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November 24, 2006

US Forest Service Betterment: What would you recommend?

Suppose there was a Board of Directors for the US Forest Service instead of oversight and administration by the US Congress and the Administration. Suppose further that you were on the board. What would you recommend that the Forest Service do differently, do better, keep on doing just as it is?

I sit on a nonprofit board. The role of that or any other board is to steer within the broad organizational charter. So we are not talking here about micro-management, but rather about broad steering maneuvers. What might we recommend?

I am soliciting input here. So please chime in, and we will work up a list together. To get things rolling, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Revisit and redirect agency administrative decision-making — For too long Forest Service managers have focused too narrowly on what I'll call rational planning decision frames. The agency can do much better. We need to investigate how administrative decision-making fits into the regulatory frame of governance. We need to investigate similarities and differences between how private organizations operate, managerially, and how government organizations operate. We need to better understand how the best in both worlds operate, and learn more about stumbling blocks in the path from the "is" to the "ought."

  • Stop the micro-management "puppeteering" — The last two Administrations have been masterful, albeit destructive, in reaching deep into the periphery of the Forest Service to work on field level managers to do "whatever" is of daily import to political appointees. Maybe this is fine, but I don't think so. And we all know too well that Congressional types call frequently to work on USFS managers. This too seems counter to proper political administration of the agency.
Incidentally, in January the Forest Service is setting up a team to develop "a set of 'foundational principles' on which to base Forest Service decisions and actions and enhance … [organizational] capacity and resiliency." We should watch that effort. It is my belief that Forest Service organizational problems are more the stuff of disease, following Deming's "Seven Deadly Diseases" (here, here), or the stuff of being caught in a variety of activity, decision, and management traps. If I am right, then it is unlikely that a set of principles, foundational or otherwise, will help. Instead, I recommend organizational therapy.

On the "disease" front, here (in part) is what I argued back in 1992:

…It is no secret that American management methods are under attack on all sides. So-called Japanese methods for Total Quality Management are an emergent standard. I say so-called because the methods are very much American, as taught to the Japanese by W. Edwards Deming and others. Oddly enough, Deming got his start in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. …

Deming captured critical organizational behavior standards in his "fourteen points," which he believes are needed to move organizational behavior toward quality. They are:

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service. Purpose is at the heart of organizations. Organizations without a sense of purpose wander aimlessly, wasting away while wasting resources. Some argue that restoring and maintaining healthy and sustainable forest ecosystems should become the primary purpose for the Forest Service. In this sense the Forest Service might visualize itself primarily as a 'forest health maintenance organization,' rather than as a product and service vendor that also cares for the land.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. Americans are too tolerant of poor workmanship and sullen service. Deming believes that we need a new religion in which mistakes and negativism are unacceptable.
  3. Cease dependence on mass inspection. One of Deming's key points is that quality is not an outcome of quality control inspections. Rather, quality comes from basic improvement in organizational processes, where workers are enlisted and gain ownership in the process.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on price tag alone. This means, of course, that government procurement processes have to be revamped too.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service. Improvement is not a one-time effort. This means that government managers are going to have to break their addiction to 'quick fixes' and high profile 'showcasing.'
  6. Institute training. The Forest Service has some very good training sessions, along with some bad ones. But a unifying whole needs to be developed to relate the various parts, and to discriminate between the "good" and the "bad."
  7. Institute Leadership. The job of the supervisor is not to tell people what to do or to punish them, but to lead. Here the Forest Service needs to beef-up training and other 'culturing' of managers. …
  8. Drive out fear. Even though it may come as a shock to many Forest Service supervisors and managers--as it comes as a shock to many under Deming's method in the private sector--fear is real, and pervasive throughout the Forest Service.
  9. Break down barriers between staff areas. It is no secret that the Forest Service is functional and increasingly so as one goes up the ranks. …
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce. …Deming's message here is that management by slogan is not management, just rhetoric.
  11. Eliminate numerical quotas. Quotas take account only of numbers, not quality or methods. They are usually a guarantee of inefficiency and high cost. It is time to recognize that government employees are not indolent and unmotivated, but good people facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. That anything useful gets done at all is a credit to those government employees who do creative and useful work in spite of the system.
  12. Remove barriers to pride of workmanship.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and retraining.
  14. Take action to accomplish the transformation. It will take a top management team with a plan of action to jump-start the quality revolution. Thereafter, top management must commit themselves completely to the task of overseeing the revolution. Workers can't do it on their own, nor can managers. A critical mass of people in the company must understand the Fourteen Points as well as the Seven Deadly Diseases. [For more, see: The Deming Management Method, Mary Walton, 1986 or The New Economics: For Industry, Government, Education, W. Edwards Deming, 1994]

Adherence to Deming's "fourteen Points" can only begin in earnest when employees and managers are familiar with what Deming calls the "seven deadly diseases." Deming believes that these diseases, if not corrected, can be fatal to organizational health.

