Standards at the expense of quality


How valuable would it be to business, if every worker brought the highest quality of contribution to work? Ask any manager or HR practitioner and they will likely say that this is such an obvious expectation, that the more pertinent question now is how to accomplish this. Yet efforts to accomplish this defeat their own purpose because they emerge from a mis-perception. This mis-perception is the separation of the worker from work. The issue of quality of work cannot be meaningfully addressed as long as this separation remains.

This separation is so deeply rooted in the history of work that it is hard to recognize that it even occurred. One may argue that perhaps this separation is appropriate, after all the institution of business has been built on this notion and it has had a tremendous track record of success. It is what allowed Henry Ford to bring the car to the “average man” and more recently put mobile devices in the hands of billions of people. If anything it strengthens the argument for separation. This line of reasoning is a red herring. It forgets that these very commodities were conceived in minds of craftsman, not workers. And a “craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.’ (Robert M. Pirsig)  Quality is implicit in this relationship between worker and work. They are in harmonious co-creation of each other. Separation has no meaning for a craftsman.

So let’s accept that true craftsman in the context of a corporation are rare. For some it will seem far-fetched to think of a call centre agent, a worker on a production line or teller in a bank as master of a craft. Not everybody can find this kind of harmonious union with their work today. It is a privilege reserved for a few, like artists perhaps. Modern commerce does not have the time to accommodate this aspiration. It achieves quality through much more expedient means and expediency is what it’s all about. It achieves quality through standards. Organizations have rules, processes and a variety of prescriptions which some technocrat has compiled for others to follow. It matters not so much whether you care for what you do as it does that you comply with the standards. A good worker is a compliant worker. This has become the working culture of our time and everyone is in collusion to keep it going, workers, corporations and business schools included. Today it is the norm to find the full expression of yourself outside of work. Work is the means to an end. Corporations use workers to get their work done and workers use corporations for the means to fund their real aspirations. Separation and fragmentation are the order of the day. The idea of work life balance springs from this notion. It is a lie that we have fabricated to compensate for relinquishing the craftsman in us. It is not surprising that such a system weighs down on itself, with the few that we call leadership and management mandated to buoy it up.  The separation is what makes them relevant. They exist because the misperception exists. Does this mean that there is no room for leadership and management? It does not. It does mean that their purpose is not to keep the separation in place, but to remove it. This is not easy to achieve if you have been schooled into separation all of your life.  It is the design template of our society.

So how do we put quality back into work? How do we put the worker back into work? How do we make work a craft again? There are two practices in the bedrock of quality work. Master the tools of the craft and cultivate a deep presence to work. The two are not mutually exclusive. Master the tools until “you master them with such proficiency that they become an unconscious part of your nature. You get so used to them you completely forget them and they are gone” (Robert M. Pirsig). In the midst of this kind of proficiency, presence arises. Presence then allows you to be with the event or object as it develops, sculpting the outcome moment by moment like a master craftsman. You see this for example in sportspeople in a peak moment. Their actions seem to defy all reason and we stand in awe. What we really stand in awe of, is the harmony of it all.

But presence also needs to be nurtured. Fear is the enemy of presence. It removes one from the work and shifts the focus to the self. When one is focused on the self, work becomes subordinate. Our contribution becomes bounded by what is safe. We adopt the role of compliant worker and the compliant worker only gives what he needs to. Standards then become the box that we stay within, rather than the bedrock on which we stand to build greater outcomes. Standards become the enemy of quality. And how do we treat this condition? With more standards.  More standards draw more energy and attention from presence and invite strain. Strain invites more fear. The system consumes itself.

Now you cannot release others from fear if you are fearful yourself. You cannot find freedom and excellence by changing the system of work either. Fear is not in the system or from the system. It is reflected in the system, and it reflects what is already in you, as your image would reflect in a mirror. So the process of cultivating craftsmanship starts with the release of fear. Fear thrives on judgement. This is a misuse of judgement. Recognize the judgemental labels that form our everyday lexicon.  This worker is an under-performer. There is much that is implicit in this label under-performer. What is true is that this worker did not produce the results that were expected. This perspective invites a different course of action than labelling the worker an under-performer. In the latter case (worker is an under-performer) the worker is defective and requires correction. In the former case the work is lacking and requires attention. One course of action invites a focus on work and the other invites a focus on self under the guise of focusing on work.  And when the self is threatened it seeks to defend its integrity. Work is subordinate. Quality is of no consequence. Work becomes the enemy of the worker.

Standards are not problems in themselves. Quality is not an esoteric goal. It is not the outcome of the one dimensional structure of standards and leadership driven accountability. Quality is the essence of work and work is a system that links each workers capacity to serve with a customer’s specific needs. What difference will a craftsman make to your business? Put the craft back into work and let caring be the ultimate standard.

“When reason thus defeats its own purpose something has to be changed in the structure of our reason itself.” (Robert Pirsig)


This post  was inspired by the writings of Robert Pirsig.

Business is a remarkable instrument for creating value for society. Its precepts are well defined and have proven themselves for decades. However, the persistent business challenges of the recent years are an invitation to look beyond the surface of the tried and tested. The challenge is not just about redefining the precepts of business. Yet most people in the business community, leadership and business schools included, have been doing exactly this. Pirsig put this approach into clear perspective when he says that “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.”

“Therein lies the rub.” One has to look beyond the precepts of business to truly dissolve (not just solve or resolve) its challenges because the precepts themselves may be part of the current problem. This notion presents a new challenge. What foundation can one stand on then, if one leaves the rubric of business?

This line of enquiry can take many directions. I will take the road less travelled because the stakes are too high simply to be compliant with the norms. It is not sufficient to step laterally into a connate system of thought like science or philosophy from which to recast the precepts of business. I would suggest that one has to step into a place prior to all of these to see the challenges of our time anew. It is a place prior to words, ideas and the meanings that we make. To quote Pirsig “reality is always the moment before intellectualization takes place.” We have forgotten this place and even worse admonish it. And so now the only way in which we can know the world and the challenges of our time is through the abstractions we call science or business or reason etc. These have become the boundaries of our reality rather than the tools that serve our innate ability to know. Humanity has reduced itself and this choice is showing up as the crises of our time, particularly in the province of business.

To dissolve this problem we need to redefine our relationship with our creations, the system of business included. In practical terms terms this means less is required not more i.e. less thinking, less judging, less doing. This is not about becoming passive though. On the contrary it is about inculcating an active awareness from which to see situations anew, to connect with emerging sources of possibility. Yes, to connect with emerging sources of possibility. Business needs interventions that actively lead it down the path of less so that it can become more. This domain is still largely a blank canvass. The time is ripe for “business thinkers” to come to the fore and redefine the way value is created. It is time to nurture new ways that seek to emerge. I close with this quote from Buckminister Fuller “You can never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing reality obsolete.”