How to Use Defects to Dramatically Improve Performance

Why does your company appear to
repeat simple mistakes so often? If you are a manager, it’s exhausting to chase
one error after another, doing little more than fighting fires. There may be a
better approach – use the principles of “defect management” borrowed from Total
Quality Management.

In the late 1980’s the world came to
recognize Japanese dominance in automotive manufacturing. The country had come
a long way: back in the 1960’s the quality of its cars were
sub-standard with numerous customer complaints. While the techniques they
adopted to transform their situation weren’t new, they were the first to apply
quality improvement and process management in a rigorous, systematic way. The
resulting turnaround appeared miraculous to the rest of the world, resulting in
manufacturers adopting their techniques on a large scale.

One of the innovations they
introduced was a peculiar way to uncover operational problems that only occurr
in small numbers. 

If your company has over 100
employees, it has the same challenge: it’s made up of intricate,
cross-organizational processes which are hard to diagnose. In other
words, tricky issues persist because the link between cause and effect
isn’t easy to determine. Take, for example, two of my favorite problems: email
and meetings. Your CEO might decide to order people to spend less time on these
activities, but his command wouldn‘t work. The defects in both of
these areas have multiple causes, which means that these forms of
corporate waste are difficult to eradicate.

Here’s a way for your organization
to use this technique to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

1. “Defects” – A Re-Definition

In their solution, the Japanese
pioneered a new way of looking at defects. They argued that companies are poor
at distinguishing them due to bureaucracy, company

culture and internal politics. For
example, managers who are trying to look good at all times are likely to disown
their defects.

It’s not entirely their fault.

Most people who think of defects
imagine visible and tangible errors, such as a car rolling off an assembly line
with its steering wheel missing. However, you are probably a knowledge worker
and the defects in your role are much harder to identify. The chances are high
that they are not being noticed or measured.

For example, a meeting may be
effective overall, but still full of defects. Let’s glance at the last
gathering you called. Compare it against this checklist of possible defects.

– a late start or end

– a tardy attendee

– an agenda which was never
assembled or followed

– each time someone used their
smartphone to check email

– action items which weren‘t
captured

– a lack of written feedback

By this definition, some managers
have never attended a defect-free meeting. In fact, these problems may be the
norm in your company, which is blind to these mistakes. Unfortunately, they add
up and damage employee productivity.

2. Defects in Your Work

Now, let‘s switch to the everyday
work you perform. If you are a manager, what are the defects you could be
unwittingly producing with your direct reports? The way to identify them is to
find the shortfalls; the places where standards aren’t being met.

For example, if a performance review
conversation with your employee doesn‘t go well, consider that to be a defect.
You probably aren‘t measuring the number of times this occurs, but if you were
to do so, you could actually launch increasingly deep improvement efforts.

That would mean resisting the
temptation to bury the defect inside a string of successes. This happens when
you argue: “Yeah, but how about the other times when I don’t make mistakes.
Shouldn’t I get credit for my 99% success-rate?”

In this context, the correct answer
is “No”. There‘s no need to be defensive. Defects are not important because
they make people feel bad. Instead, they are a critical part of your efforts to
uncover the details which aren‘t working. They help you craft precise
interventions which produce superior performance.

If you think that this isn‘t
achievable in small increments, think again. The Japanese industrial miracle
was built on steady tiny gains, accompanied by knowledge accumulated over
time. It gave their companies a solid competitive advantage over others who
were boasting to themselves about their “99% performance.”

It’s ironic: the way to continue
improving is to start by calling out defects. This puts the focus where it belongs
and prevents people from hiding behind the numbers. Fail to do so and it won’t
be long before a comfortable mediocrity sets in which affects productivity at
every level. Committing to removing defects takes great courage, but it’s one
of the keys to competitive advantage.