People define quality, both in terms of what it is but also how it can be achieved. David Straker explains how an understanding of psychology can help quality professionals
Quality is an essential element of all organizations. As quality professionals we work to set standards and build capability to consistently deliver to requirements while constantly improving the whole system. Quality means never taking anything for granted and yet we have a gaping hole in our armoury.
Consider how quality grew up. It started in the industrial revolution as crafts became systematised to enable the use of low-cost labour. Standards needed to be created and processes described in detail so they could be taught and managed. Lower-paid workers tended not to be skilled and could make mistakes. Worse still, they may have lacked professional pride and so were prone to be careless or even malicious. As a result, additional inspections were added to verify the work was being done as it should be.
The quality profession has come a long way in knowing how to design and improve processes, but now we need to expand our knowledge further. We are living through the information revolution and manufacturing has been largely replaced by service industries. Customers, of course, define quality and the customer surface is greater than ever, with many opportunities for dissatisfaction. Complaints are easier to make and social media platforms can quickly become white hot with stories of how an organisation has failed.
Consider also the extent to which the people in organizations are an important part of quality. Once staff could be easily trained, managed and replaced, but they are now increasingly qualified, deeply knowledgeable and not easy to replace. People must be engaged, enthused and convinced, not just commanded. They need to be led as well as managed.
Getting the best out of people
As the need for change and improvement accelerates, your ability to influence and work with people at all levels becomes increasingly important. These revelations are not new. Deming not only named skill in variation, systems and knowledge as being important for quality professionals, but also psychology. In his experience, the root cause of many quality issues had proved to be around people, as his 14 points for management indicate. And yet, as a profession, we have been slow to move in this direction.
Many who work in quality have little background in the social sciences. In quality we seek quantified certainty where we can take positive and guaranteed action. We like one-for-one cause and effect where we can say: ‘If I do this, then that will happen’. Yet there are no guarantees with people and their mysterious motivations. Indeed, the partial success or outright failure of many quality and change implementations is due to people making decisions and taking actions that were undesirable and unexpected.
Where then will an understanding of psychology help quality professionals? In short, in any interaction with other people and wherever anyone is doing anything of interest to you. A significant part of the quality job is in getting people to think and do things they were not thinking or doing previously. This may include:
- Gaining agreement with senior managers as to the meaning and importance of quality
- Gaining approval for the primary quality processes whereby standards and processes are implemented
- Gaining the willing attention of individuals at all levels
- Communicating the quality programme in a way that leads to positive engagement
- Persuading individuals to take actions that lead to improved quality and provide useful information for improvement
- Giving feedback about quality and the results of assessments in a way that doesn’t alienate people and leads to appropriate action.
As with the other areas of Deming’s work, we should study psychology in detail, to understand the underlying theory in order to apply it effectively in practice. Psychology is broken into a number of sub-disciplines and the most useful for quality professionals are cognitive and social psychology. Cognitive psychology is about how our minds work and covers areas such as perception, memory and decision-making. Social psychology is about how we interact with others, including interpersonal influence and the dynamics of teams. The crossover area of social cognition is also useful.
Is it possible to reach a position of easy influence? Sadly, the answer is no. Being able to persuade anyone of anything is often difficult and liable to lead to all kinds of issues. Even simple communication can cause terrible misunderstandings and unwanted reaction. But if we spend more time studying and practicing psychology, then we will improve our abilities in this area. Improvement is, after all, what our profession is all about.
David Straker, MCQI CQP, is a quality consultant. He runs a knowledge sharing website at www.syque.com He is speaking at a CQI masterclass on the psychology of quality on 27 April 2011