Changing the Management Attitude to Quality

At a recent conference where I was speaking, a participant asked me how to persuade management that they need to focus more on delivering quality instead of just doing everything as fast and cheap as possible.

I have frequently come across managers who believe that they simply need to tell people to work faster, and magic will happen.  These same managers don’t understand why you can’t just do your job correctly the first time.  Do it more quickly, do it correctly, you don’t need time to think, plan or structure your work intelligently because that is non-billable work.

It can be a challenge to persuade that type of person of the necessity to do things in a more measured and controlled approach.

1         Why Change?

The first question you need to answer before you proceed is to identify why do you want to change things and how much do you want to?

Your management appears not to have the same priorities as you as they continue to work the way things are.  You have reasons to believe that the business is not managed efficiently, but you must also bear in mind that you might be wrong.  Perhaps you don’t have the full picture; maybe there are valid reasons for not worrying about the quality aspects.  I worked for a while in an organisation that had been bought up by an investment company.  It was apparent that their objective was to lower costs and maximise sales over a short period in time to get the best resale value for the business.  They were not interested in the survival of the company after a rapid profit-taking exercise.  The managing director of this company told me that “quality and compliance are no longer part of the strategic objectives”.

Once you have established why you want things to change and why your management is less interested in changing things, we can proceed to the next step, which is to calculate the cost and the value of the change.

2         Measuring the Cost

If management’s first preoccupation is financial, then you need to prove the cost of quality.  That means you need to understand how sub-standard quality is affecting the bottom line and make recommendations on how to solve the issue.  Perhaps someone has these data, but it is unlikely that you will have free access to the HR or accounting data.  You will need to implement a series of metrics that will allow you to understand and demonstrate the cost of quality.

2.1        The Cost of Status-Quo

First, you can measure the actual time spent correcting defects that were reported by the client.  That the most straightforward measurement and should already be available if you have any reasonable time reporting system in place.

Other metrics are very useful but require more work.

2.1.1        Loss of Productivity

Loss of productivity is an important metric.  Whenever your team member is required to stop what they are doing to help, research or fix an issue, they are not productive, and the work they should be doing is not done as planned.  If an architect is called off the project on which he(*) is working and needs to take time to investigate a past project on which he may have worked, to find out the reason for failure, discover an appropriate solution, explain it to the people who need to implement it, and more, we are talking, at best, about one hour during which his own project is not progressing, more probably he will be delayed by at least a day.  The architect’s one-day interruption may delay the project by a day, meaning that the development phase cannot start work on time, potentially leading to wasting several days or weeks.  Depending on the size of the team, this can all be very expensive.

2.1.2        Loss of Reputation

NPS stands for the Net Promoted Score, something you have certainly come across as some company asks you whether you would recommend them to friends and family on a scale of 10.  NPS counts the number of people who respond 9 or 10 as promoters and gives them a positive score; those who answer 1 to 6 are considered as detractors and given a negative score; 7 and 8 are neutral and are counted as zero.  Scores are averaged out on a scale from -100 to +100.  To get a score of +100, every single respondent would have to give you a 9 or 10 likelihood of recommending you to friends and family.  A score higher than zero is good: that means more people gave you a 9 or 10 than those who scored you below 7.  Generally, you should be pleased to get a score of 20 to 50.

Every time your client calls you up because of a problem or defect in your product, you can safely assume that she is less likely to recommend you to friends and colleagues.  Depending on the product you are selling and the impact of potential defects, you may decide that you will lose one NPS point for every complaint or possibly every 5 or 10 calls.  After only a few problems, your supporters are turning into detractors, who may actively be recommending their colleagues to avoid working with you.

You risk losing your existing client, and you are potentially losing a new one should your contact person change companies.

2.1.3        Loss of Staff

The more pressure you are putting on the staff to work faster, the more you blame them for not producing better quality, the more likely it becomes that they will leave.  The first people to go and find work somewhere else will be the most valuable players in the business.

Are you willing to risk your staff in leaving and take on the cost of hiring and training new people?  Consider that newly hired staff do not have the experience, the knowledge, the capabilities of those who left.  In addition to the loss of productivity from losing a capable team member, you now need to lose additional productivity of one of the remaining team members to bring the new starter up to speed.

The cost of hiring a new person includes the direct cost of advertising for the job or using an agency to do so, the loss of productivity until a new reasonable person is found, the potential requirement to increase the salary in order to attract suitable candidates, the time spent by someone on your team on training and mentoring.  If this is a relatively responsible position, such as an architect or a project manager, you can expect several months lost before she is up to speed and genuinely productive.

2.1.4        The Spiral of Defect-Prone Products

By allowing sub-standard products to hit the market, you are guaranteeing interruptions in your production work in the coming months and years.

Creative people doing an intellectual job (and that includes everyone in the IT industry) perform best when they are in “the flow” (see Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s book on this subject) and can concentrate entirely on doing their work.  Every time they are interrupted while in the flow, it will take at least twenty minutes before they can get back to the same level of concentration.

The interruption means that they need to take time to understand again where they were going and what they were doing.  There is a strong possibility that the disruption in concentration will lead to a break in the continuity of the work, allowing new defects to be inserted into the product.

By delivering and maintaining products that contain defects, you are generating new errors into your new products unless you put in place an approach that ensures that people already working on projects are not allowed to be interrupted by previous projects and customer support.  Unfortunately, a customer complaining is the kind of short-term priority that overrides everything else, so most businesses would take their best people of long-term quality activities to solve a short-term problem.

2.2        The Cost of Changing

Changing the way things are done will naturally incur additional costs.

