Building Quality

Two years ago I spent spring break building a deck in my backyard with my son. I thought it would be a good way to spend time together while playing with power tools. We had fun for a day before my son decided he’d rather watch TV than do manual labor with his mom and I decided I’d rather read a book on the couch. But the deck was half done and needed to be finished, so I carried on. Over the next couple of days I ran into a predictable number of technical challenges (otherwise known as stupid mistakes) and eventually I simply didn’t care quite so much about the $%@#&! deck as I had on the morning of day one. In frustration I threw the decking over a mess of a frame and called it done. Every time I stub my toe on those uneven boards I wish I had done the thing right.

The same combination of rush, frustration, and lack of skill that doomed my deck can doom our work projects, too.

Our work products can be marred by lapses in quality that make programs less effective, run us afoul of auditors, or simply embarrass us. The thing is, we all make mistakes, and we have to trust each other to catch those mistakes. Think for example of a brochure going to print with informational errors or a budget that miscalculates how much money we have to spend: many people must have touched those pieces and might have caught a mistake. Each of us needs to be looking at our own work and other people’s work for these mistakes, and speak up when we see them.

This is about trust: I trust you to have my back by telling me when something I have produced isn’t good enough, and you trust me enough to listen when I tell you something you have produced isn’t right.

Yet low quality work gets past us. That is because producing quality work is hard, and resisting the inertia of poor quality work is even harder. There are usually points in the production of something (whether a brochure or a budget or a deck) when the thing can either get better, or it can continue on a path to mediocrity or worse. Those are the points when someone realizes that there is a problem, or simply that the product isn’t very good. You’d think that realization would be the spur, the trigger, for making the thing better, but it isn’t always. Sometimes things just keep on plodding along. It often isn’t a spur for change because change is uncomfortable. It hurts. Pushing back against inertia means either I have to do more work or I have to tell someone else they have to do more work, and worse, that the work they have already done isn’t good enough. That is painful, and we avoid it.

Let’s stop avoiding it. The pain of quality improvement is less than the pain of putting shoddy work out into the world. Because our work matters.

Here is my personal take on what makes for good quality work:

Ownership. If you write it, produce it, or share it, you own it. Your reputation owns it. Heck, your job might depend on it, depending on how high or low quality we are talking here. When you work on something, assume it will see the bright light of day without anyone ever double checking it, improving it, or commenting on it. If you look at a piece that way, and you would be embarrassed by the head of your organization seeing it at-is, then don’t send it. Make it better. We can tend to assume that someone else will do the final quality check of our work, especially when we get tired. Don’t make that assumption. Don’t make someone else do the quality improvements you are capable of doing yourself.

Effort. Sometimes making something high-quality is a matter of simply putting in more time and work. That is difficult, especially when you have already put in plenty of time and effort and you are tired. When you find you are glossing over so-so work just so you can be done with something, take a break. Come back later. Effort also includes the effort and discomfort of speaking up when someone else’s product isn’t up to snuff. There is an inertia to products, where it becomes hard to pull them back and revise them once they get far enough along. We need to be willing to undo our own work and go back a few steps in order to get something right. We also need to be willing to tell someone else that they have made a mistake. Gather your courage and make the effort.

Processes. Rules can save us from ourselves. If there is a 5-Step-Process for whatever you are doing, follow it. Most processes for doing something like writing a strategy, planning a project, or testing a product are similar. They will contain many of the same steps, and for good reason: those steps are important! So chose a process or template that seems appropriate, and follow it. Don’t follow it mindlessly, of course, and make adaptations as needed. But don’t reinvent the wheel – if there is a best practice, use it.

Knowledge. Sometimes you simply don’t have the knowledge or skill to make something the quality it needs to be. Sometimes you don’t even have the knowledge to know what quality looks like. Luckily, other people have that knowledge. Ask your colleagues questions. Ask them to take a look at drafts and prototypes. None of us has all the information we need to do this work really well. I know I don’t, and I’ve been at it for 20 years. Asking for help is not giving up ownership, and it is not shirking effort – it is taking responsibility for what you don’t know and making the effort to find expert guidance.

A final note here for you overly conscientious types who worry about turning in work that isn’t perfect and so deliver work too slowly. If you struggle to show people your work and you tend to perseverate on it, then simply adding more effort and more control won’t fix any quality problems you do have. Try instead to focus on process and getting expert review. Follow a process so you can reassure yourself that you have done what is needed, and seek appropriate knowledge and skill so you can trust you don’t have technical errors. Then share what you’ve got, and be open to any feedback that comes.

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