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Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

This Quality Stuff is not Complex

When he was first becoming well-known, Tom Peters would sometimes say in his speeches that he had trouble explaining to his mother what he did for a living. He said that he would tell her that he told people to be good to their customers and to treat their employees with respect and she would say, "And they pay you for that?"

 Tom's mother was right. This stuff simply isn't all that complex. And most of us learned most of what we need to know about quality from our mothers.

 The problem is that people, particularly highly-paid executives and consultants, refuse to believe that quality is not a complex challenge--their egos won't let them. If their organizations aren't doing well at quality, what executive is going to admit that it really isn't very complicated? And what consultant is going to say, "I want you to pay me a ton of money to teach you something simple"?

 First, some vocabulary: Let's differentiate between "complex" and "simple" and between "difficult" and "easy." Nuclear science, for instance, is complex. It requires a great deal of extremely sophisticated technical knowledge and the integration of highly interdependent knowledge and activities to get it right with no room for error.

 Defining, implementing, and maintaining a quality process is not complex. Although it does require the integration of knowledge and activity, none of the primary components are all that difficult to understand and the mixture can easily change from organization to organization. The formula for something nuclear, on the other hand, must be followed precisely no matter who does it or where it's done.

 On the other hand, something simple can be quite difficult, especially if you have to pay attention to it continuously and deal with people all the time, each of whom presents a slightly new and different challenge. Nobody who has ever been involved in a quality process has ever mistaken it for something that is easy. It's not complex, but neither is it easy. Quality is simple but difficult. For example, saying "thank you" to a deserving employee isn't a complex task, yet it remains one of a quality process's most difficult components (based on how few executives do it well or at all) because it requires a personal investment of time, and (as with most acts of good leadership) it requires the executive to make a personal connection with a subordinate.

 In the fall of 1996, when Trident Precision Manufacturing of Webster, New York, was announced as a Baldrige winner, USA Today devoted its story on Trident to that which the leaders of the company maintained was a key aspect of their quality efforts: their recognition program. It was a point they made repeatedly in all subsequent presentations. Yet when Pat Townsend visited April Lusk, the director of the Trident recognition program, in the spring of 1997 while doing the research for our book Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration, the following exchange took place:

 Townsend: "You must have been kept very busy over the last several months. How many folks have you had come here to talk with you about this recognition program?"

 Lusk: "You're the first."

 She went on to explain that executives who came to visit--and there had been hundreds--were looking for something more complex, something esoteric that they could emulate. Saying thank you apparently seemed too obvious, too simple . . . or, perhaps, too difficult. The visiting executives were looking for something that was complex but easy. At virtually every quality conference these days, the best-attended sessions are those on the newest statistical techniques or the newest variation of benchmarking or surveying or the newest way to encourage innovation or some semi-exotic technical skills. When asked why they aren't attending sessions on the basics, the participants usually say something like, "Oh, we know that stuff. We're looking for what's new." With that approach, the attendees are, of course, violating one of the fundamental truths of a quality effort: it's necessary to both do the right things and do them right. Pursuing complex systems is counterproductive if the organization is not first putting its energies into establishing the correct base.

 Let's not make this any harder than it has to be. Quality is not complex. It is difficult, but it's also a fairly simple concept: Determine the customer's expectations, compare those expectations with what you plan to do (your specifications), and see if they match. If they don't match, then take action. Change your specifications to match the customer's expectations ("the customer is always right"), educate the customer to accept your specifications (sometimes, the customer is an uninformed bozo), or find some common ground where the specifications and expectations can meet. Then reassess your customers' expectations. Again, this isn't complex. But it is difficult.

* * * * *

 In last month's column, we presented the idea of an ongoing shift in marketplace power between the owners and managers, the workers, and the customers. An interesting example hit the news shortly after that column was submitted.

 In the National Hockey League, the Ottawa Senators' big star (his goals and assists totaled to 35 percent of their scoring last year) is Alexei Yashin. In fact, he was heavily featured in all of the team's off-season literature in the drive to get folks to buy season tickets. This 19992000 season is the fourth (and last) year of Yashin's contract, and he is due to receive more than $2.5 million--but he and his agent decided that that wasn't enough, so he's refusing to play until the club gives him a big pay raise for this season (it's called "renegotiating the contract").

 A group of season-ticket holders is suing the player (for $13 million) and his agent (for $14.5 million) for forcing the club to breach its implied contract with the fans. The lawyer for the class-action suit (for up to 10,000 season ticket holders) is doing it pro bono, and all winnings will go to charity.

 In other words, at first, the owners and managers in professional sports had virtually all of the power--they decided who would play and how much they would be paid, as well as how much they would charge for tickets. Then free agency and players' unions forced the owners and managers to share the power with the players, and ticket prices went up. It is now the customers, the fans, who are pushing their way into the relationship and demanding to be heard. The NHL is being introduced to the quality revolution. Can the NFL, NBA, and major league baseball be far behind?

About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999).

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