DIY Quality Improvement

Originally Posted December 2013.

Karen Sautter Errichetti
Karen Sautter Errichetti

My husband and I spend a lot of time at The Home Depot. Ever since we started restoring our new “old” house, we’re on a first-name basis with everyone who wears an orange apron. When a customer asked me recently where she could find plastic washers and I knew the exact aisle to which to send her, I began thinking maybe it was time to take a long vacation.

For anyone who has gotten lost in Home Depot or any big box home improvement store, you’ve probably found yourself in the building materials section. That’s where they sell “the big stuff”: roofing, gutters, drywall, lumber, composite decking, joint compound…all the things typically appreciated only by professionals. It’s not the kind of place you would tend to find a computer geek like me. But it’s my favorite place in the store. Someone get me a big cart because I’m tackling the world today!

Why do I do this to myself? My father would tell you it’s because I am his daughter. My father is the kind of person who makes something from nothing. He had never built a house before, but he decided to build the family home I grew up in, including all the plumbing and electricity. He turned a 1932 Ford into a flatbed truck with a plow. (This may in part explain why I was never late to school on a snow day. Thanks, Dad!)

It is my father’s fearlessness in the face of the unknown that has made me believe throughout my life that I can do anything if I just try it. The worst thing that can happen is that the results of my first few attempts might not turn out the way I had hoped or expected. The first time I plastered a wall, for example, it looked dreadful. The second wall was marginally better. But by the third wall, I started seriously considering moonlighting as a plasterer.

Quality improvement works the same way. We must be fearless when we are not getting the results we had hoped for or expected. The change needed is often big, daunting and expensive. I’ve learned that the trick is to not think about the odds. Improvers need to remove the word “impossible” from our vocabulary. If we find ourselves saying, “I can’t make providers use this new process,” or “I don’t have the resources to build a new data system,” we need to ask what we are most afraid of. Fear of not being successful tends to fulfill that prophecy. If we just try something without fear, given time and practice, we can achieve the “impossible.”

Nelson Mandela once said he “learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” When I stepped into my grandmother’s 1860 colonial house, I was afraid that I could not do all the things that needed to be done to make it a home. But I made myself believe that I could fix plaster, sister joists and install a new shower so I could make my dream of being the fourth generation to live in that house a reality. My parents and husband have embraced that same spirit and with every stroke of the putty knife, we are getting closer to success.

I try to bring this fearless philosophy to my work each day as a technologist and leader at NICHQ. I am always trying new things to ensure our customers can be confident in beating whatever odds they face when making improvements in their own organizations. Most recently, my team has been testing new strategies to improve the performance of our online data service, the Improvement Lab. We also initiated a new private intranet platform that is blossoming into a space and transforming communication across our organization.

My father and I tackled drywall this past weekend. Next, I’m thinking it’s time I did something about those leaky windows. So back we go to The Home Depot for some shiny new toys—now if I could just convince them to give me the “Friends and Family” discount!


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