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.


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