“Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing layout, processes, and procedures.” — Tom Peters
On May 21, 2013 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki issued a press release addressing the problems with the VA and setting metrics for improvement:
“VA and Veterans Service Organizations Announce Claims Initiative to Reduce Claims Backlog - Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and The American Legion announced a new partnership to help reduce the compensation claims backlog for Veterans. The effort—the Fully Developed Claims (FDC) Community of Practice—is a key part of VA’s overall transformation plan to end the backlog in 2015 and process claims within 125 days at 98% accuracy. VA can process FDCs in half the time it takes for a traditionally filed claim.”
In a related report by Aaron Glantz of the Riverside Press-Enterprise:
“The Department of Veterans Affairs has systematically missed nearly all of its internal benchmarks for reducing a hulking backlog of benefits claims and has quietly backed away from repeated promises to give all veterans and family members speedier decisions by 2015.
Internal VA documents, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, show the agency processed 260,000 fewer claims than it thought it would during the past year and a half – falling 130,000 short in fiscal 2012 and another 130,000 short of its goal between October and March.
The result: At a time when the number of veterans facing long waits was supposed to be going down, it instead went up.
On April 29, the VA began to qualify its promise, made repeatedly since 2009, that “all claims” would be processed within four months by 2015.
In a weekly performance report posted on its website, the agency excludes a host of benefits from the promise – including veterans’ burial subsidies, pensions sought by survivors and compensation claims from children of Vietnam veterans, who have birth defects caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.
In an emailed statement, the VA said its promise to eliminate the claims backlog was never meant to cover those types of benefits.
The agency also said it is “using all the tools in the toolbox” to expedite claims. It again repeated its mantra that the delays are “unacceptable.” It added that it fell nearly 17,000 claims short of its production goal for April.
But the VA did not address questions about the fundamental issue: Are the goals unrealistic, the execution flawed or both?
Instead, the agency cited yet another set of ambitious goals – an April vow to clear all 2-year-old claims by mid-June and an order, issued May 15 by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, instructing all claims staff to work 20 hours of overtime a month through September, which the agency said would have “a measurable impact by the end of the fiscal year.”
The long delays and seemingly intractable nature of the claims backlog has led some lawmakers to look into radically overhauling the process.
Earlier this month, Rep. Bill Enyart, an Illinois Democrat and former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, introduced legislation to require the VA to begin providing partial compensation to all veterans with claims pending more than 125 days – even if their disabilities had not yet been verified. If a claim denial ultimately followed, veterans would have to pay back the money only if they were found to have consciously misled the agency.
Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has introduced a similar measure in the Senate.
“I’m tired of meeting veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who can’t work because they are disabled and are worried about losing their home,” Enyart said. “They deserve better than that.”
According to USA Today the VA has seen its budget increase 41% since 2009 to $140 billion this year. Meanwhile, the pace of incoming disability claims has stayed ahead of VA's ability to process them:
“Concerned about nearly 600,000 veterans waiting months or years for disability checks, Obama administration officials Friday lifted the veil on a corner of the president's upcoming 2014 budget, promising a hike in VA discretionary spending.
The proposal would boost non-entitlement spending to $63.5 billion for 2014, a 4% increase over this year, said Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough in a meeting with reporters at the Executive Office Building.
"We're bringing all the power of the government to bear ... to try to address the backlog," says McDonough, who added that Obama tracks the weekly numbers of pending cases. "We're involved in this ... on a daily basis, very aggressively to try to bring this (disability claims backlog) number down."
Shinseki in recent weeks has come under intense criticism for the backlog from a chorus ranging from comedian Jon Stewart to the House VA Committee chair, who called upon the department's Veterans Benefits Administration chief to resign because of it.
"I hear the criticism out there," Shinseki said Friday. "You make the tough decisions, and you deal with it."
McDonough seemed to reaffirm the White House's confidence in Shinseki, saying he is someone "the president relies on and leans on daily."
The VA has seen its budget increase 41% since 2009 to $140 billion this year. Meanwhile, the pace of incoming disability claims has stayed ahead of VA's ability to process them, and there are now nearly 900,000 pending claims from veterans, including about 600,000 waiting longer than four months.
McDonough stressed the administration's high priority on VA spending even as major reductions are considered elsewhere, citing news reports Friday that Obama would propose cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare.”
