QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
A tribute to one woman’s quality role model—her grandmother
by Yvonne Simmons Howze
My grandmother, Marie Williams, was a ball of fire. She was a housekeeper who truly loved to cook and clean. I did not know it at the time, but she was the first workaholic I would meet. After a good night’s sleep, she could get more accomplished by 8 a.m. than most people could complete in two days.
"Work" must have been written across her forehead in invisible ink. Of the many quips and quotes she collected about work ethic, her favorite was from basketball coach John Wooden: "If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when you will have time to do it over?" She was a tough customer to please and frequently had me redo my chores. I rewashed dishes, redusted furniture and remopped floors until she was satisfied with the results.
I am not sure whether she was born an overachiever or became one because of her efforts to please others during the pre-civil rights era. In any case, she was a formative influence on my work ethic and understanding of quality.
Although she may not have known about the eight types of waste, she certainly was an ambassador of lean. She may not have known about performance measurement, plan-do-check-act, or strengths, weaknesses opportunities and threats analysis. Still, she methodically identified my strengths, planned my work, tracked my actions, calculated my error rate and set my strategic direction so I would achieve the outcomes she sought. She taught me the importance of maintaining high expectations, exceeding customers’ requirements and completing projects on time.
My grandmother was an outstanding cook, and people actually paid her to cook dinner for them on weekends. Because I was her sidekick, I would wake early on Saturday mornings to help in the kitchen. I peeled, chopped, diced and sliced according to her predetermined size requirements for each vegetable. I cried many mornings while chopping onions to meet her standard of "no bigger than this."
Helping her cook was great fun, and it helped me gain an early understanding of the input-process-output model and product quality. Her food tasted as good as it looked.
Complaining, moaning, groaning and goofing off were never allowed in grandmother’s house—at least not out loud. Smiles were encouraged and great accomplishments were rewarded with shopping sprees, allowance increases, verbal expressions of sincere appreciation and formal public recognition about me to family and friends.
The work ethic she instilled carried over to my professional life, too. I work tirelessly with the ultimate goal of excellence in mind. I start work early, hold meetings to smooth wrinkles, make time for my direct reports, and I slice and dice major tasks into manageable pieces.
There are times when the onions get to me. Nonetheless, I strive to achieve quality outcomes by engaging people on teams, seeking customer feedback to make sound decisions and upholding my integrity and commitment to excellence.
Recently, I conducted a series of workshops on customer service excellence at six remote locations. I could have prepared a single presentation with handouts, but I remembered my grandmother’s old adage and refused to cut corners. I customized my training and surveyed each manager about the site’s unique needs. I also gained an understanding of each site’s dashboard, performance metrics and issues. The results were phenomenal—I received a 98% delight score from attendees.
My grandmother passed away in 1973. I doubt she thought that her legacy would live on. When I need an extra push to achieve the pinnacle of quality I know I am capable of, I always recall my grandmother and her wise words. I try to pass on her high standards and musings on quality to everyone I meet. I think she would be proud of me—but absolutely shocked that I finally got it.
© 2014 Yvonne Simmons Howze
Yvonne Simmons Howze is the director of performance excellence at the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin. An ASQ member, she holds a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.