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 they 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

Culture is Complex, Experiment for Success

In the post “Quality Culture is Fundamental to Actually Providing Quality” I discussed some of the elements of organizational culture and how it fits into conceptualizing a quality culture. I think it is important to discuss some of the complexities and how these complexities need to be solved through iterative experiments.

John Traphagan in his 2017 HBR article “We’re Thinking about Organizational Culture All Wrong” discusses how that the study of organizational culture commonly conveys the idea of culture as a unifying force that brings people together to work productively toward the attainment of organizational goals. The approach implies that or­ganizational culture is understood as a collective project able to create unity and cohesion in some simple steps. But reality presents a quite different picture because today culture is not only about cohesiveness and unity. It is also about disagreement, discrepancy and disparities constantly testing the capacity of people to work together and benefit advancing common and ethical organizational goals in spite of in­dividual differences.

Traphagan ends his article with a powerful statement that should be kept front and center in any culture initiative: “The idea that unity can be generated among employees by fixing or creating an organizational culture relies on a naïve assumption that culture unambiguously brings people together. But the reality of culture is that it represents a tremendously complex variable that can both bring people together and pull them apart — or do both at the same time.”

Because of the reality Traphagan discusses, we need to realize that work on culture is really about experiments. I’ll point you to another article in HBR by Stefan Thomke “Building a Culture of Experimentations“. This article empha­sizes that the main obstacles obstructing change are lodged in the culture, in deep shared behaviors, beliefs and values that shape a culture over time and perpetuate in place without periodic or effectiveness assessment and in spite of obsolescent outcomes. Thomke writes that a successful culture of experimentation is built on five critical elements: cultivation of people’s curiosity, insisting that data trump educated opinions (avoiding guessing), democratize experimentation across organizational divisions, promoting ethical sensitivity in all functions and embracing a humane and agile leadership model.

Culture is a complex problem and the only true path for addressing is small scale experimentation iteratively applied with the end-goal of transformation.