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Stewart Anderson

Quality Insider

Lessons from the Orchestra

Delivering excellence without a quality department

Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 05:00

Imagine yourself seated in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center awaiting a concert by the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra’s musicians are on stage warming up, producing a cacophony of sound. The concertmaster raps his stand for the orchestra to tune to the principal oboist’s A. A few minutes later, music director Alan Gilbert mounts the podium, gives the downbeat, and the 100 or so musicians come together to produce a beautifully balanced and precise sound—a quality performance in every respect.

Is an orchestra really so much different than a business organization? Leaving aside the business aspects of running and administering a musical endeavor such as a symphony orchestra, the process of producing a musical product is not much different than producing a business product or service to satisfy customers. In fact, there is much that business could learn from the creative processes of musicians and artists—valuable lessons about organization, process, quality, problem solving, teamwork, and collaboration.

First of all, creating a musical performance is very much a product-development process aimed at satisfying the orchestra’s customers, the paying public. The performance must be designed and developed using the raw materials of the composer’s score and the musical understanding and intelligence of the conductor together with that of the musicians. The design process is essentially collaborative, with the conductor and musicians working in rehearsal to develop the final product according to their understanding of the approximate requirements communicated in the composer’s score. The rehearsal is the product-development process, and because musical notation is imprecise, much problem solving in real time must be undertaken by the conductor and musicians to achieve the “target condition” that represents their desired final product.

Problem solving in real time, in a rehearsal, is a highly developed skill among musicians. Whether the problem is one of balance or intonation among or between sections of the orchestra, problems in ensemble and individual execution represent defects in the product-development process. Overcoming and solving these problems in rehearsal is critical to ensuring quality in the final product delivered to paying customers. To improve product quality, musicians must undertake problem solving and learning in real time, during the rehearsal.

In an orchestra, as in a business, to eliminate defects in the product the musicians must identify the cause of the problem and create effective countermeasures to address the cause. Because feedback about quality problems in a rehearsal is immediate, problem solving by the musicians must be undertaken in real time to address defects in the performance. Oftentimes, on-the-spot experimentation is required to create effective solutions to quality problems. The orchestra truly is a learning environment where solutions to ensemble problems must be developed quickly, leveraging the musicians’ experience, skill, and creativity. In the problem solving process, the conductor might assume the role of a facilitator, advising and guiding the musicians as they grapple with the cause and attempt to develop solutions.

The deeper lesson to be learned here is that an orchestra has no “quality department” as such to assist it in addressing quality issues. All the musicians are responsible for the quality of the final product because they are its creators. All the musicians must willingly contribute their best efforts at every point in the process because any withholding of contribution will undo the efforts of the others. In an orchestra, the primary responsibility for quality resides with those who build it into the final product—the musicians.

Businesses can learn from the orchestra’s approach to devolving the responsibility for quality. While quality departments and functions can be useful in developing and managing an organization’s overall approach to quality, they can create a “hidden factory” where the responsibility for quality is not appropriately delegated to those responsible for enabling quality in the product realization process—the workers.

While an orchestra is constituted as a series of “departments” consisting of the various groups of instruments (e.g., strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion), form is always subservient to function. That is, the orchestra’s departmental structures and boundaries are secondary to the function required in the moment-to-moment process of making the product—i.e., the music. If an orchestra’s various departments were to function as independent entities, as silos disconnected and independent from other departments, its unity and integrity would suffer. This would have a deleterious effect on the orchestra’s functioning, and would significantly degrade the ensemble’s ability to collaborate to produce a quality product.

Form driving function is a common problem that afflicts business organizations, often unknowingly. In many firms, the various departments often operate as independent and disconnected entities, imposing a tyranny of structure upon the enterprise. In actual fact, a business organization is a system of interconnected and interdependent processes, where work flows horizontally across departmental boundaries. Firms with a strong bias toward vertical structures must find a way to adapt and subordinate these structures to the primacy of process in much the same way as the orchestra does. In this way, line of sight out to the final customer is maintained and cross-functional collaboration in the horizontal process flow to create value and solve problems achieves its rightful primacy.

A key feature of superior corporate functioning is unity, functioning as a single entity rather than a collection of disparate parts. Firms that can achieve a high degree of unification and integration among their various member parts will enjoy the benefits that result from greater effectiveness and efficiency in achieving their business goals and objectives. In such firms, the sum of the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.

A collective musical endeavor, whether it is a string quartet or a symphony orchestra, has much to teach business about achieving unity of purpose and cooperative action. In music, it is simply not possible to achieve a high degree of excellence in performance unless unity among the performers is achieved. If even one of the musicians in a string quartet, for example, functions from a position of self-interest, the unity of the whole is compromised and the integrity and quality of the collective effort is degraded.

A key role of an orchestra’s conductor is to provoke this unity among the corporate body of musicians. In this respect, the conductor is synonymous with the CEO of a business organization. It is the conductor who defines and communicates the overall vision for a performance, who elicits and coordinates contribution from the musicians, and who encourages and supports problem solving and learning within the group. However, the greatest conductors achieve even more than this: They provide their musicians (the workers) with a unique experience that they could not otherwise attain by themselves, lifting them out of the routine of a merely competent performance.

In summary, business can learn from the arts, and especially collective artistic endeavors such as orchestras. Throughout the ages, artists of all types have had to solve problems, learn through doing and experimentation, and collaborate collectively in the pursuit of goals and objectives. That the profit motive is often lacking in pure artistic endeavors does not make them any less relevant as useful learning models for commercial ventures and businesses.


About The Author

Stewart Anderson’s picture

Stewart Anderson

Stewart Anderson is a partner with Anderson Lyall Consulting Group, a Toronto-based consulting and advisory firm that helps firms develop their competitive advantage. Anderson’s background and expertise includes competitive strategy and value chain engineering. He has advised companies in the manufacturing, service, and contract manufacturing industries. Anderson is completing his bachelor of arts in economics and he is a certified trainer in lean manufacturing principles and techniques.


The orchestra and the conductor

Having played in an orchestra for many years, one thing important about the conductor - what he or she says goes. The different "departments" spend no time discussing with each other what they feel may make it better or how to correct the problem. When the conductor speaks, everybody listens. Everybody shuts down while the section in question gets a handle on the solution. Any other way would add too much time and tail chasing to finish the product. And in the end, a great conductor brings out the very best possible with the talent pool, and everyone is proud of the results achieved.