VOL. 127 | NO. 113 | Monday, June 11, 2012
Smart Stuff 4 Work
The Red Bead Experiment
By Chris Crouch
What can thousands of red and white beads and a paddle teach us about leadership and management? The short answer is that many leaders are not really leaders and many managers do not really manage.
The red bead experiment, conducted by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, demonstrates that many of the things managers do on a daily basis in the normal course of business are – for lack of a better word – wrong. Although these actions feel intuitively correct, most destroy both productivity and employee morale – and in some cases entire businesses.
Dr. Deming was a statistician, professor, author, lecturer and consultant. Among his many, many accomplishments was providing Japanese management with the theories and methods that facilitated their post-World War II rise, and in some cases, dominance of huge segments of the world economy. The red bead experiment goes a long way toward explaining the underlying basis of Deming’s methods.
Imagine thousands of beads in a container representing incoming raw materials; 80 percent of the beads are white, 20 percent are red. The work goal calls for an employee to use a spatula-like paddle to scoop beads from the container and transfers them to another container. Each dip of the paddle symbolically represents one workday of a willing worker. The work standard calls for the company to ship 50 white beads every day. The buyer only wants white beads and will not accept or pay for red beads under any circumstances. In the experiment, various individuals role-play willing workers, inspectors, recorders and managers. With all the participants present, the willing workers are told to get to work.
Of course, each time a willing worker dips the paddle into the container, they inevitably end up with some red beads. As the game progresses, managers use all the standard methods of responding to the “lack of success” of the willing workers. They scold them for getting red beads, they offer incentives to encourage them to get all white beads, they clarify the goal of shipping only white beads, they discuss adding inspectors, they discuss conducting additional training, they develop detailed policies and procedures, they threaten to fire the workers getting too many red beads, they praise the workers getting fewer red beads than their previous attempts or fewer than another willing worker, and so forth and so on. In reality, each worker has little or nothing to do with the number of red beads that end up in their final product. The process produces random results.
Even when workers try to do their best and are provided the incentives, training and motivation to do so; a flawed system will rarely, if ever, produce quality results. And well-meaning managers expend a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy on things that do not matter in terms of reaching production goals.
Deming’s red bead experiment illustrates one of his most famous discoveries: Bad people don’t cause most problems, bad processes do. This is just another lesson on the importance of addressing the root cause of problems.
Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.