2.2.1        Consultancy

Of course, my first recommendation is to call on someone like me to identify what and how to change things.

2.2.2        Postponed Work

How much work can you cancel or postpone?  If you are going to reduce your workload and pressure, you are going to have to cancel some activities.  Perhaps you need to stop offering rapid support to your clients, or you need to postpone a development project to give you time to clear up your legacy debt, but something is going to have to give.  You cannot sweep the floor clean if you are not prepared to move some things out of the way.

2.2.3        New Developments

New developments are, of course, also to be costed. You must take into consideration the cost of training, new controls, the roll-out of processes, techniques and technologies.

Phil Crosby famously wrote that “Quality is Free”, however changing the way a team does its work is a necessary investment.  Because you are deploying a new way of working, you are going to have to inform staff of the new requirements, create new reporting structures or process documentation, establish metrics and controls, so this will involve the typical additional expenses that one would assign to any change programme.

2.3        Keeping up with the Neighbours

Someone once told me that improvement is like going up the down escalator.  If you are not putting in the effort to move forward, you are moving backwards.

Whatever business you are in, there is someone out there who is offering, if not identical, then very similar services.  Someone doing it differently may mean that they are doing it better or cheaper or in a way that is more suitable for a particular industry or culture.  They will steal your customers as soon as they can.  Consider that someone of whom you have never heard is going to create something new, disruptive, ingenious, unique that, in one or two years, is going to revolutionise your industry and make your products or services old-fashioned or completely redundant…  Are you ready?

The idea of delivering high quality means that most of your clients should prefer to stay with a known, working, proven solution rather than gambling on changing for another provider.  Delivering high quality means that your users speak well of you and, when they change employers, they will recommend your products and services.

If you are the cutting-edge, leading industry you believe you are, then you need to be aware that your competitors are currently studying you and imitating you.  They are learning from your mistakes and successes and will come out with something that will have advantages over your offer.

If you want to survive beyond the present, you cannot overestimate the importance of defining the quality that you wish as the basis of your reputation, designing that quality into every level and phase of development and delivery, demonstrating quantitatively that you have achieved your marketing promises.

3         What Needs Changing

If you have understood the cost and can demonstrate the importance and the urgency of changing the way things are done, the natural next step includes identifying what needs to change.

3.1        Company Culture

The culture of the company is defined as the way employees act when management is not around.  If you want to focus on improving the culture, so everyone starts working qualitatively, it is not sufficient to just put out a memo.  It requires clear support and actions that impact the motivation of team members by making them want to produce better quality.

A policy may establish a baseline, but it is never enough.  Management will be required to take actions to demonstrate the value of the new approach and prove their belief in its importance by being seen to apply the rules and principles themselves.  In other words, they will be required to become leaders rather than managers.

3.2        Education

Most industries spend a significant amount of time and money on training people, teaching them to follow instructions, use the tool correctly, and respect step-by-step procedures.

If you need to change the way people act and think you will require education in addition to the training.  Team members need to understand why it is essential to do things following the new approach.  They need to accept the idea that they are being asked to put in an extra effort now to improve their work-life balance in the future.

3.3        Infrastructure and Environment

Perhaps additional tooling is needed.  New tooling or technology may mean new equipment, changes to the layout and facilities and many other potential physical changes.  It is not possible in a general article like this to truly consider the level of change that might be necessary for any given circumstance, but, in addition to the obvious (e.g. upgrades to available software products), think of the potential impact of repainting the offices, putting in some plants and paintings (art, not motivational posters) and other items that will make the environment more pleasant.

3.4        Goals Vs Tasks

Many organisations work through procedures and tasks, decomposing the final product or service into a series of things that need to be done and assuming that if every step is taken correctly, you will arrive at your destination.

It is preferable, in this case, as in others, to ensure that the end-goal is clearly understood.  The team members need to know what they are trying to achieve and how important is their particular task in the overall chain of events.

By focusing more on the end goal, they will have the option to look at their work and recommend improvements, short-cuts, identify missing steps…  Your team members know, better than anyone else, how to achieve better results; if they are required to follow detailed step-by-step procedures, they will not have the opportunity to point out the waste and will only get more frustrated, therefore less productive.

4         How to Change

Many years ago, I raised problems with my manager, told him what I thought was wrong and the risks related to the issue; he replied: “that’s interesting, what do you propose we should do about it?”

Until that moment, I considered my role to be that of identifying problems, and he was to resolve them.  Everything changed that day.  I understood that if you know why we need to change and you know what needs to change, you should also be able to tell me how we should go about it.

Note that my manager at the time did not ask what I should do or what he should do.  His question was about what we should do to solve the issue at hand.  When you prepare your talk to your manager about changing the organisation, do not commit to doing everything yourself, but do not try to make her change everything on her own.  You are presenting this as a team, and you are seeking to resolve this as a team.

This final stage should naturally lead into identifying who are the best people to lead, manage, conduct and perform the necessary activities; this will allow you to determine when it can be done and establish appropriate priorities.

5         Conclusion

Changing is frequently less challenging than accepting the need for change; once you agree that it is necessary, time and resources can be found.  While many people trust that there is a need to progress, to change, to evolve, we have a general tendency to postpone the effort because the additional effort requires motivation.  Persuading someone of the need to take the first step to implement in-depth change is therefore challenging and requires a real understanding of that individual’s personal motivation.

It is best not to present management with a pile of extra work they need to perform, but provide them with as much detail as possible to support your arguments and facilitate the implementation.

(*) For grammatical and legibility reasons, I am assigning a gender to the various individuals mentioned. No reason for which one, but I don’t want to write “she or he” every time.

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