As we look at the seven deadly diseases and then relate them to the Forest Service, we must remember that problems identified are not unique to the Forest Service--they likely extend to all government agencies. Much like the current movement to make corporate America competitive, we need to rethink the institutional underpinnings of government, especially in terms of principles and practices for administration. Deming's seven diseases and fourteen points provide a place to start.

Deming's "seven deadly diseases" [from The Deming Management Method, p. 36]:

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose. "A company that is without constancy of purpose has no long-range plans for staying in business. Management is insecure and so are employees."
  2. Emphasis on short-term profits. "Looking to increase the quarterly dividend undermines quality and productivity.
  3. Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance. "The effects of these are devastating--teamwork is destroyed, rivalry is nurtured. Performance ratings build fear and leave people bitter, despondent, and beaten. They also encourage mobility of management."
  4. Mobility of Management. "Job-hopping managers never understand the companies that they work for and are never there long enough to follow through on long-term changes that are necessary for quality and productivity."
  5. Running a company on visible figures alone. "The most important figures are unknown and unknowable--the multiplier effect of a happy customer, for example."
  6. Excessive medical costs.
  7. Excessive costs of warranty, fueled by lawyers that work on contingency fee.
I will not dwell on six and seven, but mention them for completeness and as a reminder of other tasks on the table for Congressional attention relative to the private sector.

Deming's first disease, lack of constancy of purpose, is a big problem in the Forest Service. There is widespread disagreement as to the agency mission when one gets deeper than the slogan "Caring for the Land and Serving People." Forest Service leaders [were] well aware of this condition [in 1992, but may have forgotten since].

The Congress has given the Forest Service ample guidance regarding purpose. Too much, some argue, and way too inconsistent when looking at the long term goals outlined by the Congress and the pattern of appropriations from year to year. V. Alaric Sample, in his book The Impact of the Federal Budget Process on National Forest Planning, 1990, has done a good job of chronicling both the problem and the process. It is … up to the Congress and the Administration to figure out how to fix what is broken.

The Congress and the Administration can't accept all the blame for the mess the Forest Service finds itself in, though, regarding 'lack of constancy of purpose.' The forestry and engineering professions (and the large number of top Forest Service officials from those professions) have much to do with the problems between the so called old-guard and the young-turk professionals that have very different worldviews. Both forestry and engineering have denied ecology, and forestry has denied systems theory until very recently.

One thing is clear: Lack of constancy of purpose is a widespread disease in the Forest Service. Ecosystem Management is one step in a right direction, as was the change of the 1990 RPA toward strategic policy development and away from production planning, but more steps are needed to effect the cure.

Deming's second deadly disease is emphasis on short-term profits. The Forest Service can hardly be said to have this disease…. But in truth the disease is widespread. It is just a different strain of the virus. For the Forest Service, and most other government agencies, the mutant virus is emphasis on short-term targets. The disease is every bit as deadly as its cousin.

Deming's third deadly disease is evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance. [Why this is still the 'standard' is one of the wonders of American government organizational life.]

Deming's fourth disease is mobility of management. The Forest Service is constantly grooming 'line officers' for changes in assignment. And the agency has a long standing policy for moving folks around generally. The Forest Service family--patriarchal as it has been, with the Chief at the top—maintains the 'intense loyalty' for which it is noted, in part, through this mobility policy.

Deming's fifth disease is running the company on visible figures alone. This disease is associated closely with an earlier one but merits attention because the Forest Land and Resource Management Plans, the Program Development and Budgeting process that is used to develop budget proposals, the Congressional Budgeting Process, and many other processes are evidence that the Forest Service is trying to run the organization predominantly by the numbers. …

Defeating the Diseases So how does the Forest Service begin to defeat the diseases? As I mentioned, the effort will take a joint effort from the Congress, the Administration, and the agency. But the Forest Service can take the lead. … If the Forest Service fails to implement needed behavior changes, then those small pockets of "health" [that emerge from time to time, under constant attack from organizational immune system responses] will likely wither and die as, eventually, so will the agency. …

[2006 endnote: Perhaps the agency's new found interest in "principle centered management/leadership" will jump start a betterment process. Let's hope so. But let's not stop throwing in our "two cents worth" either.]

