Quality Digest      
  HomeSearchSubscribeGuestbookAdvertise June 12, 2021
This Month
Need Help?
ISO 9000 Database
Web Links
Back Issues
Contact Us
Columnists: Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Photo: Pat Townsend


Photo: Joan Gebhardt


Trust Is an Action, Not a Concept

Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt



Words can be pretty. Words can be nice. Words are almost always powerful. But, when it comes to long-lasting change, action is more certain to have a permanent effect on people’s behavior.

In short, for an executive to announce that he or she trusts the enterprise’s employees is a dandy idea; but over the long haul, such a declaration is only academically interesting. It will take a sustained demonstration of that professed faith--with or without the literal announcement--to bring about change in the amount of trust employees have in their senior managers. It’s only when the majority of the employees trust the senior management staff that any notable number of improvement ideas will be put forward.

How can senior management convince employees that their talk of trust has substance? The best way is by establishing a set of mechanics that makes this point obvious and that, in fact, makes it difficult for them not to follow up on their promises.

This is where the idea of 100-percent employee involvement comes in. One of the reasons that most employee-involving quality efforts engage a limited number of employees is that such an approach makes it possible for senior management to remain in control. Recall, for instance, that when quality circles were first being touted as the sure-fire way to achieve quality, the number of employees allowed to be on circles was 10 to 15 percent of the staff. Every idea was reviewed by a senior management committee before being approved and implemented. Thus, control was carefully retained by senior management.

If, however, every person in the organization is on a quality team (or whatever name is chosen), the number of ideas for improvement will overwhelm any senior management committee. The choice is simple: improvement on a grand scale or a stranglehold on power at the top.

This is not to recommend that an announcement be made that, “Everybody should do whatever he or she thinks might be a good thing to do.” The recommendation is that some sort of team structure be employed, not that people be encouraged to do their own thing. Teams are wonderfully self-policing. Ideas might look very promising from one person’s perspective, but they will be subjected to the evaluation of coworkers and may be either rejected or thoroughly modified. The good news is that a person who might withdraw from generating improvement ideas if turned down by a senior manager is far more likely to listen to a “no” from his or her peers and continue to be an active thinker and participant.

There needs to be some sort of clearinghouse for improvement ideas. A relatively small number of quality analysts (the title is open to change) must be established to review all ideas after their implementation. The reasons for this review are:

* To ensure that the idea benefits one part of the organization without handicapping another

* To ensure that any calculations of impact (e.g., hours saved or money saved) is correct and consistent across the company. It’s important that when one team claims credit for saving the company 1,200 hours of work on an annualized basis, it means the same as when another team makes the same claim

* To determine if the idea is worth broadcasting to other parts of the company for possible emulation/duplication

* To determine what recognition is due

The number of quality analysts needed is relatively small. At the insurance center (where Pat is the director of the quality effort), there are two quality analysts and just more than 1,000 employees divided into 92 quality teams.

When an approach like this is begun, senior management will have to carefully define what is meant by a “quality idea” and exactly what is meant by the phrase, “We trust our employees.” The much-abused word “empowerment” is the key. Quality teams are trusted and empowered to exercise authority equal to their responsibility. No more. No less.

If a team is to be held accountable for the results of a particular process--that is, if they’re responsible for getting from point A to point B--then they have the authority to change how they get from point A to point B.

“I trust you” can be a stirring statement. But if it isn’t backed up by ceding the freedom to act and wield appropriate power, it will be a step backward in a company’s quest for improvement.

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. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.