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Prasad Nair

Quality Insider

Eight Petals of a Quality Flower

The blooming of a quality system

Published: Monday, June 11, 2007 - 22:00

Quality and customer focus have always been topmost strategic weapons in the arsenal of successful corporations, which nurture strategic initiatives like a gardener looks after a garden. It’s quite an imaginative thought to see the resemblance of the deployment of a quality system to the blossoming of a flower.

Each petal of this flower must be cared for and nurtured to ensure that the blooming flower gives you all the beauty of which it is capable. The first and the last petals are about culture building and the softer aspects of any change initiative. The third, fourth, and fifth petals are about the quality of the leaders, especially those heading such an initiative. The second, sixth, and seventh petals are about the overall structure, texture, and color of this initiative. As the flower blooms, these petals give us several benefits.

Assurance—creating a culture without punishment
One of the most difficult problems with any strategic change initiative is fear among employees. This fear may spread malignantly across the organization over time. Affirmative actions and continual reinforcement by the senior leadership ensure that fear is driven out and confidence is regained.

One of the critical steps of a quality system implementation is making the organizational floor transparent and quality problems visible to the whole organization for analysis and action planning. In this effort, a fearful employee may start moving in the opposite direction unless reassured by the leadership.

In 1995, when the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), the quality accreditation body for health care in the United States, started de-accrediting U.S. hospitals if a sentinel event (any serious adverse event to a patient during hospital stay) was reported, self-reported sentinel events were just 4–12 percent of the total reported incidents. JCAHO then decided not to penalize the reporting organization and insisted that all sentinel events must be followed by root cause analysis (RCA) and an action plan within a stipulated time frame. Self-reported sentinel events went up to 72 percent the following year and to 83 percent the year after. One such RCA and action plan on the use of concentrated potassium chloride gained worldwide acceptance, reducing patient deaths from this problem to almost zero.

This is about creating a workplace where bad processes are ruthlessly eliminated and underperformers are compassionately supported and guided to the next higher level. 

Consistent communication
One of the most difficult tasks is ensuring that people get consistent messages about the change initiative. Any doubt in the minds of the employees creates a climate hostile to change. Communication in the form of actions by top management, messages from the immediate supervisors, goal sheets on key performance parameters, and the way resistance is handled in the organization must be aligned to the organization’s transformation strategy.

The departmental leaders must ensure the standardization of processes and the monitoring of critical process parameters. The moment departments know that the leadership isn’t consistent, and that this quality system deployment is just another program with a start date and end date, standardization and the measurement system will come to an abrupt halt. 

In one organization, top management and the leadership team talked about creating world-class processes and systems and aimed at the toughest quality standards in their industry. The organization was in a high state of excitement, all employees contributed their best efforts, and the company achieved the toughest global standard in just 18 months.

On the day after the standard was achieved, management started a vigorous cost-reduction initiative, rolling back many of the process controls, best practices, and training initiatives that had recently been deployed. In a few months the entire organization reverted to its original condition, leaving behind just the certificate on the wall.

This is about creating a workplace where leaders don’t do lip service to “the flavor of the month/year” (read quality) but actually walk the walk.

Cohesiveness—shared goals and expectations
Leadership must be able to conceive realistic targets for the change initiative after a thorough analysis of the current status of the organization. An organizational strategy with conflicting targets, goals, performance measures, and management direction will confuse employees and lead to chaos in the system. This leads to conflicts of interest and friction within the business unit. Leadership must understand the limitations, constraints, and existing capabilities and priorities before finalizing the change initiative’s roll-out plan.

It’s extremely important to create a climate where employees share a common vision, direction, and purpose. Anything that creates conflicts of interest will immediately stall the quality deployment.

Another organization started measuring sales performance on their primary sales number at the distributor level, without having any quality-related measure. Dumping in the market started almost immediately, without focusing on creating actual demand at the consumer level. Then the quality department worked overtime removing outdated products from the shelf and achieved their key result areas (KRA). The sales department also achieved its KRA during the same time, leaving the organization to the mercy of God for survival.

This is about transferring ownership and responsibility across the organization, and creating cohesiveness across functions.

Patience to see results
There’s a beautiful Zen story of a disciple approaching a master for training as a martial artist. He bowed down before the master and told him, “Oh master, I am ready. With dedication and commitment, how long will I take to become an accomplished warrior?”

The master replied “It will take about seven years.”

A bit disappointed, the disciple continued, “I am ready to put in double the effort that I initially promised; I will practice double the time. Now tell me how long it will take.”

The master smiled and replied, “It will take about 10 years.”

“Why is that so? More effort should reduce the time. That is simple logic!”

The master replied, “The more you focus overly on your target, the more you miss the present, which is in fact the foundation of your success. You must be patient.”

A quality deployment requires many phases and can’t be completed overnight. The results are bound to come if you have a medium- to long-term perspective. Overnight results are too much to expect, especially in the foundation phase.

An organization started its quality initiatives by activating quality circles across its manufacturing locations. Activation of a couple of dozen circles in the first year created a lot of positive vibration across the organization. Management realized after that first year that this quality deployment required a consistent time commitment and ongoing managerial monitoring.

