Monday, September 20, 2010

Quality Comes From People, Not Process

I've worked with A/E firms that went to great lengths to improve the quality of their work products, yet troubling quality breakdowns persisted. These firms substantially revamped their quality control procedures and systems, some even earning ISO 9000 certification. Still their employees continued to make costly mistakes. Dumb mistakes, in some cases.

What's up? Another lesson in human behavior. While there's no denying the value of implementing effective work processes, don't assume that these alone will improve how people do their work. Some times, in fact, they make m
atters worse. That's because process doesn't produce quality; people do. And how people perform is influenced by factors not typically addressed in standard operating procedures. Indeed, these procedures can produce opposite effects than what was intended.

To help us better understand this d
ynamic, let me refer you to the ABC model. Bear with me as we delve briefly into the science of behavior modification. It could be one of the most useful things you ever learn about leading others:

An antecedent is what comes before a behavior, what sets the stage for the behavior to occur. When managers want their employees to do something, they resort to antecedents like assigning a task, giving instruction, setting a deadline, providing training. These are all helpful and necessary steps, but antecedents typically have a short shelf life. They activate and direct behavior, but they don't do a good job motivating behavior for an extended period of time.

What really motivates us to repeat a behavior over time (say, conducting a quality check of our work) are the consequences it produces. This is common sense, if you think about it. If a behavior produces a favorable result, you're more inclined to repeat it, right? In fact, everything you do on a regular basis has been reinforced in some manner. This reinforcement is a powerful factor in shaping your behaviors, whether you're consciously aware of it or not.

You work out at the gym, drink that morning cup of coffee, use a software-based contact manager, watch your favorite television show because you like what those activities do for you. It can be just a feeling, or a tangible result, or even avoidance of something you don't want. But if you keep doing something, there is undoubtedly some kind of consequence that reinforces that behavior. Can you see where this is headed in terms of motivating quality-producing behaviors?

(By the way, if you'd like learn more about this approach to leadership, check out this excerpt from Aubrey Daniels' book Measure of a Leader. Start at the heading "Behavior Is a Function of Its Consequences.")

For this post, let me focus on one important aspect of quality management: Addressing quality problems, specifically the process of "root cause analysis" (RCA). Despite the fancy-sounding term, RCA is relatively simple in concept. It's the process by which you:
  • Define what happened (the problem)
  • Determine why it happened
  • Identify how to minimize the chances of it happening again
With rare exceptions, all quality breakdowns are ultimately expressed in behavior. There is a calculation error, a dimension is misprinted on the drawing, there's a misunderstanding with the client, the QC review fails to identify a serious mistake. The problem with the traditional approach to RCA is much like the shortcoming with traditional management; it tends to focus only on the antecedents of behavior.

That can lead to mischaracterizing the real "why" behind behaviors that lead to quality problems. Here's a common example: A firm's p
roject teams are repeatedly failing to follow the QC process for design drawings and errors are not being discovered until during construction. Management decides to add more detail to the process to try to clarify expectations, including more sign-offs to confirm that people have "followed" procedures. But those steps fail to noticeably reduce errors.

Going back to the ABC model, you can see that management attempted to solve a behavioral problem the old-fashioned way--by strengthening the antecedents (in this case, the process that is supposed to guide behavior). But without exploring why people were failing to follow the process, their cure actually magnified the root cause: The process was too complicated to begin with. Plus the people who were required to follow it had no input into its development, so there was little buy-in. Management tried to solve the problem by making the process still more complicated, again without seeking input from project staff.

Had management taken the time to try to understand the why behind employee behavior, they could have identified a more effective solution. Indeed, the behaviors that caused quality problems were inadvertently being reinforced. Shortcutting QC reviews enabled the team to meet tight schedules (a problem exacerbated by the firm's failure to budget adequate time for reviews). The firm's culture unintentionally placed greater emphasis on production than quality. The QC process so stressed third-party reviews that project team members were prone to conclude it wasn't really their responsibility.

So let me suggest that a better approach to RCA--and quality assurance in general--is to look hard at the motivation for recurrent behaviors that fail to deliver expected levels of quality. You must do this without rushing to affix blame, instead seeking to understand why people do what they do. The underlying causes usually arise from company actions, systems, and culture, not just the people involved. By better understanding and responding to the factors than motivate employee behaviors, you're better able to align your quality processes with the people who must carry them out.

1 comment:

  1. Yes indeed, to "align your quality processes with the people who must carry them out" you have to find out "why people do what they do". It sounds easy but it's not, because in real life, people are told different things by different people (multiple antecedents) and criticized or rewarded differently by different people as well. In short, multiple messages. So to align behavior, you have to work continually to align the message.

    Another thing to realize about quality coming from people is that people gain experience following a process together. You can't just put new people in the same process and expect the same result. See Play your cards right.