The Psychology of Quality
© Jan 2003 Bill Frost – BSc, DCH, MBSCH, HNLPMP
The following was written as a thought-provoking feed into a strategic corporate consulting process that
utilised NLP and organisational psychology.
Say the word “Quality” to yourself and what do you feel? What do you hear or say to
yourself? What do you hear? And what do you see? Spend a few moments saying the
word “Quality” and just notice whatever you notice. Done that?
Well, the likelihood is that the average person will feel a little repulsed, will say “Must
avoid! Must avoid!” to themselves twenty times, will hear the music from psycho in the
background and will see the image of a much despised auditor rummaging mercilessly
through their business… Familiar? If not it should be: If you work in the “Quality” world
that’s the reality of how your clients may well really think.
In psychology this type of instant knee-jerk reaction can be referred to as an Archetype.
My dictionary of psychology terms defines an archetype as “(Carl Jung) Primordial images
and symbols found in the collective unconscious, which - in contrast to the personal
unconscious - gathers together and passes on the experiences of previous generations,
preserving traces of humanity's evolutionary development over time”.
Which means that years of conditioning have given the concept of “Quality” a really bad
image to cope with. Let’s see, we had Total Quality (Total Boredom), BPRE (Be Prepared
to Reconsider Employment) ISO-9001 (Sponsored by the Campaign to Eliminate Forests)
and now ISO9001:2000 Update (Yawn, Zzzzzz). The standards may change over time but
very little happens to how the concept of “Quality” is viewed.
One solution is to “reframe” the concept of Quality. According to my handy psych
dictionary reframing is: “a powerful change stratagem that seeks to change our
perceptions, and this may then affect our actions.” In other words an advertising blitz to
reposition more or less the same old thing using different words: “Quality” becomes
“Process or Business Improvement or Business Excellence”, “Non Conformances”
become “Improvement Opportunities”, “Auditors” become “Process Analysts or Business
Improvement Project Managers” and “Audits” become “Process Reviews” or “A very
friendly quick chat over tea and scones: Do say if you need a reassuring hug.”
The possibly inevitable down-side to reframing is that human beings sooner or later
generalise experiences. My now much thumbed dictionary defines generalisation as “the
putting together of similar things, by selectively ignoring their differences. For example,
photocopiers are not the same as computers, but a model might usefully lump them
together as OFFICE EQUIPMENT ITEM.” This is the long term fate of most attempts to
reframe: If the thing that you are attempting to reframe is not substantially and radically
different it will be re-associated with the feelings / perceptions associated with the thing
being reframed. How long did it take for the “New Labour” ads to lose their shine? How
long will “ISO9001:2000” Update be seen as the best thing since sliced bread? <Not long I
© Jan 2003 Bill Frost. Page - 1
So, if changing the approach does not work and if reframing is ultimately self defeating
what can be done?
Well, that really depends on the organisation, people that work in that organisation and just
how lofty the objective or outcome is. If a company simply wants “Quality” staff to not be
loathed and hated reframing may well hit the mark. If on the other hand their goal is for
everyone to “buy-in fully to the underlying concepts and vocally support the pursuit of
business excellence” there a strong possibility of long-term “failure”.
Another of my psych books has the following to say about “failure“. “There is no such thing
as failure, only feedback. When something doesn't go as we planned we tend to see that
as failure. Depending on the seriousness of the situation we might then get angry, irritated,
sad, depressed, worried, guilty or whatever. None of which serves any useful purpose. But
what happens if we see the situation as feedback rather than failure. A real life
demonstration of how not to do something? Instead of being wrong we've learned
something. Instead of feeling bad we are free to form a new plan of action and try again”.
OK, so if ISO9001 etc do not really work in the long run what can we learn from the
experience? Why do they not work – what is the common factor shared by all of these
People. Punters. Resource units. The workforce. Human beings. People. “Quality” is not
about flow charts, it’s not about forms either, and it’s certainly not about version control
numbers. It’s all about people and how people think and feel – at work and at home. If you
want people to be responsible for “Quality” that where you need to start. With them. With
their ways of thinking. With their feelings.
