Is it possible to have a “zero defect” attitude to our jobs? This total quality approach to manufacturing took root in the 1960s and 1970s, and still holds sway in many boardrooms today. Rather than assuming that mistakes are inevitable, the zero defect approach focuses on prevention and motivating people to do their job right the first time. OK, that might produce results in the world of widgets, but what about in a less quantifiable areas of the work world, ones that involve human relations? What about service deliveries that include a high potential for conflict?

We recently found one example, one where the rubber is literally meeting the road.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to ruin the average person’s day, it’s getting a traffic ticket. By it’s very nature, it’s a high-stress event that is likely to fray nerves. But for some Los Angeles drivers, the experience of getting a ticket is not a day-ruining event – in fact, some people who are stopped by Sheriff’s Deputy Elton Simmons even drive away with both a ticket and a smile. Simmons has been handing out tickets for more than 20 years. Over that time, he’s issued more than 25,000 tickets and has never logged a single citizen complaint. Not one — a fact that astounds his supervisors.
In an L.A. Times article, Simmons attributes is success to one word: respect. “His easygoing manner was cultivated by an uncle back home in Louisiana, a pastor who instilled in Simmons the motto “Do good, be good, treat people good.” CBS followed Simmons around for a day and produced a short video that’s worth watching to learn more about his approach to his work.

It’s a good lesson to ponder. We’d add one more word to the reason Simmons is successful at his work, despite the inherent potential for high conflict: attitude.

One of the criticisms leveled at the “zero defect” approach is that perfection is impossible to attain given that humans are fallible; another is that it takes a “blame the worker” approach to problems. Proponents dispute this, suggesting that a zero-defect approach is more about “attitude and performance standards.” In The Quest for Zero Defects, Mark Richman talks about this, noting the important role of management: “Workers may assemble the parts or staff the call centers, but they’re not ultimately responsible for the overall quality direction of the enterprise. It’s incumbent upon the leadership to create processes that work and result in quality products and services.”

He also cites this quote from Philip Crosby’s book, Quality is Free:

“People are conditioned to believe that error is inevitable. We not only accept error, we anticipate it. Whether we are designing circuits, programming a computer, planning a project, soldering joints, typing letters, completing an account ledger or assembling components, it does not bother us to make a few errors, and management plans for these errors to occur…. However, we do not maintain the same standard when it comes to our personal life. If we did, we would resign ourselves to being shortchanged now and then as we cash our paychecks. We would expect hospital nurses to drop a certain percentage of babies. We would expect to go home to the wrong house by mistake periodically. As individuals we do not tolerate these things. Thus we have a double standard–one for ourselves, one for the company.”

Does your organization have a “zero defect” approach to your core service or product or process? We’d all like to have more employees like Elton Simmons in our workforce — but that takes modeling, motivating, and fostering the standards and work climate where such workers can thrive.


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