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Top Management Commitment--What's That?

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

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If there's one agreed-upon truth regarding quality, it's this: Success is not possible without top management commitment. Almost as consistent as the call for top management commitment is the bewilderment about what the ubiquitous phrase means. Too often, what passes for TMC should really be called TMP (top management permission) or SMC (some management commitment).

Permission alone won't get an organization within striking distance of its potential. Not only is this a lazy assumption; it's horribly ineffective. Commitment encompasses all elements of permission, not just investing money, material and other people's time. Its power comes from being profoundly personal. More than an occasional speech, a willingness to sign large checks for consultants and to hand out awards at the annual quality celebration, true commitment involves investing oneself and setting an example. This commitment must be active, obvious and informed.

Let's consider those three adjectives individually. Being "active" means more than harassing others with statements such as, "You people need to get better." Top managers must improve whatever it is they themselves do, which is a tricky proposition. To seek self-improvement--which assumes the person isn't already perfect--requires tremendous self-confidence. No wonder some managers hesitate! The best way to judge whether top managers are active is to look at the company's last 10 quality improvement decisions and count how many times top management changed as a result of those decisions. The more decisions that involve changes in top management behavior, the higher the commitment.

There are two ways to define top management. The most obvious one means the people at the very top of the corporate ladder. They are the most senior, their names fall at the apex of the pyramid and appear in gold leaf on their office doors. Their commitment is vital.

A more subtle definition requires looking at an organization from somewhere inside. For most people, top management means anyone three levels higher than the person whose perspective is being considered. If you can make my boss's boss nervous, then you are top management. If you have three or more layers of bureaucracy below you, congratulations, you are part of top management! And that is true no matter how many layers are above you. The commitment of this second group is essential for quality, and it's based on the first group's commitment.

Thus, insisting that every top manager must be "obvious" in his or her commitment is a tall order. When someone in management does contribute to improvement, the word needs to get around. Quite simply, how can anyone else follow their lead if no one is aware of the good example being set?

Lastly, top managers must be informed. They must keep up-to-date in their reading about the quality world, emerging ideas and superlative examples (e.g., Baldrige winners), about successes and challenges within their own organization. They must take part in formal and informal discussions inside and outside the company, demonstrating that they care enough about this quality thing to become intellectually involved. When involved in a discussion where something new comes up, particularly with another member of their organization, they must listencarefully and obviouslyand ask questions. Being informed is not a state one reaches after a one-time effort; it is a continual challenge.

Which brings us back to the prerequisite for all commitment: self-confidence. Not only is self-confidence necessary to improve one's own work, it's required when a senior manager leaves work behind on her or his desk and gets out there to talk with employees about what they are doing--and sharing what they themselves are doing. It requires self-confidence to let others make decisions about how work should be performed, which is the very essence of empowerment and a keystone of quality. Ceding power and pushing it down to the proper level means entails developing self-confidence in those lower in the organizational hierarchy so that they, too, can handle the challenges of quality.

But this need for self-confidence should come as no surprise. Only the self-confident can lead; the insecure are doomed to remain managers until they gain the confidence to improve. Quality takes leadership, not management, and top management commitment is one of the distinguishing characteristics of that leadership.

About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: 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); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).

E-mail them at  ptownsend@qualitydigest.com.


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