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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Building Quality Products One Relationship at a Time

I consider it a life-changing experience having spent 10 years in the Japanese automotive business. Even in an HR role I got to see first hand how a "culture of quality" permeates a corporate culture. I'm not sure that we'll ever be able to install anything like it at Thomas Nelson. Our business model is split between experiential content (live events, social media, etc...), electronic content, and physical content. While we want everything we do to be of high quality and value to the customer, we aren't solely focused on how to make an excellent physical product from the top down. This divided focus is contrary to the type of fanatical devotion to "the thing" you make that is required of a "total quality" culture.

Still, we can make high quality physical products, and our product quality is in some cases an opportunity. Some regard the type of focus needed to make an excellent product too "blue collar" and so don't focus enough on it. An emphasis on numbers-first can also work against the type of decisions needed to run a total quality organization, like pulling bad product (i.e., "we'll fix it with the next printing"). A culture of quality requires supplanting whatever culture came before hand, and that's a years-long tough transition.

Part of that transition is how we call out substandard work, and how we react when told that our own work is substandard. In this relationship realm there are simple behavioral adjustments that can push the cause of quality forward. Lacking these adjustments you let interpersonal controversies overshadow the greater goal of zero defects, and quality gets lost in the finger pointing.

Here are three simple (but elegant) ways to use communication and relationship-building to help us make better products.

1. Senior leadership articulation of a zero defect goal - From C-level execs to division heads, the idea that the goal of each and every individual thing we do is zero defects is powerful. We don't publish written materials with typos, or videos with bad splices, or audios with background noise. But remember this:

Zero Defects is Not Zero Mistakes. Zero Defects is Finding and Fixing Our Mistakes

So the articulation from the top that we want zero defects rolls through the organization something like this: that errors be minimized through good processes, reasonable deadlines, and well-trained/well-equipped people, resulting in fewer mistakes. Mistakes that are found are corrected, including reworking or pulling bad product.

2. Call-out substandard work in a way that builds relationships - My Japanese bosses liked to say, "Fix the problem, not the blame." Just like good supervision separates the person from their behavior ("We love you, but we won't tolerate this thing you did"), identifying substandard quality separates the error from the person who made the mistake. "This work isn't up to par" is a lot different from, "Your work isn't up to par."

Too often I've seen a mistake used as an excuse to farm work out to a preferred vendor. That gives the content producer greater control, but does little to make the whole system (and company) better. Instead, we should examine each mistake and ask the person responsible (1) how did it happen, (2) how much work is out there that isn't up to our standards, (3) what can we do now to fix the problem in current inventory, and (4) what are you doing to make sure this doesn't happen again? Repetitive cycles of asking these four questions with every error will improve our system and raises everyone's game.

3. Receive quality complaints with grace, not defensiveness - This isn't about you; its about a standard that your product is not meeting. Granted, how you hear this oftentimes depends on how its said (see 2 above). It requires maturity and fortitude to take criticism and turn it into performance. But we only hire grown-ups so receiving this criticism maturely isn't an unreasonable expectation of anyone.

Once you know something you've done or made isn't up to standard, your next actions mirror the questions in 2 above: (1) how did this happen, (2) what is the scope of the problem, (3) how do we isolate bad work or inventory and then correct or destroy it, and (4) what procedural changes or controls do you put in place to make sure we don't have this same error again?

In all this we should have two goals: to work together toward a common goal of 100% customer satisfaction through zero defects, and to never fix the same problem twice. We can achieve this through graceful calling out of problems, graceful receipt of criticism, and focus on only producing products we're proud to sell...not sweeping it under the rug or catching it on the next reprint.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Well said Jim. I couldn't agree more. We should always strive for defect free products, but when a problem is discovered, we can either fix it timely, overly take care of the customer (if they are involved) and fix whatever caused the problem so the likely hood of it happening again is take care of. Or... we can cause further problems that last much longer than the initial problem. Words are powerful, we should use them wisely. Often given our quick methods of communication we type before we think. We have great people all engaged in the goal of producing great work.