I also heard an audio clip from an interview with Shinseki today where he restated his goals for the VA and added that they were targeting a rating of 90% for customer service. When I heard this I almost drove the car off the road. I was flabbergasted by such a statement! This was just more big government BS. What about the 10%? I guess they are irrelevant. How about the 98% accuracy goal? Does this mean that 18,000 (2%) vets will have inaccurate medical and benefit records? They deserve much better than that.
In the late 1980s the civil engineering, land surveying, and environmental services I was a principle, part owner and vice-president of made an application to the committee overseeing the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. This is a very difficult award to receive and the firm was fortunate to make the top 100 national list.
The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence serve two main purposes: (1) to identify Baldrige Award recipients that will serve as role models for other organizations and (2) to help organizations assess their improvement efforts, diagnose their overall performance management system, and identify their strengths and opportunities for improvement. In addition, the Criteria help strengthen U.S. competitiveness by:
- Improving organizational performance practices, capabilities, and results
- Facilitating communication and sharing of information on best practices among U.S. organizations of all types
- Serving as a tool for understanding and managing performance and for guiding planning and opportunities for learning
The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence provide organizations with an integrated approach to performance management that results in:
- Delivery of ever-improving value to customers and stakeholders, contributing to organizational sustainability
- Improved organizational effectiveness and capabilities
- Organizational and personal learning
During our award submittal process I had read an article about a Cadillac Dealership in Dallas, Texas that had received the award for excellence. During the award ceremony with the assembled dealership employees and their families when the Baldrige Committee representative he stated that he dealership had one of the highest customer service ratings in the nation at 98.5%. This brought a round of cheers and applause from the audience. The owner of the dealership stepped up to the podium to thank the committee and the employees Then he became very serious and stated he was not satisfied with 98.5%. He said there were 1.5% of his customers who were not satisfied with the performance of the dealership and he was very concerned with them and admonished his employees that he expected them to do better in the coming years. This was a serious and dedicated man to his customers.
One of my responsibilities during my 22 years as a manager and owner I was very involved in quality control and quality assurance. The three books that I kept above my desk were: In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman; The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull; and Out of Crisis by W. Edwards Deming. These three books could be considered my quality assurance and customer service bibles.
In Search of Excellence is considered the "Greatest Business Book of All Time" (Bloomsbury UK), and has long been a must-have for the boardroom, business school, and bedside table.
Based on a study of forty-three of America's best-run companies from a diverse array of business sectors, In Search of Excellence describes eight basic principles of management — action-stimulating, people-oriented, profit-maximizing practices — that made these organizations successful.
In Search of Excellence', co-authored with Bob Waterman, is Tom Peters first book and sold over 6 million copies. Its success surprised their colleagues at McKinsey, who had laughed at the idea that Peters and Waterman would keep the royalties, "should the book sell 50 000 copies".
Two decades later, In Search of Excellence is still one of the most readable management books. The eight characteristics of excellent companies, a bias for action, close to the customer, autonomy and entrepreneurship, productivity through people, hands-on values driven, stick to the knitting, simple form and lean staff, simultaneous loose-tight properties are all still relevant and still ignored today. It is written clearly, painting vivid pictures with anecdotes and examples from real companies.
Peters and Waterman found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. The book devotes one chapter to each theme.
- A bias for action, active decision making — getting on with it. Facilitate quick decision making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
- Close to the customer — learning from the people served by the business.
- Autonomy and entrepreneurship — fostering innovation and nurturing champions.
- Productivity through people — treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
- Hands-on, value-driven — management philosophy that guides everyday practice - management showing its commitment.
- Stick to the knitting — stay with the business that you know.
- Simple form, lean staff — some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
- Simultaneous loose-tight properties — autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.
None of these themes are present in the government civil service. I know because I worked as a supervisor for the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans) for ten years prior to going into business for myself. The civil service is managed by bureaucrats who are far more concerned with advancement in their civil service rating (GS rating for the federal government) and maintaining their longevity until their lucrative retirement benefits. It is a punitive system of management where “don’t rock the boat” far outweighs “thinking out of the box” and taking responsibility. Employees are managed and governed by policy manuals and memorandums and are far removed from their upper management. Customer (taxpayer) service ranks last on the list of concerns — personal advancement tops the list.
