Quality Requires People

in Building Capability, Improvement Science, Leadership, Psychology

By David M. Williams, PhD

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash


“Improvement would be easy if it weren’t for all of the people involved.”
— David M. Williams, PhD


In the books we read or in the workshops where we learn, improvement can feel very matter of fact. Use tools like cause and effect diagrams or Pareto charts to identify the issues, develop change ideas, test those ideas, and measure the results. Boom! At face value, improvement appears logical and technical. If this is true, why is it so hard? Why do many change ideas never convert into results? Could it be the people?

The Right People
There are many ways to think about the “ideal” people. Do they have experience? Do they have the key skills required? Are they a good fit for your culture? The right answer may be “yes” for all.

In practice, what matters is finding people who share your values, are a good fit for a respectful culture, and are willing to be problem solvers and deep learners. Subject matter and technical skills can be taught and mentored. Even an experienced person is going to require a translation process to help them adapt to your theories and practices. So, start with great people and devote the time and attention to unleash their potential.

Beginning Day One
When a new person joins your staff, they enter your organization in a great state of readiness. They are excited about this new opportunity. They hope this fresh experience will bring professional challenge and joy. Their every intention is to do their best work. What could a leader want more? 

Once they cross the threshold of your workplace, however, what happens next is largely dependent on you as a leader and the culture and norms of the organization. To activate and engage new people to reach their fullest potential requires thoughtful planning and deliberate action. How the person is onboarded and integrated sets the foundation for their development and contribution.

What Motivates?
When a person does a good job, do you assume it’s a result of their salary, a far off bonus, or to avoid punishment if they do it wrong? Probably not. It’s more likely they had pride in doing solid work.

Alfie Kohn writes from his research, “Intrinsic motivation (loving what you do) is also the best predictor of high-quality achievement, which is why — brace yourself for another counterintuitive discovery — people promised a reward for doing something often end up doing it more poorly than people who weren’t.” Frederick Herzberg further framed how people are motivated and he makes the case that intrinsic factors (autonomy, challenge, sense of accomplishment, etc) are important to motivate us to do our best work.

If we intuitively know this and our lived-experience affirms this, why do leaders continue to rely on gold stars, prizes, money, and demerits that we know don’t work? Help people do their best, working on the right work and continually improving it and learning, and they will be motivated with pride.

Train Right the First Time
The first 90-120 days is your opportunity to develop new people for success. How you teach them about the work, model the way, and support their development will establish their core practice. Identifying what skills and knowledge they need to know and teaching them well will establish a solid foundation. For example, if you want staff to be scientific problem solvers, they need to learn how to identify a problem, what tools to use to break down and understand the problem, and how to test changes to achieve results.

Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen (HBR, Sep/Oct 1999) wrote about the unspoken rules within Toyota’s approach to creating a system and culture for quality, based on using the scientific method. They enable workers to be successful through the development of standard work processes which equip them to produce the desired results. This is followed by mentors developing staff to be problem solvers as they are learning the work. Included are four questions:

  1. How do you do this work?  
  2. How do you know you are doing this work correctly? 
  3. How do you know the outcome is free of defects?
  4. What do you do if you have a problem?

These questions aid the learner to be clear on what good looks like and how to get there and how to recognize defect-free work and how to act when issues arise to fix them. The mentor does not tell them how to do the job and hold them accountable to the standards. She or he starts with work designed to get the results, mentors them to learn the work, and then supports him or her to execute and improve it.

Stages of Development
As people learn, they move through various stages of development from new learners to experienced and independent. It makes sense that a mentor needs to adapt their coaching approach to the stages of development. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard provide a practical and accessible model for thinking about this known as Situational Leadership. Learners are in one of four stages of development from beginner (D1) to competent (D4). Leaders must match their style of coaching to the learner’s stage of development. For example, a beginner will require more direct explaining and direction than an experienced learner whom you can delegate to and know they have the skills and knowledge to execute successively.

Source: SLII® (Situational Leadership® II)
The Ken Blanchard Companies from Leadership and the One Minute Manager 

The Human Side
The opening quote is a true learning for many leaders. If you approach quality like Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, work is only about creating the perfect process, measuring compliance, and using carrots and sticks to keep people performing to standard. We know now that there is a major flaw in that thinking, however. Human systems are made up of people–people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences, and who bring unique gifts. When each person begins their journey in your organization, it’s on the leaders to create the conditions for their success, onboard them to contribute their best, and maintain and model practices that support curiosity, problem-solving, relentless focus on results for those you serve, and the space to have pride in a job well done.

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