Quality and Consistency

The point of this post: Many quality management frameworks seem to be about ensuring consistency – especially in process. I’m not sure the two are as closely connected as these frameworks would have us believe.

[I posted this on my blog on OPSpedia, at work, about a month ago. I just noticed that I hadn’t corss-posted it here].

I was listening to a CBC Spark podcast the other day. Nora Young, the host, was interviewing Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Primarily the interview was about what best motivates employees in creative, innovative, decision-making roles (as opposed to assembly line workers). Pink’s answer was that it was not money (once there was sufficient money so that the lack was not a severely
demotivating factor). In fact there are plenty of scientific experiments that show adding monetary incentives can be demotivating in creative endeavours! What he belives the key motivators are for innovative, creative work are: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Now this could be the subject of another post in and of itself*. However, it was
an anecdote on the “Autonomy” side that got me thinking.

In the interview he talked about Zappos call centres, contrasting them with traditional call centres. In a traditional call centre, employees have very little autonomy. Everything is done consistently, strictly according to script. In Zappos call centres, there are no scripts. Call centre employees have one instruction: “Satisfy the customer”. Not surprisingly, Zappos significantly leads the field in customer satisfaction. Despite (or because of) the lack of consistency, it seems to me that they are providing the higher quality service. Not necessarily cheaper, but certainly higher quality.

The premise of many quality management programs seems to be that there is a “best” way of doing things. We need to find it, and do it that way as often as possible. Continuous improvement is good because it brings us closer to the “best way” As we identify improvements we need to make them and implement the improved process as consistently as possible. Consistency is the key.

But, unless you are a robot stamping out widgets, I’m not sure that there is a “best way”. Wherever people enter the equation what is “best” for one might not be “best” for another. The traditional call centre methodology may lead to cheaper costs (quicker turnaround, lower cost employees (although
probably higher turnover). It seems to work because it is look at consistent problems for which consistent solutions can be found. But the people with the problems are individual. How they approach the problems and what they are looking for in a solution or a customer service experience can differ greatly. Flexibility allows Zappos’ call centre employees to meet their individual situations in the “best way” for each.

We’ve long recognized that in creative fields there isn’t a “best way”. There isn’t a “best story”, “best painting” or “best musical composition” Platonic ideal which stories, paintings and songs are better the more closely they approximate it tending toward an artistic world of proliferating carbon copies. Even where there are “rules of the craft” that it helps to master, the “best works” are recognized as coming from people who, having mastered the rules, break them.

This applies to us, government employees, too. After decades of IT, the easily automated, mindless, non-creative parts of our jobs have long since been automated. The parts that remain are those that benefit from our creativity, innovation and opportunity to exercise judgement.

If this is the case, is a focus on improving process really the best way to improve the quality of service? Doesn’t a process-focus take away our ability to freely adapt to individual circumstances (either the quirks of our clients, of the situation, or of our own strengths and weaknesses)? It feels sort of heretical to write that – especially in a bureaucracy. But the examples Pink gave make it a question worth asking.

There are some benefits of consistency. One idea is that a consistent process leads to consistent outputs. People know what to expect. People still need to know what they can expect. But with a change in emphasis from process to outcome, we can focus the expectations on what really matters.

I have a vision of a future where there are no processes that people have to follow. There are outcomes that people have to produce. There are a variety of processes that are available thatare recommended and that they can use to deliver those outcomes. For someone new to the job, using those processes is a nice, safe way to help ensure that you deliver the required outcomes. But once you have achieved mastery, or where you see an unusual circumstance, there is no problem with departing from recommended processes – so long as you deliver the required outcome. And better to depart from process and deliver the outcome than follow process and fail to deliver. Quality is measured by result, not by process.

That’s how I think it should be. What do you think?

* Nicolas Charney has written just such a blog post on the implications of Pink’s thoughts on motivation and incentives to the public sector.

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I forget if it is is Daniel Pink’s book but I think this ties in real close to “how you hire.” For example, I know Zappos is famous for how they hire – actually offer a 6 week training course and pay people to quit