Let’s talk about quality of work

When you take some distance, you get the impression that companies spend their time inventing new concepts to address serious problems, seemingly avoiding tackling the root causes and forgetting that the solutions, if they were to be applied, have been around for a long time.

A criticism that is even more aptly directed at businesses that hire mostly knowledge workers and that, given that we are talking about intangible workflows and a host of things that are not very visible and of limited materiality, turn a blind eye to a number of dysfunctions by pretending that they do not exist.

Making something new out of something old

So the concepts follow one another, with each time the impression that since the previous one didn’t work, it is vaguely updated and the name is changed.

We had the era of collaborative work, knowledge management, enterprise 2.0, digital transformation, employee experience, happiness at work…

And each time I have the impression that we are talking about the same thing because finally everything is so intertwined that no matter which part of the problem we start with, we end up with the same basic issues.

Because at the end of the day, the goal of a business is to satisfy customers.

For that it has employees who must be put in the best conditions (management, tools, processes, ability to learn and develop).

For this, all these people must work together.

To remain competitive it must both optimize the present and prepare for the future.

In the end, this is based on three pillars: the customer, the employee and quality. This is as old as the hills and it is not likely to change.

The first two pillars are quite common in the discourse of all businesses, the third less so. If it is omnipresent in industry and part of the service sector, it is much less so in a very large part of businesses whose activity is essentially based on knowledge workers. They talk about deliverables and performance, and if the notion of quality is present, it is never addressed or mentioned as such.

Quality and knowledge work: you don’t pilot what you don’t understand

I don’t really have an explanation for this, but I do have a serious lead. To have a quality approach is to have a systemic approach and not an individual one.

Peter Drucker noted that over the course of the 20th century, the productivity of manual workers in manufacturing increased fiftyfold as we became smarter about how best to build products. He argued that the knowledge sector, on the other hand, had barely begun a similar process of self-examination and improvement, existing at the end of the twentieth century while the manufacturing sector had been a hundred years earlier.”

This excerpt from a NewYorker article talks about productivity, but I think it applies equally to quality. We don’t know how knowledge workers work, by which I mean the individual and collective dynamics and practices that make sure that at a given moment what needs to be produced is produced. There is an input somewhere, there are more or less established and flexible rules and processes, information circulates, accumulates, and at some point, as if by miracle, something is produced.

Are there bottlenecks along the way that prevent progress? Is the workload optimally distributed? Are the resources (people and information) available and in sufficient quantity and quality?

We don’t know and I don’t even know if we want to know. And without this, how can we claim to have an impact on the quality of what is produced?

The importance of quality in knowledge work

Why reintroduce here this concept from another time and, above all, from another industry?

Because among the things that differentiate knowledge work from other activities is the fact that the value produced is not proportional to the time spent.

You can produce a lot of deliverables, whatever their nature, in a given time, but if they don’t correspond to the expected level of quality, their value is zero and you have to start all over again.

This is why the notion of productivity in these sectors is very difficult to grasp and why the focus should be more on quality than quantity.

Making new out of old (2)

Okay, back to the original idea of this post. I just want to share something that some people may know but, as with my post on the Marseilles Speech, to show that people said and did very relevant things at one time and that it might be a good idea to build on things that worked rather than to rush into a race to constantly reinvent the wheel.

In the 50’s, Edwards Deming, father of what is now called “Total Quality Management” formalized what is known as the “14 points of Deming” which allowed the Japanese industry to grow at that time while Western businesses waited almost 30 years to convert to it.

So I’m not going to say that I agree with everything, that some things should not be updated, but some of them are still devilishly relevant, but if they are things that we still pretend to discover today. It also proves that sometimes we have to look for good ideas in sectors that have nothing to do with ours and that finally there is nothing like common sense.

1°) Stay on track with your mission by constantly improving products and services. The goal of a business is to be competitive, to attract customers and to provide work.

This means two things: optimizing the present while investing for the future. Today, too many businesses are only looking for short-term gains.

2°) Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western leaders must learn about their new responsibilities and lead the change.

There is no transformation of a business without a cultural transformation of the leaders, which I often translate as “the stairs are swept from the top”.