And therein lies the problem…. “Quality” is the responsibly of the “Quality department”. “It’s
not my personal problem, there’s a Quality Manager that’s employed to look after that” –
Familiar? Well it should be – because that is how people really think when the ownership
is externalised. Why? Because “Quality” or “Doing what I do well as possible” is a value –
it is not a process. When ownership is externalised the “Quality” value plummets down the
value system top 40, and stays there. Quality departments and auditors simply reinforce
the external imposition of someone else’s values onto their own.
“But we can’t stop auditing! How preposterous! We can’t operate without flow charts!” I
hear you shout. Well, what would really happen if you did stop auditing? What would
happen if you threw away your flow charts?
Lets take those one at a time: Lets suppose for a moment that you put your feet up and
simply stop conducting audits. What would happen? In real terms managers would need to
take greater personal responsibility for the smooth operation of their processes. It is also
probable that all team members will still continue to work using that patterns of operating
that work for them – either as individuals or as teams or as directed by managers. So,
what would happen? Not much I suspect. People police themselves and others every
moment of every day – if they buy into the underlying value of excellence – which is
probable if the locus of control is internal.
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Now lets suppose that you simply tear up your process flow charts and build a nice cosy
fire. What would happen? For a start would anyone actually notice? Do you really think
that that is how people work? No. People do follow processes – that’s what they do 9-5 –
but what they do not do is follow process flow charts. They just do things in a way that
works for them. This method of doing things may or may not resemble a process flow
chart. The diagram is academic – the model that they have in their memories is the one
that will be referred to. That’s what they will actually do.
“But how will they implement process improvement without an auditors assistance?” …you
scream. Take a moment to listen to what people say to each other in coffee rooms world
wide. They moan. They whine. They are critical. They say “That’s not the way that that
should be done. That’s the wrong approach. That’s not how I would do it. If I was
managing that department I would do it ….” People are people and have a natural
tendency to seek out the path of least resistance. But this spirit of flexibility is driven
undercover when the ownership is not theirs and the value is externalised.
The same applies to those involved in internal auditing. They follow a process but with
very little enthusiasm or motivation. They know only too well how they / quality are
perceived but are in a no win situation. If they befriend their auditees they are unlikely to
find or raise issues, but they are likely to fall foul of management and external auditors for
not doing their job. Conversely if they do raise issues they will be viewed as mortal
enemies by their auditees but at least will be on good terms with their direct management
and their external auditors. When responsibility is taken on by managers at all levels the
need for internal auditors vanishes. “But that would put me out of a job?” True. And that is
perhaps the ultimate goal of anyone working in “Quality”.
As a psychotherapist my goal is to provide clients with tools to improve their life and
enable them to live as fully functional, positive, self sustaining individuals. If therapy
continues for years the client is not benefiting – they are probably dependant on therapy
rather than being empowered by it. The role of the therapist is therefore to provide therapy
for a little time as humanly possible and to then step aside and allow the client to take
responsibility for his or her own destiny.
The current trend of having “Quality” departments and “Auditors” is perhaps co-dependent:
People working in “Quality” need individuals to not follow standard ways of working. If they
did follow standards there would be no point in auditing for example. In the same way
individuals need “Quality departments” because that’s how they are motivated to follow
standards because “Quality” is not high on their value system charts and besides - the
responsibility is externalised. It’s not really their problem anyway. Managers need “Quality”
to do the things that they find distasteful i.e. managing. How much better it is when
someone else is responsible for the enforcement of management decisions…
So, to all the “Quality managers” out there I say this: Change to the latest standard – Yes.
Reframe “Quality” – Yes. But then “Let your people free!” Give them the responsibility for
doing the best that they can. Let them fashion their own models of working in their own
formats – whatever works for them – whatever they feel comfortable with. Let the
managers do what managers are supposed to do – listen, consult, reflect, motivate and
direct – i.e. let you’re your managers manage.
© Jan 2003 Bill Frost. Page - 3