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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Engage top management

Published: Monday, June 18, 2007 - 22:00

A few years ago, I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit.

B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, and those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is an interesting lesson: Engage top management. It accurately depicts the pitfalls of embarking on a quality journey without the full engagement of top management. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Jesus Rivera, molding operator and department trainer
“Watching people is fascinating to me. I usually have to go to the mall to see really interesting people, but the ISO update meeting was some of the best people-watching I’ve done in a long time. You should have seen the way top management looked during the whole thing. Our president, J.T. Ryan, looked like he had eaten something rotten. Our finance guy looked like he smelled something rotten. The rest of them just looked like they were daydreaming. Most of the workers were really trying to listen and pay attention, but it was hard not to notice how bored and disinterested top management was. It was fun watching their reactions, but it was also a little depressing.

“After the meeting, one of my buddies from the department said, ‘ISO is dead around here, man.’ This took me by surprise, because this guy had always been a supporter of procedures and improvement. I asked my buddy why he thought it was dead. He said, ‘The big guys have lost interest. When they lose interest, you can forget about it.’ Obviously, he had seen the same thing I had.

“The lack of interest by top management was contagious. When the quality team asked if there were any questions, the room became so quiet you could hear the air move. Nobody said a word. That’s when J.T. Ryan yawned. It wasn’t that loud, but in the silent room it sounded like the biggest yawn in history. A number of people, including myself, started laughing. Then everybody just got up and left the meeting.

On the way out of the room, everyone tossed their copies of the presentation into the garbage. Up until that ISO update meeting, most of the folks in my department saw the benefits of ISO 9001. It’s not a magic bullet, but at least it’s an attempt to get everyone on the same page. I don’t know if ISO 9001 is dead around here or not, but it’s definitely sick. I’m curious about what changed top management’s mind about it. They started out as big champions of the quality program, but something changed.”

—J. T. Ryan, president
“I guess you could say I’ve cooled on our quality program lately. I used to be its biggest advocate, but a few things have happened lately that have given me a bad taste in my mouth. The first thing that turned me off was the way we selected our quality objectives. I wanted to include some of our important business objectives, like cash flow and lost time accidents. The quality team said, no, our objectives had to be traditional quality goals. If the objectives weren’t directly tied to the quality of our products, or related to customer feedback, then they weren’t ‘quality.’ I told the team that everything we do is quality. Our efficiency, finances, safety, speed, innovation, products, customers, and everything else is tied to the quality of what we do. They just shook their heads. I wanted to support the quality team, so I went along with their suggestion. We ended up with two sets of objectives: business objectives and quality objectives.

“The next thing that turned me off was the way the quality team told us to handle management review. You probably know this, but management review is how we review the effectiveness of our quality management system. Fair enough. I suggested that we incorporate our ISO 9001 management review into the existing monthly staff meeting. We were already covering most of the inputs there, so I figured why not. The staff meeting would benefit from some of the added discipline of the ISO 9001 management review, and the management review would benefit from the fact that this was an established and important forum for making decisions.

“The quality team said this was a bad idea. They said that including management review as part of the staff meetings would dilute the quality aspects of the management review. Again, I told them that everything we do is quality. The quality team just looked at me and said, “Do you want to get certified or not?” I didn’t know any better, so I said okay. Now we have ISO 9001 management review twice a year, and it’s nothing but a dog-and-pony show. Everything we talk about is old news, and it’s nothing but a ‘check the box’ exercise.

“Finally, we had to write a quality policy. Not a bad idea. The only hitch was that I wanted to call it our ‘manifesto for growth’ and include a few extra topics that weren’t traditional quality issues. The quality team advised against that. They said to keep the quality policy focused on quality and make sure it was called the ’quality policy.’ So that’s what we did, because I thought there was a real reason for doing so. The quality team also advised us to put up a bunch of silly motivational posters. You know what I’m talking about, TEAMWORK in big letters with a picture of some people in business suits rowing a boat. How ridiculous. The people who make these posters must be on dope. I mean, I’m all for teamwork, but anybody who thinks that putting up a poster will make it happen is crazy.

