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Improve Quality by Increasing Psychological Safety

Nicole Radziwill

W. Edwards Deming explained that fear is the root cause of many operations problems.

Drive out fear. As early as the 1950’s, quality guru W. Edwards Deming emphasized the importance of creating a work environment where people aren’t afraid to speak up, raise issues, and push for resolutions. He explained that fear was the driving force -- in fact, the root cause -- underlying many operations problems. As a result, he recommended that leaders prioritize practices to build relationships and psychological safety.

For example, fear of being punished for bad results leads to falsifying data. Fear of being punished for a problem leads to blame, which ruptures relationships (and rarely solves the problem). Fear of failure leads people to steer clear of risky projects or initiatives, even those that would lead to breakthrough improvements or remarkable growth. (Hunter, 2013) Fear of being excluded or shunned can cause people to be silent about problems, issues, and potential solutions -- and contribute to groupthink, where the desire to avoid conflict leads to impaired decision making.

Building a quality culture can help an organization drive out fear. (Freeman, 2019) To empower the workforce, two ingredients are critical: agency and job security. Workers need to have control over the tasks they are accountable for, and they need to know that they will not be penalized for confronting truths or sometimes making mistakes as new improvements are attempted.

When done right, a quality culture also will create the conditions for an engaged workforce. But what does that mean, practically? According to the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence (NIST, 2019), workforce engagement is the “extent of workforce members’ emotional and intellectual commitment to accomplishing your organization’s work, mission, and vision.” Appealing to both feelings and beliefs is necessary to promote engagement.

Research from healthcare sums up actionable things you can do to increase psychological safety in your organization (Aranzamendez et al., 2015):

  • Provide space for open dialogue
  • Creating an environment with shared meaning
  • Promote relational integrity (that is, open, honest relationships between workers and supervisors)
  • Instead of blaming people for performance problems, look to adjust the system
  • Become attuned and responsive to the present moment (slow the pace to protect against mistakes and miscommunication.

Creating a more open, supportive environment can also improve safety outcomes, because steps like these can appeal to feelings and beliefs as well. (Carillo, 2019) In short, investing in relationships is critical for quality

Additional Reading

Aranzamendez, G., James, D., & Toms, R. (2015, July). Finding antecedents of psychological safety: A step toward quality improvement. In Nursing forum (Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 171-178).

Carillo, R. (2019, April 15). The Relationship Factor in Safety Leadership. Safety Changemaker. https://take3network.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/safety-changemaker-season-one-rosa-carrillo/

Freeman, G. (2019). Culture of Quality: Achieving Success with Tools, Processes, and People. Intelex Insight Report. Available from https://www.intelex.com/resources/insight-report/culture-quality-achieving-success-tools-processes-and-people

Hunter, J. (2013, February 28). Where There is Fear You Do Not Get Honest Figures. Deming Institute. Available from https://blog.deming.org/2013/02/where-there-is-fear-you-do-not-get-honest-figures/

Radziwill, N. (2019, July 3). Execute Strategy with the Baldrige Criteria. Intelex. Available from https://community.intelex.com/explore/posts/execute-strategy-baldrige-criteria

About the Author: Nicole Radziwill is the Vice President, Global Practice Leader, Quality & Supply Chain at Intelex Technologies. Before Intelex, she was an Associate Professor of Data Science and Production Systems, Assistant Director (VP) End-to-End Operations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and manager and consultant for several other organizations since the late 1990's bringing quality management to technologically-oriented operations. She is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) with a Ph.D. in Quality Systems from Indiana State University. Nicole serves as Editor of Software Quality Professional (SQP) journal and is a former Chair of the ASQ Software Division. She is an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality and Organizational Excellence (CMQ/OE) and Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB). 

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July 05, 2019 @ 09:00 AM EDT Manufacturing Operations, Quality

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