Barriers to Human Endeavor: People or Systems?

by Susan Dwyer and Steve David

The societal costs of poor quality are staggering.

  • Dr. Brian Joiner has found that as much as half of all work is unnecessary .
  • Armand Feigenbaum writes, "[T]he incidence of quality costs is very broad and falls upon activities throughout the entire production and consumption process.
  • Dr. Genichi Taguchi's long research suggests that deviations from target quality multiply into steeply mounting social losses.

Consider an automotive company, which wants to provide a satisfactory transportation solution for its customers. If that experience deviates from its target specification, e.g. the car explodes on impact, or the engine wears quickly, or the body rots out, losses are imparted to society. Customers do not get what they paid for; they get inconvenienced, impoverished or injured. They tell their friends; the car company closes factories, people are unemployed; and taxpayers and suppliers pick up part of the tab. Thus, the costs of poor quality snowball.

Of course, the costs of poor quality are not limited to work processes. In the broadest terms, poor quality processes are to blame for the costs of wars and standing armies, preventable disease and untimely death, poor education, misdistribution of food, crime and prisons, joblessness and underemployment, needless accidents, pollution, bad parenting and bad habits.

To be sure, people don't generally set out to produce shoddy goods and poor service, or to live unhappy lives. But the best intentions run afoul of two barriers to human endeavor:

  • systemic ineffectiveness - where people work well as individuals but not as a team.
  • personal ineffectiveness - where people are not living up to their personal potential.

Is one barrier more important than the other? There are powerful arguments on both sides. The pre-eminent American quality management theorists W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran argue that the overwhelming majority of quality failures are the result of systemic problems, not individual shortcomings. However, E.F. Schumacher, in his influential work of 1973, "Small is Beautiful", warns, "Gandhi used to talk disparagingly of dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good."

Clearly, these two barriers are mixed up together in a chicken-and-egg system. Personal ineffectiveness creates a drag on societal systems, and bad systems clearly engender less effective people. Vicious circles of declining effectiveness can be seen at work in some parts of society -- urban slums spring readily to mind. Virtuous circles also exist, wherein people and systems continually improve -- to wit the stories of turnarounds made in some public schools under the leadership of inspired principals and teachers.

Modern thinkers like Stephen Covey have recognized the link between personal change and systemic change. For example, Covey says, I have seen the consequences of attempting to shortcut this natural process of growth often in the business world, where executives attempt to "buy" a new culture of improved productivity, quality, morale and customer service with strong speeches, smile training, and external interventions. But they ignore the low-trust climate produced by such manipulations. When these methods don't work, they look for other Personality Ethic techniques that will, all the time ignoring and violating the natural principles and processes on which a high-trust culture is based.

Thus, if we want to reverse a vicious circle, or start a virtuous one, we cannot safely ignore either personal or systemic ineffectiveness. Clearly, we need a philosophy with the capability to reduce both barriers, enabling a virtuous circle, and smoothing the path for human endeavor.

The barriers to human endeavor aren't new; presumably from the beginning of human life people have been challenged by them. Yet they probably haven't been static, either. As people's beliefs and social systems have changed, the specific barriers to their progress have changed, too. As the barriers change, so do the philosophies; there is a constant tension/adaptation as we find new ways to live.

One of the driving elements of human-ness seems to be the desire to improve - to make better tools, draw finer pictures, run faster, grow better food, raise healthier livestock, etc. If stifled, this restlessness becomes cancerous. Untempered, it runs amok. Unbalanced by contentment - joy in daily life and work - it dooms us to perpetual dissatisfaction.

How then do we harness this drive? The ways to improve systems and individuals are at least similar, if not identical: Understand the objective. Evaluate the status quo. See the gaps. Focus on key gaps. Think of ways to fill them. Design experiments and collect data. Will the experimental method suffice to fill the gap? If so, use it. If not, try something else. Cycle back through the process.

This basic cycle of improvement is ages old. In the 1620's, Francis Bacon articulated it as the scientific method. In Ancient Greece, Plato strove to describe an improved system of government in "The Republic". Jethro advised Moses to set up captains of tens, 50's, and 100's to reduce the administrative burden he was carrying. Most ancient religions teach similar methods: that there is a goal of spiritual progress, that one should examine oneself to find gaps between the actual and the ideal, and then practice some behavior which extinguishes the bad and encourages the good. And so it goes, back into prehistory.

Our age has its own challenges. The basic barriers remain the same, but they have different nuances. Management thinkers have largely focused on the problem of systemic ineffectiveness, and to good effect. Yet we have a growing interest in exploring the linkage between personal and systemic effectiveness, and in the cross-application of insights between the two fields. That, we suspect, will be where the most valuable insights lie.