Monday, December 17, 2012

Are Your Quality Reviews Stifling Quality?

The contracts manager for one of my clients has taken on an expanded role in reviewing a wide range of work products—including internal documents—for wording that could be potentially problematic in the event of a lawsuit. I've had a couple of my training programs which were developed for their employees subjected to his review. His revisions have gone well beyond risk management and into the realm of subjective word choices, sentence insertions and deletions, and unnecessary grammar "corrections."

It's been an admittedly frustrating experience, and a great example of a problem I've encountered several times before. There's a point at which reviews can actually work against the goal of improving quality. When? When people no longer take ownership of their work. This occurs when a reviewer's changes are so extensive that the employee who created the work product no longer feels it represents his or her efforts.

Pride in and ownership of one's work are foundational to quality, as they are to motivation and productivity. Reviews for quality and risk management are essential, but beware of robbing employees of that sense of ownership. It will ultimately cost you.

I was helping a firm overhaul its quality assurance process when a couple of young engineers approached me with a complaint. Their work products were being torn apart by the principal engineer who reviewed all reports and design documents in that office. They had lost enthusiasm for their work. They admitted that the quality of their work products had declined because "whatever we do, Ron's going to change it, so why try?"

We were able to largely solve the problem by simply getting Ron more involved in the planning of the work. That way he could weigh in on strategy and outline his expectations before draft work products were prepared. We also convinced him to give ground on personal preferences, empowering his staff to exercise more discretion where it didn't compromise quality or company standards.

The subjective element of reviews can be particularly contentious at times. I was once asked to help resolve ongoing conflict between two offices that routinely worked together, given that they were located only about 90 miles apart. The latest fracas involved the principal reviewer in one office dictating to the other office that a designed sewer line be moved from one side of the street to the other. Why? That was his preference.

Again, agreeing on a more proactive approach in this case worked wonders. Project team members in the two offices rarely had met with each other despite their proximity. So we mandated that all projects involve at least a face-to-face kickoff meeting, including the principal reviewer. And once again, we clarified which design decisions were technically driven and which should be left to the discretion of the designers.

Even apart from the kinds of issues described above, the way most A/E firms do quality reviews is troublesome. We focus more attention on catching mistakes near the end of the production process than taking steps to prevent them. Then we typically do little to analyze why those mistakes occurred and what can be done to minimize them in the future. It looks primarily like a process problem, but don't overlook the people caught in the middle of it.

Following are some suggestions for creating a review process that doesn't hinder quality by stifling the people doing the work:

Clarify expectations and objectives up front. Shift the thrust of your quality process to proactively preventing errors. This means better project planning, being sure to engage those who will later be reviewing work products before they are delivered to the client.

Conduct periodic checks for quality and direction. This is particularly important for less experienced project team members. But everyone can benefit from occasional input before formal reviews are conducted. Changes or mistakes are less costly and disruptive when addressed earlier in the project as opposed to during formal reviews. These spot checks need not take more than a few minutes each if performed regularly.

Allow reasonable discretion on matters of preference. As noted above, pitting one person's personal preferences against another's creates unnecessary tension and can stifle initiative and enthusiasm. If you deem a subjective choice important enough to impose it on the team, set the expectation up front. Don't do it after the work is done. To avoid surprises when drafts are provided for review, do periodic checks as suggested above.

Carefully define review roles. Except for simple work products, it's best to have more than one reviewer and assign each specific review responsibilities. Some examples of different types of reviews are:
  • Discipline-specific technical review
  • Cross-discipline coordination review
  • Drawing-to-specifications cross check
  • Editorial review
  • Management review
  • Constructability review
  • Operability review
Some overlap between these is fine, even recommended. But having multiple people reviewing the same aspects of the work product can be counterproductive. This frequently occurs with the editorial portion of the review, despite the fact that most technical professionals are not strong writers. The resulting collective revisions are often inconsistent, contradictory, and, in many cases, wrong. Better to assign one person with appropriate qualifications to perform the editorial review.  

Explain the why behind the revisions made. If you're serious about quality, your firm needs to take steps to learn from mistakes and prevent recurrent errors. Yet in many cases, revisions are made to draft work products without explanation even though the reasoning is often not clear to those who did the work. Every review is a learning opportunity, and should be leveraged to help avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Allocate appropriate time for reviews. One of the most common quality problems, as you likely have experienced, is not allowing enough time for a proper review process. This typically results from not completing draft work products soon enough before the external delivery deadline. Not sticking to internal milestones not only shortchanges the review process—or delays delivery to the client—it contributes to increased stress and conflict among team members. When this occurs, quality—of the work and the work experience—inevitably declines.

Let me encourage you to review your review process. Is it adequate to assure the quality of your work products? Consider not only your success in catching errors and omissions, but in conducting reviews that result in greater quality up the project delivery chain. This in part means workers who take pride in and ownership of the work they do. Do your reviews promote or discourage that?

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