Posted by Dave on November 24, 2006 at 12:16 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Mike Dechter

If I were on the Forest Service Board of Directors, I'd do the following:

1) I'd urge a clarification of the mission statement of the organization. Words and phrases such as sustainability, multiple use, and science-based should be avoided.
2) I'd promote a policy to outlaw acronyms in public meetings.
3) I'd support anything that helps provide more money to the districts, less money in the regions.
4) I'd support a change in the way the Forest Service currently uses OPM Qualification Standards (series) to encourage a more inter-disciplinary workforce.
5) I'd urge a more proactive public affairs strategy to make Forest Service issues more pertinent in the lives of Americans.
6) I'd support 360-degree peer performance reviews
7) I'd support more active recruitment for qualified professionals through increased use of hiring incentives.
8) I'd promote clear and concisely worded management direction.

That's my pocket of change for now. I'm sure these all have been said before.

Mike Dechter | Nov 29, 2006 12:22:29 PM

Posted by: Randal O'Toole

Incentives, incentives, incentives.

1. Let the national forests charge fees for everything they can and fund them out of a fixed percentage of the net income they earn from those fees.

2. Dedicate a share of the receipts to non-market resources, giving the money to a non-market trust fund whose trustees are obligated to preserve and protect non-market resources by paying the national forests to promote them.

Incentives influence everything an agency does. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Randal O'Toole | Dec 1, 2006 10:11:11 AM

Posted by: Dave Iverson

Thanks for comments Randal, as we seem to seldom generate many here. But as you know, I have a different opinion, that comes out something like:

Sure, let's turn the national forests into businesses! As if that would resolve anything. As if it would even work. To what end if it did?

I admit that too many Forest Service folks already think that national forest management is a quasi-business. And I certainly agree that incentives are very perverse in the Forest Service. But as Milton Friedman pointed out long ago (remember his "Market Mechanisms and Central Economic Planning"?), you can't remake government bureaucrats into business types by allowing them to "play at capitalism", to pretend that they are 'in business.'

Here's my point of view, from Forest Magazine, Summer 04: "...Some people advocate for a marketing approach. They argue that judiciously applied, user fees will discourage use and encourage respect because we must pay for the experience.

"Others suggest that turning our public treasures into commodities cheapens our experience in nature. I find myself more in agreement with the latter view. We are bombarded with nonstop marketization of everything every waking hour as we watch TV, listen to the radio or drive along our highways. We need to find space for reflection and re-creation of our spirit. It cannot be found by delving deeper into economics, marketing and finance.

"Why not set our public land apart from all this, as a safe haven from crass commercialization? A dollar vote may indeed curtail use in areas loved too much; but for many, the social price of such a policy is too high. We find ourselves unwilling to pay, unwilling to even entertain the idea of turning our public wilderness into pay-per-view theme parks."

[Update: 12/04/06] P.S. I only invoked the Milton Friedman article to make a point. I certainly don't agree with all that Friedman advocates either in this particlar artlcle or in general. As per this article, Friedman goes on to say "...Enterprises [that remain state enterprises] should be made responsible for their own behavior; their targets should be set in generalized terms of profits or money rather than in terms of specific physical outcomes. Let the enterprises bid separately for the resources the need, and let the prices be determined at a level that will equate demand and supply. ..." Here I wonder just what Friedman had in mind. Consider the Defense Department, for example. Why would we want to run it or any of its divisions this way? Consider land management agencies. Why would we want to run them this way?

Dave Iverson | Dec 1, 2006 12:00:25 PM

Posted by: John Hunter

Good ideas. You might find some of my thoughts on Deming's ideas on Management useful - http://curiouscat.com/deming/. My Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog has many posts about Deming's ideas - http://management.curiouscatblog.net/category/deming/. You might also find some useful resources via the Public Sector Continuous Improvement Site - http://curiouscat.com/psci/.

John Hunter | Dec 10, 2006 7:33:17 AM

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