Quality, Decision Making and Putting the Human First

Quality stands in a position, sometimes uniquely in an organization, of engaging with stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions the organization needs to assume, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

The effectiveness of the team in making good decisions by picking the right choices depends on their ability of analyzing a problem and generating alternatives. As I discussed in my post “Design Lifecycle within PDCA – Planning” experimentation plays a critical part of the decision making process. When designing the solution we always consider:

  • Always include a “do nothing” option: Not every decision or problem demands an action. Sometimes, the best way is to do nothing.
  • How do you know what you think you know? This should be a question everyone is comfortable asking. It allows people to check assumptions and to question claims that, while convenient, are not based on any kind of data, firsthand knowledge, or research.
  • Ask tough questions Be direct and honest. Push hard to get to the core of what the options look like.
  • Have a dissenting option. It is critical to include unpopular but reasonable options. Make sure to include opinions or choices you personally don’t like, but for which good arguments can be made. This keeps you honest and gives anyone who see the pros/cons list a chance to convince you into making a better decision than the one you might have arrived at on your own.
  • Consider hybrid choices. Sometimes it’s possible to take an attribute of one choice and add it to another. Like exploratory design, there are always interesting combinations in decision making. This can explode the number of choices, which can slow things down and create more complexity than you need. Watch for the zone of indifference (options that are not perceived as making any difference or adding any value) and don’t waste time in it.
  • Include all relevant perspectives. Consider if this decision impacts more than just the area the problem is identified in. How does it impact other processes? Systems?

A struggle every organization has is how to think through problems in a truly innovative way.  Installing new processes into an old bureaucracy will only replace one form of control with another. We need to rethink the very matter of control and what it looks like within an organization. It is not about change management, on it sown change management will just shift the patterns of the past. To truly transform we need a new way of thinking. 

One of my favorite books on just how to do this is Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. In this book, the authors advocate that business must become more fundamentally human first.  The idea of human ability and how to cultivate and unleash it is an underlying premise of this book.

Visualized by Rose Fastus

it’s possible to capture the benefits of bureaucracy—control, consistency, and coordination—while avoiding the penalties—inflexibility, mediocrity, and apathy.

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 15

The above quote really encapsulates the heart of this book, and why I think it is such a pivotal read for my peers. This books takes the core question of a bureaurcacy is “How do we get human beings to better serve the organization?”. The issue at the heart of humanocracy becomes: “What sort of organization elicits and merits the best that human beings can give?” Seems a simple swap, but the implications are profound.

Bureaucracy versus Humanocracy. Source: Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 48

I would hope you, like me, see the promise of many of the central tenets of Quality Management, not least Deming’s 8th point. The very real tendency of quality to devolve to pointless bureaucracy is something we should always be looking to combat.

Humanocracy’s central point is that by truly putting the employee first in our organizations we drive a human-centered organization that powers and thrives on innovation. Humanocracy is particularly relevant as organizations seek to be more resilient, agile, adaptive, innovative, customer centric etc. Leaders pursuing such goals seek to install systems like agile, devops, flexible teams etc.  They will fail, because people are not processes.  Resiliency, agility, efficiency, are not new programming codes for people.  These goals require more than new rules or a corporate initiative.  Agility, resilience, etc. are behaviors, attitudes, ways of thinking that can only work when you change the deep ‘systems and assumptions’ within an organization.  This book discusses those deeper changes.

Humanocracy lays out seven tips for success in experimentation. I find thet align nicely with Kotter’s 8 change accelerators.

Humanocracy’s TipKotter’s Accelerator
Keep it SimpleGenerate (and celebrate) short-term wins
Use VolunteersEnlist a volunteer army
Make it FunSustain Acceleration
Start in your own backyardForm a change vision and strategic initiatives
Run the new parallel with the oldEnable action by removing barriers
Refine and RetestSustain acceleration
Stay loyal to the problemCreate a Sense of Urgency around a
Big Opportunity
Comparison to Kotter’s Eight Accelerators for Change

Teams reason better

Teams collaborate better than individuals on a wide range of problem-solving for two reason:

  • People are exposed to points of view different from their own. If the arguments are good enough, people can change their mind to adopt better beliefs. This requires structure, such as “Yes…but…and
  • The back-and-forth of a conversation allows people to address counterarguments, and thus to refine their arguments, making it more likely that the best argument carries the day.

Both of these work to reduce bias and subjectivity.

Principles of Team Collaboration

There are a few principles to make this team collaboration work.

  • Clear purpose: What is the reason for the collaboration? What’s the business case or business need? Without alignment on the purpose and its underlying importance to the organization, the collaboration will fail. The scope will start to change, or other priorities will take precedence. 
  • Clear process: How will the collaboration take place? What are the steps? What is the timing? Who is responsible for what?
  • Clear expectations: What is the specific goal or outcome we are striving for through this collaboration? 
  • Clear supportProblems will arise that the team cannot handle on their own. In those cases, what is the escalation process, including who and when? 

Ensure these are in your team ground rules, measure success and perform continuous improvement.

Information Gaps

An information gap is a known unknown, a question that one is aware of but for which one is uncertain of the answer. It is a disparity between what the decision maker knows and what could be known The attention paid to such an information gap depends on two key factors: salience, and importance.

  • The salience of a question indicates the degree to which contextual factors in a situation highlight it. Salience might depend, for example, on whether there is an obvious counterfactual in which the question can be definitively answered.
  • The importance of a question is a measure of how much one’s utility would depend on the actual answer. It is this factor—importance—which is influenced by actions like gambling on the answer or taking on risk that the information gap would be relevant for assessing.

