Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Getting Started

Quality First has begun, right on schedule. The Insurance Center of UICI now has in place and functioning a process designed to involve literally every person on the payroll. The process was launched less than six months after the senior management of this 700-person company made the informed decision to "do quality."

 Although the quality kick-off very closely followed the schedule described in last month's column and was a great success, there have been challenges.

 For one thing, classroom and instructor availability dictated that the quality team leader training could not be completed until a week after the kick-off. Additionally, three weeks after the kick-off, the Quality Idea Tracking program was still not completely bug-free. Quality teams did begin meeting, but there was no place to record their ideas and decisions. The program is now running smoothly.

 The tracking program is ambitious, made all the more daunting for its creators because of the need to build it with eventual but undefined expansion in mind. The Insurance Center is, after all, the beginning point for quality efforts within the UICI corporation--it's expected that the process will grow to include other units of UICI in the years to come. The program had to be designed to allow, at some future time, members of different business units to look through the quality ideas of their own or other business units, searching for ideas that can be converted for their own use.

 There is also a "key word" feature that makes it possible for a team leader to see if anyone else is exploring a particular area or problem.

 Essentially, the program is a sophisticated adaptation of the Quality Idea Tracking program introduced at the Paul Revere Insurance Group in 1984 (and described in our book Commit to Quality [John Wiley and Sons, 1986]). When a quality team agrees on an idea it wishes to pursue, the team leader enters the idea on the team's file within the tracking program. The team files are available for viewing by anyone in the company, but only the team leader can enter changes of any sort.

 A newly entered idea would be given a status of "1" by the team leader. As quality team discussions continue in the following days, the team leader might change the status to "2" if the decision is made to put the idea aside for the present time, with the intention of getting back to it in the future. If the team decides not to proceed with the solution and implementation process, the idea is not simply deleted. Rather, the team leader assigns it a status of "3."

 The reason for assigning the "3" status rather than deleting the idea from the program is simple: to leave the basic idea on the system, available as a beginning point for some other team. Among the many improvements over the original Paul Revere program that this version offers is a "comments page" attached to the basic idea screen. As a team goes through its discussion and research, it can record whatever notes it chooses for its own future reference--or for possible use by someone considering following their lead. If they decide, for instance, to not pursue a particular idea, their notes may serve to warn another team of potential pitfalls.

 An implemented idea--remember that in the Quality First process teams are empowered to act and implement ideas, if the idea falls into their area of responsibility--gets a status of "4." In addition, any financial impact is recorded--split into "hard dollars" and "soft dollars." Hard dollars are defined rather informally: money you can actually take to a store and spend. Soft dollars are mostly time and capacity savings.

 The implementation of an idea signals to the quality analysts (of which there are two in the three-person quality department) that it's time to contact the quality team leader. The quality analysts are, of course, available at any time in the cycle between idea generation and idea implementation, but their involvement is assured once an idea is implemented.

 What's their role? To certify the idea. This consists of getting together with the team leader and whomever else the team leader wants to include and reviewing every aspect of the idea: Why is this an improvement? Whom does the idea affect? What confirmation was received from the affected parties that they agreed with the implementation of the idea? How was the calculation of financial impact determined? How is the continuing implementation of the idea assured?

 The objectives of the certification process are several:

* To ensure that no good-faith errors were made. Very few are expected. People know their jobs, know who they affect and are very protective of their empowerment. They aren't going to jeopardize it by carelessly overlooking the ripple effects of any idea.

* To determine if the idea is such that it should be broadcast to all or specific parts of the company and if it should be copied in part or in whole.

* To double-check all calculations of financial impact. It is imperative that the numbers have unquestionable integrity.

* To identify when it's time for the company president or chief operating officer to personally thank the team. (A description of the program for recognition, gratitude and celebration will be included in next month's column.)

 Is it all working? Well, despite the slower-than-hoped beginning induced by the delays in getting the tracking program up and running, as of October 27, there were 145 Quality Ideas logged onto the system, with 25 of those implemented. The soft dollar impact of the implemented ideas has been $31,369.72 and the hard dollar impact, $77,986.52.

 Next month: information on the progress to date, information on the recognition program, ideas about beginning the improvement of the process and suggestions on how to duplicate the success.


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, writer and 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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