Provision #744: Uniformity Matters

Laser Provision

When it comes to leadership, uniformity matters. That’s obvious when it comes to manufacturing. There are specifications for every product and it just doesn’t work if some products meet those specifications while others do not. Consumers expect a uniform level of quality from item to item, year after year. But uniformity is just as important when it comes to services. From one help desk representative to another, from one third-grade classroom to another, it is important for leaders to make sure that customers experience a consistent level of quality. That’s a critical task of leadership as this Provision makes clear.

LifeTrek Provision

Throughout my childhood, as my father worked his way up the ladder at the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, he spent four years serving as plant manager at the headquarters factory in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. I can remember going down to the plant with him and marveling at both the complexity of the operation and the conviviality of the operators. As we walked around the plant, my father would greet people by name and they would reciprocate, regardless of where they seemed to fit on the org chat.

I also remember the signs and placards regarding both safety and quality. Paint factories can be dangerous places, both because of the chemicals and because of the machinery. Avoiding accidents and injury was an important part of the operation. So was the uniformity of every batch of paint. There were clear specifications regarding every step in the process, so it was important for every operator to both understand and follow the directions. Assembly lines are no time to go rogue when it comes to quality.

This was driven home to me after my senior year of high school when I made my one and only stab at following in my father’s footsteps. That was the summer when I went to work in the factory, as part of the research lab. I was a gofer assigned to work with the chemists who were developing new formulations and products. In that position, I gained an appreciation for what it took to make something as simple as a can of paint.

The chemists were of course interested in quality. Indeed, that was their primary charge: to find ever-better formulations that would last longer, spread easier, and protect more over time. Sometimes this was a matter of using different ingredients. Other times it was a matter of compounding the ingredients in different ways. In every case, production requirements had to be considered. If a formulation could not be made economically and at scale, then its quality really didn’t matter. As Sherwin-Williams famously proclaims, enough paint had to be made to “cover the earth.”

Half of my job that summer was about as fun as it could get for someone who likes to cook. I would be given a recipe for making a small batch of paint in a five-gallon mixer. There would be precise instructions as to what ingredients were to go in when, blended, for how long, and at what speeds. My job was to follow the instructions, making notes along the way as to my observations of process and anomalies. That was the fun part.

The other part of my job was to apply that paint to a variety of test surfaces. The painted boards and panels would then be taken outside for prolonged periods of weathering and exposure, during which time there would be careful, routine monitoring. I didn’t much care for painting those boards and panels (although spraying the paint was definitely more fun than brushing). “Wax on, wax off,” to quote Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movie. It was boring, repetitive work.

But it was also important work. Quality in production started with quality in the lab, and that meant continuous testing as part of the research and development process. It wasn’t enough to make one great batch of paint. We had to replicate that batch, over and over again, before it would be moved into production.

Fast forward 25 years and I saw that same process being applied in the development of new computer software to manage operations at a large food manufacturing company. This came as part of the Y2K scare, which forced many companies to evaluate and upgrade their systems. At this particular company, where I was consulting in a communications and team-building role, $35 million USD was being spent to reengineer every aspect of their systems.

The development team took up an entire floor of a large office building and they were divided into groups that focused on different modules and environments. Some of those environments included development (where they came up with new stuff), test (where they tried it out), stress (where they tried it out at volume), and production (when they started to run the company with the new software, after go-live). The goal here was the same as it was back in the lab at the paint company: to make sure the company would run efficiently, effectively, and consistently with the new systems.

These are but two illustrations of a larger truth: uniformity matters. Goods have to be consistently produced according to certain standards, Consumers expect that. We expect every iPhone and Kindle to work like every other iPhone and Kindle. But that doesn’t happen by accident or remote control. Even in the age of robotics and high-tech gadgets, uniformity is not a set-it-and-forget-it commodity. It takes constant attention and continuous improvement to achieve.

That’s especially true when it comes to services. Take education as an example. What does it take to make sure that every third-grade teacher delivers  a uniformly excellent quality of education? It takes leadership. Not command-and-control, demand-and-direct leadership, but coaching leadership. It takes the kind of leadership that makes the continuous striving for quality a shared norm and a common enterprise rather than a top-down mandate and a leader-driven pursuit.

For that to happen, leaders lead by example. In schools, that means creating an environment where every stakeholder is motivated to collaborate in the pursuit of quality without fear, barriers, or competitive relationships. Uniformity is a byproduct of loyalty and trust. When people view their work and each other through that lens, quality rises naturally to the top.

In her work on teacher professionalism, my wife, Megan, has identified some of the environmental factors that contribute to such motivation. These factors include:

  1. Standardized skills (sharing common, professional skill sets)
  2. Mutual trust (cultivating good will and positive working relationships)
  3. Shared norms (being on the same page when it comes to what’s important)
  4. Disciplined inquiry (using data to understand the nature and implications of practice)
  5. Reflective dialogue (talking with each other about how things are going and how to make things better)
  6. Deprivatized practice (watching each other work and learning from each other’s methods)
  7. Adaptive discretion (empowering people to make situational decisions based upon their professional judgment)
  8. Collective responsibility (holding each other accountable for the performance of the entire system)
  9. Protected time (scheduling periods for planning and staff development)
  10. Requisite resources (mustering materials, supplies, and technologies for existing services and new ideas)
  11. Public appreciation (celebrating triumphs, progress, and effort)

What I like about this list is that each element can be influenced by the stance leaders choose to take in schools. Leaders are not captive to our environments; we are called to be their architects. To get a sense of how our stance is contributing to quality, in relation to the above environmental factors, we can, for example, ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. In what ways am I assisting people to grow their core competencies?
  2. How much do people trust me as a leader? How much do they trust each other?
  3. What do I say about the purpose and ethics of our organization? What do others say?
  4. In what spirit are data being collected and analyzed? What are we learning?
  5. How and how often are people talking with each other about continuous improvement when I am around? When I am not around?
  6. When do people watch each other work and what do those experiences generate? What kind of feedback do I receive on my work?
  7. How much freedom and responsibility do I give people to do their work?
  8. What is the balance between push, pull, and partnership when it comes to performance improvement?
  9. How often do I schedule time for planning and staff development? How often do other things interfere with that time?
  10. When and how do I secure the resources people need to do their jobs?
  11. How do I recognize good work and effort? What are the visible signs?

These questions may grow out of the literature and research on teacher professionalism, but they could just as well be asked of any leader in any organizational context. If we want to achieve uniformity when it comes to the quality of our goods or services, then we would do well to avoid giving orders, telling people what to do, goading people with the carrot and the stick, pitting people against each other, playing power broker, or being on an ego trip. Those postures do not make for long-term, continuous improvement, let alone for organizational transformation.

Instead, we would do well to make the gerunds in the above description a central part of our leadership practices. Our stance should that of sharing, cultivating, being, using, talking, watching, learning, empowering, holding, scheduling, mustering, and celebrating. We should be about the work of assisting people, building trust, clarifying focus, expanding awareness, welcoming feedback, extending freedom, increasing responsibility, partnering, making time, finding resources, and recognizing good work.

If that sounds like a daunting task, then welcome to leadership! No one ever said leadership was going to be easy. But it is also incredibly engaging and fulfilling when we get into flow with our work and with our people. That is the sweet spot we are looking for as leaders, and that is the sweet spot that will lead to constancy of purpose and uniformity of quality.

Coaching Inquiries: How uniform is the quality in the organizations and groups you lead? What would increase that uniformity? How could your conversations about quality become more engaging and productive? Who could you have one such conversation with today?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

My routine for Sunday mornings is to get my coffee, cuddle up in a comfortable chair with a blanket, and proceed to turn on my laptop to read the weekly Provision. I am amazed at how many times I feel you are talking directly to me. You seem to know my needs and exactly how to phrase the words to answer questions or to respond to my thoughts regarding a topic. The Provision “Understanding Matters” touched me and has helped me so much today with answers I needed. Thank you for your commitment to all of your readers. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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