The Dark Side of the Pursuit of Perfection

Tom Peters

Nothing went wrong yesterday, a lazy Sunday. I didn’t fall off my horse. I didn’t smash a thumb with a three-pound hammer during home-improvement time. I didn’t even draft an incomprehensible column. The sky was blue and the air was crisp. Vermont at its best.

Nonetheless, something was wrong. I did go riding, but I didn’t gallop or try any new paths. The home-improvement project will hardly be a candidate for the American Craft Museum. And the column was merely a new twist on a familiar theme.

So while nothing went really wrong on Sunday, nothing went especially right, either. The same might at times be said about America’s quality wars.

Motorola was one of the first winners, in 1988, of the Baldrige prize for quality. A national leader in the quality movement, the firm is keeping the pressure on itself and has set a particularly audacious goal: “six sigma quality.” (The Greek letter sigma is used in statistical analysis to represent “standard deviations” from the average. Six sigma amounts to 3.4 defects per million units—better than doctors at prescription writing, not so good as airlines at safety.) In the July-August 1990 Harvard Business Review, Motorola training chief Bill Wiggenhorn writes that “the Six Sigma process means changing the way people do things so that nothing can go wrong.” He illustrates with the case of a Motorola chef. The fellow already makes a six sigma chocolate chip cookie, says Wiggenhorn; the goal is getting him to improve his muffins to the same standard of excellence.

Wiggenhorn was using the mundane example of the chef to make a larger point. Nonetheless, it set off alarm bells.

Stick with cookies. I’ve never gotten sick from Mrs. Fields, David’s, or,Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies; so I assume these cookie makers have first-rate quality control systems. I’m hardly knocking their (or Motorola’s) devotion to quality as a competitive weapon. Nonetheless, let’s consider the origins of Mrs. Fields’ enterprise, which was launched just four blocks from my Palo Alto office.

I’ve visited that premiere location more than once—many, many times more. Mrs. F. makes great, yummy, gooey, sinful, chocolatey chocolate chip cookies. And I think I can picture young Debbi Fields at the stove in those early days, smeared with chocolate, smacking her lips, revising the recipe over and over and over again, trying to figure out how to jam even more chocolate into her calorie-bombs-cum-cookies. Chocolate’s splattered all over her and the kitchen, reminiscent of Julia Child’s TV show. What I cannot imagine is Debbi turning to her husband and future business partner, Randy, at the end of another day of struggle, and saying, “I made great progress, hon, toward my six sigma cookie goal.” Can you?

Wiggenhorn explains, in part, how his chef is becoming a six sigma man. It turns out that the guy wasn’t trusted with the key to the freezer, and had to make his dough the night before; following the new approach, which aims to remove all impediments to perfection, the chef is now allowed access to the freezer. Great!

Nonetheless those alarm bells kept ringing. I’ve been burned at this stove before. In my book In Search of Excellence, not only did I declare Texas Instruments “excellent,” but I pointedly touted their Objectives, Strategies, and Tactics system of innovation; at the time it was as much the rage among management aficionados as Motorola’s quality process is today. TI’s system aimed to routinely produce, in effect, “perfect” innovation.

Fat chance. In his book Mintzberg on Management, Canadian researcher Henry Mintzberg writes, “In 1979, in order to explain the success of Texas Instruments, Marianne Jelinek published the book Institutionalizing Innovation. Her argument, in essence, was that (industrial engineer Frederick) Taylor’s success in the factory (with time and motion studies) could be replicated in the executive offices. … But TI failed soon after the book was published: (Its) fancy planning system was subsequently believed to discourage innovation. In fact, there was never any evidence that the company’s success stemmed from anything more than a capable leader … whose own energy and enthusiasm enabled him to attract good people and to invigorate them. … Innovation, it turned out, could not be institutionalized.” (TI has subsequently made a comeback, in part by dismantling those overly elaborate processes.)

I cheer Motorola’s goal, as I cheered Texas Instruments’ pursuit of guaranteed innovation 10 years ago. But I worry a lot about any system aimed at insuring that “nothing can go wrong.”

Six sigma quality means improving and changing, to be sure, not accepting the status quo; even the trivial case of the chef and the freezer key makes that clear. Yet the pursuit of greatness—high tech, or great new cookies such as those by Mrs. Fields, which upset the tidy world of Nabisco—is as much or more about flair, grotesque mistakes, eccentricity, and passion as it is about “failproof” systems.

In short, reduce to zero the odds of nothing going wrong and you’ll also reduce to zero the odds of anything interesting happening. My Sunday past was a fine, six sigma day—error-free, that is. Another 1,500 Sundays like that and, actuarially speaking, I’ll be perfectly dead.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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