We Missed the Boat!

The movement in the 1980s highlighting systems improvement, quality service, and customer focus could have been a game-changer for our nation — especially our police. Too bad it didn’t stick!

In my book Arrested Development, I discuss the radical idea of continuous improvement and how the Madison Police Department, along with other city departments, under the leadership of Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, brought the ideas of quality guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming into city government.

Spoiler alert: During the height of the quality transformation, former Mayor Paul Soglin ran against Sensenbrenner and won the election in 1989. I had worked many years with Soglin when he was mayor in the past and thought that I, along with and other department heads committed to maintaining the quality revolution, could convince him that this was a good thing to continue.

I was wrong. We failed. I thought deeply about what happened and wrote an article in Quality Progress Magzine later that year entitled QUALITY IMPROVEMENT AND GOVERNMENT: TEN HARD LESSONS I HAVE LEARNED. It became a popular article as many proponents of the quality method and organizational transformation found themselves facing the same “hard lessons.”


In the March-April, 1991 issue of Harvard Business Review, Sensenbrenner talks about implementing Deming’s ideas — an idea and “way of business” that should have been adopted by cities and their governments throughout America. Here are some key paragraphs of what happened. It’s worth reviewing. Maybe even resurrecting. Read the full article HERE.


Quality Comes to City Hall

By Joseph Sensenbrenner

Government may be the biggest and the oldest industry in the world, but the statement “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” is universally considered a bad joke. Increasingly, people don’t believe that government knows how to help or wants to bother. They find concepts like “total quality,” “customer-driven,” and “continuous improvement” foreign to everything they know about what government does and how it works. They wish government would be more like a well-run business, but most have stopped hoping it ever will be.

Today, fortunately, a new channel has opened through which business and progressive business practices can have an impact on the cost, efficiency, and overall quality of government. This channel is the quality movement—the rapidly growing acceptance of the management practices that W. Edwards Deming developed and persuaded Japanese industry to implement after the end of World War II. As more and more U.S. industries work with and profit from Deming’s techniques, we have to wonder whether it’s not possible to develop a public sector that offers taxpayers and citizens the same quality of services they have come to expect from progressive businesses…

These problems came alive for me when I was elected to the first of three two- year terms as mayor of Madison in 1983… Budget hearings were becoming an annual nightmare. The people of Madison did not want their services cut or their taxes raised. In their view, city services were in a steady decline already, even as they paid more for them. From what I could see, in many cases they were right.

But I felt boxed in… As mayor, I could not run an executive office, deal with the city council, and also be an expert on lawn cutting, snow removal, and motor vehicle maintenance. And it was out there on the front lines that systems were breaking down…

Just about then, an assistant in my office suggested I attend a presentation by W. Edwards Deming, the then 82-year-old statistician and guru of the Japanese industrial miracle.

Deming’s approach is no doubt familiar to many businesspeople, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard. It sounded like common sense, but it was revolutionary. American industry, he said, had been living in a fool’s paradise. In an ever-expanding market, even the worst management seems good because its flaws are concealed. But under competitive conditions those flaws become fatal, and that is what we are witnessing as U.S. companies lose market share in one area after another.

If there was a devil in the piece, Deming said, it was our system of make-and- inspect, which if applied to making toast would be expressed: “You burn, I’ll scrape.” It is folly to correct defects “downstream”; the critical issue, he said, is to get your “upstream” processes under control so you can guarantee the outcome every time. To do this, an organization must create a culture of quality; it must master proven quality techniques. Most important, it must define quality—first, as continuous improvement in pleasing customers and second, as reducing the variation in whatever service or product it offers.

As Deming described the organizational changes required to produce his culture of quality, I found myself thinking that this was, perhaps, what I had been searching for. It also occurred to me that it would take a revolution to get it…

This first exercise (of Deming’s teachings) confirmed point after point of Deming’s paradigm and suggested strongly that what worked for business would work for government. To begin with, the source of the downtime problem was upstream in the relationship of the city to its suppliers—not downstream where the worker couldn’t find a missing part. The problem was a flawed system, not flawed workers.

Second, solving the problem required teamwork and breaking down barriers between departments. The departments were too self-contained to be helpful to one another, and helpfulness itself—treating the people you supplied or serviced as “customers”—was an unknown concept.

Third, finding the solution meant including front-line employees in problem solving. The fact of being consulted and enlisted rather than blamed and ignored resulted in huge improvements in morale and productivity. When we actually changed our purchasing policy, cutting a 24-step process with multiple levels of control to just 3 steps, employees were stunned and delighted that someone was listening to them instead of merely taking them to task…

I went about setting up a formal quality and productivity (QP) program that would eventually function citywide. I hired a full-time quality and productivity administrator—the first such public-sector position in the country—even though that meant giving up one of the four policy positions on my staff.

I also organized a QP steering committee of top managers to direct the effort… The steering committee issued a mission statement that envisioned employee involvement, customer input, continuous improvement, creativity, innovation, and trust.

On a more practical level, it said that the hallmarks of quality in Madison city government would be excellence “as defined by our customers,” respect for employee worth, teamwork, and data-based decision making. We called this foursquare commitment the Madison Diamond.

