focus on quality. Ask what it means to them. Find out what systemic barriers keep them from getting it right the first time.

Now for the tough part: Be ready to take action based on what you hear. If you don’t, your commitment to those slogans will be as thin as the paper they’re printed on.

Torn Terez is a speaker, workshop leader and author of 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace. His Web site is Better Write to, or call (614)571-9529.

COPYRIGHT 2002 ACC Communications Inc.

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