A little less than a year ago, Ben Barreth and I were racing at Sadlers, and he asked one of the attendants what the secret was to a low time. The attendant told him: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
See, if you go tearing around the track at top speed all the time, you’ll end up doing things like drifting around corners, brushing up against walls, and having to do massive changes of direction. You feel this when you race; if you take a sharp corner at top speed, your wheels lock up against the track making that terrible screeching noise, and it takes all the speed out of you. You have to start building up speed all over again.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the fastest way to get all the way through the system is not to crank up to your top speed the whole time; there are key times when you need to slow down to navigate difficult areas and, in the process, you end up going faster as a whole.
I’ve been getting back into my W. Edwards Deming reading (a man who was very clear that problems in American management are process problems, not people problems), and in the opening chapter of Out of the Crisis, he makes the main point that low quality is what’s holding many organizations back. Low quality necessitates rework. It makes customers unhappy. And it isn’t free – someone gets paid good money to put those product defects in, and then someone gets paid to take them out. He captures the “quality chain reaction” in a diagram that looks like this:
Improve quality -> Costs decrease because of less rework, fewer mistakes, fewer delays, snags; better use of machine-time and materials -> Productivity improves -> Capture the market with better quality and lower price -> Stay in business -> Provide jobs and more jobs
(Deming, Out of the Crisis, Chapter 1)
As one of many illustrations of various facets of quality, he brings up an example of a superintendent he was advising. The first thing they did was measure the amount of defects produced over time, and they found that although the rate was variable, it was also fairly predictable (average 11% defective products over 30 days). So, they had a nice, predictable system for producing bad stuff.
How do you get this number down? Well, in this case, the people defined what counted as acceptable work and unacceptable work with examples of each, and made sure everyone understood. This one act alone brought that 11% down to 5%. That’s at least a 6% gain in productivity. Then you start thinking about that remaining 5%.
The point is, a huge gain in speed was made when the group made a firm decision on what work would and would not be acceptable, and everyone knew what that meant. Does that mean that it might have taken a little extra time to ensure what you were working on met the acceptable standards of quality? Probably in some cases. Would taking the extra time to meet quality standards take longer than finding the deficiencies later and fixing them? Probably not.
Lowering your amount of rework is the cheapest, least disruptive way to move faster.
And there are many other benefits as well, especially when it comes to customers. Defects take a toll on the customers who receive them. It wears down trust, goodwill, and can ultimately drive them to look for someone else. Driving your workers to produce faster at the expense of quality denies them the ability to feel pride in their work and a sense of craftsmanship and accomplishment.
Focusing on the quality of your work helps you get more high-quality product into the market faster, is more appealing to your customers, and is more enjoyable to your professionals.
Do you know empirically how much re-work accounts for your total workload and costs? Do you have clear definitions of what’s acceptable quality and what isn’t? Does everyone agree on those and agree what should happen when work is unacceptable?
Everyone wants to go faster, but just remember that productivity isn’t an open straightaway; it’s a system with sharp curves, critical decisions, and a dependency on a support structure that can only take so much wear and tear. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.