Published: 31 Oct 2017

David Straker, CQP, MCQI, shares his personal experience in linking psychology with the quality profession (PinQ).

Long ago, in 1988, I was Dilbert (comic strip character). I sat happily in my cubicle, in a sea of similar cubes, cutting code for Hewlett Packard’s Berkshire-based Office Productivity division. One day, a manager approached me; he said “Hey, would you like to join the Quality Team?” Why not, I thought. It’ll get me out and about and I have a passion for getting things right.

My first job was to set up coding standards for the 70 software engineers in the lab. I did a lot of research on Usenet, the nascent internet system of the day. I read books on the subject. I even went around talking to people about what was suitable. We came up with a 44-page standard that everyone thought was great. And then nobody used it. “I’m special” they all said, “I have a particular way of doing things”. Frustrated, a lightbulb went on over my head. This quality stuff was mostly common sense, it seemed. It was the people stuff that was difficult.

So, like a good engineer, I got stuck in. I went on every human skills class I could find, from negotiation to leadership. I read lots of books. I even moved to the sales and marketing division to get further into the subject (where many sales people didn’t really think they needed quality). All this digging led inevitably to psychology, which really gets to the root of explaining how we think, feel, believe and act.

I should have got there earlier, of course. William Edwards Deming, American statistician, educator, and consultant, named psychology as one of the four areas of profound knowledge that all quality professionals should embrace, along with systems, variation and knowledge. He also put this into practice in his 14 points for management. Point eight, “Drive out fear”, is entirely based on a true understanding of the psychology of people working in organisations.

Which brings us to today, where the elephant in the room is that we, as a profession, still undervalue a deep understanding of psychology. We define the heart of our role as driving out waste, yet the truth of most organisations, and particularly those based on service and knowledge (as many now are), is that by far the greatest area of waste is related to people and psychology. How often have you sat in a room full of people having your mind deadened by PowerPoint, yet where very little progress is made? How many people do you know who have quit or who underperform because their manager has systematically demotivated them? And, honestly, when was the last time that you got frustrated because people didn’t seem to get the importance of quality activities and you felt impotent in your inability to persuade them?

Beyond changing minds, psychology seeps into all kinds of areas around us. In ‘poka-yoke’ (mistake-proofing), for example, understanding just how people make mistakes can help us design processes that people can never get wrong. In processes as well, we strive for effectiveness and efficiency yet forget to build motivation into the process. As a result, people get bored, make mistakes and can even indulge in a little sabotage to relieve the tedium and take revenge on a system that seems not to care.

As a profession, psychology should be at the heart of what we understand and do, yet few of us can claim a deep expertise in this area. But let’s not do ourselves down. Many of us do acquire ability here. It is so necessary that we face a sink-or-swim situation, as I did, and find our own way forward. We learn by practice what works in our workplace. Yet, on reflection, we know that we can also get better. We focus on practical quality methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma, but if we cannot open the gate to their effective use, we are selling ourselves short. 

So what should we do? As a profession, we first need to recognise that psychology is an essential and not an extra. We need to build it into both our basic training and continuous professional development. We need to agree on what this learning should be and what mastery looks like. We should be recognised by others for our deep knowledge and practical competence in this area and be challenged to prove this when applying for jobs. And we should help one another when building and deepening this ability, as many of us already do. Because together, we are a profession that changes the world for the better, and we must keep on getting better ourselves. In this, psychology is the next step.

About the author:

David Straker, CQP, MCQI, has a master’s degree in psychology and writes for changingminds.org