Friday, March 29, 2013

I know it when I see it

Quality by any other name . . . .  Well, where do you find quality?  Everywhere, if you look.  Last week, I was in a small grocery waiting for my table in the adjacent restaurant.  A dining patron came in and bought two six-packs of a unique beer and asked for a cooler and ice.  Sorry, none of the above. But the proprietor volunteered that he would keep the beer in the grocery’s cooler, and if the diner hadn’t retrieved it by closing time, he would take it to the maitre d‘ to await his departure.  I’d call that quality service, and I found it in a town that has one street, in a county that has no stop lights and no fast food restaurants.   

A few years ago, I visited my grandson’s school.  The sixth grade students were questing.  Each knight (student) had a quest.  I guess that’s what knights do: when they’re not jousting, they’re questing. There were rules.  The quest had to be realistic and achievable--world peace doesn’t qualify.  then, the knight must specify what it would look like if he succeeded, together with measurable goals to define progress along the way. There must, of course, be a plan.  How do you plan to achieve the above goals? Then, a report at intervals that lists the metrics and any adjustments made to the plan as a result.  The final point on the blackboard was to celebrate success.  To me, it sounded a lot like the classic Mission-Vision-Goals thing, with the addition of a celebration at the end.  You can see PDCA in there too, but the word “quality” did not appear.

This lesson plan from the 6th grade at Sidwell Friends School became part of a missive to my boss and eventually led to our adoption of the ISO 9001 Quality Management System.  These kids were learning important lessons in governance and having fun at the same time. 

But is this “quality?” Listening to customers, paying attention to metrics, establishing goals, evaluating progress and adjusting plans? Yes, I think that qualifies.  Doing things well. 

I have an engineer designing a concrete wall for me.  A big wall.  I told him I want him involved with the implementation of his plan and asked him to specify critical points where he needed to be there.  The same day, I read an article in the Washington Post about a local Maryland county that built a new transportation hub--a sophisticated design, with post tension cables.  However, because of recent tax cuts, they had laid off most of the inspectors so no one was available to check the concrete or the thickness of the floors.  The results were not good, and the finger pointing has started.

So it’s not hard to recognize poor quality, but do we have to wait until the building falls down!  Quality should be quiet and unobtrusive. Ever been to Monticello?  It’s air conditioned, but you won’t hear it or feel it or see any vents or ducts.  I think of this as quiet competence--the ambiance you’d like to sense when you enter a hospital. Everyone doing their job as well as it can be done and keenly aware of nuances of your needs, the blanket appears before you complain of being cold. Maybe, someday, but it doesn’t happen by accident.