Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

I recently received an email from a client that asked:

“Our quality teams are floundering. I’d like to do training for each team on how the team should function and the roles of each person on the team. I am sure you have a lovely infographic in your library of documents that I could use to do this?”

Now, this client had received training from me and my partner on quality principles, concepts, and techniques – the whole works involving meetings over several months.  Included were at least three weeks of training discussing teams – how they should operate; their make up for success; stages they go through; tools to be used, etc.

And yet, this client launched a team without a charter or any training about how the team should operate and the roles that team members should perform.  No, it was “here’s a problem and the Quality Manager will help you.”  They were being cheap.

Twelve weeks later, the team was shouting at each other and they were no closer to “solving” the problem than at the beginning.

I’ve seen this repeatedly since I was introduced to Quality shortly after I arrived at NAVSEA in 1985.  It doesn’t matter what type of organization, the industry, government or private – every organization ends up trying to do quality improvement on the cheap.

Let me illustrate with two different scenarios – the above improvement team and overhauling a nuclear submarine.

Preparation for overhauling a nuclear submarine.

The planning and preparation for overhauling a nuclear submarine is started years in advance.  The necessary maintenance work and modifications are decided on; needed drawings are examined or created; instructions for the actual work are assembled; materials ordered and stocked; manpower needs are addressed including needed training and certification.  In fact, the planning alone can be 10% of the total cost.  And this is all done before the actual work begins.  When the work does begin, progress is tracked and reviewed on a daily and weekly basis so problems can be quickly addressed.

Now, contrast that with the improvement team.  The improvement team received no training; there was no preparation other than appointing a few people and making one the leader based on their “experience.”

So, what?  The team had some problems but nothing was really lost, just get them on track and solve the problem – right?

Well, there are several costs associated with this approach:

  1. Everyone involved thinks that quality improvement is just another management fad because it doesn’t really work.  The results speak for themselves.  This failure leads to autocratic rule because we really want this problem to go away.
  2. Time was lost. This team and the organization has had to continue dealing with the problem for twelve weeks and there’s no solution yet.
  3. Productivity was lost. The time that the team spent trying to “solve” the problem wasn’t spent on doing productive work that aids the organization’s bottom line.  Instead, the organization spent twelve weeks putting out the same fires they have been putting out that led them to establish the team in the first place.
  4. Money was lost. Due to continuing inefficiencies, time wasted, and the rework that had to be done, people were paid to work on things that didn’t have to be done.  But it’s accepted because that’s how it’s always been.  Everybody has been eating rotten fish that they think that’s how fish is supposed to taste.

And it’s possible to calculate how much this wasted effort has cost the organization.  Consider just the time spent on meetings:

  • One meeting per week = 1.5 hours/person
  • Preparation for each meeting and notes afterward = 1 hour
  • Members of the team = 7
  • Average cost of one man-hour = $15 (includes salary plus benefits and taxes)

So, how much did the meetings cost?

Total Man-hours = 12 weeks x (1.5 hours/week/person x 7 + 1 hour/week)

= 12 weeks x 11.5 man-hours/week

= 138 man-hours

Total Cost = 138 man-hours x $15/man-hour

= $2,070

Now, if you asked the executives if they were willing to just throw away $2,000, they would emphatically deny it.  But the results say they did – twelve weeks of ineffective meetings cost over $2,000.

The fundamental problem is that improvement teams seem so simple – anyone should be able to do it.  In fact, Quality professionals have been selling this line for decades – Philip Crosby’s Quality is Free is a great example.  Because the truth is that Quality isn’t free, it costs, but it always pays when it’s done right.  But most people don’t know how to do quality improvement right, because they haven’t been taught how to do it right.

The adage I was given nearly 50 years ago holds – People don’t do things because they either don’t want to or they don’t know how.  And most people want to do a good job and not waste their efforts.

So, executives give your people a chance by training them to the right things right before they try to do what you ask them.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.