Does Measuring Quality and Process Improvement Kill Creative Thought?
It’s a valid question. Your first rejoinder to that question might be, “Oh, we’re a small business. We don’t have complex process improvement activities, and we don’t measure quality, not like a big corporation. If it seems like the customers are happy and we’re making money, that’s a big enough win for me.”
Well, okay. Fair enough. But, when you are a Papa John’s Pizza franchisee, and you’re trying to figure out how many drivers to have during the dinner rush on weekends so as to keep idle time to a minimum, and how many people can work the prep stand without getting in each other’s way, isn’t that process improvement?
If you’re running your own automotive repair shop, isn’t quality really important? You want to keep your current customers, you want them to tell others how good your work is so that you can acquire new customers in the least expensive way possible, and finally, you want to reduce “re-work” down to as close to zero as you can, because that type of work costs you money and the customer doesn’t pay a penny for it.
Now that we’ve established that even small companies should be engaged in continuous process improvement, and, constantly trying to improve quality, let’s talk about whether all of this discipline and rigor around numbers and operational excellence is squelching the creative thought that might just make the business numbers spectacular as opposed to just “making money”.
The world’s big game-changers in every industry come from someone deciding to ignore that way things are done by everyone else and deciding to try making products or delivering services in a different way.
To wit: If Porsche had decided to make a good car to start with, and then made incremental manufacturing improvements and quality improvements without doing anything that was much different from other automobile manufacturers, they wouldn’t be Porsche now. They’d be Toyota. Toyota makes a reliable, well-built car, but let’s face it, their cars are not as desirable as Porsches for many different reasons. Underpinning many of those reasons in Porsche’s willingness to take creative risks in engineering, design and performance parameters.
If Motorola could have successfully predicted the desire for phone users to get their email on their phone, they would have been BlackBerry. And if the people at BlackBerry could have seen all the things people would want to use a smartphone for in the future, and, developed a more attractive design, they would have been Apple. But neither company had the creativity to envision those things, and Motorola’s phone unit almost went under before it was bought by Google for a fire-sale price, and BlackBerry has just come out of their own near-death experience, and is now standing, albeit on very wobbly legs. Both companies had over 70% market share in their respective markets at one point.
So, killing creative thought is definitely not desirable. Not for big companies and not for small companies, either. For example, if someone at Anderson’s Auto Repair comes up with the idea to run every customer’s car through the car wash down the street, after the service is done, and before giving it back to the customer, and this drives up customer satisfaction with the service visit by 30%, even though the actual service work being done on the car is no better or worse than it was before, well, that qualifies as a very good idea. It’s a creative way to drive up customer satisfaction levels and increase referrals at a very low cost per visit.
Even a small company can encourage creativity while striving for continuous improvement. You can do this by:
- Having your employees focus on the things that will separate your business from competitors. If you have people spending a great deal of time on things that may produce a 1% increase in customer satisfaction, their time is probably better spent on other activities.
- Leaving room for creativity and ad-libbing in the process. It is absolutely true that consistent processes produce consistent results, but sometimes there’s a better way that you can trial, and if successful, adopt.
- Using a machine to do anything that a machine can do better than a human. Automate. This leaves the humans free to do the things they do so much better than machines, things like creative thought.
- Involving workers and customers in the creative process – if you have a Papa John’s Pizza franchise in Miami, and one of the thousands and thousands of Brazilians in Miami says to you, “Hey, in Brazil, one of the most popular pizza toppings in Brazil is banana slices”, maybe you should ask him just how that is done and how it looks. Maybe that’s a nice little niche offering that your competitors are not yet hip to, and you can make some money with it. Just a thought…
You should always strive for good processes and quality in the work your business does, but you should always leave room for a great idea.