Who’s on Top?

Quality can be an uphill battle

by Fitz-George A. Carty

I’m puzzled by the approaches that many leaders use to engage their employees. Instead of inculcating the pride of workmanship, initiative and openness, many leaders encourage a fear-driven and reactive work culture by instituting limiting and detrimental work systems and policies. Throughout my career, I have witnessed these counterproductive efforts again and again.

The real world

My first summer job in college was as an assembly line worker at a major auto company. On my first day, the supervisor introduced me to the foreman, who provided me with a 10-minute training session before I was left on my own to work. Inexperienced and new, I followed the procedures as carefully as I could. My slower pace attracted the attention of my co-workers and the assembly line foreman. They shouted, “Let the bloody parts run, the inspectors will catch them.” I feared ridicule from my co-workers and the foreman, so I left it up to the inspectors to find the damaged parts.

Facing fear

A few years later, while working as a laboratory shift technician for another manufacturer, I experienced another disturbing event. I found that a process had continually generated off-target results—but not during the other technicians’ shifts. My persistence in reporting the off-target results caused my supervisor to berate me.

After a major customer complained months later, it was discovered that my results were correct and that the other technicians—who feared criticism from the supervisor—had padded their results.

Recently, a friend turned to me for advice. My friend, who is employed by a parts manufacturer, explained that an overseas customer had rejected incoming parts. An engineer at my friend’s company enlisted his help to resolve the problem. We discussed some approaches to find the root cause and implement a solution. My friend passed on the suggestions to the engineer. At the company’s management meeting, the engineer presented the ideas and gave my friend full credit. The plant manager ordered that the suggestions be implemented immediately. Soon, the number of rejected parts fell.

My friend called me afterward to share his surprise, frustration and dismay—his supervisors were angry at him because he gave suggestions to the engineer. Going forward, they forbade him to stick his nose in quality-related matters again.

A quality revelation

I am sure that most of us have found ourselves in similar situations. Maybe we conformed to shoddy work practices because we feared being different or feared ridicule from our peers or supervisor.

My eyes were opened and my confidence was revived when I discovered the world of quality management and the teachings of W. Edwards Deming. I experienced a feeling of redemption when I realized that two of Deming’s 14 points on quality management reinforced the importance of reducing fear and called for the elimination of mass inspection of products. I discovered there are work systems that supported employee involvement, initiative and empowerment.

Many organizations are still populated by supervisors who manage with an iron fist. They continue to produce timid and crisis-driven organizational cultures. As a result, organizations destroy the commitment of their employees and the pride of workmanship that maximizes creativity and innovation. The quality professional must not be discouraged. We must fearlessly promote the power of quality in transforming the workplace.

Fitz-George A. Carty is a behavioral and organizational change practitioner in Decatur, GA, and an associate of Interact Performance Systems Ltd. in Anaheim, CA. He holds a master’s degree in management from Antioch University in Seattle. Carty is an associate member of ASQ.

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