When I was younger, I felt like I was pretty smart. Then I turned 23, was thrown into the fast-faced world of helping CxOs try to straighten out their wayward enterprise software implementations, and realized just how little I knew. My turning point came around 6pm on a hot, sticky, smelly evening on Staten Island in a conference room where a director named Mike Davis was yelling at a bunch of us youngster consultants. I thought he was mad at us, but in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he just wanted something simple, and no matter how clearly he explained it, no one could hear him. Not even me, not even when I was being smart.
The customer was asking for some kind of functionality that didn’t make sense to me. It seemed excessive and unwieldy. I knew a better way to do it. So when Mike asked us to tell him, step by step, what user scenario we would be implementing… I told him THE RIGHT WAY. After about five attempts, he blew up. He didn’t want “the right way” — he wanted “the way that would work.” The way that would draw the most potential out of those people working on those processes. The way that would make people feel the most engaged, the most in control of their own destiny, the way that they were used to doing (with maybe a couple of small tweaks to lead them in a direction of greater efficiency). He knew them, and he knew that. He was being a leader.
Now I’m in my 40s and I have a much better view of everything I don’t know. (A lot of that used to be invisible to me.) It makes me both happier (for the perspective it brings) and unhappier (because I can see so many of the intellectual greenfields and curiosities that I’ll never get to spend time in — and know that more will crop up every year). I’m limited by the expiration date on this body I’m in, something that never used to cross my mind.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the best things emerge when groups of people with diverse skills (and maybe complementary interests) get together, drive out fear, and drive out preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “best”. When something amazing sprouts up, it’s not because it was your idea (or because it turned out “right”). It’s because the ground was tilled in such a way that a group of people felt comfortable bringing their own ideas into the light, making them better together, and being open to their own emergent truths.
I used to think leadership was about coming up with the BEST, RIGHT IDEA — and then pushing for it. This week, I got to see someone else pushing really hard for her “best, most right, more right than anyone else’s” idea. But it’s only hers. She’s intent on steamrolling over everyone around her to get what she wants. She’s going to be really lonely when the time comes to implement it… because even if someone starts out with her, they’ll leave when they realize there’s no creative expression in it for them, no room for them to explore their own interests and boundaries. I feel sorry for her, but I’m not in a position to point it out. Especially since she’s older than me. Hasn’t she seen this kind of thing fail before? Probably, but she’s about to try again. Maybe she thinks she didn’t push hard enough last time.
Leadership is about creating spaces where other people can find purpose and meaning. No pushing required.
Thanks to @maryconger who posted the image on Twitter earlier today. Also thanks to Mike Davis, wherever you are. If you stumble across this on the web one day, thanks for waking me up in 2000. It’s made the 18 years thereafter much more productive.
What’s Quality 4.0, why is it important, and how can you use it to gain competitive advantage? Did you know you can benefit from Quality 4.0 even if you’re not a manufacturing organization? That’s right. I’ll tell you more next week.
Since then, hundreds more have followed to help people understand more about quality and process improvement in theory and in practice. I started writing because I was in the middle of my PhD dissertation in the Quality Systems program at Indiana State, and I was discovering so many interesting nuggets of information that I wanted to share those with the world – particularly practitioners, who might not have lots of time (or even interest) in sifting through the research. In addition, I was using data science (and some machine learning, although at the time, it was much more difficult to implement) to explore quality-related problems, and could see the earliest signs that this new paradigm for problem solving might help fuel data-driven decision making in the workplace… if only we could make the advanced techniques easy for people in busy jobs to use and apply.
We’re not there yet, but as ASQ and other organizations recognize Quality 4.0 as a focus area, we’re much closer. As a result, I’ve made it my mission to help bring insights from research to practitioners, to make these new innovations real. If you are developing or demonstrating any new innovative techniques that relate to making people, processes, or products better, easier, faster, or less expensive — or reducing risks and building individual and organizational capabilities — let me know!
I’ve also learned a lot in the past decade, most of which I’ve spent helping undergraduate students develop and refine their data-driven decision making skills, and more recently at Intelex (provider of integrated environment, health & safety, and quality management EHSQ software to enterprises and smaller organizations). Here are some of the big lessons:
People are complex. They have multidimensional lives, and work should support and enrich those lives. Any organization that cares about performance — internally and in the market — should examine how it can create complete and meaningful experiences. This applies not only to customers, but to employees and partners and suppliers. It also applies to anyone an organization has the power and potential to impact, no matter how small.
Your data are your most valuable assets. It sounds trite, but data is becoming as valuable as warehouses, inventory, and equipment. I was involved in a project a few years ago where we digitized data that had been collected for three years — and by analyzing it, we uncovered improvement opportunities that when implemented, saved thousands of dollars a week. We would not have been able to do that if the data had remained scratched in pencil on thousands of sheets of well-worn legal paper.
Self-awareness must be cultivated. The older you get, and the more experience you gain, the more you know what you don’t know. Many of my junior colleagues (and yours) haven’t reached this point yet, and will need some help from senior colleagues to gain this awareness. At the same time, those of you who are senior have valuable lessons to learn from your junior colleagues, too! Quality improvement is grounded in personal and organizational learning, and processes should help people help each other uncover blind spots and work through them — without fear.
