Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Worker Variation (Capability) in the Workplace

In reading Dr. Deming’s work, The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education (ORDER IT! ) for the third time a continuously recurring theme emerges. This should not come as a surprise to you who are familair with his work, as most of Deming’s writing is based on his principle of the system of Profound Knowledge. Deming defines his system of profound knowledge as four, all related parts: Appreciation for a System; Knowledge about Variation; Theory of Knowledge; and Psychology. The aspect of Deming's writings I want to discuss is the theme on the Knowledge about Variation, and how this theoretical principle has actual, practical application in the workplace.

Deming's realization that "there will always be, between people, in output, in service, in product "(p.98) a certain level of variation, is very similar to worker capability in the workplace. In this write up I specifically want to discuss the applicability of the distribution of capabilities of individual workers; the variation in specifications or requirements needed to perform certain tasks; and the ranking of employees based on irrelevant performance evaluations, with the ensuing detrimental affects on the system.

Deming observes life, as do I from a different perspective. His discourse of the teacher who sends the notes home to the parents, informing them that their child had failed both tests (p.99) was a real eye opening revelation. Deming’s treatment of the variation of skills as a normal distribution verified through statistical measurements is an intuitive observation for most people; it is something that most people feel or realize, yet are not able to quantify logically or express rationally. It also reminds me of the time I had a heated discussion (argument) with a Ph.D. at Central Michigan about grades. He believed in the Bell Shaped Curve. I believed in my students. They (10) had all done “A” work and deserved the grade. He demanded some be given Bs & Cs. They all got As. I will never compromise this principle. Some folks don’t deserve As, but it is out job as leaders/teachers to provide them opportunities to receive As in areas of their expertise.

It has been my perception that in any given work situation there are certain people who are more able or capable of doing certain jobs than their co-workers or peers. If Deming's theories were applied to the workplace where the process has been brought into a state of statistical control, then for any one given task, if there were a sufficient number of workers, a distribution curve could be developed which would distribute these workers in such a fashion that a six-sigma differential could develop between the most capable worker and the least capable worker.

In a workplace where variation of worker capability is not recognized, or ignored, a pair of workers could be selected at random to work together as a team to perform a specific task. Consequently, there is the probability that based on the distribution of the workers; two persons are selected to work together from opposite sides of the curve. However, because the system is in statistical control, both workers might be fully qualified to perform the task, resulting in satisfactory work output.

When a complex task is contemplated, it is imperative that the worker's capabilities are able to shift with the process, placing a higher demand on their stored capabilities. Some workers do not have this reserve. If this is the case, then the worker on the left side of the curve would fall out of the control limit and should be replaced with a worker that falls closer to the mean. When the complex task is such that an equal effort is required from both workers, worker A might intuitively feel that she has been placed at a disadvantage when partnered with worker B, who is known, although not necessarily by management but certainly by his peers, to lack the required skills to do this complex task.

However, when worker A suggests or hints to management that worker B is not capable of performing the required work, Worker A’s candor might be perceived by management as a "high-horse" tactic. Because the manager doesn't have the Knowledge about variation, workers are assigned at random because from the manager’s viewpoint, all workers are equally capable. Therefore, worker A's complaint may be viewed as the result of a superiority complex; Worker A might even be stigmatized as not being a team player. But as Deming says, "A manager needs to understand that all people are different" (p.94). Worker A's attitude is observed by Management to be a Type 1 Error; contributing worker A's reluctance to working with worker B as a special cause, when it is really a reluctance to deal with an incapable co-worker, who is there as a result of a common variation.

According to Dr. Deming, pairing up of workers can be good for the System, because the capable worker will support the incapable worker. The member of the group who is outside of the distribution curve in the system may need special help. In that system, the other members within the system will help the person outside of the control limits. This unsolicited help will benefit the whole system, and eventually the person lying outside the lower control limit will eventually move into the stable state. This is fine if, when the task is completed, both workers get the recognition for the effort.

However, if the existence of a variation in worker capabilities is not recognized, then the worker outside of the control limits will not get the special help, but will be seen as equally capable and this incapable worker will be given an assignment that he is not able to perform. Knowing his own shortcomings, (knowing his place on the variation distribution scale), the incapable worker will extract information and/or results from others, or get capable workers to do his work. But to keep the inability from being obvious, he will not give credit where credit is due. However, the work delivered by the incapable worker, at the expense of the co-workers, is viewed as good work, and subsequently the incapable worker is viewed as a capable worker.

In the above example, worker A is reluctant to work with worker B, because she has taught that worker B will let worker A do all the difficult work. But in the spirit of team effort and cooperation, workers A and B complete the required complex task, and will be similarly rewarded. This is all acceptable to worker A when there is no ranking of people, because she realizes that for the good of the system, it is worth her effort to help worker B. But when there is a worker ranking system on top of the lack of Knowledge about variation, the system breaks down. Unfortunately, because there is no basic Knowledge about variation, employees are typically ranked in accordance with some irrelevant, immeasurable performance criteria instead of the natural distribution curve.

Consequently, when the company worker A works for institutes a ranking system where each worker is ranked relative to her team mates, it isn't long before she objects to helping the incapable worker, especially when it is known that, at the expense of his co-workers, the incapable worker will do everything possible to obtain a higher relative ranking. So now that capable workers objects to having to work with incapable workers, management is surprised and does not understand the reluctance by the workers, even though they created that unstable system themselves.

Deming’s viewpoint on variation explains the phenomenon that so often eludes management’s understanding of the lack of cooperation or teamwork between its employees. Summing this all up, the final outcome seems to be that if teamwork and cooperation is required for the benefit of the system, ranking employees on arbitrary, non-related performance criteria rather than on the normal state, statistical control distribution curve will only be counter-productive and detrimental to management’s objectives. Where teamwork would have been a natural result in a stable system, the implementation of a ranking system destroyed all incentives for the workers to help each other.

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