Service and quality

I just got around to following Mark’s second of Brad DeLong deploring the GM and Nationwide Mutual Superbowl ads. First, yeah, what they said. Second:

How can a person with a moral sense and intelligence higher than a turnip’s, or pride anywhere in the positive range, even engage with a meme that being of service is somehow degrading? This is the completely toxic hidalgo mentality that sabotages the societies of extractive wealth, and Latin America generally – that it is somehow admirable, and an object of aspiration to live without creating value (by having others create it for you). I’m in a fairly high-status line of work, and I seem to do nothing but go around being of service to people, helping students and colleagues get smarter and more useful: I roll up my sleeves and mop up ignorance and puddles of sloppy thinking, and I’m really grateful to the people nice enough to notice mine and deal with it. Doctors, lawyers…they’re all servants if they’re good for anything, who spend a lot of time engaged with really yucky stuff cleaning and sanitizing. Indian chiefs too: no modern manager thinks her subordinates are there to serve her; she’s there to be sure they have what they need to create value for others, and so on and on. The really despicable character is the trust-fund parasite and the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert.

[UPDATE: The new boss at Home Depot gets it: they’ve started posting the organizational chart with the customers and line workers at the top and the execs at the bottom again.]

And third: as regards the GM ad, how can grownups high up in a big important company put out a commercial that so completely reverses the fundamental principles of exactly the quality assurance systems they’re trying to boast about??!! The whole idea of modern quality theory is that you can’t fire your way to it, nor scare people into it (Deming’s first principle is “drive out fear”), and that it isn’t attributable to individuals. When a worker ‘makes a mistake’, exactly what you don’t do is fire or shame him: you have a little meeting to discuss what parts of the whole system could be improved to make it less likely to happen the next time! As soon as quality becomes an excuse to unload group responsibility onto a scapegoat, the system starts to fall apart and so do the products.

[I’ve vented here about the failure of the current administration to fire anyone for anything, and I’m not being inconsistent. Mismanaging a whole program, from a position where one has been entrusted with a lot of authority so as to provide more, better service, has nothing to do with making one slip. An executive’s failures are much less often due to a deficiency in the system that surrounds him than those of a guy putting the right front fender on.]

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.