Most of all, I discovered that what really matters is learning. We can spend time supporting human and organizational performance, developing and refining processes that have quality baked in, and making sure that products meet all their specifications. But what’s going on under the surface is more profound: people are learning about themselves, they are learning about how to transform inputs into outputs in a way that adds value, and they are learning about each other and their environment. Our processes just encapsulate that organizational knowledge that we develop as we learn.
Want to find out what Quality 4.0 really is — and start realizing the benefits for your organization? Check out this month’s issue of ASQ’s Quality Progress, where my new article (“Let’s Get Digital“) does just that. Quality 4.0 — which we’re working to bring to the practice of quality management and quality engineering at Intelex — asks how we can leverage connected, intelligent, automated (C-I-A) technologies to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction: “As connected, intelligent and automated systems are more widely adopted, we can once again expect a renaissance in quality tools and methods. The progression can be summarized through four themes:
Quality as inspection: In the early days, quality assurance relied on inspecting bad quality out of the total items produced. Walter A. Shewhart’s methods for statistical process control helped operators determine whether variation was due to random or special causes.
Quality as design: Inspired by W. Edwards Deming’s recommendation to cease dependence on inspection, more holistic methods emerged for designing quality into processes to prevent quality problems before they occurred.
Quality as empowerment: TQM and Six Sigma advocate a holistic approach to quality, making it everyone’s responsibility and empowering individuals to contribute to continuous improvement.
Quality as discovery: In an adaptive, intelligent environment, quality depends on how quickly we can discover and aggregate new data sources, how effectively we can discover root causes and how well we can discover new insights about ourselves, our products and our organizations.”
[Note: I’ve been away from the blog for several months now in the middle of very significant changes in my life. That’s about to change! In the next post, I’ll tell you about what happened and what my plans are for the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share something that happened to me today.]
A couple hours ago, I went to the ATM machine.
I don’t use cash often, so I haven’t been to an ATM machine in several months. Regardless, I’m fully accustomed to the pattern: put card in, enter secret code, tell the machine what I want, get my money, take my card. This time, I was really surprised by how long it was taking for my money to pop out.
Maybe there’s a problem with the connectivity? Maybe I should check back later? I sat in my car thinking about what the best plan of action would be… and then I decided to read the screen. (Who needs to read the screen? We all know what’s supposed to happen… so much so, that I was able to use an ATM machine entirely in the Icelandic language once.)
PLEASE TAKE YOUR CARD TO DISPENSE FUNDS, it said.
This is one of the simplest and greatest examples of poka-yoke (or “mistake-proofing”) I’ve ever seen. I had to take my card out and put it away before I could get my money! I was highly motivated to get the money (I mean, that’s the specific thing I came to the ATM to get) so of course I’m going to do whatever is required to accomplish my goal. The machine was forcing me to take my card — preventing the mistake of me accidentally leaving my card in the machine — which could be problematic for both me and the bank.
Why have I never seen this before? Why don’t other ATMs do this? I went on an intellectual fishing expedition and found out that no, the idea is not new… Lockton et al. (2010) described it like this:
A major opportunity for error with historic ATMs came from a user leaving his or her ATM card in the machine’s slot after the procedure of dispensing cash or other account activity was complete (Rogers et al., 1996, Rogers and Fisk, 1997). This was primarily because the cash was dispensed before the card was returned (i.e. a different sequence for Plan 3 in the HTA of Fig. 3), leading to a postcompletion error—“errors such as leaving the original document behind in a photocopier… [or] forgetting to replace the gas cap after filling the tank” (Byrne and Bovair, 1997). Postcompletion error is an error of omission (Matthews et al., 2000); the user’s main goal (Plan 0 in Fig. 3) of getting cash was completed so the further “hanging postcompletion action” (Chung and Byrne, 2008) of retrieving the card was easily forgotten.
The obvious design solution was, as Chung and Byrne (2008) put it, “to place the hanging postcompletion action ‘on the critical path’ to reduce or eliminate [its] omission” and this is what the majority of current ATMs feature (Freed and Remington, 2000): an interlock forcing function (Norman, 1988) or control poka-yoke (Shingo, 1986), requiring the user to remove the card before the cash is dispensed. Zimmerman and Bridger (2000) found that a ‘card-returned-then-cash-dispensed’ ATM dialogue design was at least 22% more efficient (in withdrawal time) and resulted in 100% fewer lost cards (i.e. none) compared with a ‘cash-dispensed-then-card-returned’ dialogue design.
I don’t think the most compelling message here has anything to do with design or ATMs, but with the value of hidden gems tucked into research papers. There is a long lag time between recording genius ideas and making them broadly available to help people. One of my goals over the next few years is to help as many of these nuggets get into the mainstream as possible. If you’ve got some findings that you think would benefit the entire quality community (or quality management systems or software), get in touch… I want to hear from you!
Lockton, D., Harrison, D., & Stanton, N. A. (2010). The Design with Intent Method: A design tool for influencing user behaviour. Applied ergonomics, 41(3), 382-392.