The next initiative was to focus on aligning a few locations to the award requirements of a few prestigious quality awards. Awards and accolades never translated into anything quantifiable in terms of business performance.

Management immediately kicked off another initiative by defining an objective—to reach, in three years, six sigma error levels from their current one sigma performance. The organization, as expected, is experimenting with a new quality initiative these days.

This is all about setting expectations right in the beginning.

Meticulous, time-bound planning
The planning phase of quality system deployment is something many organizations cut short or put little or no effort into at all. A good quote in this context is from Abraham Lincoln: “If I have six hours to cut a tree, I will spend four hours sharpening my sword and two hours in execution.”

Any medium- to large-size organization will have close to hundred processes to be standardized, deployed, measured, and audited in the initial phase of deployment and standardization. This may spread across a dozen or more functions, involve 30 to 40 active participants and touch most of your employees. System implementation is a lengthy and tedious process spread across many phases, touching almost all your organization’s processes and most of your people. It’s going to take a lot of senior management time. Any slip-up in the planning is going to cost the organization much time and money.

A financial service organization started an organizationwide process-documentation initiative to ensure standardized processes were in place across all departments. An external agency was hired, functional heads spent their time explaining their department’s roles, activities, and functions to the consultant. Five months of activity and deliberations resulted in the consultant delivering a nicely packaged process-document folder to management. Key activities—process identification, documentation planning, employee identification, and capability building, all of which are essential to developing a sustainable process-culture—were ignored. The result was a waste of organizational resources for many months, leaving behind those process documents somewhere on a shelf.

This is all about following the real PDCA—Plan-Do-Check-Act—not getting directly into implementation by following another PDCA—Please Don’t Check Anything.

Discipline—combining flexibility and rigidity
When planning for deployment of quality systems, successful organizations have ensured that the plan is neither too tight nor too loose. Training, facilitation, hand holding, and rewarding and recognizing contributions—all need to be integrated into the deployment plan. Making these completely based on rulebooks is definitely a way to turn people off. At the same time, diluting the protocols in the name of flexibility is going to wipe out the program objective.

When planning for audits or facilitating a root cause analysis, quality leaders must not take the right, left, or center path, but instead take a curved path— moving to the left (flexibility) and to the right (adherence to protocols) at the appropriate time.

The functional head was arguing the need for flexibility in the quality deployment plan. The plan must be flexible to the organizational needs; we can’t have rigid protocols when dealing with massive people-oriented initiatives. It takes time to complete multiple activities and hence it’s impractical to have dates for every activity. So go the arguments. “It’s fine to have flexibility in the target dates, but having a target date in place is an absolute necessity” is the answer.

This is all about the art of being flexible with out losing the necessary rigidity.

Adding value to organizational priorities
All change initiatives must be of value by adding to the organization’s current priorities. The immediate acceptance of a quality system deployment comes from the ability of such initiatives to imply value creation to the leaders. Change initiatives get minimum resistance when they can add perceivable value to functions.

While getting the processes audited, establishing measurements for monitoring, and planning for projects around critical measures, quality leaders must ensure that they are able to capture functional leaders’ perceived needs to add value. Orienting projects and process corrections around those pain areas will make the quality initiatives self-sustaining across all functions.

Many projects were undertaken but weren’t able to get a complete buy-in from the business leader. One of the major pain areas of management was the extended project delivery time, and reduced time utilization of its developers on software projects, because of their higher turnaround time for hardware supply and delivery. A breakthrough improvement project in reducing the hardware-procurement turnaround time created a ripple effect across the leadership team, getting an immediate acceptance of such initiatives across the organization.

This is about adding value and removing pain areas for your functional leaders.

Building a culture focused on customers
A quality system implementation has to instill in the organization the value of monitoring, analyzing, and action planning on critical customer interfacing and internal processes to ensure that they perform at ever-challenging efficiency levels.

When employees in the organization start thinking from the “outside-in” rather than with the normal “inside-out” approach, you can see real organizational transformation. Such transformation is possible only when top management and other organizational leadership show the way, not just by attending a few presentations or sending out a few predrafted mailings, but by actually involving themselves in customer-focused activities.

In one well-known hotel chain, customer service and hygiene is so much a part of the training and retraining curriculum across hierarchies, that even the top-most executive walking down the corridors will pick up any waste paper lying around and throw it in the dust bin.

In another organization, the CEO spent several days going through the process documents created by his functional leaders, finding opportunities to add value from his customers’ perspective. Yet another organization has mandatory “customer-voice listening” every week for its functional heads, from a prerecorded customer-complaint call database.

This is about creating a workplace that thrives on internal service quality and customer focus.

In an extremely competitive marketplace, neither product features, nor people strength, nor competitive pricing will be the key differentiator. Product features could be quickly copied by competitors, the best of your staff could be poached, and your pricing could be matched in the market. The pricing may even turn out to be unsustainable in the long run. In a situation where the customer is demanding nothing less than the best and organizations experience downward pressure on price, customer focus will be the key driver for satisfaction. This will lead to increased customer loyalty, which in turn spins off both top-line growth and cost advantage.

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Prasad Nair