Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Is Quality a Threat?

A warning to anyone trying to build a quality process inside an organization: Some people, some key people to be exact, will see it as a threat. "But it's not a threat," you will object. "Our quality process will help them!" First of all, you're right. Second of all, that's not going to help--at least not at first.

 A couple of points to keep in mind at the outset: Only the self-confident can lead. Insecure people are doomed to be managers. If quality and leadership are not flip-sides of the same coin, they were, at least, struck in the same mint.

 From those two observations comes a simplified but accurate thumbnail assessment of the problem. Leaders will welcome a quality process. Managers will be suspicious. In fact, the managers with whom you will be dealing will see threats coming from one or more places.

 Some will see you, the quality manager/director/personů whoever, as the threat. You will be thought of as trying to make them look bad, perhaps because you want their job. Or, at least in their minds, you want to outshine them in front of an boss in an ongoing competition for everything from pay raises to easy access to the boss. No matter how many times you try to convince them that you really like the quality field and don't plan any further career shifts, they'll always be suspicious. The competition for prestige is common among managers. Leaders work together willingly, supporting each other; managers hoard information and guard territory.

 Some will see the threat coming from within--with this quality thing as the instigating culprit. Managers resist admitting that their subordinates can do anything without them. A manager likes having people dependent on him or her; and a manager enjoys parading as a "leader" by issuing orders (in the mistaken belief that barking orders is what defines a leader). When a quality process comes along and begins encouraging the manager's subordinates to think, trouble begins. The simple fact is, of course, that the subordinates do know things that the manager doesn't know and they do have ideas for improvement. The manager's first reaction is to insist that all improvements must be approved by him or her prior to implementation. Sometimes that will be enough to kill the quality process, at least in his or her area. But, if the subordinates believe what they are being told about the possibilities that this quality thing offers them and begin flooding the manager with ideas-to-be-approved, the construction of anti-threat defenses will accelerate.

 Some will see the threat coming from above. If you have succeeded in getting most of the company involved in the quality effort so that the manager's department/division/sectionů whatever is beginning to look odd or out of step, the organization's president will be unhappy and the manager will blame you. After all, everything was fine until you got there with your fresh ideas.

 So what can you do? You're going to have to defuse the perceived threat. If these managers are allowed to go on feeling threatened--and reacting to the perceived threats--the company's quality process will never reach its potential. In fact, after a year or two, it will begin to go backwards. Quality is, after all, hard to do. And, because it is, you should expect to hear: "They (the subordinates of the reluctant managers) are getting away with not doing it. Why should we keep busting our tails?" It's a logical question.

 You can start by lining up some facts. What are the numbers? How many ideas have been implemented by the threatened manager's folks compared to other similarly sized units? (While you're at it, see if you can quietly determine the turnover rates in the various units.)

 Also make sure you know who among the senior team is truly committed to this quality stuff and who is just riding along, figuring it's a fad that will pass.

 Your first step, once your facts and your thinking are organized, is to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the manager in question. Unfortunately, you won't be able to just walk in and say: "Look, I'm not after your job. In fact, I'm trying to make it easier and more satisfying for you." It would be the truth, but then you'd have to spend a half-hour listening to him or her deny feeling threatened and the meeting would be useless.

 Ask how you can help. Assume they want to do this quality thing--they have probably made a sufficient number of public statements in support of quality, so it will be easy for you to use those statements as a starting place, or, perhaps, as a way to restart a stalled conversation.

 Don't expect to magically transform them from managers into leaders. Rather, appeal to the very rational characteristic of most managers by having a whole bunch of numbers ready. By proving to them that this quality thing will make their job easier (as well as make them look better), you've got a chance of winning them over. You might want to throw in the occasional statement about how much you like working in quality and how you look forward to working in the field for years to come--just in case that particular manager is one of those who fears you're after his or her job.

 What it comes down to is simply trying to convince the reluctant managers that quality is not a zero-sum game, a favorite way that managers have of looking at the world. That is, just because someone "wins," it doesn't mean that someone else has to "lose." One person's gain is not necessarily another person's loss. Specifically, the fact that one's subordinates gain some recognition does not mean that he or she will receive any less. In the same way, the fact that another unit of the organization does well in the quality arena doesn't block them from also excelling--at no cost to the first unit.

 But what do you do if this face-to-face meeting (incidentally, expect the meeting to be rescheduled at least twice) doesn't work? That will be the topic of next month's column.


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 area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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