Leadership ... the secret ingredient in quality

March 18, 2008
There’s and old adage in the quality business: “The product looks like the management.” If you are the leader, the work you produce looks exactly like you. Are you happy with what you see? The lack of quality — The lack of defect-free products ...

There’s and old adage in the quality business: “The product looks like the management.” If you are the leader, the work you produce looks exactly like you. Are you happy with what you see?

The lack of quality — The lack of defect-free products and services is a serious problem in this country. The U.S.A. makes a lot of wonderful products, but I could live nicely on the postage spent telling a million and a half customers that their SUV is being recalled. Do the math, as they say.

The sad part is that most, if not all, of those product recalls could have been prevented. A good example is the lead paint problem that Mattel ran into recently. Of course, I really don’t know what happened there, but I doubt that lead paint was part of the quality requirement. I’m sure that a big part of that problem was dealing with a supplier in foreign country. When you’re in a foreign country, you never really know what’s going on. In any case, suppliers must be selected carefully and managed like a department in your company. Suppliers must be held responsible for their quality problems, even if they are one of the big guys.

Poor quality is caused by three things, all of them within control of the leader of the people doing the work. In my book, The Zero Defects Option, I use a simple diagram with three arrows that form a circle to show how this happens. The arrows are identified as Attitude, Ability, and Environment. That’s it folks. All errors can be traced to those three things.

Attitude — An attitude is a way of thinking, a thought habit. People do almost everything they do based solely on their attitude. You, and the people who work for you, must have the right attitude. Your people must see their work and the product or service they produce as important. They must have the same standards about the work they do for you as they do for work done for them. You can change attitudes, and of course you can examine the attitude of people before you hire them.

Attitude is everything, and your attitude trumps all others. Your employees watch how you walk, how you talk, and how you handle problem. The first step in improving an employee’s attitude is for you to have the right attitude. When it comes to quality, your attitude must be that quality is an absolute. You’ve either got it, or you don’t. I use the example of the football placekicker. The “quality standard” is that the ball must sail between the goal posts, and over the crossbar. If it does, points are awarded — quality. If it doesn’t, it’s just a ball.

The total attitude of your organization is like a ball of string. It’s not difficult to wind it up, but drop it and you have big troubles. You have to think about your attitude every day.

Ability — This is a given. If a person doesn’t have the necessary skills and abilities to do the work right, you can hardly expect that it will be done right. Sometimes, ability can be improved with training; sometimes, it’s hopeless.

Employees should be required to demonstrate the skill necessary to do their job right. If you send someone off to a seminar or workshop or some other training, they should be able to demonstrate their new skill when they return.

Environment — Here, I’m talking about problems in the workplace and the process that interfere with doing work right. When I give a Zero Defects workshop I ask attendees to tell an un-quality story and then tell me what they think caused the problem. The most frequent cause given is usually “people don’t give a damn.”

Perhaps that’s true, but it’s rare that “problems in the workplace” (Environment) is stated as a cause of defects. Many leaders fail to see that the workplace they created could be part of the problem. The workplace is created by the leader, and can be changed by the leader. But, what do you change? A very simple method for finding out is called Error Cause Removal (ECR). You ask the employee, “What is it that prevents you from doing your job right every time. Tell me, and I’ll fix it.” Do this and you will be surprised how easy it is to fix the problems. For the employee trying to do the work, the problems are real and a bother. Things like “I can’t reach,” “too dark,” “too hot,” “too cold,” “can’t breath,” “too much noise,” “this machine” … are common. Sometimes you’ll find a problem that will cost you a dollar or two to fix, but it might be worth it.

So, what to do? — If you’re not happy with the quality of the work being done for you, start by looking at your own attitude, and your performance standard. Your people are watching you, trying to figure out what you want. You’re now getting what you asked for.

Next, look at the ability of your people. If they don’t have the ability to do the work right, train them, or transfer them, or terminate them.

Finally, look at the work environment and the process. The best way to find problems in the workplace is to ask the person doing the work. When they tell you, fix it.

Spending your creative talent fixing problems, explaining away defects, and placating customers is a lousy way to live. Producing a quality product means money and peace and quiet.

It can be a bitter pill to find out that your people are doing work exactly the way they think you want it done. But, you can change things if they need changing. If you are the leader, you are responsible for quality. Having work done right is your option.