Lessons from the spilt milk

Is it just me or did others notice the Chinese embassy spokesperson’s words on The Nation this weekend? Embassy Economic and Commercial Councillor, Zhang Fan, was asked, “Are you looking for heads to roll (over the Fonterra issue)?” He appeared bemused by the question. His answer implied that it is not their way to find someone to blame but rather to look for the solution.

In a nutshell, it summed up the contrast between the traditional Eastern versus Western approaches to quality assurance. W. Edwards Deming, whose approach was widely adopted by Eastern manufacturers decades ago, emphasised the quality system: when there is an error, look first to the system. People are only as good as the systems they operate and operate within. His urges to avoid blame and a culture of fear largely fell on deaf Western ears.

He argued that the Western approach of top-down (imposed) objective-setting focused people’s energy and effort on keeping out of trouble. When the fear is that  targets can’t be reached, you get corner cutting, cover ups, delayed exposure (response), blaming others……..all resulting in lower productivity, compromised quality and underperformance.  Indeed, this approach left Western manufacturers competitively floundering for decades until they eventually adopted a version of Eastern quality systems.

Deming stood for an attitude of continuous improvement (kaizen) where people set their own goals based on process understanding, quality systems, measures and controls close to them, that they can immediately see and correct. This remains the shortest, cheapest path to competitive advantage.

Many seem to miss the connection between world class teams in all walks of life – both business and sport – and this simple focus on process (inputs) versus outcome (outputs).


  •  You look to the system when errors occur
  • There is collective responsibility for system design and process design
  • Individuals focus on daily (iterative) continuous improvement
  • There is rigorous, open scrutiny ……

what flows from that is the best of what is human in the workplace:

  • Brilliant foresight
  • Preventative action
  • Intelligent processes
  • Early error detection
  • Quick response
  • Mutual trust and collaboration
  • One team (overall harmony and cohesion)
  • Absence of political manoeuvring, posturing and game playing

…characteristics common to all world-class, high-performing teams.  Simply put, you get the best of all the brains.

I believe it was Konosuke Matsushita (founder of the Panasonic empire, and known by many in Japan as the ‘god of management’) who said: ‘We use all the brains, not just the big ones at the top.’


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
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