The main theme of The Peter Principle is rising to the level of incompetency. Back in 1969, Lawrence J. Peter created a cultural phenomenon with his brilliant, outrageous, hilarious, and all-too-true treatise on business and life, The Peter Principle — and his words and theories are as true today as they were then. By posing — and answering — the eternal question, “Why do things always go wrong?” Peter explores the incompetence that runs so rampant through our society, our workplace, and our world in an outrageously funny yet honest and eye-opening manner
The Peter Principle is a proposition that states that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, "Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence." In more formal parlance, the effect could be stated as: employees tend to be given more authority until they cannot continue to work competently.
The principle holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. Peter's Corollary states that:
In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties"
Ads that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence." "Managing upward" is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly manipulate his or her superiors in order to prevent them from interfering with the subordinate's productive activity or to generally limit the damage done by the superiors' incompetence.
Another method is to refrain from promoting a worker until he or she shows the skills and work habits needed to succeed at the next higher job. Thus, a worker is not promoted to managing others if they do not already display management abilities.
The first corollary is that employees who are dedicated to their current jobs should not be promoted for their competence, but should instead be rewarded with, say, a pay rise, and remain in their current position; they should also not be promoted in response to their lack of competence at their current job.
The second corollary is that employees might be promoted only after being sufficiently trained to the new position. This places the burden of discovering individuals with poor managerial capabilities before (as opposed to after) they are promoted.
As a manger I saw this numerous times within the organization. We would have project engineers who were crackerjacks at their job. They were technical competent, if not superior, they loved their work, and were constantly striving for excellence in engineering. But when they were promoted to the level of project manager where they had to deal with subordinates and more importantly clients and contract issues many would fail and would ether resign or asked to leave. Their client service skills were weak, if not nil, due to the introverted nature of an engineer. They were more comfortable with the computer than the telephone of a face-to-face client meeting. This was unfair to a technically sound and dedicated employee. It would have been far better to reward his or her performance with monetary and educational perks.
This also applies to the civil service. Promotions come via civil service exams and longevity. If a GS 9 studies and keeps his or her nose clean they will eventually be promoted to GS 10 and so on and on until they reach their level of incompetence and sit there until retirement. If you doubt this just look at the current spate of hearings regarding the maleficence and criminal behavior of the IRS and Justice Department.
In the late 1980s I was introduced to the work of W. Edwards Deming through his book Out of Crisis. was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer and consultant. He is perhaps best known for the "Plan-Do-Check-Act" cycle popularly named after him. In Japan, from 1950 onwards, he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing, and sales (the last through global markets) through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.
Deming made a significant contribution to Japan's later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death. President Reagan awarded the National Medal of Technology to Deming in 1987. He received in 1988 the Distinguished Career in Science award from the National Academy of Sciences.
Deming's teachings and philosophy are best illustrated by examining the results they produced after they were adopted by Japanese industry, as the following example shows: Ford Motor Company was simultaneously manufacturing a car model with transmissions made in Japan and the United States. Soon after the car model was on the market, Ford customers were requesting the model with Japanese transmission over the US-made transmission, and they were willing to wait for the Japanese model. As both transmissions were made to the same specifications, Ford engineers could not understand the customer preference for the model with Japanese transmission. Finally, Ford engineers decided to take apart the two different transmissions. The American-made car parts were all within specified tolerance levels. On the other hand, the Japanese car parts were virtually identical to each other, and much closer to the nominal values for the parts – e.g., if a part was supposed to be one foot long, plus or minus 1/8 of an inch – then the Japanese parts were all within 1/16 of an inch. This made the Japanese cars run more smoothly and customers experienced fewer problems.
My cousin worked for Ford Motors at the Cleveland Engine plant for 25 years as a general foreman. In the late 1980s he told me, while on a visit to Cleveland, that his plant had a very high rejection rate of cast engine blocks. He claimed this was due to union work rules and the company’s lack of willingness to challenge the union for fear of work slow-downs or strikes. He told me that Japanese auto manufactures, even the non-union shops in the United States, were delivering cars of higher quality and dependability. The Japanese, adhering to principles espoused by Deming were even surpassing the Germans in quality.
Deming offered fourteen key principles to managers for transforming business effectiveness. The points were first presented in his book Out of the Crisis. Although Deming does not use the term in his book, it is credited with launching the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement.
- Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive, stay in business and to provide jobs.
- Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
- Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.
- End the practice of awarding business on the basis of a price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
- Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
- Institute training on the job.
- Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
- Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
- Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, in order to foresee problems of production and usage that may be encountered with the product or service.
- 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.
- a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute with leadership. b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Instead substitute with leadership.
- a. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality. b Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objectives.
- Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
- Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody's job.
"Massive training is required to instill the courage to break with tradition. Every activity and every job is a part of the process."
Seven Deadly Diseases
The "Seven Deadly Diseases" include:
- Lack of constancy of purpose
- Emphasis on short-term profits
- Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance
- Mobility of management
- Running a company on visible figures alone
- Excessive medical costs
- Excessive costs of warranty, fueled by lawyers who work for contingency fees
A Lesser Category of Obstacles" includes:
- Neglecting long-range planning
- Relying on technology to solve problems
- Seeking examples to follow rather than developing solutions
- Excuses, such as "our problems are different"
- Obsolescence in school that management skill can be taught in classes
- Reliance on quality control departments rather than management, supervisors, managers of purchasing, and production workers
- Placing blame on workforces who are only responsible for 15% of mistakes where the system designed by management is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences
- Relying on quality inspection rather than improving product quality
Deming's advocacy of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, his 14 Points and Seven Deadly Diseases have had tremendous influence outside manufacturing and have been applied in other arenas, such as in the relatively new field of sales process engineering.
It was Deming’s principles and theories that put the issues of quality assurance, quality control, and client service in to total context for me. In 2006 I wrote a series of three articles for American Surveyor magazine where I stated:
“In 2003 the Mercedes Benz motorcar company had dropped from No.1 to 26th place on the J.D. Powers and Associates, Inc.* rating of auto manufacturers in the category of quality. This was eight slots below the industry average, trailing Chrysler and Ford. In 1991 Mercedes ranked No. 1 in quality and customer satisfaction; by 2000 they had dropped to No. 6 and by 2003 to 26th. Some of the problems cited in the J.D. Powers reports were handling, braking, shocks and struts, electronic window controls, and inaccurate fuel gauges. How did this one-time industry nameplate fall on such hard times?
The problems cited in the survey arose from three models from the year 2000, including the midsize E-Class sedan, Mercedes' big money maker. In the 1990s Toyota and Nissan stormed the U.S. market with lower-priced luxury cars such as the Lexus and Infiniti. To compete, Mercedes' engineers had to overhaul their process of building cars. Instead of letting design determine the cost, engineers had to design cars to meet a target price. These German engineers, accustomed to designing for quality, weren't very good at this practice. Quality took a back seat. Fortunately for Mercedes this situation did not last long and the company regrouped and went back to its roots, designing for quality and value.
Several years ago the firm I work for received a call from a Mercedes engineer in Stuttgart, Germany requesting that we take elevations on a section of the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles. They wanted elevations taken to 3 millimeters on a ten-foot-by-ten-foot grid along a very rough section of this heavily traveled roadway. The Mercedes engineers wanted to use this data to create a digital terrain model of the roadway so they could design their front-end suspension for California drivers, many of which had been complaining about the stability and durability of the suspension systems. We carried out this assignment using the Vangarde 505 remote sensing pavement survey system. Due to the density of the grid, heavy traffic conditions requiring working off hours and nights, and coordinating with Caltrans, this was a very costly survey. It was also quite a change in philosophy from designing for cost rather than quality and customer satisfaction.”
“Both TQM and ISO 9000 (and its deviants) are very complex programs requiring a great deal of management's time and training throughout the enterprise. I will refrain from referring to these programs as in my opinion they do not address the focus of my articles. They are valuable programs and for many large private and public sector contracts the qualifying firms must demonstrate either ISO 9000 or a TQM certification. Keep in mind that both of these programs require external and internal audits of a company's business and client service practices, and run the gamut from accounting systems to answering the phone. ISO 9000 covers the basics of what quality management systems are and also contains the core language of the ISO 9000 series of standards. ISO 9001 is intended for use in any organization that designs, develops, manufactures, installs and/or services any product or provides any form of service. It provides a number of requirements which an organization needs to fulfill if it is to achieve customer satisfaction through consistent products and services that meet customer expectations.
All of these quality assurance programs are rooted in the teachings of W. Edwards Deming. Deming is to quality as Peter Drucker is to management (Management by Objectives) and Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence) is to client service.
William Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was an American statistician, widely credited with improving production in the United States during World War II. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan, where from 1950 onward he taught top management the principles of Statistical process control (SPC), a forerunner of TQM. During the post-war reconstruction of Japan General Douglas MacArthur invited Deming to assist in the rebuilding of Japanese industry. At that time products made in Japan were considered to be of very low quality. Some Japanese cottage industries had located in the village of Usa so they could claim the their products were made in the USA! This did not help very much. When Japanese cars began arriving in the United States in 1960, Detroit automakers sneered. But we all know the end of the story. It is the Japanese and Korean automakers that are now building their cars in the "real" USA, and they are known for quality.
Under Deming's stewardship Japan became renowned for producing innovative high quality products. Deming is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other non-Japanese individual.
Deming taught that by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations can increase quality and simultaneously reduce costs (by reducing waste, rework, staff attrition and litigation while increasing loyalty) The key is to practice continual improvement and think of manufacturing as a system, not as bits and pieces. In 1960, Deming became the first American to receive the Second Order of the Sacred Treasures from Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. An accompanying citation stated that the people of Japan attributed the rebirth and success of their industry to his work. Today the highest prize awarded by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) for industrial achievement is the Deming prize. This is comparable to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, established by the U.S. Congress in 1987 to recognize quality and business achievements of U.S. organizations.”
I have given lectures at seminars for both the private and public sector of quality assurance, quality control, and client service. After my retirement I was contracted to write the quality assurance, quality control, and client service manual for my previous firm. It was the first interactive, hyperlinked manual of its kind the firm had ever had.
Of course I had to tailor my presentations to address the needs and concerns of the private and public sectors. This was difficult as the public sector, as stated above, is quite different from the private. To the private sector profit and sustainability are paramount and to achieve these firms are dependent on the highest quality, superb client service and retaining he best employees while keeping costs as low as possible. This is a very delicate balancing act, but Deming’s principles are most applicable.
In the public sector we have a different culture and management style. There is no realization of profit in the public sector. Why should there be? They have a unlimited source of capitalization — it’s called taxpayer money. Cost control is not an issue as most agencies are not aware of their real costs of doing business as they do not take into account the costs of employee productivity. They staff by available budget and each year they request budget increases. If they do not use their entire budget in any fiscal reporting period they lose the funds. This encourages them to spend until all the money is gone. There is no reward for saving money.
They have a punitive management style based on policies and memorandums that issue from some unknown mastermind in another department, building or state. Cross communication is something to be avoided as it only creates potential conflict.
I present all of this as an argument to show how the VA with its 41% increase in budget is still doing a lousy job and not meeting its goals and metrics.
This condition is not exclusive to the VA, but to almost every federal and state agency in the nation, including the military. They obfuscate with government doublespeak to a pint where the Congress and taxpayer is bamboozled over and over again. A recent example is the collapse of a bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River in the state of Washington. It did not take lone for the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee (D), to call for more money from the people of Washington and the federal government to repair and replace the ailing and failing transportation infrastructure. The New York Times reports:
“Mr. Inslee said in an interview that a broader message of the collapse is that state financing for state transportation projects — now under consideration in a special session of the Legislature — can no longer wait, especially for the long-delayed Columbia River project.
“It shouldn’t take an oversize load to let us know we have an oversized problem,” he said.
Washington State faces a deadline this year to find money for the $3.2 billion project over the Columbia River, or risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal financing. Oregon’s Legislature has approved $450 million, but Washington State’s $450 million share has been stalled. About $1 billion would come from tolls.
Building America’s Future, an advocacy group founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and two former governors, Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, also issued a statement characterizing the bridge collapse as a “call to action.”
“Regardless of how this happened, the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State is a timely reminder of our nation’s need to invest in critical infrastructure upgrades,” Mr. Rendell said. “Our nation’s bridges, roads and highways are deteriorating before our eyes.”
Over the years the federal and state governments have collected excise taxes from the sale of gasoline, diesel fuel, tires, auto and truck registrations, and tolls to pay for the nation’s roads. Where does the money go? In states like Washington and California a large percentage of those excise go to bloated state employee staffs within the departments of transportation along with pensions and health care benefits for retiring state employees. Washington, as California, is restricted from outsourcing much of its design and maintenance programs to the private sector. Until these government union controlled agencies take a different course our infrastructure will continue to age and fail. Of course we can always take the train.