“Here’s a little secret: The quality team will be disbanded this afternoon. Then I’m pulling the plug on our quality program. It’s not at all what I expected it to be. Maybe ISO 9001 is really a great thing and we just got some bad advice. Who knows? I do know that we won’t be wasting any more of our time on it.”

—Oscar Dinero, chief financial officer
“When people started talking about ISO 9001, I evaluated the project the same way I would evaluate anything else. I said, ‘Give me the business case.’ In other words, what quantifiable benefits will justify its expense? The quality team gave its presentation of timetables, responsibilities, and milestones a couple of months ago. At the conclusion, I asked what paybacks we would get from ISO 9001, a very relevant question in the minds of most managers. The quality team floored me with their response. They said, ‘It’s just something we need to do.’ No specific paybacks, no cost reductions, no higher sales, just something we need to do.

“There are literally hundreds of things we need to do. The problem is that we can’t do everything. I have no doubt that ISO 9001 is a positive thing. The quality team muttered something about it being a foundation for future excellence. That’s probably true. We have some serious issues related to our survival right now, though. We have a key piece of equipment in production that needs to be upgraded. We need to install a conveyer system in the warehouse. We need to replace two of our trucks. The list is endless, but our resources are finite. If you come to me and say we need to spend money, I’m going to ask for a payback.

“People within the company are not even unanimous about the need for ISO 9001, either. I’ve heard some very good arguments for pursuing Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, automated statistical process control, and self-directed work teams. Each of these will get the same question: What’s the payback? I’m not even concerned about immediate payback. Medium- and long-term results are even more important, but we need some kind of idea of what our investment will produce. As it stands, I think I’m going to recommend that we drop this effort. J.T. has also given hints that he’s lost confidence. The projected costs of the project are more than $30,000, and nobody can clearly tell me the benefits. ‘It’s just something we need to do’ is not good enough.”

—Armand Barnyard, Ph.D., director of operations
“The quality team has terrorized our production departments. They have told everyone that all processes must be flowcharted. The instructions were as follows: Develop top-down flowcharts with no more than 10 words in each box, and make sure that all the flowcharts link together. They handed out an example flowchart, told everyone to buy software, and gave us a deadline. I have a number of problems with this. First, not all processes are created equal. Some are far more critical than others. To make flowcharts of everything we do is a huge waste of resources. I say let’s flowchart the processes that have the biggest effect on us and our customers.

“My second concern is that a flowchart may not be the best tool in every case. Yes, I know our consultant strongly recommended the use of flowcharts. In some cases it’s the best tool, but certainly not in all. We have some processes that would benefit from a single photograph showing the correct setup. Other processes would benefit from a checklist. And there are a few processes that need a detailed troubleshooting guide. A one-size-fits-all solution is definitely not what we need.

“The third problem I have is the general way the quality team is leading the effort. They’re not trying to get buy-in and local ownership for the systems we’re developing. The only way to sustain this effort is for the process owners to believe in it and take ownership. Right now they just view this as a bunch of extra work. The quality team needs to explain why this effort is important and what production is going to gain from it. Otherwise, this project will be abandoned quicker than you can say ‘ISO tired of this crap.’”

When deploying a quality initiative, remember:

  • All projects have to be substantiated on the basis of their value. No matter how ‘obvious’ the value, it’s important to clearly quantify the payback and sell the benefits to everyone, including top management.

  • Quality initiatives do not stand alone within an organization. The more they support top management’s strategy and direction for the company, the more successful they will be.
  • The word quality can often be misleading, giving stakeholders the impression that only certain topics should be addressed and only certain functions involved. Sometimes it’s helpful to not even use this word.
  • Documentation should never be approached as a one-size-fits-all solution. Document the processes that require documentation, and apply the most user-friendly format, style, and content.
  • For any initiative to be successful over the long term, ownership must be established at the process level. True ownership comes when people understand the value and importance of what they’re being asked to do.
  • The behavior of top management is constantly being watched and analyzed by people within the organization. If top management is perceived as losing faith in a project, the effect will be contagious.


About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.