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Donkin on Work - Management Theory

March 2008 – Joseph Juran, quality guru

Joseph Juran, who died last week at the age of 103, was the last of the great statistical gurus who established the quality movement in business and helped to transform Japanese production after the Second World War.

I visited him at his home in Connecticut in the summer of 1999 when he was still working on his memoirs, having only retired from the lecture circuit a few years earlier. We talked about his time spent working as a statistical analyst at the Hawthorne works of Western Electric on the outskirts of Chicago during the 1920s and 30s.

He was there during the prohibition era when gangsters were fighting each other for control of the underground trade in alcohol. Mobsters such as Al Capone were running gambling dens, including a casino just across the road from the Hawthorne factory.

Juran told me he would visit the casino during his lunch breaks and play the roulette wheel. He noticed that the operator’s arm had such a repetitive action that it improved the odds of winning for certain numbers. He used the observation successfully to make a financial killing at the table but, sensibly, did not continue the system.

Perhaps his best known contribution to the workplace – and not unrelated to this casino observation - was what he called the “Pareto Principal” now better known as the 80/20 rule. This holds that most effects come from relatively few causes.

Later he acknowledge that the influence for this rule had less to do with Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist after whom it was named, and more to do with the work of Max Otto Lorenz whose “Lorenz curve” displayed the deviation of a sample from the standard.

Juran used this observation when tackling waste, arguing that it was more important initially to concentrate on the “vital few” operations in manufacturing, rather than the “trivial many.”

What has now become an accepted approach in management was not well understood by many businesses even forty years ago. When Juran visited Rolls-Royce, in the UK during the 1960s he told the company he could halve its waste costs in five years but his ideas were ignored.

He called it a lost opportunity. “In this company the way for a man to work his way to the top was to increase sales. Reducing costs in the factories was seen [at the time] as dry drudgery that wouldn’t interest most managers. I was dealing with a caste system, and the Samurai at the top were the people able to identify sales.”

His mention of the old Japanese social order was deliberate because it was in Japan during the 1950s where, with W Edwards Deming, he had been able to exert his greatest influence. While his lectures on quality control in the US had been attended by relatively junior managers, in Japan they attracted the chief executives of its largest manufacturing companies.

For all his statistical abilities, Juran was instrumental in emphasising quality control as good management rather than as a statistical tool, even though a series of 1980s fads such as “total quality management” owe something top him for their inspiration.

But it was the principles behind his thinking that mattered more than the labels attached to the various systems he influenced. Juran rejected a “zero defects” approach to production that envisaged a faultless process. His graduated approach would influence the Six Sigma process that aims to improve quality over time.

As a result, today there appears to be a broader understanding that quality needs to be seen as continuous improvement rather than some project-length initiative.

It’s telling, perhaps, that although much of his work and that of Deming has become entrenched within modern management approaches, many of the symptoms of industrial decline that they identified remain with us today.

Deming, for example, berated a lack of constancy of purpose towards improvement of products and services, an emphasis on short-term profits, evaluations of individual performance, job-hopping by managers and managing by concentrating principally on metrics without considering unknown variables.

His views would put him at odds with current management orthodoxy that has elevated the annual performance appraisal to something akin to a human MOT test.
At the same time many so-called talent management systems are deliberately hopping their high potential managers from job to job.

If this tells us anything it is that management ideas and management complaints tend to go in cycles. What seems like a good idea today, did not necessarily look so good 40 years ago. Juran subscribed to this theory that certain organisational thinking runs in cycles. He noted, for example, that the ancient Egyptians had run quality inspections on the building blocks used to create the pyramids. Juran’s approach, however, was to look at all the work processes from conception to the finished goods.

His was a more holistic view of management that appreciated the nuances of work and the influences of human relationships. He understood that management and good work involved something more than the scores on a tick box form.

One of Juran’s strengths was to appreciate the human sides of management. He rejected, for example, Deming’s assertion that fear was an inhibitor in the workplace. Juran argued that “fear can bring out the best in people.” It’s possible that both could have been right.

Fear is a significant source of motivation in the workplace – the fear of being late with a deadline, of letting down your boss, your colleagues or a customer. But constant fear – fear without relief or any way of handling the fear - can be corrosive in the way that it promotes stress.

Juran was in his mid-nineties when I met him but he was still scheduling his days as work programmes. Peter Drucker did the same well in to his 90s. Neither he nor Juran were enthusiastic about the idea of retirement.

“When I go, please let me go at my word processor,” said Juran. I’m not sure whether he had his wish but there was no denying his industry at the time of our meeting. It’s a testament to the quality of his ideas that he did not outlive the usefulness of his thinking that will be his lasting legacy.

See also: Management thinkers

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