The Speed for Need and the Story of Reverse Feedback

There’s a lot to be said for organization.  We all need it; the problem is that we don’t want to take the time to organize.  But if we don’t, we keep ending up back where we were–a mess–or spending our surprisingly free time learning ten new ways to organize ourselves, as explained by Lifehacker (, in case you didn’t know).

There is a lot to be said for lists, but you have to have the willpower to use the list.  I have a co-worker (and you likely do as well) that has more than 150 reminders in her Outlook alerts.  At that point, the most you can hope for is triage.  You have to respond to the alerts when you set them.

But what do you do when you can’t cross something off because it depends on someone else’s work product?  I suggest reverse feedback.

I first heard the story of reverse feedback in a small steam table place (the Valois) in Chicago’s Hyde Park, almost a quarter of a century ago.  Apparently, an efficiency expert had a breakthrough idea–he had watched cars going down the assembly line with, say, no mirror where one should have been installed.  As they came off the end of the assembly line, inspectors divided cars between two groups:  those that had been satisfactorily completed, and those that needed more work.  Then a special crew came in to fix all the things that hadn’t been done right the first time.

This expert’s realization was that the consequence of failure fell on the the organization, so there was no great motivation for a worker to do the right thing in the first place.  His idea, which he termed “reverse feedback” was to make each worker an inspector.  Suppose your job is to install a door handle.  When you see a car coming to your station that lacks a mirror, you flag it, and it immediately goes back to the guy who failed to install the mirror, who has to fix it.  And you don’t have to do your other job (installing the door handle) until you’re satisfied with the rest of the car.

But suppose you fail to notice the missing mirror.  Well, the woman at the next station down from you might notice it, and then it’s your problem.  In other words, you are not only responsible for your job, you’re responsible for inspecting the work of all those that came before you.

This has two advantages:  First, because there’s now a cost to not doing things right, you tend to do them right.  Second, because there’s a price for not noticing a defect, you learn to recognize defects.   Overall, the impact is that you get better at producing a quality product, and the people who don’t get good get overloaded and eventually, quit or get fired.

Guess what major American city (and industry) rejected this advice in the late 1960s?  Guess which Pacific country (and industry) adopted reverse feedback whole-heartedly in the 1970s?  If you guessed Detroit, auto manufacturing, Japan, and auto manufacturing (again), you get a gold star.

I don’t know if this story is true.  As I said, I heard it over the steam table in Hyde Park.  But given some of the other things to come out of Hyde Park, I wouldn’t be surprised if the story was true.  It makes intuitive sense.  And since it makes sense, it’s probably worth trying it.

So: When you get an assignment that you can’t complete because someone else hasn’t completed theirs?  Consider making it someone else‘s problem.  They’ll learn, and things will get better.

Or they won’t, and things will get better.

And remember that you live upstream from others as well.  They may be attorneys, they may be counsel in other firms, or they may be clients.  Pay attention to their feedback.  And finish what’s on your list.


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