Quality vs. Innovation: How Much Structure Do You Need? A SAD Lesson

skodaOne of the things I think about a lot is how to balance the structures provided by quality systems and standards, with the divergent thinking and creativity that’s necessary for innovation and continuous transformation. I’m not the only one thinking about this, it seems! Just this week, Steve Denning published a great article in Forbes entitled “The Management Revolution That’s Already Happening” – that surveys several of the most recent additions to the canon of “popular management” literature.

I have entertained the notion, in the past, that perhaps you can abandon structures in favor of a more laissez-faire organization, where innovation is the only focus. You know, trust the people to maintain an appropriate level of quality, and then give them the freedom to flourish and innovate.

After a totally eye-opening experience last week with a rental car, I’ve changed my mind! Quality systems and standards definitely have a place in any organizational system, if only to educate people within the organization about what the baseline requirements for quality are, and how to achieve them. (Now I’m thinking that our challenge as quality professionals should be to implement our quality systems in a very lean way – that is, set up the minimal amount of standards and structures to achieve our desired goal.)

So what happened? Let me start by saying that it had to do with a very SAD car. I’m being literal here… that was the name of the rental car place in Reykjavik where I made my reservation for a car online before I arrived. I thought I was doing the right thing by supporting the local economy! The web site for the rental car place had a fine interface too, so I had no reason to believe that the business was anything less than legitimate. And besides, in a country that has relatively high standards for quality in general, why would I expect anything less?

I arrived at the airport and started looking for the rental car kiosk, but SAD did not have one. None of the other rental car employees had ever heard of them (things were starting out really well here, you see). I finally found a guy who spoke Icelandic who had heard of them, and he said he’d give them a call on his cell phone. That worked! The SAD cars rep said he’d be over in a few minutes. (Not sure how I ever would have gotten the car without this little burst of serendipity and fortune.)

We were loaded into a van, and driven off into a large, remote-looking office complex just southeast of Keflavik. At the very, very back of the complex, the driver takes us to what looks like an old, abandoned airplane hangar with “SAD” written on the door. He escorts us into the “lobby” area – which is an unfinished wooden box in the front corner of the hangar – where I can see several older cars with their hoods propped open, in various states of repair and disrepair. There are four rusty cars outside

He processes my registration and hands me the keys to a Toyota. We walk outside so he can “check for damages” but to be honest, I couldn’t understand how he could tell what the damages were, since the car had lots of dings AND the paint on the front hood was starting to peel off. I pry the creaky driver’s door out of its default position, and nestle into a stinky mess with dry red nail polish smeared on the console. He tells me that we are not required to bring the car back with any gas, points down the hill and says “the gas station is that way,” and points a slightly different direction and says “Reykjavik is that way.” Apparently, this is the official map that SAD gives its renters.

The first thing I noticed when I turned the car on was the “check engine” light. The next thing I noticed was the “low fuel” light. OK, well, I made my bed – now I’m going to have to lie in it. Holding my breath, I inched out of the parking lot, through the office complex, and over the speed bumps – which caused such an aluminum rattle, I was convinced the engine was going to fall out of the car. Fortunately, the ride to the gas station was downhill, so I actually made it.

Unfortunately, it was a Sunday morning, and there was no one at the gas station – AND the automated payment machine was completely in Icelandic. Somehow, I learned gas station Icelandic REALLY quickly, and discovered that it wouldn’t take my credit card because my credit card doesn’t have a PIN. Through the grace of some deity, the pump spit out a couple of magical liters – enough to get me back to SAD where I told them:

I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I am giving the car back to you. Please take me back to the airport so I can start my trip over again, and pretend this didn’t happen!!

The poor kid who seemed to be the only SAD employee immediately started asking the reasons for my dissatisfaction. It was almost surreal to have to explain to him that I didn’t feel safe in a car with a check engine light that didn’t have enough shock absorbers to cushion from bumps in an office complex. He asked what kind of car I drove, and when I told him I had a reasonably new Honda, he said “oh, well that explains it, your standards just must be higher.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking — my standards here basically revolve around SAFE, CLEAN, and RELIABLE. I don’t consider those “high standards” – I consider them CRITICAL TO QUALITY (CTQ)!

And then came the punch line… “well just so you know, we cannot give you a refund even though you pre-paid for five days of this rental.” I told him I didn’t care, and quite frankly I didn’t – my safety was much more important than losing some money. I’m thankful, though, for consumer protection on credit cards. This will be the first time I use it with utter gratitude.

I made it back to the airport. Budget hooked me up with a fantastic little Skoda Octavia (see picture above). Thanks to the contrast of the SAD car, which was (unfortunately) VERY sad, I had even greater appreciation for this cute little station wagon that was a pleasure to drive.

Management Improvement Carnival #161

It’s been a long time! Although I haven’t served in this role since the spring of 2009, I am pleased once again to host ASQ Influential Voices blogger John Hunter’s Management Improvement Carnival, featuring some interesting or noteworthy articles that have been posted over the past couple weeks. Be sure to check out previous installations of the Carnival to get a broad sample of the most recent blog posts that are relevant to managers who are interested in quality, innovation and process improvement.

My top recommendation is Lotto Lai’s review of a recent symposium in Hong Kong, entitled “One Year After the Fukushima Nuclear Accident – the Way Forward with Safety and Risk Engineering.” (3/10/2012) This is a really fascinating and comprehensive look at the Fukushima disaster from the quality management perspective. I particularly like one of his slides about 60% of the way through the presentation that presents a 2×2 grid detailing probabilistic and deterministic approaches to the design that were intended to enhance plant safety. I really like this grid and will be thinking about ways to apply them to problems that I encounter in my job and my consulting (fortunately, none of which involve managing nuclear power plants).