Finding the lofty words was the easy part; now we had to live up to them. The first task was to recruit the initial cadre of what we hoped would become a quality army. We set out to identify pioneers in several city departments— managers and frontline employees with the imagination and motivation to lead the way. Their most important characteristic, I found, regardless of political philosophy or training, was a strong ego: the capacity to take responsibility for risks, share credit for success, and keep one eye on the prize. We found enough of these people to begin a new round of experiments like our successful [first] prototype…

It turned out that the city council supported the program, and the unions grew increasingly helpful. The real opposition was not structural but bureaucratic. There were individual mangers who could not tolerate the idea of bringing their employees into decisions or who resented taking time to reassess tried and true procedures. There were employees who scorned the program as faddish and who looked on enthusiastic colleagues as management finks…

In Madison, the most celebrated example was the creation of the experimental police district.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, violent antiwar demonstrations turned Madison into a kind of battleground. At one point, the governor called in the Wisconsin National Guard to secure the university campus. The harsh tactics used to put down these demonstrations left much of the community with a distrust of the police.

The officers themselves felt battle scarred and alienated from the city they were hired to protect. When a young police chief named David Couper arrived in 1972 with newfangled philosophies of conflict management and citizen service, he was assailed with a series of grievances and lawsuits from veterans on the force…

[A]fter several frustrating years he took a sabbatical, rethought his management approach, and familiarized himself with Deming’s quality gospel. He then decided, as he puts it, “to run the department for the 95% who did their jobs well, rather than write the rules for the 5% who were difficult.”

He identified progressive officers interested in transforming the department and rebuilding community confidence. Together they created an elected employee policy-making council, a committee to look at the department’s future, and a police mission statement that made peacekeeping the department’s primary role and put law enforcement second.

This was a risky move, considering the probable reaction if people thought the police were neglecting detection and apprehension, but the new strategy had broader implications. It meant the department could deploy resources to work on the underlying causes of crime, interact with schools and neighborhood organizations, develop relationships with minority and student leaders, and put a higher priority on outreach. Most important, perhaps, it created the “constancy of purpose” that Deming has always put first on his list of techniques for achieving total quality.

In 1986, Couper and 50 police volunteers decided to test the new mission statement. They believed that a decentralized police district with a neighborhood headquarters would lead to more effective peacekeeping by giving better service to residents and by encouraging officers to “adopt” the neighborhood and vice versa. Police precincts were an old idea, but this was different: officers in the district would elect their own captains and lieutenants, determine their own staffing and work schedules as a team, and network with neighborhood associations to set law-enforcement priorities. Having worked with Couper for 14 years, the union had learned to trust him, and it accepted the idea.

Several months of surveys and data analysis resulted in the Madison Experimental Police District on the city’s South Side, with its station house located in the aldermanic district of a relatively junior member of the city council. Because the officers had done their homework, they were able to nip in the bud an effort by the council president to locate this political plum in her own ward. They could show that their proposed location provided the best service to priority areas and populations, including the elderly, as well as the fastest access to all parts of the district.

Tax dollars were saved, and surveys showed that citizens were satisfied with police service and that 85% of officers in the special district had higher levels of job satisfaction than in their previous assignments.

As the business reader knows, Deming-style quality is not a quick fix or a magic bullet; it is a top-to-bottom revolution in the definition of “business as usual” that takes years to accomplish. There’s no reason in the world to think it can be done more quickly or easily in government than in industry. But in Madison, we saw encouraging gains in just a few years…

We made immense progress in the six years I was in office. By the end of 1988, we had trained 75 team leaders (who have a stake in the outcome of team decisions and who lead team meetings) and facilitators (who come from other divisions or departments, have no stake in decisions, and take special responsibility for maintaining group process). We had also developed nearly two dozen projects and produced good enough results to warrant inviting all of the city’s departments to apply for what we called “transformation status.”

Transformation status meant a long-term, department-wide commitment to the new management practices, including continuous quality improvement and training for all employees in quality-improvement skills and data-gathering techniques. The first two departments to accept the challenge were the police department and the Madison metro bus system. A year later, the streets division and the health department joined them.

When I left office in 1989, Madison city departments were running between 20 and 30 quality improvement projects at a time, five agencies were in transformation, the city was giving training in quality to every municipal employee… If I ever had questioned the feasibility of applying Deming’s principles to public-sector services, my doubts had long since vanished…

Implementing a Deming quality strategy is not simply a matter of adopting a new set of slogans or a new accounting system. It’s a matter of radical restructuring—part sociology, part systems theory, and part statistics—all aimed at liberating human ingenuity and the potential pleasure in good work that lie at least partially dormant in every organization.

My experience in Madison convinces me that quality-oriented businesses can contribute to keeping the public sector strong and efficient. As taxpayers, as providers of goods and services to government, and as community citizens, businesses have a direct interest in lending a hand. If businesses insist on quality, offer their expertise, share their training programs with government executives and team leaders, and search for quality programs to translate into public operations, the payback can be substantial. Who knows—we may actually get governments that are there to help us.

Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin from 1983 to 1989, Joseph Sensenbrenner is now a consultant on the application of total quality management in the public sector.


READ more of my blogs about Deming and his ideas by searching for the words “Quality Improvement” and “Deming.

See also the National Institute of Justice Report “Community Policing in Madison: Quality From the Inside Out.”

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