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Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Defining "Top Management Commitment"

Whenever anyone talks about a quality process--old or new, just underway, excelling or failing--the one phrase that always makes its way into the conversation is "top management commitment." Unfortunately, as has happened with so many terms connected with the U.S. quality movement, the phrase has been used by so many people to denote so many things that it has lost any consistent meaning. Ubiquity does not guarantee clarity.

 Let's attempt to give some worthwhile meaning to the phrase "top management commitment." (Next month we'll get back to the unfolding quality process at the UICI Insurance Center, a process that is blessed with such high-level commitment.) Start with the phrase itself. "Top management" has at least two meanings and, in the context of a 100-percent employee-involved (and no other approach is logically defendable) quality effort, both meanings are not just implied but are also necessary for success. The first meaning is obvious: the president or CEO (whomever is seen as the top power) and those who report to him or her directly. No question. Those folks wield the power and their commitment is of the make-or-break variety.

 The second meaning may not be quite so obvious, but it's every bit as important--especially over the long haul. For most folks on the payroll, these people at the very top are distant characters, not quite real. Who is real to them is the person who can make their boss sweat. That sweat-inducing person is "top management." In other words, anyone who is two levels above anyone else in the company hierarchy is, for functional purposes, a member of top management, and commitment to the quality effort at this level is vital. The people will have to be courted and educated.

 But what about "commitment"? What does that mean?

 Like so much of what goes on in quality, commitment must be both rational and emotional. There must, of course, be a willingness to invest money and resources, but the top managers must also invest themselves. There needs to be a commitment of time, effort and ego, a commitment of self. This will only happen if the top manager makes the decision to take "this quality stuff" personally. Just signing checks and assigning resources is not enough. It's necessary, but not enough.

 In fact, the litmus test for checking the commitment of the top managers in an ongoing quality process is to ask this question: "Of the last 10 decisions made by senior management 'in the name of quality,' how many required senior managers to change their own behavior?" If the number is small, so is the commitment.

 Top management commitment must be active, obvious and informed. Taking these one at a time:

* Active. Prior to the implementation of a quality process, the senior managers must be involved in defining the process. Once launched, they must actually make improvements in what they personally do; they should take part in the meetings and discussions that guide the evolution of the process; and they must be key players in the recognition, gratitude and celebration that is an integral part of the process.

* Obvious. People can't follow examples they don't see. When senior managers make an improvement in the way they do something, they will have to make sure that word of the improvement "gets out." If that seems a bit like bragging, so be it. This will require a bit of self-confidence, but that's one of the trademarks of a leader, so there's no conflict there. In short, people need to be able to see for themselves that the senior managers' lips and hips are headed the same direction.

* Informed. One of the responsibilities that goes with leading a quality effort is to understand what's going on. This will require some time invested in reading and, perhaps, occasionally attending presentations of various lengths. Senior managers need to be able to hold a reasonably informed discussion with subordinates about the topic of quality.


 One of the primary methods of practicing leadership (and demonstrating top management commitment) in the context of a quality process is through empowerment. Granted, "empowerment" is another word that has been used and misused by so many people that it has lost virtually all meaning.

 The concept is, however, valid and powerful. The trick is to have a consistent definition that everyone understands and agrees to. Here's the suggested definition: Empowerment means authority equal to responsibility--nothing more and nothing less. If a team (remember, the assumption here is that we have a team-based process that actively enrolls 100 percent of the people on the payroll) has responsibility for a particular action and result, they should also have the authority to change the means to achieve that action and result.

 This idea falls into the "easier in theory than in practice" category. It requires actually saying to people: "If your team has a good idea for doing something that you're responsible for, do it. Then tell us." That requires trust based on a knowledge of the training and skills of the individuals and a belief in their basic motivation to continually improve the company.

 Without the willingness to extend that trust, after all, why try this quality stuff at all? Quality is for leaders. Leaders have the self-confidence necessary to trust. Insecure people are the ones we call "managers."

 Next month, we'll get back to describing the ongoing definition of the quality process at the UICI Insurance Center and how the effort there is blending strategic planning, leadership training and the basic structure of a 100-percent employee-involved team-based effort into a quality process that will be inaugurated within six months of the senior management team's decision to proceed.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with leadership.com issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas, Texas, area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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