Six Sigma


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

How Long Should This Take?

"Oh, this is going to take a long time." Thus begins the standard assessment of a "quality guru/consultant" who has been brought in to make a presentation to senior managers about how they can go about (finally) getting on board the quality bandwagon.

 The unspoken second half of the statement is, of course, "…and it's going to cost a lot of money."

 Oftentimes, when we give presentations on the definition and inauguration of a quality process, the session begins with this question to the audience:

  "If point A is the day on which the senior management team of an organization makes the informed decision (with the key word being "informed") to do quality‚ and point B is the day on which a quality process is in place and functioning (meaning that it actively engages every single person in the organization and has components of measurement, training, recognition, leadership, communications and senior management commitment--all of which are still in the process of evolving but are already functional--and there are benefits being recorded on the bottom line), how long should it take to get from Point A to Point B in an organization of 3000 or fewer people?"

 If the audience is primarily from private industry, the answers tend to be in the three-to-seven year range. If the audience is primarily from the federal government, the answers tend to be in the five-to-10 year (or "forever") range. The difference reflects the fact that government agencies, being less sensitive to the bottom line, are often willing to throw money at consultants for longer periods of time ... and the consultants know it.  If a member of the senior management team receiving the quality guru/consultant briefing wants an estimate of exactly how long this effort is going to take before the consultant has worked himself or herself out of a job, it's probably not a good idea to ask the question too directly: The answer will be a well-practiced version of, "it depends." An easier way to determine how long the quality consultant thinks the company will be in need of his or her services is to simply ask the consultant, "What year of school is your youngest child in?" Then the inquisitive executive can use the answer to project the year of that kid's graduation from college ... because the consultant is very likely thinking of the quality-seeking organization as a source of tuition to a very good private college.

 The myth that quality processes take a long time to define and launch has been a major stumbling block for many companies. In part, it originates from a misunderstanding of what "quality" is. It's not something extra that is to be added to a company's list of tasks, as though the employees will now have to find time to accomplish task Q, as well as task A, task B, and task C. Quality deals with how work is done. It will very likely change how tasks A, B and C are done (or if they are done at all), but it is not an add-on. Most likely, it will save time.

 Another major delaying tactic (and one whose primary purpose is to enrich consultants) is the idea that everyone must receive extensive training before anything happens. At its worst, this idea results in sending the executives someplace else (preferably someplace sunny) for their training and hiring trainers to train all other employees on location.

 The object of a quality process, however, is not to create a group of chart-ready statisticians--It is to give everyone the opportunity to improve their contribution to the organization's processes, products and services. At a meeting of 10 people who work together, how many actually have to know how to construct, use and explain a Pareto Chart in order for the group to be able to use the results? One. In other words, one way an organization can both save money and greatly accelerate the quality process launch is by reducing the preparatory training programs.

 Even if the intent is (as it should be) to actively engage every single person on the payroll in the quality process, in-depth pre-launch training need reach no more than 10 percent of the employees.

 Perhaps the most important concept for executives to understand at the outset of a quality process is this: "Doing quality" carries a cost. That cost can either be the cost of the executives' time, energy and personal commitment, or it can be the checks that are signed and given to the consultants. The question is whether the executives prefer to spend their personal resources or the company's cash.

 The executives' expenditure of time, energy and commitment yields far greater results, but signing checks is a lot easier. And, turning over the responsibility and authority for the quality process to some herd of outsiders also means that, when the quality program falls short of explicit or implicit promises, the consultants can be blamed.

 A team of executives, perhaps guided by a part-time consultant, should be able to very rapidly define and then ensure the availability of the appropriate procedures and mechanical components (such as a computer-based idea-tracking program) needed at the outset of a quality process. By explaining to their employees what is going on and why, and by establishing up front their own commitment to the process, the team of executives can further accelerate the acceptance and implementation of the quality process.

 The correct answer to that "how long should it take" question? Based on repeated experience (and bolstered by common sense), we estimate six to eight months. If it takes any longer than that, one or both of two things can legitimately be called into question: the competence of the quality guru/consultant or the commitment and understanding of the executives.


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). E-mail them at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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