Quality Improvement and Government:
Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience
By David C. Couper
Chief of Police, City of Madison, WI
This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
Volume 8 Number 1 - Spring 1995
(This article was forwarded to me by firstname.lastname@example.org
and has been reprinted without consent
of the author. Even though I'm sure he'd be happy to see it
For the past four years, I have been working hard to implement a
new way of thinking within the police department as well as within city
government in Madison. This new way of thinking involves quality
improvement methods similar to those used by many companies in the
private sector, particularly in the manufacturing arena. These methods
have been highly successful in providing not only better quality
products and services, but have done so at a lower cost. Attempting to
put these principles to work in the public sector--where the
ever-changing world of politics often collides with the autocratic
forces of the bureaucracies--has been a unique and challenging experience for me, more difficult than I would ever have imagined.
Although my progress has been slow and the path difficult, I
believe more than ever that these methods apply to the public sector.
It does require, however, some bridge building to see how Dr. W.
Edwards Deming's 14 points apply to government. After all, who are the
"customers" (citizens, employees, other departments)? How does the
reduction in variation apply to service systems (can services-delivered
be equated with manufactured products)? How do we eliminate the annual
rating system (particularly when evaluation is part of performance
The answers haven't come easy for the private sector, nor are they
easy for public agencies. With this in mind, the following are some
lessons I have learned from my experiences of the past four years. I
hope they can help others traveling the same road in government bridge
POLITICS IS LIKE WAR. WINNERS DON'T ACCEPT LOSER'S PROGRAMS EVEN IF
THEY ARE GOOD.
Most newly-elected politicians attempt to negate programs and
successes of their predecessors; even the good things they accomplished. They want, instead, to implement their newly proposed programs
which they feel must be unique and different from those of the past
administration. Every new administration (especially if the winner is
from a different political party than the loser) starts as though it
were the first, rather than building on past knowledge and experiences.
It's as if every new explorer ignored the maps and journeys of their
predecessors and had to personally explore the world and draw their own
maps. In this kind of system, there is very little progress.
QUALITY IMPROVEMENT AND POLITICS DON'T MIX VERY WELL.
I don't believe they can't mix, only that they don't mix very
well. Politics in America is very short-sighted-a year, two years at
the most, is all good politicians will invest before they expect a
"pay-off." Simply speaking, a quality improvement effort won't pay off
in such short time periods. The irony is that good politicians must
start doing this for our future. In the short term, quality should be
implemented because it is the right thing to do. Quality improvement
cannot be viewed as a particular politicians "program." If it is, it
will last only the tenure of that politician.
IF LEFT ALONE, GOVERNMENT WILL MAINTAIN TRADITIONAL WORK SYSTEMS AT THE
EXPENSE OF NEW AND BETTER WAYS OF THINKING AND WORKING.
Maintenance of the status quo at the expense of constant improvement is the single most stifling force in government. The nature of
government has been to maintain the status quo. The trouble with this
is that it leaves no opportunity for growth and improvement. Government
has maintained a 19th century authoritarian work system despite a
growing realization in the private sector of new and more effective
ways of doing business. In bureaucracy, authority, technology, and
specialization are more than people, creativity, and improvement. Many
of the real problems of quality and productivity can be overcome by
vision, leadership, a well-defined mission, teamwork, innovation, and
constant systems improvement. These things are the responsibility of
leaders, not workers; they are not things that bureaucracies do very
THERE ARE AT LEAST TWO KINDS OF POWER USED BY BOSSES: POWER BY FEAR AND
POWER BY ENABLING OTHERS.
There are numerous ways bosses use power. Most of these work to
empower bosses, not other employees. Using fear to get things done is
the most common management technique in government today. It is easy to
use fear tactics because our culture supports them--bosses order,
workers do. It seems that simple. But is it the best way? Bosses who
use fear have employees who don't talk to them very much and they
receive very little information from the rank and file--information
they need to make good decisions. Bosses who empower their employees
treat them as adults, excite creativity in them as well as throughout
the organization. There is an atmosphere of trust and respect between
the people who work there and the organization's leadership. Leaders
who empower others appear, from what I've observed, to have gained more
power through this sharing process.
THERE'S AT LEAST TWO REASONS WHY BOSSES ACCEPT QUALITY IMPROVEMENT:
FEAR OF FAILURE AND INTROSPECTION.
When bosses are afraid they may lose their job or the company may
begin to falter, they will try anything--even quality improvement
methods. The second primary reason I have observed is they have become
introspective in their own right. They try it because quality seems to
be the right thing to do. They are people who get excited about new
ideas and seek out the best methods of running their organizations.
Government has not experienced the kinds of crises that the private
sector has had to endure. Therefore, for government to move forward and
adopt this new philosophy, it will take leaders who are introspective,
forward-thinking, and risk-takers.
EMPLOYEES DO WHAT THEY THINK THEIR BOSSES WANT MORE THAN BOSSES THINK
Employees watch their leaders more closely than anyone imagines.
Employees key in on the negative as well as the positive things they
do. Bosses set the tone and pace of the workplace. If the boss uses
fear to suppress creative behavior it may be years before an idea
surfaces again in their organization. On the other hand, bosses who
encourage their employees to think and be creative are surprised at the
YOU CANNOT EXPECT UNIONS OR FRONT LINE WORKERS TO "CARRY THE TORCH" FOR
Although implementing quality improvement methods is in the
interest of all employees, the fear that permeates governmental organizations and the lack of power employees have makes it a mean trick to
say that the quality revolution will start within the ranks of front
line workers and their unions. Managers have hundreds of ways to block
union efforts to improve the quality of work. It is a mistake to think
that an organization can transform itself without employees and their
leaders working together. Only by working together can quality improvement methods become a way of doing business in government.
THE GREATEST DETRIMENT TO QUALITY IMPROVEMENT IS "COWBOY" MANAGEMENT.
American managers have been trained to "shoot fast from the hip"
and to take immediate action, with "six-guns blazing," even if it proves
later to be the wrong course of action. The cowboy analogy goes further: cowboys work alone, they are strong, silent, macho, and always
know what needs to be done. What cowboy management does is disregard
the importance of the group, input from front line workers, the need to
have mutual respect and trust between managers and workers, teamwork,
facilitating open communications, and acceptance of women and minorities in the workplace. Cowboy management should be as out of date in
the workplace as a cowboy in Manhattan.
THE SECOND GREATEST DETRIMENT TO QUALITY IMPROVEMENT IS THE WESTERN
By ego, I mean the "I" over the "we." It means hanging on to
America's greatest and most damaging myth--that the individual is
better than the team. This nation was built on teamwork, not individual, independent effort. The ego is particularly damaging to organizations in the
political world. We should always remember that few sports
teams with the league-leading scorer go on to win the championship. It
is teams with the best cooperation, harmony, and teamwork that take
home the big prize.
IT'S A LOT EASIER TALKING ABOUT QUALITY IMPROVEMENT THAN DOING IT AND
DOING IT IS A LOT HARDER THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE.
Talk is cheap. Trying things, trying new methods involves personal
risk. This is a lesson I should have been wise to as a teacher. It was
much easier for me to explain to my students what they should do than
it was for them to do it. Once you take on the challenge to drive fear
from the workplace, institute leadership, trust, respect and joy in
work, the real task has only begun. Few are willing to take that risk--
even if it seems to be the right thing to do. Once you decide to take
the risk, seeing the results of your implementation efforts will take
you much longer than you expected-maybe twice as long. It is a
long-term, five to eight year effort.
Last Updated 04/20/95