How To Get Your Team To Improve The Quality Of Their Work


Friday, 9.46pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Standard checklist philosophy requires that pilots read to each other the actions they perform every flight, and recite from memory those they need every three years. – Anonymous

I may not be looking in the right places but there seems to be a severe shortage of literature on improving service design.

Or, it could be argued, there is too much of it – it’s just that it’s wrong.

The most useful material I’ve found so far is in the work of John Seddon.

For example, he provides perhaps the best explanation of the difference between a product business and a service business that I have come across so far.

From a manager’s point of view, that is.

Imagine you are in charge of a factory that makes a Thing.

A light bulb, a car, a software package.

The main characteristic of your Thing is that each item you create must be the same.

You need to create the same light bulb again and again – and the main job is to ensure that you minimise variation in the process.

No one is going to thank you if they pick up your LED bulb and find you’ve left out the glowing thing that makes light happen.

All stuff you read about manufacturing improvement has to do with understanding variation – as explained in Donald Wheeler’s marvellous little book.

So, we’re clear – with a product business you want to understand the things that cause variation and eliminate them.

Now, what if you’re delivering a service?

One way of looking at services is that what you’re delivering is an activity – not a thing – which involves people on both sides of the transaction.

With products, you hand over a Thing to the customer.

With a service, you Serve the customer

And the one thing you should know about the service business is that customers feel like they can ask for changes.

This clearly irks some people – such as the owners of a restaurant I was at recently who felt it necessary to have the words “Please do not embarrass staff or yourselves by asking for unrealistic changes to this set menu” on said menu.

Service businesses feel they have no option but to act like product businesses – after all McDonalds got big through a ruthless product based approach to delivering a fast food service – so it must be the model to follow?

Not if you’re doing anything more complicated than making a burger…

Seddon says that while a product business tries to eliminate variation a service business should design itself to cope with variety.

That means instead of having staff that do just one thing you should train them to sort things out for customers.

That’s the difference between taking a customer’s query on the phone and routing it to a team because you’re the call centre person, and getting the customer’s broken boiler fixed.

In the first case you’ve done your job, you believe, when you’ve transferred the call.

In the second case the job is done when the customer has a warm house again.

There is a difference.

There’s more on service design here but the point of this post wasn’t really about all this.

It was to ask how you could help your team improve.

And one way to do that is to make things visible.

The biggest problem we have at work is not enough time – and so we might have a one to one for an hour a week and let people get on with the job the rest of the time.

That means the person working with you gets feeback around forty times a year.

That means things often go wrong, but you don’t realise it – just like you don’t see rocks when you’re in the deeper parts of the sea.

Just because you don’t see danger doesn’t mean it’s not there.

This metaphor is used in the book Japanese manufacturing techniques: Nine hidden lessons in simplicity to describe how, in a product business, making too many Things can hide problems with them.

If you have a few Things then you find out quickly if they’re defective or not when you use them.

And people don’t want to make bad things – but they need feedback to know that something is wrong and needs fixing.

Making small batches is like the shallow end, where you can see the rocks that are going to sink you and take action to avoid them.

In service design the analogy is giving feedback – in helping your team learn how to do their job better.

And that takes time – because you might not know yourself – and so part of the job is trying to study the situation and try ways of improving it with your team, rather than just directing them to do it by magic.

Or, as Xun Kuang wrote, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”


Karthik Suresh

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