Fun and the nonsense of work

A colleague  recently made me aware of the Volkswagen brand campaign ‘The Fun Theory’ which illustrates how fun can be related to choices people make in life by presenting some light-hearted ideas to change mundane tasks such as throwing away litter or climbing stairs. For example against the question  “Can we get more people to choose the stairs by making it fun to do?”, their electronic stairway piano made 66% more people choose the stairs over the escalator (

funtheory sequence 2
Initially people prefer the escalator…sound pads are fitted to the stairs…more people use the stairs!

Of course ideas around fun at work are not particularly new: Douglas McGregor talked about Theory Y managers assuming the people value work as an activity as natural as play. Deming – a statistician by trade, the godfather of Systems Thinking and Statistical Process Control and at first impression someone who would appear fairly austere by today’s standards, always opened his seminars with ‘we are here to have fun‘. Although in person he was actually someone with a strong sense of humour and a dry wit, more importantly, Deming always talked about the need (not the nice to have, the need – it was essential) for people to have “ joy in work“: it is one of his most distinctive and quotable catchphrases.

Let’s consider a couple of             FUN: amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable [1]
definitions of fun and joy…        JOY: a deep feeling or condition of happiness or contentment [2]

Clearly fun has roots in joy, whilst joy itself is a longer-lasting, life-permeating condition. Deming was clear about what should be done to bring joy back into work. Work should be designed such that it is a pleasurable experience, yet he recognised that most organisations design fun out of the experience. However fun (like respect) is not something that you ‘do’ to people – it is not the point of intervention. The trick is not to design fun back in as an add-on (like the piano steps), but instead to eliminate the things that take fun out of work – lack of purpose, lack of decision making, lack of information, inability to influence outcomes, inability to address the concerns of customers and users, inability to make the service improve, inappropriate comparisons of performance (celebration of irrelevant highs or castigation for lows which are outside our control), inbuilt sub-optimisation and  inertia, judgement by uninformed outsiders or distant supervisors. Deming didn’t pull punches – these things were for him the forces of destruction.

Even people doing unimaginably difficult jobs in emergency services,  terminal healthcare and humanitarian aid (to name a few), themselves gain deep satisfaction and joy in what they do. In these spheres, however, even people with a strong sense of vocation can be demotivated by the negative forces impinging on their work and can leave their professions. Fun and joy are central to the understanding of human psychology of work – and how we should design it.

To think otherwise is counterproductive. A lack of joy at work is a complete nonsense.


Further reading:

Bakke D.W. (2005) Joy at Work, PVG, Seattle.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Harper Perennial, NY.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Kilian C.S. (1992) The World of W Edwards Deming. SPC Press TE.



Systems Thinking – the oldest ‘new idea’?

Deming montage

Deming in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s & 70s: same man, same thinking, different desks

It is easy to expect that when we work with change that this should mean ‘new’, whereas it should really mean ‘better’ or (if circumstances move the goalposts) ‘different’. The path of management learning over the past 40 years is littered with passing fads which have only delivered disappointment, but a few ideas outlast the comings-and-goings of gurus, trends and fads.

I am staggered to recall that it was 25 years ago that I  first encountered the work of Dr W Edwards Deming whilst I sat in an undergraduate management lecture in the late 1980s. I have had the opportunity over the intervening decades to apply, test, avoid, seek alternatives or attempt enhancements to Deming’s ideas (and many other management thinkers). Some of my work has been in small departments, others in very large organisations; some commercial, others not. My thinking has emerged from a growth in understanding.

Deming, born in 1900, was an active communicator, teacher and consultant well into his 90s.

The forces along the top rob people of innovation and applied science. We must replace these forces with management that will restore the power of the individual (adapted from Deming 1994)
Fig 1. “The forces along the top rob people of innovation and applied science…replace these forces with management that will restore the power of the individual” (Deming 1994)

His seminars and lecture tours were still in demand from international audiences until his death 20 years ago this month, in December 1993, a couple of weeks after I passed my PhD viva.  Deming continues to get a good hearing based on his books written over 30 years ago.

A freshly edited book which pulls together his collected papers was published in 2013. His illustration (Figure 1) of how a person’s motivation withers over their lifetime under “forces of destructive management thinking” rings as true today as in previous decades. Deming’s books draw on his teaching conducted over 60 years ago in Japan, ideas which arose from concepts developed by his professional mentor Walter Shewhart at Bell Laboratories over 80 years ago.

Shewhart’s own book published in 1931 is a classic, (its style perhaps less accessible to present-day readers). The observations and principles identified by Shewhart and Deming early in the 20th Century still stand up to scrutiny and practice. Their centenary approaches…

… much more than can be said for many management ideas since.


Further reading:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1994) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, 2nd Ed , MIT CAES, Cambridge, MA.

Deming W.E. (2013) The Essential Deming: leadership principles from the father of quality, Ed J. N. Orsini, McGraw-Hill, NY

Shewhart, W. (1931) Economic control of quality of manufactured product. Van Nostrand Company, New York.