Many Vehicles, One Direction
In last month’s column, I identified some quality fundamentals and suggested several actions organizations can take to make certain every employee is aware of his or her role in promoting quality. Most companies will want to go well beyond those simple suggestions. To get everyone involved in improvement, organizations must understand and practice alignment.
It might seem obvious that organizational objectives should align with the actions of every employee. Yet for many organizations, business and quality objectives aren’t even clear, much less aligned. Some have never thought about their business objectives in sufficient detail to commit them to measurable analysis. In other organizations, top managers are unwilling or unable to share information about overall objectives.
It’s easy to see that reducing production problems reduces cost. It’s also true that better products and services will attract new customers, increase market share and improve revenues. But those higher revenues and lower costs won’t happen simply by declaring, “We will improve the quality of everything we do.” Alone, such pronouncements do nothing to actually improve an organization because they’re too general. Often, they have an effect that’s opposite to what’s intended. They dissipate energy and create internal frustration.
We’re far better served by setting objectives that enable us to focus on improving the most important elements. Top managers and quality leaders are responsible for harnessing quality improvement to increase revenue and reduce costs. Meas-
urable quality objectives are needed that relate directly to the organization’s financial future. For example, business objectives such as “increase sales by 10 percent” can be driven by a quality objective—say, improve customer satisfaction by 33 percent over two years, and measure progress through surveys.
It’s important to understand that we want to measure independent variables, not just response variables. We can control independent variables; response variables are controlled by one or more independent variables.
Returning to our example, an objective such as “improve customer satisfaction by 33 percent over two years, as measured by surveys,” is a response variable. Measurements like this will often prove inadequate because they’re controlled by independent variables. It’s necessary to develop a set of key measures that will drive performance. Targets should be set for each measure so that when they’re reached, the organization’s objectives are met simultaneously.
To drive 33-percent improvement, it’s necessary to measure the independent variables that will improve customer perception. For example, we should identify the factors that are most important to gain and retain customers. We should also identify the processes that are involved, and measure the independent variables to increase customer satisfaction.
Selecting important independent variables isn’t a trivial task, and in many organizations the correct measures aren’t obvious. Determining them often requires several rounds of trial and error, but organizations shouldn’t guess at what they need to measure.
If the objectives have been correctly set, meeting them is the most important goal an organization can achieve. It shouldn’t be considered extra work; it is the work. This means that top managers must be involved in the most important improvement projects.
Early in the improvement process, organizations must begin to consider how they will align their workforces, as well as top and middle managers. This involves taking action on four fronts:
Sharing information. Organizations must share not only their objectives but also the information, measures and data needed to recognize opportunities and carry out improvement projects.
Changing expectations. Organizations must make it clear that their expectations have changed. It’s no longer sufficient simply to do one’s job; everyone must also learn how to improve it.
Managing boundaries. Organizations must set the boundaries of action for all department levels. Although companies should encourage every individual who draws a paycheck to be innovative and make improvements, they don’t want to foster chaos.
Providing a supportive environment. Top and middle managers must start behaving in ways that encourage input from everyone. They must understand how to gain the trust of their employees.
These aren’t new or revolutionary ideas. Quality professionals have talked about them for years. Where would your company be today if it had actually been acting on them for that long?
This article is based on chapter 4 of Unlocking the Power of Your Quality Management System: Keys to Performance Improvement, by John E. (Jack) West and Charles A. Cianfrani (ASQ Quality Press, 2004).
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards.