Batman in the Office… HERO or VILLAIN?

batman in suit

Like most kids growing up, I was a big fan of superheroes.  Truth is… I still am.  Over the years though, both my taste in and definition of a “Superhero” have changed significantly.  When I was young, my “standard of excellence” was clearly Superman.  The guy was virtually indestructible, with superhuman strength, impenetrable skin, and the ability to absorb any impact without injury.  He truly was the “Man of Steel”.  In addition, he had unique and amazing superpowers, like x-ray vision, freezing breath, and of course the ability to fly.  Even his one weakness was not a human weakness… it was a susceptibility to kryptonite, a rock from his home planet.   He literally was from “out of this world”… an alien from Krypton who might have looked human, but was literally superhuman.  He was my quintessential superhero, with amazing powers, unique abilities, and no human weaknesses.

Then there was Batman.  To be honest, as a kid I never really saw the appeal of Batman as a superhero.  The guy was strong, but he was not super strong, as his abilities were the result of training and hard work rather than some sort of alien or mutant ability.  Many of his “powers” did not come from internal talents like Superman’s x-ray vision, but rather through cool gadgets and devices like the Batmobile, his utility belt, and a grappling gun.  And most of all, although he wore a cape he couldn’t actually fly!  Batman never seemed to fully embrace his superhero status, and preferred to work in the shadows… not to be the symbol of a hero always in the limelight, but rather to be an undercover hero, working behind the scenes.  He was always his own boss and was willing to break society’s rules, guided by his own internal principles to get the job done.  Beyond that, Batman made mistakes… his temper, emotions, and risk-taking led him to make bad decisions and, while he always won in the end, it was often a bumpy ride.  Essentially, where Superman was superhuman, Batman was merely a “super” human, in all senses of the word, still susceptible to injury, mistakes, and failure.

As I have grown up, my appreciation for Batman has also grown, and I now think that he is the most impressive of all the superheroes.  Superman, for example, was destined to be a hero, with his alien abilities allowing him to accomplish things that no human could ever dream of.  Batman, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to take the risk and transform himself into a hero and to do whatever was humanly possible to make a difference.  Essentially, Batman was an innovator.  He used his natural intellectual talents and invented and utilized cool tools and toys to provide himself with a unique, competitive advantage.  He trained and grew his strength and skills through hard work, extreme effort, and grueling training.  And most of all, Batman leveraged his passion to fight crime and to bring justice… not for personal reward or accolades, but because it needed to be done.  Batman was not born a superhero… he transformed himself into one, assuming significant risks and sacrifices to do what he deemed necessary to give Gotham City the hero it desperately needed.

Our organizations need superheroes of our own.  I am going to venture a guess that if I were to say “Superhero in the workforce”, the majority of people would imagine Superman and not Batman.  This is the “Superhuman” who leaps tall buildings in a single bound, is the face of the organization, and who follows and enforces each of the organization’s rules.  This is the stereotypical “leader” who willingly takes on the role of “hero” and both seeks and relishes the attention and accolades that come with the role.  But what about the “Batmen” and “Batwomen” of our organizations?  Take a moment and think about this different type of organizational superhero who is less in the limelight, but critically important in delivering amazing results.  This is the person who always gets called into the critical crises, to find creative, agile solutions to seemingly impossible problems.  He or she may not be the “leader” on paper, but is recognized by peers as an organizational “superhero”.  This “Batman” is not afraid to get his hands dirty, accepts and embraces the risk of failure, and is willing to break rules and orthodoxies if they get in the way.  These “Batmen” will do whatever is necessary to solve a crisis and our guided by internal principles, passions, and measures of success, while far less concerned with external rules, recognition, and accolades.  These “Batmen” are not driven to deliver amazing results so as to be seen as a “hero”, they are driven to be a hero so as to deliver amazing results.

As you think about the leaders in your organization, can you identify the “Batmen” who may not always be the face of your organization, but are often its heart and soul?  Further, does your organization consistently reward and respect this different type of leader, or does it actually punish and discourage them?  In times of crisis, we are of course more willing to “send out the Bat Signal” and call for Batman to do whatever he deems necessary and to break any superfluous rules so as to get the job done.  But when the job is done, do we continue to support this approach or do we punish his unique, principle-based approach in favor of a more established, rule-based one?  Do we recognize him for his results and accomplishments, or do we criticize him for the rules he broke and for the rebellious approach that he took?  Essentially, do we know the Batmen in our organization and do we respect them as superheroes or do we treat them as super-villains?

The following are some common traits of “Batmen” in our organizations and some consequences on not supporting or even punishing the principle-based “leadership from the shadows” approach that they take:

  1. He often “Leads from the Shadows” and not from the podium.  Batman knows that he is a hero and a leader and is not seeking external validation or recognition.  He is less concerned with proving himself to his management above, but rather to support and to “rescue” the organization around him.  He has a vision, a plan, and a legion of followers, but is truly a “servant leader” and is concerned with real rather than perceived leadership.
  2. He does not seek and even avoids credit.  The reward for Batman is the successful completion of a mission and not the credit for his personal accomplishments.  He often shies away from the limelight, feeling that his successes are “all in a day’s work” and that personal recognition is unnecessary.  He often will even support and promote recognition of everyone else around him… not just to deflect the attention but to further support and to serve the organization around him.
  3. He doesn’t ask permission…  taking both risks and accountability.  Batman has a bias toward action, and has the self-assurance to take a risk, knowing that even if something goes wrong that he will find a way to fix it.  He is not paralyzed by a “fear of failure” but energized by the “possibility of success”, and trusts in himself to take action and to succeed.  He will set his own success criteria, and when he is wrong (and he will be wrong sometimes), Batman will take full accountability both for the “mistake” as well as for the “solution”.
  4. He breaks rules in favor of principles.  While Batman won’t break rules for the sake of breaking rules, he also won’t follow rules purely for the sake of following them.  He will have very clear principles to guide his actions, but if a specific rule gets in the way of his principle-based action then he will not hesitate to break it.  While he will likely recognize that there can be consequences to these broken rules, he is willing to accept then in pursuit of the “big picture”.
  5. He does what is right and not what is popular.  This is where Batman can be both heroic and dangerous.  He will be very confident in his own sense of “right and wrong” as well as in what decisions need to be made to drive progress toward a goal.  He will be less concerned with external political motivations than his internal instinctive motivations, and will thus often push in a direction off the path of the prevailing management or organizational point of view.  While on one hand, this can help push through some complexity and bureaucracy to drive progress, it also can alienate him from his management or from the organization.  Depending on how big the gap is between his view of “right” versus the organization’s view of “popular” will dictate whether he is seen as a superhero or a supervillain. 
  6. He is always called in for a crisis.  Batman will shine in a crisis and will likely be called in for the most critical and urgent problems and challenges.  Because he does not fear failure and is accountable for his actions, he is willing to take risks to find agile solutions, and to use “cool tools” that others are not able or willing to try.  Batman will do his best work under the adrenaline rush of a crisis and will thus shine when he is needed most.  However, he may struggle in “normal” business situations as he can become bored and uninspired, and because the organization may be come less accepting of his “rule-breaking” approach when outside of a crisis.
  7. Is better with a sidekick and mentor.  Batman is most likely going to be extremely independent and have a difficult time in asking for help.  That is not to say that he is an ineffective leader… he likely will have followers and the ability to inspire and guide others.  However, when it comes to obtaining help for himself personally or to have a partner in taking risks and accountability, Batman will often default toward operating alone.  However, when he does have support from a Robin­ to help in balancing his passion with pragmatism and his “fearlessness” with caution, he can more effective.  Further, if supported by a key mentor, like Alfred the Butler, who cares for him and helps to “clean up his messes”, he can maintain his freedom in being fearless in his risk-taking approach knowing that he has someone looking out for him in case issues arise.  While Batman likely will naturally gravitate toward operating independently, if smartly paired with a sidekick and mentor his superhero effectiveness can be maximized.

As touched briefly on above, while Batman can play a critical leadership role in an organization, he can be perceived as dangerous as well.  The same comfort in taking risks, breaking rules, and taking chances that makes him “heroic” can also lead to him appearing “villainous” if something goes wrong.  An organization that properly supports these leaders and their results and does not punish behaviors that are outside of the norm will benefit from a hero in their organization.  That is not to say that Batman should always fully be left to his own devices… if fearlessness turns to recklessness or independence turns to reclusiveness, then the behaviors must be coached and steered.  However, if Batman continues to deliver strong results and is paired with the right sidekicks and mentors, then his approach should be supported and recognized.  Otherwise the risk to the organization is:

  • Batman will quit fighting and go back to his “cave”.
  • Batman will leave “Gotham” and take his fight to another organization
  • Batman will become a “super villain”, pushing back against his critics and causing more harm than good.

While I have written this under the superhero theme, this concept is very similar to the view of Level 5 Leadership, defined in Jim Collins amazing book “Good to Great”.  As Collins studied and described the CEOs and leaders who drove the most successful companies in the world, he coined the description of “Level 5 Leaders”.  He described these leaders as having:

  • Personal Humility
  • Professional Will, almost Fanatical,
  • A Workmanlike Diligence – More “Plow Horse”, than “Show Horse”, and
  • Ambitious for the Company, and Not Themselves.

Essentially, he described Batman.  While these leaders may not fit the stereotypical view of “superhero”, with their face on a billboard and their successes on their sleeves (or on their chests), they are critical to the success of an organization.  So, are these leaders who “lead from the shadows”, willing to take risks, to fail, and to take accountability, treated as heroes or as villains in your organization?

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

We Are What We Measure… RE-DEFINING QUALITY (Part 4 of 4)

dead poets... quality over quantity

In science, the term “Observer Effect” means that the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed.  Said differently, the observation of a system will actually impact and change that system.  In a business context, a similar phenomenon is seen which can be considered the “Measurement Effect”.  In short, what an organization decides to measure for initiatives, teams, and individuals will directly impact the behaviors and results.  Essentially, we are what we measure.

When done intentionally, this is a strategic and effective way to drive the behaviors and results we want and need for our business.  The problem arises when our attempts to measure various aspects of our business and our people have unintended and undesireable consequences.  For some extreme examples:

1)    If we measure initiatives primarily on their speed to market, then we will likely end up with smaller, simpler, less unique technical solutions.

2)    If we reward teams for a “lack of mistakes”, then teams may be less likely to take on additional work, attempt anything of risk, or to show agility or speed.

3)    If we just simply measure and track too many things in a given process, teams may avoid the process altogether, focus on the “wrong” things, or find ways to cut corners.

4)    If an individual’s performance and compensation is largely derived by the sheer number of initiatives that he successfully completes, he will likely take on more and safer programs, and avoid the bigger, riskier ones.

The list can go on and on… essentially, we must be strategic, cognizant, and deliberate about what we measure and track within our organizations.  These choices will largely shape the culture, behaviors, and results of our initiatives, our teams, and our individual performers.

As I close out this topic on quality, I am going to focus on some measurement ideas specifically around delivering more “Amazing” versus “Perfect” innovations.  This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but some examples and case studies for driving greater quality in our Innovation.

Do you want to BREAK LESS RULES? MAKE LESS RULES.  It has become so easy to generate, track, and report data on virtually every detail of every process, that we can become inundated with information.  As technology continues to expand, and computing power increases exponentially, our ability to measure more and more details increases each and every year.  In an effort to manage the uncertainty and complexity, often organizations will enact more and more “quality measures” in order to control the outcome and minimize risk.  The intent, of course, is sound and often involves logical solutions to the growing amount of information.  The challenge… the increase in “rules” can not only bog down the process but also cause individuals to put a lower emphasis and awareness on the truly more important “rules” in order to satisfy the sometimes overwhelming quantity of less important ones.  The solution… We must remember that just because we can track it doesn’t mean that we should.  We need to get clear on the handful of “rules” that are truly important and track those, emphasizing the ones that are the most critical drivers of the process.  This will not only drive efficiency in the system, but also will ultimately increase accuracy and quality, as individuals will emphasize following the important rules rather than wasting time worrying about breaking some unimportant ones. 

Celebrate “WEB GEMSmore than a “LACK OF ERRORS”

I am a lifelong baseball fan and have always been a “nerd” for all of the statistics of the game.  As such, I am a huge fan of Moneyball, a true story of how the evaluation and prediction of player and team performance is being revolutionized by new statistics and measures.  There are many direct reapplications to the business world and one that is relevant here is in the assessment of defensive players.  Historically, the top measure for evaluating the performance of a defensive player was “Fielding Percentage”.  This percentage is calculated as the percentage of balls hit to a player (called “chances”) that were expected to be outs, of which were actually converted to outs. While this statistic can be informative, it is highly incomplete and potentially misleading.  For example, this statistic does not account for a player’s range (i.e. his ability to increase his number of chances). The fielding range of the most talented shortstop may produce significantly more chances per season than an average shortstop… and because these chances are often more risky then there can be an increased chance for errors. So, this more talented shortstop may have a lower fielding percentage than the average shortstop, while actually making more plays and preventing more runs due to his increased range.  Taken to an extreme… if a shortstop truly wanted to maximize his fielding percentage, he would avoid difficult plays altogether and focus on executing the simple plays with excellence.  While this would positively impact his fielding percentage, the team would suffer as more runs would score for the opposing team.  So instead of evaluating defensive players based on “lack of errors”, teams are now assessing performance based upon the number or runs prevented from scoring (which factors into consideration the shortsto’s ability to successfully execute plays that the average shortstop cannot).  ESPN has a segment known as “Web Gems” in which they recognize the top plays on a given night and track them throughout the season.  These are the “Amazing” plays that, over the course of a season, can serve to highlight who the truly outstanding defensive players are. As we track individual performance in our organizations, we should focus less on tracking the minimization of errors, and more on tracking “Web Gems”.

 Factor in “DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY” when evaluating performance. 

To keep with the sports analogies, one concept from Gymnastics (among other sports) which can be reapplied to organizations is the assessment of “Degree of Difficulty”.  Essentially, while a gymnast ultimately is evaluated for her execution, she can obtain a higher total score based upon the level of challenge for her particular routine.  Essentially, the riskier and more complicated the routine, the higher the potential score.  As we evaluate the performance of individuals in our organizations, are we assessing them merely on how often they “nail the landing” or are we also considering the degree of difficulty for their “routine”?  During annual performance reviews, are individuals rewarded for the quantity of results or for the quality?  It is critical that Degree of Difficulty be considered in assignment planning and performance reviews, not only to reward individuals for taking on a greater challenge, but also to encourage the entire organization to work on the biggest rather than the most initiatives.  Essentially, we should reward those who enable “Bigger, Better, and Fewer”, and not those who just deliver “More, More, More”.

Be Clear on Points of SUPERIORITY, Points of PARITY, and Points of INFERIORITY

Finally, I want to share an example of how being very clear on our initiative success measures can have a dramatic impact on the final result.  Developing superior products is a goal for most innovative organizations, and a key challenge that many of us face.  Even within this goal, we must be careful to be crystal clear on our definition of “superiority” so as to ultimately guide the right behaviors and results.  Do you remember when the first Blackberry smartphones started to make their ways into the business world?  For me, this is an extremely memorable event as it revolutionized how I did my work.  Suddenly, my email, calendar, and phone were all literally in the palm of my hand and I had much more flexibility in how and when I worked than ever before.  At the time, not everyone in the organization had one so there was a “status” element to these as well… so much so that some individuals (who will remain nameless) were actually going so far as to “accidentally drop” their current phones so as to get upgraded to a new Blackberry.  This really was a remarkable device at the time, which enabled more freedom and flexibility than ever before.  That being said… if you break down the actual performance elements of the device, it left a lot to be desired.  The phone quality was terrible, as it was very difficult to have a consistent conversation without poor sound quality and dropped calls.  The calendar was highly clunky and actually created a ton of errors in syncing across devices.  And then there was the email… the typing was so difficult and inconsistent, that you wanted to insure that “Sent from my Blackberry Device” appeared at the end of the email so that others knew that the gibberish you sent was due to the phone and not the product of your own idiocy!  Yes, overall this product offered superior benefits through not only the unique combination of features, but more importantly through changing the way that business communication took place.  However, for the main functions of the device (phone, email, calendar) the device was actually INFERIOR to existing, competitive options.  So the question is… would your organization have launched this highly successful product with these points of inferiority or would it have waited until each vector was parity or better to competition?  The point is, even for something as simple conceptually in the “big picture” as developing superior products, we must be careful that our “smaller picture” measures are specifically tailored to enable the overall success.  This may include defining not only points of superiority, but also points of parity, and even acceptable points of inferiority in the quest for developing superior products.

(Of note… we now all have iPhones at work and not Blackberrys (yes, there were a lot of dropped and broken Blackberrys during that transition as well!), highlighting the importance of evolving our success measures with market demands and competitive activity.)

To conclude, I wrote these 4 posts largely as a challenge to more broadly think about our definitions of “Quality”.  This is by no means to say that we should no longer work to deliver “Perfect” executions.  Clearly, there is nothing more important than the consumer getting a safe, consistent product that is made both as intended and cost-effective to the business.  That being said, my challenge is to insure that as we define “Quality” it is not merely about the absence of mistakes, but also about the delivery of “Amazing”.  The same rigor that is placed upon perfection at execution should be carried into the definition and invention phases as well… however, rather than focusing of minimizing mistakes, defects, and risks, we should focus on maximizing benefits, experiences, and possibilities.  Quality is and should be the job of each and every one of us, and is more than merely delivering quantity without errors.  We should broaden this definition so as to drive overall value both to the consumer and to the business through focusing on “First Amazing… Then Actionable” with the right measures to support it.

Author’s Note…I had trouble picking an image to represent this post, and ultimately went with this shot from Dead Poet’s Society, as this movie highlights many of the key themes from this broad discussion on Quality including:  “Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing”,  “Break Less Rules… Make Less Rules” , and “Focus First on Delivering Delight” .  I highly recommend the clip (and the movie in general) to provoke thought and inspiration.  Have a great weekend!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpeLSMKNFO4

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

First AMAZING, Then ACTIONABLE…Re-Defining Quality (PART 3 of 4)

Ship in a Bottle

Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing.  I truly believe that our quest for perfection can not only diminish our innovative capability, but also create a culture of fearfulness rather than fearlessness. Innovators can become more concerned with minimizing mistakes than in maximizing potential, and this fear will lead to safer and smaller innovations.  To be clear, by no means am I saying that quality executions are not important or that we should loosen our standards on the products we launch to consumers. It is quite the opposite, in fact.  Particularly as the speed of innovation accelerates, organizations become more lean, and individuals become more distracted multi-taskers, it is more critical than ever to have robust and effective quality assurance systems in place.  The question is not a matter of if we should emphasize minimizing mistakes, eliminating defects, and flawless executions- it is a matter of when.

When this emphasis of minimizing risk, “punishing” mistakes, and eliminating uncertainty is brought from the execution phase into the definition and invention phases of the innovation process, then more problems will be created than solved.  A focus on minimizing risks will yield safer and smaller ideas.  Punishing and tracking mistakes will lead to less experimentation, boldness, and agility.  Eliminating uncertainty will lead to less disruptions, breakthroughs, and true inventions and more marginal product improvements.  And to make matters worse, all of this emphasis, while on paper showing improvements in measurable “quality”, will ultimately diminish our ability to deliver true quality in the end.  An over-emphasis on Perfection in the early stages of innovation will lead to a smaller initiatives, and thus require more programs to deliver against financial objectives.  As more projects are started, the organization will be spread thinner and initiatives will become smaller yet.  And so this “cycle of doom” will begin that will not only decrease the efficiency and yield of our innovations but also, because of the over-extension of resources, will actually increase the probability of the quality incidents that we were attempting to avoid!

Again, this is not to say that “Quality” should only be a focus on the late stages of the innovation process.  Rather, this is to say that while in the execution phase, quality assurance measures should be focused on Perfection (minimizing defects, mistakes, costs), in the early phases these measures should focus on Amazing (superior products, size of prize, invention and experimentation).  This broadening of the definition of “Quality” will still allow for the flawlessness of execution that we need, while insuring that what we execute is excellent and superior.  Said differently, it is far easier to take something amazing and make it actionable then to take something actionable and make it amazing.

 1)    What You Should Do is More Important than What You Could Do.  In our “need for speed”. We are often in a hurry to jump right into execution and to move quickly through the fuzzy front end of definition and invention.  We say things like “do the last experiment first” and “innovate with the end in mind” so as to get to a faster answer… but these will likely not yield a better answer.  If our goal is truly to drive bigger, better, and fewer innovations then we need to invest the time, money, and people up front into defining the right problem before launching ourselves into solving it.  Our quality measures should focus on insuring we have answers to the “what” questions before we launch into the “how” questions… What is the Big Idea?  What is the Size of Prize?  What will our Competitive Advantage be?  What Points of Superiority must we have?  What Points of Inferiority are Acceptable?  What is Our Intellectual Property?  What is the Desired Consumer Experience?  If we hold ourselves to high standards in the early stages, we will insure that we will deliver the bigger, better, and fewer innovations we seek in the later stages.

 “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best” – W Edwards Deming.

 2)    Measure Twice, and Cut Once.   When it comes to focusing quality on the early phases of innovation, this simple phrase is a very concise way to summarize a best practice.  In our organizations, how much energy is spent on the accuracy of making the right cut versus the precision of making a “perfect” cut?  In the pressure of trying to hit a launch date or to accelerate innovation, it can be a natural tendency to rush through the early phases so as to allow sufficient time for execution.  Essentially, we know that making a thorough, precise “cut” takes time, so we hurry up to start cutting (often knowing that we will need to cut more than once).  At the end of the day, there often is “never enough time to measure once, but always enough time to cut twice”.  Our primary focus should be on a thorough, accurate “measurement” before we ever start to worry about making a final, precise “cut”.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” – Peter Drucker

3) Simplifying Too Early Makes Things More Complex.  Often in an effort to accelerate innovation and to insure greater quality in execution, we can eliminate “degrees of freedom” for our innovation teams.  Essentially, we might limit the ingredients in a formulation, complexity in a new process, or uncertainty in experimentation so as to better insure success.  While on the surface this may seem like a sound approach, for an innovation team this push for simplicity can actually make the process more complex.  I like to use the analogy of a “ship in a bottle”… if we ask a team to build an amazing “Ship” but constrain them to putting it into a bottle, we will definitely limit the materials, size, and variables that the team can utilize for innovation.  However, in adding these constraints, we will greatly increase the time and complexity to logistically complete the task.  Whereas had we asked the team to deliver a ship that was the size of the bottle, but not constrained them with the bottle itself, we would have ended up with a faster and better solution.  Said differently, we should focus on giving our teams simple success criteria, but not simplifying constraints… allowing the team the degrees of freedom they need to complete the task.

One of my favorite examples is that of the design of an EKG machine that could be cost-effective and portable for use in rural India. In a desire for speed and simplicity, the team was first given minimal degrees of freedom and asked to take an existing developed market device and to “water it down” so as to meet the design and cost needs of rural India.  Working under these constraints of course did not work and the team failed to deliver anything even close to the targets needed for this low-income market. This same team was then given the freedom to design it from scratch and to meet the same performance and cost success criteria, but now to do so however they best saw fit. The team very quickly delivered an inventive solution that was not only a success in India but that was ultimately reapplied in developed markets.   Again, being prescriptive on the “what” but allowing freedom on the “how” ultimately yielded a better and faster solution.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.  -Albert Einstein

Again, none of this is to say that quality measures should be deemphasized, but rather that the definition should be broadened so as to drive “Amazing” in the early stages and “Perfection” in the latter.  Encouraging and measuring the eliminations of mistakes, minimization of risks, and constraints in execution in the latter stages should complement and not replace the emphasis on experimentation, boldness, and freedom in the early stages.  The broadening of this definition will not only yield more quality in the definition and invention phases, but ultimately in the execution phases as well- as the results will be bigger, better, and fewer initiatives.  Tomorrow, I will conclude the topic by discussing “We are What We Measure”, highlighting how we can and should use our initiative, team, and individual “quality” measures to drive the business results and organizational culture that we desire.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Driving the CONSUMER VALUE EQUATION… Re-Defining QUALITY (Part 2 of 4)

The Value Equation

As yesterday’s post concluded, “Quality” is appropriately a critical focus for innovative organizations, but, in practice, most definitions of this concept are incomplete.  Quality often is interpreted narrowly as our ability to deliver “Quantity without Errors”, minimizing mistakes and maximizing consistency.  In practice, this is an important but insufficient way to define this important concept.  Quality should not merely be about the assurance of “Perfection”, but also should encompass the importance of delivering “Excellence” or “Amazing” as well.

When all is said and done, what truly is the purpose for focusing on quality in our innovations? While important, it is not merely about preventing defects, minimizing costs, or even about maximizing efficiency. While those are all factors, these are the trees and not the forest. The true overriding goal of optimizing Quality is to maximize the VALUE to our consumers so as to deliver optimal PROFIT to our business. Period. If we can design, invent, and deliver propositions of a superior value then we ultimately will have a sustainable and profitable business. Essentially, quality is about maximizing the value equation both through maximizing “excellence” in delighting our consumers, while also minimizing costs through driving financial and organizational efficiencies.

Defining the Value Equation
So if quality is about driving the Value Equation, what is this equation? There are many ways to define this, but in its simplest form:

Value = Benefit / Cost

Essentially, the quality of our innovation can be measured by the overall ratio of the degree of consumer benefits that we provide versus the costs of providing that benefit. In this case, I would define “Benefit” as, at minimum, the degree to which a need or want is satisfied. Going beyond that… delivering against an unmet need, satisfying a new “job to be done”, or delivering and amazing “Wow” experience all represent ways to exponentially increase the Benefit. The “Cost” can represent not only money, but also time, resources, effort, and complexity. “Cost” often is the part of the equation most associated with operational definitions of Quality Assurance today.

The trick in this equation is that the delivery of “Benefit” and “Cost” are not independent variables, particularly in programs which require a stretch outside the typical innovation “box”. On one hand, the pursuit of an increase in benefits so as to deliver a “Wow” typically comes with an increase in “Degree of Difficulty”… and this “Degree in Difficulty” ultimately leads to an increase in costs and complexity.  On the other hand, the pursuit of reductions in Cost typically come with reductions in risk, uncertainty, and degrees of freedom… and these reductions will ultimately limit the ability to provide an increase in benefits.  Net, in the pursuit of “Quality”, a focus on Costs tends to work against Benefits, and a focus on Benefits tends to work against Costs.  Both of course are important… an investment in Benefits ultimately leads to greater consumer delight and an increase in overall sales, while an investment in Costs leads to improved organizational efficiency and an increase in profitability.  Delivering value to the consumer and to the business will come through both increasing the quality of benefits and in decreasing the costs… the question is, which comes first?

Which Comes First? Delighting the Consumer or Delivering Profit?
This may be the most important question of all, as the answer to which will drive the focus of not only our innovation programs, but of our organizational cultures as well. At the end of the day, what is the purpose of our organizations and thus of our innovations? It often is argued that the fundamental purpose of a company is to deliver profit. Said another way, a corporation’s primary objective should then be to maximize value to its shareholders through making as much money as possible. Clearly, profit is important and a company will not continue to exist much less be successful without making money. That being said, I believe that a stated purpose of “maximizing profit” is fundamentally flawed, and ultimately will be destructive to the long-term success of the business. Yes, profit is critical- but it is an output and not a purpose.

Our purpose fundamentally must be to maximize consumer delight and satisfaction, with profitability as an output that flows from successful delivery of this purpose. While this may sound like semantics, I assure you that it is not. Much has been written about Steve Jobs and his approach to leading Apple as well as the legacy that he left behind.  One of the critical themes of his approach was to delight the consumers first and the “shareholders” second.  Essentially, first figure out how to make something “Amazing” and then figure out how to make it profitable.  Particularly for innovators, if profit becomes the primary objective then choices will be made to minimize… reducing costs, reducing complexity, and reducing risks so as to drive profit through improving the bottom line. The problem is that all of this minimizing, while potentially driving short-term profits, will ultimately also minimize the ability to deliver breakthrough, new, and superior products to the consumer over the longer-term. If on the other hand, the primary focus is on consumer delight, the innovators will focus on maximizing…improving the consumer benefits, satisfying unmet needs, and delivering an amazing “Wow” experience. While in the short-term, this approach will likely have a negative impact on profit as it requires increased investments, in the longer-term this will ultimately serve to maximize not only growth to the top line, but to the bottom line as well. This is by no means saying that our innovations should not ultimately be optimized for profitability- rather this is to say that we should first deliver an amazing, delightful benefit to the consumer and then maximize its profitability… and not vice-versa.

A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” -Henry Ford

So… as your organization focuses on quality, how much time is spent working on the numerator (Benefit) versus working on the denominator (Cost)?  Typically, I would argue, that a disproportionate amount of time is spent on minimizing “Cost”, both in that is easier to dimensionalize and measure and that it is, at least on paper, lower risk and complexity. Net, quality programs are often focused far more on being free from “defects, deficiencies, and significant variations” and less on insuring delivery of “excellence” in innovation potential.  To ultimately maximize the quality of our innovations and thus the value that we deliver, we should broaden our scope of “Quality” to focus first on delivering superior benefits and then second on superior costs.  While this investment will have short-term challenges, the long-term benefits to the business will be dramatically enhanced.

To complete this topic on “Quality”, tomorrow’s post will focus on ways to deal with the “Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing” paradigm… further emphasizing the strategy of “First Amazing, Then Actionable”, and Thursday’s will conclude with a discussion on how “We are What We Measure”.  As always, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and ideas.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Re-Defining QUALITY… More Than Just QUANTITY Without Errors (Part 1 of 4)

quality newspaper

It is a term that is used frequently, particularly when discussing innovation, but one with differing definitions…so what is ”quality”?  On one hand, we talk of quality in the traditional sense of “it is not quantity, but quality that counts”.  Here we talk of bigger and fewer initiatives, delivering breakthrough innovations, and taking bigger and bolder risks.  On the other hand, we talk of quality in the more “Six Sigma” sense of eliminating defects and of striving for perfection.  In this case, quality is less about the uniqueness and superiority of the product that we deliver, and more about the consistency and lack of mistakes.  Essentially, one side of the coin is about being “Amazing” and the other is about being “Perfect”.  Both are important, but often in opposition, and an organization’s balance between these two interpretations will significantly impact its priorities, its culture, and its results.

In trying to find a complete definition of “quality”, the best I found came from BusinessDictionary.com:  “In manufacturing, a measure of excellence or a state of being free from defects, deficiencies and significant variations…” This definition represents both the degree of “excellence” element as well as the state of being “free from defects” element of quality discussed above.  Interestingly, in this definition these two vectors are separated by an “or” and not by an “and”.  In practice, I do believe that this is a tension that most organizations face:  Is it more important that we be “Amazing” or that we be “Perfect”?  The obvious answer is “Both”, but in reality one will get priority over the other.  Additionally, the pursuit of one can often actually negatively impact the pursuit of the other.  For example, the level of risks required to innovate something Amazing can hinder the pursuit of “Perfection”… and the degree of rigor and rules to deliver “Perfection” can constrain the ability to strive for “Amazing”.  So… which vector does your organization emphasize and how does this impact the innovation that you deliver?

Clearly, a balance is crucial as both vectors are important in both the short and long-term success of your business.  That being said, I would argue that most organizations are putting an over-emphasis on perfecting the “state of being free from defects” rather than pursuing the riskier, more stretching innovations.  What is the role of “Quality Assurance” in your organization?  Is it on assuring quality via superior products and experiences or is it on insuring a reduction in risks and a minimization of mistakes?  This is a critical distinction and one that can dramatically impact your organization’s priorities, reward structure, and culture.  Likely, the balance of “quality assurance” centers on the minimization of mistakes rather than on the pursuit of excellence.  Again, this is not to trivialize that role, as it is most certainly vital… but simply incomplete.  Particularly as we promote to our organizations mantras such as “Quality is everyone’s responsibility” and “Quality is our top priority”, we need to be abundantly clear on what the definition of quality should be.  And this definition must include not only the Strive for Perfection… but the Pursuit of Amazing as well.

As I attack this complex topic over the next three days, I am going to break it down into three additional parts:

1)    Re-Defining Quality… Driving the Consumer Value Equation.  Tomorrow, I will discuss a reevaluation of our definitions of “Quality” and recommend that this designation should be expanded to emphasize driving overall consumer value.

2)    First Amazing… Then Actionable.  Wednesday, I will look at how “Perfect is the Enemy of Amazing”, and discuss some of the impacts on innovative potential, organizational culture, as well as reward structure.

3)    We are What We Measure.  Finally, I will discuss on Thursday how “We are What We Measure” and investigate how the rules and measures that we enforce and impose in an effort to assess our organization capability are actually shaping our organization’s results as well.

I hope that this will be an engaging and interesting conversation that generates some thought and debate.  Quality should be the top priorities for each and everyone one of us in our organizations… the critical step is in aligning and communicating on a complete definition of “Quality” that assumes the right balance of “Amazing” and “Perfect”.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com