On a lighter note, I also enjoyed “Coffee Shop Buzz is Good for Your Creativity” from Lifehacker. (3/6/2012) Have you ever thought that maybe the social pressure around you is what helps you get things done at the coffee shop? Hmmmm.

Oh, and we can’t forget St. Patrick’s Day! In preparation for the big weekend, Carly Barry at Minitab blogged about “The Odds of Finding a Four Leaf Clover” (3/16/2012). If you’ve ever struggled with odds ratios to compare the likelihood of two events, this article might give you the example to clear it up for good.

My newest “find” in the realm of quality and management improvement blogs is David Kanigan’s “Lead.Learn.Live” at davidkanigan.com. I so love the interconnected nature of blogs… a couple weeks ago, he “liked” something on my blog, and I decided to go check out his blog. And I really like his too! David intersperses original business-oriented posts with cited snippets of art and inspiration, and posts at least on a daily basis. Here are some of the most recent:

He calls attention to one of David Allen’s posts in “Gnawing Sense of Anxiety about Un-Captured Work” (3/10/2012) reiterates some of the themes I have been reading about in Baumeister’s excellent 2011 book on willpower. Apparently, our unconscious is totally restless when we have tasks on our to-do lists for which no plan exists to address. Once we set up a plan (e.g. “I’m going to schedule Saturday morning to download and look at that new data!”) our unconscious gets real happy, lets go of its silent panic, and we’re less overwhelmed and less distracted. Pretty cool!

In “The Process of Pivoting” (3/10/2012) David encourages us to move to a better feeling if we’re brought down by a problem, or a challenge, or some coworker’s crappy attitude at work. He doesn’t actually say any of those things, but you should be able to easily relate to the general scenario.

How can magical thinking be a solid tool for people who want to improve quality and performance – especially while managing teams? Find out in The Poison of Performance Appraisals (3/10/2012)… Deming would agree.

(And although this isn’t technically a blog, they do use a blogging infrastructure behind the scenes, so…) Hot off the presses we have “A Flash of Green Enhances Creativity” (3/20/2012)… did you know that temporary exposure to the color green can enhance inventiveness? Researchers reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that experiments were conducted where people were asked to solve problems surrounded by either green or red borders. It didn’t matter whether you were male, female, short, tall, or Australian… everyone was a better problem solver “in the green”. This also brings a new meaning to “Green Flash” :)

Solving the Bird Strike Problem

goosePublic awareness of the danger of bird strikes to aircraft has greatly increased since the January 15 incident in which Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger expertly guided the crippled US Airways Airbus to safety in the Hudson River. On Friday, April 3rd, USA Today published a debate on airline passenger safety due to bird strikes. The newspaper presented the case that even though large bird populations are rising, and thus the risk of catastrophic collisions is also increasing, the federal government is responding by trying to hide the data. In late March, the FAA proposed blocking access to its bird strike database managed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on the basis that public access to the terribly complex records would “stifle reporting”. The opposing view, published by USA Today as excerpts from the FAA’s proposed rules, basically established the position that “voluntary reporting is good enough”.
But according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB, 1999), less than 20% of bird strikes are reported annually. How do we raise the profile of reporting, and encourage pilots and aviation workers to comply?

This question was answered by Dekker & Buurma (2005) in a paper to the International Bird Strike Committee in Athens. After all, the catastrophic failure of aircraft due to bird strikes is an international problem that readily crosses international boundaries and cultures, so it should not be a surprise that this issue has been taken up by aviation analysts worldwide. They recommend that we need to do the following to reduce the risks to human populations from bird strikes to aircraft:

  • We need to establish effective standards for defining what a bird strike is,
  • We need to decouple the reporting procedure from the international governance structures (FAA-like agencies as well as insurance providers), so that pilots and airline employees do not have to fear recrimination for their reports, and
  • We need to promote behaviors that encourage awareness and reporting, such as targeted inspections, clear guidelines, ensuring that the reports actually reach the databases, acceptance of the paperwork required by reporting, relieving time pressure so that there is available opportunity for reporting, and remove the reasons why people are fearful to report.

More details are provided in Dekker & Buurma’s paper at http://www.int-birdstrike.org/Athens_Papers/IBSC27%20WPII-1.pdf:

Quality assurance. Ultimately, bird strikes are the currency with which the effectiveness of preventive measures is settled. This applies to all aspects of the bird strike problem: improved impact resistance of aircraft, wildlife policy of airfields (and their surrounding) and operational procedures of airliners…

For the simple reason that the civil aviation authorities do play a double role (condensation point for information and authority that supervises all other parties) the relations are contaminated and dominated by juridical arguments. This means that there is a tendency for national databases to be biased in such a way that liability is excluded. This in turn means that the existing databases do contribute only in a limited way to the scientific, educational and quality assurance goals. If mandatory reporting is to be successful it has to be organised in a different, non punitive way.

Enhanced reporting “could be realised by unlinking the national bird strike databases from the supervising authority… [and then] the emphasis will change from juridical to scientific and educational.

The solution seems simple – remove the punitive penalties for reporting, and possibly institute incentives for accurate reporting. This could create jobs and open opportunities for researchers to investigate the problems more openly. What do we have to lose?


NTSB (1999). National Transportation Safety Board. Safety Recommendations A-99-86 through –94.