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Passion, People and Principles

Whatever Happened to Quality?

post # 31 — March 17, 2006 — a Managing, Strategy post

In the mid- to-late 80s, the hot management fad was ‘quality,’ driven by the first wave of success of Japanese manufacturers and books like Phil Crosby’s ‘Quality is Free.’ There was a lot of fuss about the Baldridge Awards, and major companies (even professional firms) competed to be singled out for this distinction.

You don’t hear much about the quality movement these days, but it’s still out there. Nowadays, it has (unfortunately, I think) been subsumed into the “Six-Sigma” cult, and re-branded as part of “client-centricity.”

It would be nice if we could return to simpler days of speaking plain English and tackling real issues, instead of launching grand programs and initiatives that are long on idealism but short on real commitment.

The 1980s quality movement had its own jargon, but I still find some of it helpful in working with professional businesses. For example, it is still useful to distinguish between four possible kinds of quality.

  1. Make the aspirin – conformance (reliability, consistency, dependability) to technical quality
  2. Nurse the patient – conformance (reliability, consistency, dependability) in interacting with the client
  3. Do the brain surgery – higher-than-market performance (superior outcomes and value) in technical quality
  4. Be the trusted counselor – higher-than-market performance (superior outcomes and value) in consultative quality (be the clients family doctor or psychotherapist.

(I first write about these as four different kinds of practice in my book, True Professionalism)

cover of David Maister's book, True Professionalism

The point, of course, is that each of these four ways of improving quality requires different initiatives.

Improving the aspirin means studying the work processes of how you get things done. Improving the nursing means getting your people both motivated and trained to know how to work with clients and their idiosyncrasies. Improving the brain surgery means getting to the frontier of your field and becoming true innovators. Improving the Trusted Counseling means entering the client’s world and learning how to affect how they think about their problems and issues.

These are four very different initiatives.

Of course, one of the major ways of ending up with poor quality is to think you are providing one of these services when your client is actually trying to buy another!

In a meeting of consultants, I asked people to vote on what they thought were the major causes of quality failure in consulting. Here’s their list, with the most common cause of quality problems listed first:

  • Mis-Specification of goals of project
  • Lack of Skills in dealing with clients
  • Work-teams overloaded / overscheduled
  • Poor staffing of engagements
  • Overselling
  • Shifting client expectations (Mid-engagement changes in client desires or needs)
  • Proposing bad project solutions
  • Attitudinal or motivational problems
  • Engagement budget pressures
  • Failure to access expertise elsewhere in firm
  • Inadequately trained staff
  • Lack of incentive (internally) to do a quality job
  • Poor methodologies
  • Excessive reliance on standard methodologies
  • Inadequate support staff
  • Poor management of project mix
  • Available skills

I also gave these consultants a list of possible places to ‘attack’ quality problems, and I had them rank the ones they would put at the top of their priority list. Here are their choices:

  • Hiring for different attitudes and skills
  • On-the-job training
  • Client feedback systems
  • Management behavior
  • Creating the quality culture/climate
  • Proposals (negotiating quality dimensions)
  • Formal training
  • Peer review systems – during projects (are we doing the right things?)
  • Reward system – senior professionals
  • Peer review systems – end-of-project (did we do the right things?)
  • Principal/Partner promotion / admission process
  • Managing project mix
  • Monitoring procedures
  • Methodology development and improvement
  • Reward System for juniors

Among the initiatives that came out of the discussions I ran were:

  • A need to shift from analytical to ‘client-involved’ consulting techniques.
  • A need to assess the client’s sophistication and need for consultative help, not just technical help
  • Rehearsals of client interactions, to help people improve skills in a low-risk environment
  • Holding upward reviews, asking junior engagement personnel to evaluate the engagement leader on how well the project was managed
  • Using outside experts to review project quality
  • Formal project debriefings
  • Formalized procedures to ensure that all communications with client are shared with those that need to know (including clerical and other support staff)
  • ‘Second set of eyes’ review of proposal prior to sale to ensure achievability
  • A quality assurance professional on staff and involved in operations
  • Use performance evaluations to stress quality.

There are a lot of ideas and good intentions here, but here’s my point: people have been talking about all of this for decades, but how many people are actually doing these things?

In the rush to globalize and build multidisciplinary, megalithic professional businesses, how many truly have in place effective quality processes that truly serve the client?

1 Comment

Shawn Callahan said:

I have a theory why companies haven’t made much progress with things like:

Hiring for different attitudes and skills

On-the-job training

Client feedback systems

Management behavior

Creating the quality culture/climate (just to take your top few points)

People believe that these types of problems are reducible, analyzable and solvable given enough time and resources. This thinking is a hangover from Newtonian physics and Taylorism which has dominated organisational thinking for 100 years or more.

An alternative perspective is that these types of problems are complex and characterised by many interacting and non linear parts, operate far from equilibrium and remain largely unpredictable. This perspective is informed by complexity science which is gaining prominance in business.

The question then is how to make progress in a complex system. We believe it is all about taking small actions (many of them) and see what patterns form. The patterns you like you nurture; the ones you don’t, you disrupt. This is an ongoing activity akin to action research. We call it intervention design. But of course not everything in an organisation is complex, so it’s important to work out what can be thought of as a series of causes and effects and what is complex before you apply intervention design principles.

This post describes complex systems (also called wicked problems): http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2005/01/similarity_betw.html

This post describes an approach to intervention design:


posted on March 17, 2006