At the New Year, it's fun to look back and learn from the events of the past year. At this New Millennium, let's go back further and reminisce about the "opportunities" we were offered during the past 20 years or so to "get better" at how we do business.

Zero Defects, Management by Objectives and Quality Circles came and went, with no lasting effect. Then came Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints, which really wasn't much of a theory. A constraint on capacity is a constraint; there's nothing theoretical about it.

TQM was a 1980s invention touting problem analysis techniques. One major consulting company that took up this gauntlet ordered every employee to identify TQM projects. So, every initiative immediately became a TQM initiative that was enthusiastically funded regardless of its potential worth.

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award garnered a lot of press for a couple of years, but recently its glow has been like embers in the fire. In fact, some of the more prominent winners were found to have metaphorical feet of clay, taking some of the luster from the Award.

And we can't overlook ISO and its permutations. ISO requires companies to document their practices, policies and procedures, and verify that these are followed precisely. But, the emphasis is on procedures, not on results!

The latest is Six Sigma. Taken from a top-down perspective, Six Sigma is a package of problem-solving disciplines whose goal is performance improvement, although not necessarily to the sixth standard deviation. The contents of the package vary, depending on who does the packaging and presenting. Will it really help turn General Electric around, presuming GE needs turning around? Should others embrace it? Perhaps.

Some time soon, there will be a new business theology, a new path to the Holy Grail. Whatever it is and why, it will replace its predecessors and, in its turn, be replaced.

But, take heart; we can learn from all this!

  • If capacity is the problem, what's wrong with constraint resolution? Clearly, nothing. If a company needs more capacity, increasing the output of the constraining resources and using idle capacity makes good business sense.
  • If the problem is defining the problem, why not introduce a method for problem definition? Finding the root cause of the real problem has significant advantages over solving a third-tier problem.
  • If the problem is poorly understood or inconsistent business practices, what's wrong with documenting practices, policies and procedures? Nothing; what is wrong is not doing it, or even worse, doing the documentation and not benefiting from the understanding!
  • And, what's wrong with disciplined problem solving, rather than using intuition? Why did it take so long to see the need? Or did we just need a guidon to follow?
There was nothing inherently wrong with any of these schemes. But, it is wrong for a company to go after an initiative that doesn't address its real needs. If anything is "fixing" GE, it's getting rid of under-performing business units. If markets are declining because new technologies are replacing old, resolving constraints won't help. IBM learned that the hard way, investing in a state-of-the-art fac-tory to produce typewriters fast and cheap, when personal computers had already made them obsolete.

To get better at how we do business, we have to identify the problems, match the solutions to the problems, and implement the solutions to good effect. It's that simple.