Information gaps often dwell in the land of knightian uncertainty.

Communicating these Known Unknowns

Communicating around Known Unknowns and other forms of uncertainty

A wide range of reasons for information gaps exist:

  • variability within a sampled population or repeated measures leading to, for example, statistical margins-of-error
  • computational or systematic inadequacies of measurement
  • limited knowledge and ignorance about underlying processes
  • expert disagreement.

Democratic Leadership Style

A building block of Quality culture is learning how to make decisions faster without impairing their quality. We do this by ensuring availability of the right knowledge so that the appropriate measures can be decided on and making the decision-making processes quicker.

Adopting a flexible but consistent approach to decision-making and giving people greater leeway creates the organizational framework for faster decision-making processes. In addition to creating the right framework, however, it is equally important for employees to have confidence in each other so that decisions are not only taken quickly but also implemented swiftly. Rather than merely seeing employees as resources, this requires management to value them as part of the community because of the competencies that they bring to the table. The underlying capability that makes this possible is a democratic leadership style.

Democratic leadership is a style where decision-making is decentralized and shared by all. This style of leadership proposes that decision-making should be shared by the leader and the group where criticisms and praises are objectively given and a feeling of responsibility is developed within the group. Leaders engage in dialogue that offers others the opportunity to use their initiative and make contributions. Once decisions are collectively taken, people are sure of what to do and how to do it with support from leaders to accomplish tasks successfully. It is the “Yes…but…and” style of leadership.

This style requires a high degree of effort in building organizational decision-making capabilities. You need to build a culture that ensures that everyone has an equal interest in an outcome and shared levels of expertise relative to decisions. But nothing provides better motivated employees.

For those keeping track on the leadership style bingo card, this requires mashing democratic and transformational leaders together (with a hefty flavoring of servant leadership). Just the democratic style is not enough, you need a few more aspects of a transformational leader to make it work.

Characteristics of a Democratic Leader

Idealized Influence means being the role model and being seen to be accountable to the culture. Part of this is doing Gemba walks as part of your standard work.

Inspirational Motivation means inspiring confidence, motivation and a sense of purpose. The leader must articulate a clear vision for the future, communicate expectations of the group and demonstrate a commitment to the goals that have been decided upon.

Through Intellectual Stimulation, the leader presents to the organization a number of challenging new ideas that are supposed to stimulate rethinking of new ways of doing things in the organization, thus seeking ideas, opinions and inputs from others to promote creativity, innovation and experimentation of new methods to replace the old ways. The leader articulates True North.

Decentralized decision-making around these new ways of doing are shared by all. Decisions are taken by both the leader and the group where criticisms and praises are objectively given and a feeling of responsibility is developed within the group, thus granting everyone the opportunity to use their initiative and make contributions. Decentralized decision-making ensures everyone empowered to take actions and are responsible for the implementation and effectiveness of these actions. This will drive adaptation and bring accountability.

Reading list

  • Arenas, F.J., Connelly, D.A. and Williams, M.D. (2018), Developing Your Full Range of Leadership, Air University Press, Maxwell AFB
  • Gastil, J. (1994), “A definition and illustration of democratic leadership”, Human Relations, Vol. 47 No. 8,pp. 953-975
  • Hayes, A.F. (2018), Introduction to Mediation, Moderation and Conditional Process Analysis, 2nd ed.,The Guilford Press, New York, N

Anger and the job in difficult times

On Wednesday the United States set a devastating new record in the coronavirus pandemic: 3,124 people dead in one day. This was the first time the daily number of deaths has exceeded 3,000 but I fear it will not be the last. There are over 260k deaths in the US so far, over 1.5 million deaths worldwide. This is crippling, and it is difficult to go day-by-day with the pain of this suffering.

And yet, we need to work, support our families and communities. Get the job done. Amidst all that it is important to remember that is important to grieve and it is okay to be angry.

People grieve in diverse ways with different emotions, from anger, to depression to hopelessness, to resentment over what has been taken from them. Combined with the isolation of the pandemic, this is a recipe for poor mental health and poor coping mechanisms. And then there is a question of just how much and what sort of coping is good. Two-hundred-and-sixty thousand people are dead and there is a lot of evidence this is an underreport and a lot more people are going to die.

I hope you understand that I am angry. All day long. And it is a struggle not to bring that anger to work, not to let it twist my relationships. Yet that anger always exists.

I linked earlier this week to an article on mental health. It is particularly important to make this part of our organizations. Burnout must have a systematic fix.

What we need to give permission to, give space to, is a recognition that we are not in an okay state. And it may not be okay for a very long while, long after vaccines are widely available, and we return to the office.

It is okay to have taken a step back from obligations. I have not, for example, been writing much on this blog. It just did not work for me. Be kind to yourself and be okay with the things you must do less of. And when you are ready, go back to it.

Anger and Culture

Our organizational cultures are full of anger. What we must do is work to establish mechanisms to assure that anger is directed at issues or situations, not people. This will build psychological safety, enable good decisions and enhance our problem solving culture.

Some things we should do:

  • Acknowledge what is happening: Senior leadership needs to be working from compassion and generosity and taking real steps to address.
  • Treat toxic positivity as a bias: Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset. This is especially important as we have talent discussions, evaluate performance, and perform other managerial tasks.
  • Have systems around burnout
  • Focus on decision making quality
  • Build employee judgement feedback loops

We are not done. This winter will be very hard for many. As leaders we need to be ensuring our organizations can get through this and then leverage what we’ve learned to build a better culture.