Quality is hard to define, hard to pin down, but we know it when we see it. In a painting. A wood carving. A well written article. The achievements of a committed team. But when we chase quality, it can be like trying to swim after a beachball; however much effort we make it can sometimes seem always out of reach.
Good organizations strive for quality, and try to find ways to ensure quality is built into everything they do. They define measures, tolerances, they inspect, they have quality assurance departments, quality control departments, audits, feedback processes. They try to define processes within tight parameters, and create a machine-like perfection within these processes. And for some things, this often works really well, for example manufacturing a machine part, or controlling the thickness of a coating. But every organization also depends on many creative processes, where the “quality” cannot be measured with an instrument. Documents that need to be written. Designs that need to be developed. Ideas that need to be nurtured. And that is where the “tick the boxes” approach to quality falls down. Ticking boxes with precision is wonderful for delivering a perfect iPhone model out of every box. But it is an approach to quality that could never have designed an iPhone in the first place.
When you manage or work with teams that have any element of creativity in what they are seeking to achieve, you would do well to develop a healthy scepticism of any approach that relies solely on ticking boxes. Because ticking boxes is great for confirming a cap is the correct dimensions for a bottle, but it cannot capture the quality of a written document, except in the crudest way. It cannot capture the quality of how an idea is presented. It cannot capture the quality of how a difficult goal is pursued. If you are serious about quality, you have to first accept the elusive nature of that which you seek, and then think about seeking it in a very different way.
So what is it about the painting, the carving, the writing that gives it quality? Why does one painting move us, another leaves us indifferent? Why does one piece of music make us want to tap our feet, while another makes us want to leave the room? There are a few obvious answers we might play with. One is aligned with our taste, the other not. One fits with our mood, the other doesn’t. And while such answers may be part of the solution, they don’t get to the heart of the matter:
Consider this: We are all human beings, and what we respond to best, what ultimately has “quality”, are the things that resonate with us as the genuine achievements of other human beings who have applied their specific talents to something that shines when those talents are unleashed. If you’ve ever watched a few of the TED talks online, you’ll know how inspiring it is to hear from people who are genuinely passionate in the most arcane branches of human endeavour. It is inspiring, because you see the amazing things that people can achieve when their talents and their passion are aligned with what they do, and you hear an echo of the great things that you could achieve if you aligned yourself in the same way. You know instinctively that Picasso didn’t paint with a checklist in one hand. When you “know” that one carving has “quality” and another does not, you are responding in a much more visceral way, you are recognising that one was created by talent aligned with passion, while the other, somehow, lacked this magical ingredient.
Seeking quality in creative processes requires a different, a more oblique approach than the traditional approaches with which we often feel more comfortable in our corporate shells. We need to find the courage to reduce our reliance on simply checking, and programming, and increase our reliance on the people whose passion is the actual key to what we are seeking. If we have lived on a diet of clipboards and defined iterative review cycles, that can be an uncomfortable place to go. But it is the key. We work with people, is it so strange that the answer to achieving quality is to enable them to be more, not less, human? We need to give the people on whom we depend to achieve our goals, the opportunity to figure out why they want to achieve the things that bring us to those goals. We need to enable them to acknowledge their talents, and clear the obstacles that block them from aligning their talents with what they do best. We need to trust ourselves, and be honest with ourselves, and answer the same questions ourselves. And that can mean aligning ourselves somewhat differently, focusing on those areas where our skills and passion contribute most, and letting go a little to trust other members of our teams to let quality out in the things where they can best contribute.
Doing this is easier than it sounds. There is no need to join a commune, hold hands and sing songs, or contort yourself into the lotus position to contemplate how many angels will fit on the head of a pin. People, almost without exception, want to do things of which they are proud. For many of us, the problem is that we cannot see how to make valuable contributions, and over time a weariness can take the place of passion. But the natural disposition of people is to be passionate, and if we remove the obstacles and create the right space, this shines through again very rapidly.
You don’t achieve this by asking people to reflect deeply on why they are here. You achieve it, simply, by involving people in the definition of what needs to be done, and asking them where they can contribute the most value. They are in the optimal position to identify where they can contribute more value than anybody else, and when people begin to think in terms of what they do being a valuable contribution, that is aligned with what they are good at, the natural corollary is that quality can begin to flow.
Quality flows from people. The challenge is to let it happen.