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Wednesday, September 27, 2020

Slowness and Quality


In most activities of any complexity, there is a stark choice: you can aim for speed or for quality—rarely, if ever, are both possible at the same time. If you choose speed, the corner-cutting and reliance on quick fixes and “near enough” outcomes limits the quality of the end result. If you choose quality, you must take as long as it takes to achieve the standard you have set.

In many ways, the slow movements, like Slow Food, have as much to do with improving quality as they have with slowing down to enjoy it, or creating a better lifestyle. The consequences of today’s obsession with speed typically include a steady lowering of quality. Fast food is not gourmet food. In many cases, it ceases to resemble human food very much at all.

Only good work is satisfying work: the kind that sends you home at the end of the day feeling you have accomplished something worthwhile.
Rushing your work, especially if, as a result, you do it less well than you know you could, leads to dissatisfaction and frustration. In my experience, the vast majority of people want to do the best they are capable of doing. Sure, there are some lazy bums out to skimp on effort, but they are a minority easily spotted and removed—if management is awake. Only good work is satisfying work: the kind that sends you home at the end of the day feeling you have accomplished something worthwhile. If you are prevented from feeling that satisfaction because the organization, or the boss, cares not a whit for anything better than an absolute minimum in quality, your job will not be one from which you can obtain much pleasure. If, in addition, you are constantly harried and rushed—expected to take every short-cut and compromise all your instincts for doing your job properly—merely to allow for a few dollars of extra profit you know won’t find its way into your pay packet, the result is going to be work that demeans you as well.

A good part of the extra work and long hours many people devote to employment comes precisely from this deep-seated need in most employees to feel they are doing a quality job. Their employers don’t allow enough time to produce a quality result, so they voluntarily stay on well past normal working hours to make sure what they do is something they can feel satisfied with afterwards. What that says about the ethics of bosses who rely on people putting in large amounts of unpaid time to create quality work I will leave to you to decide.

Slowing down, in one way or another, is often the only way to improve quality substantially, and quality is often the sole means of increasing competitiveness.
If everyone is going as fast as possible to produce “near enough” goods and services at the lowest possible cost, what you have is a commodity market. In commodity markets, consumers buy the cheapest because there’s no real difference between the different brands on offer, save the price. For suppliers, this means wafer-thin margins and extremely limited opportunities for profit. In contrast, where sales depend on quality—think Lexus, BMW, or Mercedes—profit margins are high, and consumers are willing to pay pretty much whatever it takes to buy the product. Successful companies know this. Lean manufacturing, for example, aims to save time by cutting out wasted effort, never by cutting corners and compromising quality in the process. Ford, Chrysler, and GMC cut corners to boost profits and developed a reputation for somewhat shoddy, unreliable vehicles. Toyota did not, and are now reaping the reward. Slowing down, in one way or another, is often the only way to improve quality substantially, and quality is often the sole means of increasing competitiveness.

I have written before about “Hamburger Management:” running a business by utilizing whatever is quickest and cheapest, not what is best. Hamburger managers speed up activity and cut costs, even if the first casualty is the quality of whatever they are doing. By doing so, they grab short-term profits, but risk throwing the whole operation onto a course that leads to a steady, long-term decline in quality. That’s why sometimes you go into a restaurant or store and encounter staff who are lazy, ignorant, and rude. The management is paying them as little as possible, saving money on training (they don’t give any), and accepting just about any vaguely-human applicant desperate enough to take the work. Staff given no possibility of doing good work won’t care what they do.

In a civilized world, any business where the staff regularly work long hours of unpaid time to ensure a quality output would be marked down, and the leaders of that operation fired on the spot for incompetence.
Quality is always a management responsibility. High quality points to good leadership. Poor quality and mediocre standards shows you clearly what kind of management is present. Places of work where employees constantly work in their own time to ensure the quality of what they do, demonstrate clearly that you have good staff and lousy executives, unworthy of the bloated salaries they take away.

In a civilized world, any business where the staff regularly work long hours of unpaid time to ensure a quality output would be marked down, and the leaders of that operation fired on the spot for incompetence. I mean that. If you regularly have to work on your own time to make sure your customer is getting the quality he or she is paying for, your bosses should not be in positions of leadership. There is no conceivable excuse for incompetence and short-sightedness of that order.

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6 Comments:

Tom Harris said...

I admire your focus, on this site, on "slow" as in "considered thought". But you could just as well call that "good".

Speed and quality do not have to pull in opposite directions. Just have to get them in the right order. When people are supported in doing high-quality work, they can work faster. They don't waste time in rework because they do things right the first time. (And when they don't, they slow down just long enough to learn how to do it right in future.)

I agree that it is management's responsibility, even their fault, if people are working long, unpaid hours to try to produce good products.

But management does not have to slow down in order to lead. Rather, it just has to lead. To commit to supporting high-quality work, and then make good on that promise to its workers every day. Clearing out obstacles, and helping people improve at their work.

By the way, ever watch the Olympics? They are fast, and high-quality.

4:01 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Ah but, Tom, even the Olympics are only fast where that is the essence of the sport, like running.

How about non-sporting activities. Would Michelangelo have agreed that a painting or a sculpture would automatically be better the faster he painted it or used his chisel?

Speed is a secondary benefit that applies only in certain circumstances. Quality is primary and applies everywhere.

That said, I agreed with you that leaders need to lead. Going slowly isn't automatically beneficial any more going fast. What matters is finding the right tempo for the best result. Slow Leadership doesn't advocate "slow" for its own sake. We ask people to slow down so they can think about the right tempo and choose that.

Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed the way it made me think hard to establish I wasn't wrong...this time anyway!

Keep reading.

4:19 PM  
Tom Harris said...

You are not wrong—quality is primary. But it is also inclusive. Speed does not only mean getting to the finish line first, as in running. Most artists I see also work quickly—mixing paints, glancing at the scene, deciding what to do next. That is the speed that comes from quality internalized, and the speed borne out of skill.

So, though I doubt you'll change the name of your site, I cannot see "slowing down" as the key. If people are doing the wrong thing, or an unconsidered thing, at any speed, they need to stop and think about it. And then, as you say, choose the right tempo.

None of your principles says "slow". That's why I thought that naming your site "slow" doesn't do your principles justice, and may confuse the reader. Especially if it's a modern manager who sees "slow" as bad and "fast" as good.

Of course maybe people just have to read carefully. After all, slow tempo doesn't necessarily mean slow speed—it depends on the size of your steps, and what direction you're going.

4:08 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I called the site "slow leadership" after the "slow food" movement that advocates taking the time needed to prepare and enjoy quality in meals and their ingredients, rather than cramming down fast food, with its emphasis on high speed and cheap ingredients. That's why I sometimes refer to conventional management as "Hamburger Management:" limited menu, cheap ingredients, and speed above quality.

I think we are violently agreeing with one another!

7:04 AM  
Gray T. Miller said...

This reminds me of what I used to tell my clients when I was a freelance web designer:

"There's Cheap, there's Fast, and there's Good. You get to pick any two."

Harsh, but honest. And nobody ever had a problem with it.

12:25 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Gray,

You are so right!

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

12:38 PM  

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