We have had some glaring examples of this in digital transformation.

3°) Make product quality require minimal checks and balances. Build quality into the product from the design stage.

Act on the system more than the individuals and avoid unnecessary processes and controls. A way to fight against complication?

This also reminds me of an anecdote from Smart Simplicity by Yves Morieux. When we realize that there are quality problems, we can create a “reparability” department that adds organizational complication or work upstream so that we don’t need it.

4°) Abandon the rule of purchasing at the lowest price. Instead, look for ways to reduce the total cost. Minimize the number of suppliers per item, establishing long-term relationships of loyalty and trust with them.

In a world that increasingly operates in an ecosystem, where freelancing is growing, a new way of managing providers and partners is needed. It’s no longer “them and us” but “us together” and this requires a long term relationship of trust.

Constantly changing partners also disrupts the functioning of the organization.

5°) Constantly improve all planning, production and service processes, which will lead to a reduction in costs.

However, it is still necessary to be able to understand how knowledge workers really work. Fortunately, today we have data for this.

6°) Institute permanent professional training.

This is even more true today, when knowledge is becoming obsolete more and more quickly.

7°) Institute leadership, a new way for everyone to exercise authority. The purpose of leadership is to help people and machines work better. Revise the way to command.

We talk about managers totally lost in remote work because they could not see their employees to control them.

One thing Deming couldn’t think of when talking about men and machines is to teach them to work together.

8°) Drive out fear, so that everyone can contribute to the success of the business.

Of course management by fear does not work, but it goes beyond that.

One of the biggest barriers to collaboration, innovation, problem solving and continuous improvement is the fear that people have to report a problem or to propose ideas to solve it.

9) Break down barriers between departments. Working as a team will prevent problems from arising during product development and use.

From design to execution, silos kill creativity and collaboration and ultimately generate quality problems that they also prevent from being resolved.

10°) Eliminate exhortations and formulas that require employees to achieve zero defects to increase productivity. They only create conflict situations.

This reminds me of the paradoxical injunctions that undermine the lives of employees.

Here I will quote Morieux again:

  • In 1955, businesses had between 4 and 7 performance imperatives, compared to between 25 and 50 today.
  • 15 to 50% of these indicators are contradictory, which was not the case in 1955.

11°) Abolish production quotas, as well as all forms of management by objectives. These methods will be replaced by leadership.

I’m a little less comfortable with this point, but it still brings up a fairly common issue: confusing the indicator with the objective. We know that when a measure becomes an objective it ceases to be a measure.

Let’s take the example of timesheeting and billability indicators in service businesses. They are essential to the management of the activity. But when we make the employee responsible for not being utilized (a fact that does not depend on him), we deviate from the usefulness of the measure and we obtain perverse behaviors that have consequences opposite to the desired goal.

12°) Remove the obstacles that prevent employees, engineers and managers from taking pride in their work, which implies the abolition of merit pay and management by objectives.

Well, the merit pay thing is a reference to practices in the US at the time and is not relevant.

As for management by objectives, I am not totally comfortable with what is said but I understand the message.

When, for so-called productivity reasons, we ask an employee to continue working on something that is poorly thought out instead of stopping and rethinking the problem from the beginning, we have a perverse effect because we are going to institutionalize non-quality.

This also raises the question of how to define goals.

13°) Institute an energetic program of education and personal improvement

There are not only hard skills in life, soft skills also count.

14°) Mobilize the entire staff of the business to accomplish the transformation.

Transformation and, more broadly, continuous improvement is not a siloed effort that is the prerogative of a few, but a collective effort in which everyone must feel involved and must contribute.

This echoes a system that I had personally put in place to make the subject of improvement exist alongside and in addition to the daily work by involving not only my own team but also the managers of other teams, because changing things for some has an impact on others.

Bottom line

Thank you to the courageous people who made it to the end of this article.

All businesses have been facing the same problems since the dawn of time, regardless of their sector or era. Sometimes a little common sense would be to stop the headlong rush and the invention of new concepts that follow one another and learn from old recipes that have proven themselves in the past.

Unless we don’t really want to tackle the real problems?

Image : quality at work by Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRIN
Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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