IT Employment

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Quality by design

Why do picky people settle for poor design at work?

Written on the flight back to London and dispatched via a free wi-fi service in the lounge at Heathrow later the same day.

We all know it when we see it and we can get irritated when it's absent. Good design is one of those abstract things that are hard to define. But we appreciate its advantages and generally seek it out.

Some companies work on the premise that everything they sell will be good by design. Others have entirely the opposite reputation.

When you buy some service or technology, it is awfully tempting to go for the cheapest option. The result of such misguided decision-making is evident throughout industry and government.

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Everything from hospital and office cleanliness to vehicle reliability, from IT services to mobile devices, is harmed by such perversity of process.

Interestingly, the price difference between the best of the best to the worst of the cheapest tends to be between 10 and 20 per cent - well below the additional lifetime cost and the value of the damaged reputation inflicted by a bad choice.

The real paradox in this equation of value is that the people engaged in making these poor decisions look for quality when they make personal purchases.

They go for good brands in clothing and cosmetics, reliable vehicles, great audio and video. Not for them the bargain clothes rail at the supermarket or the discontinued lines, or manager's bargains down at the local electronics store.

How does all this come about? One factor is simple-minded, up-front costing and a complete lack of appreciation of what the people who work with the customer require.

It is so easy to get a reputation for being a cheap operation, leading to the perception of low-quality delivery and support, and so very hard to correct in the customer's mind.

The UK car industry between 1970 and 1980 was not just destroyed by overseas competition. Customers correctly perceived the goods were cheap and shoddy and of fundamentally poor design.

Today I can report that the same mechanism is still alive and well. I recently heard from someone who had visited a software house that boasts world-class delivery of outsourced services. From his account I made a mental note never to engage or recommend the company.

Why? People were apparently crammed into hot and dirty offices with broken chairs, and generally poor accommodation standards including trailing wires, a lack of new paint, and computers and screens that looked as though they were scrap-heap souvenirs.

Add to this a management attitude that was straight out of Dickens and how could anyone perceive this as a quality operation?

And the company claimed it could reduce costs substantially on any existing contract if moved to its facility. Hmm, let's see. I would need a hole in the head before I did anything so stupid.

Far from reducing my upfront costs, I am looking to spend between 10 and 20 per cent more to get a better end result and thereby a much happier customer who will be less likely to walk away and more likely to give me more work.

It is not just as individuals that we have to look the part. Being clean, smart, well behaved and professional also extends to our company and especially our place of work.

Turning off a customer is so easy and is usually final. But turning them on takes an effort that has to be maintained every day.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.