February 2011


How To Avoid Innovation and Quality

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Expect 100 percent use of your people and resources.
That opening comment represents a slight rewriting of Mark Graban’s article in Quality Digest, “How to Design Poor Service,” (August 2010).

Graban described his bad experiences with customer services. In fact, he sincerely believes that American Airlines and Verizon service representatives actually hate their customers. Long waiting times on the phone are due, he argues, to the companies’ expectation that they have 100 percent utilization of people or equipment. He quotes queuing theory, which indicates that 100 percent utilization of a resource guarantees long waits and poor service. For example, if a factory engineer expects to use a machine in a factory 100 percent of the time, the factory is likely to experience a lot of down time when the machine breaks down, as you learn from Wallace Hopp’s and Mark Spearman’s interesting study in Factory Physics (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

We’ve all experienced, I’m sure, really bad customer service. I’m sure you recall getting stuck in automated messages, being put on hold for long periods of time, or having someone never call you back. Graban points to his American Airline experience. He did receive a call from someone in the Executive Office after he complained about a disastrous vacation. He tried returning the call five times over two weeks and always got the same message, “I am already on the phone with another caller; please leave a message.” He asks: Was that individual so busy that she could never return the call? He concludes that American Airlines does not have enough capacity to deal with the customer complaints they receive.

After reading Graban’s article, I sent for a copy of Factory Physics. Sounded very interesting. I learned that once a machine, or an organization for that matter, goes beyond 80 percent utilization, waiting times skyrocket, quality plunges, and costs increase exponentially. If we want to do a really good job of serving the needs of customers, we cannot expect 100 percent utilization of our people.

Information development groups seem to be victims of the myth of 100 percent utilization. Recently I was asked to help a CIDM member develop a business case for hiring more staff. Based on interviews with writers, editors, project managers, and others in information development and in product development, it was clear that they were indeed understaffed. Everyone was maxed out trying to get multiple and frequent product releases out the door. No time for customer contact; no time for innovation; no time to find better ways of working; just release, release, release.

Sound familiar? That’s 100 percent utilization, and it’s the wrong way to work. We find that everyone is multitasking, which means everything that would improve the quality of service to customers has to wait.

It’s quite common to learn of information development organizations that have experienced staff cuts of 50 percent or more, at the same time that product development staff numbers have risen. The cuts are the result, I am certain, about viewing information development as a silo of costs that can easily be cut, even at the cost of keeping customers informed and happy with their product selection. We hear stories about having to work “lean.” Yet, we can argue, as Graban does, that there’s nothing lean about 100 percent utilization.

Robert Broughton, in his Quality Assurance Solutions website, cites point 12 of W. Edwards Deming’s Fourteen Management Principles:

“Dr. Deming’s point 12 focuses on improving quality by eliminating barriers to workmanship pride. It’s natural for people to take pride in their work. I don’t know anyone who lacks that pride gene. Yet the company’s management team unknowingly strips employee’s self respect by limiting his / her involvement in decisions, process issues and quality improvement.

What is the most important asset within any company? It is not money, It is not machines, It is not the building, It is not the raw or finished goods…. It is the people.”

How, then, do information-development managers make the case that 100 percent utilization is inefficient and ineffective? One step might be to look around. In an organization that expects 100 percent utilization from technical communicators, we found product development managers who ensure 80 percent utilization or less. They seem to recognize that people who have no time to learn, think, plan, and improve the quality of their work will not produce high quality products. When information developers have no time to meet customers, understand their needs, use new technology to improve efficiency, or deliver new information products, the result will be less happy and productive customers.

Recent customer surveys in high-tech organizations have shown that when customers are less than happy, they are unlikely to recommend a product to anyone else. They are also highly likely to move to a competitive product that appears to offer better customer service. In such cases, inadequate information, as well as quality problems with the product, drive customers away.

If you can link customer loyalty with improved quality in information and services, then you have your business case against 100 percent utilization. At the same time, however, you must demonstrate that you can use the additional staff not to do more of the same. Product releases with their features and functions dominate the information deliverables of organizations that deliver poor service. With additional help, you must promise something different, something that helps customers become more effective in using a product to reach their business goals. CIDMIconNewsletter