Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Action Instead of Just Talk

As you may have noticed in the "About the author" notes at the end of the last few of our columns, Pat Townsend recently re-joined the corporate world. UICI, his new employer, is basically a financial services organization. Its leadership team challenged Pat to actually take part in doing what he had been recommending that others do for the last dozen years or so.

 He's been there since Feb. 3, or a little more than two months at the time that this column was written.

 First we'll provide a description of the company, then a review of what's happened so far and a look at the plans for the coming months. In future columns, the unfolding process will be described so that everyone interested can track the definition, implementation and maintenance of a quality process--to use, perhaps, as a benchmark for their own efforts.

 UICI has a number of different companies under its corporate umbrella, and the plan is to eventually involve every component of the overall organization in a quality effort--but to start out by building a model process in one company. In subsequent years, that model will, with appropriate adaptations, be expanded until everyone on the UICI payroll is included.

 The place chosen for the development of the model effort is called the Insurance Center, located in North Richland Hills, a Fort Worth, Texas, suburb. The Insurance Center is an individual health insurance operation with approximately 640 employees.

 The reasons that led Pat to take the full-time job included:

1. The company is in the black. There's none of the panic in the air that is the trademark of a company in trouble. The leadership of UICI and the Insurance Center see quality as a way to move from "good" to "great" rather than as the way to bail out a failing operation, as so many company leaders seem to think. Quality isn't a last resort; it's a first option.

2. There have been no previous formal efforts at "quality," so there is no time being spent cleaning up the bad feelings and messy leftovers of some other effort. There was some half-hearted (and very expensive) effort a few years ago under the label of "World Class Service," but the effort had so little impact that most people don't even remember it.

3. The people who work at the Insurance Center--at all levels--are good people intent on getting better. They don't appear to be threatened by the idea that improvement is possible.


 As regular readers of this column (and/or our books and other articles) know, there are a few points in our recommended approach to the establishment of a quality process that tend to be at least fairly unique in the world of quality. These include:

1. The insistence on 100-percent employee involvement from the outset of a quality process. This is reached easily in theory by beginning the discussion with the question "Whom can we afford to exclude?" rather than the traditional "Whom should we involve?" If senior managers are still struggling with the concept, the question can be changed to "Whom do we have on the payroll that we think is truly stupid and incapable of having an original thought?" Ask for specific names.

2. The insistence that it shouldn't take more than six to eight months to launch a complete quality process that includes functioning elements of top management commitment, leadership, 100-percent employee involvement, some form of process analysis, communications, training, measurement and recognition--and which is having a positive effect on the bottom line.

3. The belief that quality is simple (as opposed to complex) and difficult (as opposed to easy).

4. The idea that the organization has hired adults who would rather do things well if given a choice or even a chance.


 In the first two months that Pat was with the Insurance Center, there were two all-employee meetings. In both cases--including the day after he arrived at the location--Pat was given 10 to 15 minutes to speak. More important than what he said was the fact that the senior managers introduced him with their pledges of support.

 On the second occasion, the promise was specifically made that no person on the payroll would be fired as a result of the quality process. Such a promise essentially says that if an idea is implemented that leads to there being no further need for the particular position, that person will be offered another job within the company. In short, no one need worry that their idea will cost them--or anyone else--their job.

 As a result of these all-employee meetings, there was companywide knowledge of the quality effort before the first of a series of senior manager meetings was held. In March, there were four meetings of the top 40 managers of the company--from 8:00 a.m. to noon, each of the first four Thursdays.

 The meetings, each of which began with a recent Baldrige videotape, were focused on the following topics:

March 2: Leadership, in theory and in the context of a quality process

March 9: Participation, in theory and in the context of a quality process

March 16: Measurement, in theory and in the context of a quality process

March 23: OK, How do we do this?


 At the end of the March 23 meeting, the head of the Insurance Center said, "OK, I need to know. Are we committed to doing this? Are we all ready to do what needs to be done?" The unanimous show of hands launched the process.

  Next month: There's a problem… most folks don't want to wait until the fall for the beginning of the Insurance Center Quality Process. The solution (a success so far) will be the topic of next month's column. If anyone has any questions or suggestions feel free to contact us.

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). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with leadership.com issues as a practitioner as well as an observer and writer/speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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