I'm often asked how to involve CEOs in quality management. My answer is always simple: "Speak the right language."
Years ago, my boss at Bell Laboratories and I went to our first seminar given by Joseph M. Juran. We wanted to see if it would be appropriate for a series of in-house workshops for the senior management team at AT&T. During the seminar, we both were struck not by how much Juran knew but by how well he explained it. One remark that hit us both was his simple explanation that middle managers needed to be bilingual--that is, they had to speak the language of both upper managers and of the work force.
Workers speak the language of things. They talk about numbers of objects produced, defects, patients, customers, purchased goods, contracts and other concrete items. Senior managers, on the other hand, speak the language of money. Middle managers must be able to communicate with both groups.
Many of us have learned this lesson over and over again. Some years ago, a colleague and I were expecting a visit by Bob Allen, then president of AT&T. We had prepared a detailed lecture and demonstration about new methods and software for reliability prediction and estimation, and we were proud of our work and presentation.
We rehearsed the lecture with two members of Allen's staff, who gave us a blunt assessment. The presentation would be meaningless to Allen, and he would leave as soon as he could, they said. Our lecture discoursed on maximum-likelihood estimators of parameters of the Weibull distribution, left and right-censored samples, accelerated life tests and so on.
Allen had come up through the ranks in an operating telephone company, and his background was not in statistical research, the staff members explained. We immediately realized how far off the mark our presentation was. For the next five hours, we painstakingly rewrote every sentence.
The next day, we emphasized the need to reduce field failures and service times in the face of rising labor rates. We showed how inventory would be reduced with more reliable equipment, and how these new, improved designs would improve customer service dramatically by reducing outages. Allen was intrigued and stayed far beyond his allotted time, asking questions and exploring how the software enabled designers to simulate field operations and experiment with different approaches to improving reliability.
During the past few years, I have been amazed at how often quality directors and managers I meet have no idea how to communicate with their senior management teams. They continue to complain about how their CEOs or presidents can't understand the importance of having senior management leadership in quality. Rather than taking the time to learn senior management's language, these quality managers want senior managers to learn their language. They are like salespeople who go to a foreign country and expect to sell their products by speaking their own language to the residents.
I recently met with a quality director of an excellent organization to review the cost of poor quality in a particular area. "What percentage of total revenues is that?" I asked. She answered that she had no idea what the organization's total revenues were and even seemed surprised by the question.
Often, I meet quality directors who haven't read their organization's strategic plans or annual operating plans. They have absolutely no chance of talking in senior management's language or aligning their quality projects with corporate priorities.
However, I've also met many quality directors who fluently speak upper management's language, and I've met many senior managers who speak the quality language quite well. In these organizations, quality projects, performance indicators and inter- and intra-departmental work teams are completely aligned with corporate strategies, strategic goals and annual operating plans. Appropriate resources are allocated, and all quality initiatives receive full support. Quality efforts are seen clearly as the means to increasing revenues, reducing costs, securing solid market positions and attaining long-term goals.
The art of influencing people depends heavily on our language skills. When we can show senior managers how our efforts support their organizations' key priorities, we get the support we need. When we appear to be adding one more priority to already overburdened lists, we often get pushed aside by competing forces.
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc., a leading international research, education, training and consulting firm in quality management. He is the author of numerous articles and co-author of two books.
Godfrey was active on ISO Technical Committee 176 during the creation of the ISO 9000 series of standards and contributed to the creation of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
For more information about Juran Institute, write to 11 River Road, Wilton, CT 06897 or visit their Web site at www.juran.com.
© 1998 Juran Institute. For permission to reprint, contact Godfrey at fax (203) 834-9891 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.