Empty slogans, exhortations to work harder, and irrelevant "best practices" are not only ineffective; they often are counterproductive.
They do not promote clarity. Instead, most people are left to wander in the fog, from data point to data point, without understanding where they are going or why.
This is the eleventh in a series of sixteen articles that explore the relevance and, for some law firms the existential importance, of W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points, especially for small and midsize law firms.
W. Edwards Deming’s tenth point of quality management, "Eliminate Slogans, Exhortations, and Targets for the Workforce," presents a powerful yet often misunderstood concept. Deming argued that mere slogans and targets do not inherently drive quality or productivity. Deming's message, when applied to law firms, can lead to a more meaningful and effective approach to achieving excellence.
Law firms, like many other businesses, often set targets and use motivational slogans in hope of inspiring better performance. However, Deming showed how such practices could be counterproductive. They frequently are unattached to any business reality and may create unrealistic expectations and pressure, leading to a decrease in the quality of work. In the legal environment, where precision and thoroughness are paramount, this is especially pertinent.
The Impact of Discarding Slogans and Arbitrary Targets:
Fact-based goal-setting, by contrast, can produce several strong and sustainable benefits for law firms, such as:
1. Focus on Real Issues: By moving away from catchy phrases and arbitrary benchmarks, law firms can focus on addressing the root causes of issues affecting quality and efficiency. This involves investing in proper training, tools, and processes that genuinely enhance performance, rather than solemnly pronouncing vague and quickly forgotten slogans.
2. Encourage Meaningful Engagement: When the emphasis is shifted from merely hitting targets to engaging in substantive work that creates genuine and lasting competitive advantages, lawyers and staff feel more valued and involved. This increases their commitment to what should be the firm's true goal: financial success by meeting or exceeding the clients' needs and expectations "the first time and every time."
3. Reduce Unnecessary Pressure: Arbitrary targets usually produce much more negative stress than actual positive results. This can lead to burnout, the temptation to take ethical shortcuts, and decreased productivity.
Implementing Deming's Tenth Point in Law Firms
It is important to point out that Deming did not oppose the use of SMART performance goals (i.e., specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, and time-defined). Remember, however, that the most important value of performance goals is not to measure people, but to detect potential problems that prevent goal achievement before those issues deterioriate into a crisis. We all need to remember Deming's observation, which had been validated by my consulting work with law firms for more than 27 years: "A bad system will beat a good person every time."
So, how should a law firm put Deming's Tenth Point into its proper and relevant perspective? I suggest four general things to keep in mind:
1. Replace broad, motivational slogans with clear communications regarding the firm’s goals and values. In other words, Our goal is to demonstrate this important professional value by achieving this goal.
2. Focus on continuous improvement through training and development instead of setting and trying to meet arbitrary performance targets that are not grounded in the factual reality of the way in which clients expect the firm to deliver legal services.
3. Foster a culture of quality where feedback is encouraged, and problems are viewed constructively -- as opportunities to improve rather than indictments of individual performance.
4. Recognize and reward genuine efforts and achievements that contribute to the firm's overall success and client satisfaction.
Deming's Tenth Point summons law firms to create a more realistic and sustainable pathway to excellence. It's about building a culture that values continuous improvement and genuine engagement over superficial slogans and arbitrary targets. By embracing this approach, law firms can foster a more productive, ethical, and quality-driven environment, all of which lead directly to stronger competitive advantages in the market and sustainable profitability for the firm.
Our next post: Rethinking Performance Metrics
W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points provide a framework for sustained growth, improved quality, and better client service. Their successful implementation will require commitment, leadership, and an ongoing dedication to improvement. The law firms that integrate these principles into their daily operations will be well-positioned for future success in the ever-evolving legal landscape.
To learn more about the Fourteen Points, consult W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, (Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1982). Future posts in the Walker Clark World View blog, will examine the strategic relevance and practical application of each of the Fourteen Points to law firm operations and management.