Ruined by Best Efforts

Ruined by Best Efforts

When W. Edwards Deming famously said, “We are being ruined by ‘best efforts,’” he was conveying the idea that simply striving to improve—even with laudable effort—can actually have the opposite outcome. How can this be? How could good intentions and diligent work ever possibly sabotage us? Well, they do all the time.

From antiquity to the late 19th century, bloodletting was the most common medical practice performed by doctors. So even as little as 120 years ago, a good physician working faithfully towards curing a patient, would actually do more harm than good with these efforts. No matter how carefully and diligently he worked or how much he desired improvement, he was in fact not helping, but hastening the demise of his patient.
Today, we hold onto some quality, compliance, or business ideas that are as false and destructive as bloodletting. We’re taught them in our schools; we’re rewarded by our bosses when we use them; they’re canonized as “common sense.” When problems arise, we diligently employ these approaches—and they always do more harm than good.

Here’s a great example of how “best efforts” applied toward a supposedly true idea can actually harm quality. The idea is often held that quality is achieved when part or product characteristics comply with their allowable specifications. Like football goalposts, the prevailing wisdom is that as long as the part characteristic lands somewhere within the goalposts—even if it bounces off the post and barely goes in—then quality is achieved. (In reality, a customer’s experience of quality comes when the part characteristic hits an ideal, single target value—the imaginary line down the center of the goalposts. The further the process or part deviates from this ideal target, the more the quality of the process or part degrades, even when it’s still within the allowable specification!) So when a company exerts its “best efforts” towards getting all parts to land somewhere within the goalposts, they actually start to see real quality worsen! Rework and other labor costs go up, cycle times get longer, variation increases, product performance degrades, margins erode—and the customer experience worsens. All this in spite of the “best,” hardest, most diligent, and most aggressive work. (You can read the right way to approach this in my blog posting, Quality Beliefs Determine Improvement Behavior ,) Example after example can be given of similar “best efforts” accelerating a company’s demise.

Deming also said, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.” That is the key: first knowing what, in truth, actually works and then applying diligent effort towards that end. Just over a century ago, knowledge of how disease spreads forever changed the medical world. True understanding quickly ended the teaching and practice of bloodletting.

The way to improve quality is to seek out the truly better way, to question prevailing wisdom and “common sense.” The better way, the true principles, the superior concept—may not seem appropriate or right or popular. Yet truth is truth and stands above opinion. Our task is to first seek out the truth, and then put in the hard work to achieve greatness!

Craig Gygi served as the principle consultant and managing director at CKGygi LLC, a firm he founded that specializes in assisting organizations implement Lean and Six Sigma methods, establish and measure critical metrics for key business processes and provide advanced analytical and quality engineering expertise for engineering, design, production and back-office projects and programs. He also served as director of aerospace quality and operational excellence at ES3 and as director of operational excellence at Fiji Water. He was the founder, president and director of software development for TolStack, Inc. With more than 18 years’ experience applying and leading continuous improvement, Gygi is a recognized leader in the quality industry. Gygi received both a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from BYU. He may be reached at