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Mary F. McDonald

Quality Insider

Look at Your System Objectively

Take off your distorting goggles.

Published: Thursday, May 13, 2010 - 08:43

In one scene from the movie “Precious,” we see the main character, Clarisse Precious Jones, getting ready for school in the morning. We see this obese African American teen put on a red headband—but looking in the mirror, we see the red headband on a pretty, thin blonde teen. She picks up and puts on jewelry—and we see the blonde teen wearing the jewelry. Although Precious is in reality an overweight child of color, she sees a thin, blue-eyed blonde in the mirror, because she is looking at herself through unrealistic filters—what I call distorting goggles.

I often see a similar phenomenon when looking at management systems—the person in charge of the system has rose-colored glasses on, looking at everything that’s right about the system, and overlooking the not-so-nice. What's worse, is that they often don't see reality at all, but instead see what they want the system to be. Like Precious, these quality managers view their management system through distorting goggles.

Why do people see distorted reality? When looking at a system for the first time, I am usually able to walk in with no preconceptions of what I’ll see. Will the system be robust, innovative, weak, or bureaucratic? I don’t know. There are no distorting goggles in place, coloring the way I look at this system. The next time I look at the system, I may have some preconceptions—“The objectives/targets implementation system is very strong” or “Calibration seems to be a problem for them.” It’s a bit harder to set these preconceptions aside, to remove the distorting goggles and be totally objective. If a trained quality professional, exposed to the system for short period of time has this problem, it’s no wonder that people who work within the system day in and day out develop preconceptions about their own system. It’s our responsibility to recognize that this is a common problem and work to ensure that it doesn’t affect our system.

Although we say that information on a system won’t affect our viewing or assessing of it, human nature shows that we may let it affect our actions as well as our thoughts. A study was done in an elementary school class: The researchers told the teacher ahead of time who the high-performing students were and watched how the teachers interacted with them. Although the teachers professed to have no bias toward any of the students, they were noted as showing these identified "smart" students more attention, scolding them less than others, and so forth. These students indeed scored well on their tests. The irony, of course, was that the students identified as high-performing were actually mid-to low-performing students. However, the teacher treating them as though they were scholastic stars pulled the students’ scores up significantly, and in many cases, the students’ view of themselves. The teachers had put on distorting goggles and acted according to what this distortion showed them.

The same holds true of auditors who have preconceptions about an area or facility that they are auditing. If an auditor reads an audit report and notices that employees aren't aware of the policy, or that documentation is not being followed, they may subconsciously develop a bias about what they may or may not find when conducting the audit.

What are some ways to get around this—how can we remove the distorting goggles? One way is to have someone else look at your system and give you a scorecard (both positives and negatives). A fresh set of eyes—an independent auditor—is helpful in seeing how your system is performing more objectively than you may be able to do yourself. A word of caution: Even external auditors, if not rotated occasionally, may become susceptible to wearing distorting goggles over time.

Let me give you an example: When I was the management representative at IBM, we were registering the facility of 9,000 employees, and the schedule called for the external auditors to stay in one area for a long time. The development auditors stayed in development; the manufacturing auditors stayed in manufacturing; and the office auditors stayed in the office.

At the end of two weeks (remember, 9,000 people, so we had four auditors for a month), one of the auditors came to me to let me know that they were going to be rotating audit paths every week for the remaining two weeks. I asked him, “Is this so you can get experience in all areas of the facility?” He told me, “No, it’s because an auditee got stuck today trying to access your documentation system and I told him how to do it: ‘Press F1, then scroll down and select the document, then….’ I realized I knew the system too well and was anticipating what I’d see. I’d like to go somewhere where I’m not the process expert.”

He had interviewed an average of four to six people a day, and because our documentation system was online, he’d watched approximately 50 people access the system before this latest auditee got stuck. Although it is helpful to have an auditor that is familiar with the system so you don’t have any learning curve to climb, you also have to balance this against the fact that an auditor can anticipate what they’re going to see and possibly miss something that they shouldn’t.

Another way to get around this is to pretend that you don’t know anything about the system, and act as though you’re a first-day hire. In the TV show "Undercover Boss," that’s exactly what the top executive does: He comes into the lowest levels of the organization and works in a variety of jobs. It invariably opens his eyes to the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can take a similar approach by asking “Why do we do it this way?”  “How would I find instructions on how to do this job?”  “What measurements do we need to take? How often? Why?”

Asking these questions and understanding why we are doing what we are doing will allow us to identify areas for improvement, areas of excellence, and areas where we can be a little more objective. Just maybe, it will help us remove distorting goggles.

Discuss

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Mary F. McDonald