The Chicken Or the Egg?

The importance of decision making and leadership

by Francis K. Josiah

Four years ago, my team was tasked with optimizing production processing speed at a financial services organization with a production-driven culture. Quality ranked second to production.

We had to scale up operational efficiency by increasing production speed and quality while lowering operating costs. The challenge was how to approach the problem given its scale, scope, diversity and complexity, plus added time constraints to develop a plan for the leadership team to review and approve.

After consulting key stakeholders and operational subject matter experts, it was obvious that it would take much longer to fully implement the expected operational efficiencies. We didn’t have enough staff with the required expertise for the project and there were competing projects already in flight.

A business case justifying increasing staff failed, so I had to decide between a hybrid process-efficiency program with productivity and quality embedded, or a standalone quality program followed by a production-process efficiency program that would feed on each other.

I tabulated the possible outcomes of each approach and concluded that the hybrid option wouldn’t work. I was left with a chicken-or-egg situation: Do we build a robust quality program to identify process failures, or optimize production speed and address errors later?

A standalone production efficiency program would have succeeded because it appeals to the culture of high productivity. But it meant continuing production defects to the dissatisfaction of customers. The competing option of implementing a quality program would face stiff resistance.

The most important role of leadership is to make decisions. Each decision has short and long-term effects, which drive the output of employees, processes, products, services and the organization. I had arrived at a decision-making intersection with no signs indicating which way to go. This was my moment to showcase my ability to make the best decision from the available options. I decided to take a calculated risk and go for the quality program.

The program came with resistance, but the advantages were essential to a positive customer experience. It fed the culture of productivity and introduced the idea that quality is as important as quantity. It also gave life to a new focus—fusing production and quality. It was difficult for associates until they discovered and corrected errors and cataloged specific process improvement initiatives directed at satisfying the customer.

The strategy was to introduce a nonpunitive quality culture and slowly merge it into performance requirements. Associates saw increased accuracy scores, which became a source of pride, making it easier to accept quality’s importance.

Since I began the project, I have learned a few lessons:

  1. Optimal productivity is the norm and quality is the new focus.
  2. It is uncomfortable swimming against the tide but it is achievable.
  3. Low scores represent opportunities for improvement, not reprimand.
  4. Teams now see production and quality as a single objective.
  5. Quality now shares the same spotlight with production.

The quality program evolved into a rallying point for improvement initiatives, training, reward and recognition.

Francis K. Josiah is a business consultant at Nationwide Excess and Surplus Specialty Insurance in Scottsdale, AZ. He is a member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt. Josiah is a retired army officer from the Republic of Sierra Leone and author of Trial by Rebellion (Llumina Press, 2012).

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