The Quality Director

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One of the great rewards, as I have remarked before, of working with amateur musicians is that you get to meet and learn from professionals in all kinds of other arenas. I had one such learning experience during my trip to Germany in April, when I had the opportunity to chat at some length with Stef Schmidt, who works, between her intensive bouts of barbershopping, as the director for quality in a manufacturing company.

She was very interesting on the subject of how to engage people in solving existing problems, and, more importantly, in getting them to help prevent future problems before they happen. I immediately wanted to interrogate her on how she uses these skills in her rehearsal processes, and this post is my opportunity to reflect on the notes I took after our conversation.

One of her primary points was that if you go into a situation post hoc and tell people what they did wrong, your main achievement will be to build resentment. That sounds obvious to anyone who has met human beings before, but if you think about how choral rehearsals typically operate, people are doing this all the time. So often the procedure is to start the choir singing, then periodically interrupt them to correct errors.

A culture that focuses on pointing out errors becomes like the game I know as Musical Chairs (Stef called it Journey to Jerusalem): everyone concentrates on covering their own backside and leaving the scapegoat standing. In this kind of culture, explaining why a goal couldn’t be achieved is perceived as a valid equivalent to actually achieving the goal.

One way the choral director can avoid building this kind of 'Gotcha! + excuses' culture is to anticipate problems and plan rehearsals so that people can find their way across the musical terrain rather than waiting until after they have already fallen down the holes to address the difficulties. Devising warm-up exercises that build the skills a particular piece of music needs is a classic tactic for doing this.

We also need to think about our rehearsal strategies. Rather than always starting at the beginning of a new piece and bumbling through until it goes wrong, there may be elements that, if learned first, will help everything else hold together. Are there harmonic progressions or rhythmic frameworks that people need to understand to make sense of the music? Does it need to be slowed down to give people time to think while learning? Will looking at the tune or the words by themselves first build a foundation of meaning to make sense of the individual parts?

I realise at this point, it would be very easy to galumph off into one of my well-practised rants about the abuses of learning tracks as a substitute for teaching methods and/or how unless you prepare by singing all the parts, you won’t know what your singers need. Possibly one of the reasons I enjoy Stef’s perspective so much is that she provides a rationale from her discipline for matters I feel strongly about in mine.

Another key point that Stef made was that it’s the people on the front line who really know first-hand what is working and what is not. They may not be ‘expert’ in the sense of being able to solve all the problems by themselves (or they wouldn’t need her), but they’ll have expertise about the lived experience of trying to make their systems work and a lot of ideas about how they could be made better. The person tasked with making the improvements really needs access to this knowledge, for both technical and human reasons.

From a technical perspective, these people have done the lion’s share of your diagnostics for you. Finding out what they know is the most direct route to making the improvements you need to make.

From a human perspective, if you listen to what people tell you and introduce changes in direct response to the needs they have expressed, they are far more likely to embrace those changes. The quality manager and the choral director have very similar situations in that they have very limited power to compel people; they rely on people’s goodwill and desire to succeed to be effective.

So, most of our conversation was about culture and attitude – and thence the kinds of behaviours needed to shift from a culture of blame to one of ‘What next?’

But I find myself fascinated with an example she gave of building a system that prevents error, for this seems to be something it would be really useful to be able to do in choral situations.

Her example was this: when she visits a site, she often needs to change from her normal shoes into footwear more appropriate for a manufacturing setting. How does she make sure she doesn’t forget to change back before she leaves? She puts her car keys in her normal shoes. This means she can’t actually leave the site until she has been to where she left her shoes.

It is so simple, yet so powerful. People make mistakes all the time; indeed, it is most particularly in things we do all the time that we are most likely to slip into autopilot and fail to self-monitor. It’s how people work, and in many ways it’s a strength, as it frees up cognitive capacity for new thought.

But if we can build a world in which the path is shaped so that our autopilot does the right thing – well, we not only avoid a bunch of dumb errors, but we can stop using up our valuable capacities trying to avoid them.

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