Nothing has gone wrong with the concept of quality, but plenty has gone wrong with its implementation. Much of the trouble stems from senior executives failing to recognize the link between quality and leadership.
Take as a definition of leadership the example proposed in this column last month: Leadership is the creation of an environment in which others can self-actualize in the process of completing the task.
Then look at any all-too-typical company or government organization, especially any service company currently housing quality cynics and critics. Chances are you'll find that the company turned over millions of dollars to a quality consulting firm during the late 1980s or early 1990s.
Most major consulting companies simply didn't do the intellectual heavy lifting necessary to devise quality processes consistent with the demands of the American work force, and the challenges of service organizations. Schemes proposed by many consultants went something like this:
* The CEO/president was convinced by the head of a consulting firm that pursuing quality was vital and required outside help due to the complexity of the challenge.
* The CEO/president attended a couple of in-house lectures, made a few speeches and then effectively disappeared -- reappearing once a year to voice his or her continuing support for the "quality program."
* The organization's senior executives formed a quality council (or a similar body) that rubber-stamped the consultants' plans for structuring the quality process and training employees.
* Virtually everyone on the payroll underwent some form of quality training. This took place over a couple of years due to the consultants' insistence that everyone master problem-solving and other techniques before the company could expect bottom-line results. The quality consultants' refrain, "This will take a long time and cost a lot of money," was self-serving and wrong. Looking for perfection as defined by outside experts and backed by months of expensive training and preparation bred cynicism. When the long-awaited results arrived, they looked paltry compared with the investment in effort and money.
* Quality processes themselves developed along one of two lines. Top council levels set policy for, oversaw the activities of and approved recommendations of the council directly below them. At one major organization in the Northeast, for instance, a leading consultant firm devised a five-level council structure, each level overseeing the next lowest. Only at the sixth level -- comprised exclusively of nonmanagement personnel -- was anyone actually charged with making improvements.
Alternatively, a process focused on a single quality subset or component, an unbalanced effort that kept senior executives from having to trust lower-level employees with meaningful decision making.
* After much fanfare, the process was launched, then ignored and allowed to wither. In the end, a coterie of quality groupies made just enough noise to justify the organization marking the "yes" box when surveys asked, "Does your organization have an active quality process?"
Contrast this scheme with the leadership definition above. When an organization's leaders disengaged from quality processes and instead relied on indifferent outside sources to direct operations, they acted against the definition. Deviation continued when consultants instituted a multilayered, over-the-shoulder supervision system requiring serial approval before improvements could take place. There is a better way.
With or without a consulting company, an effective approach to quality includes several essential components:
* Top management commitment. This must be active, obvious and informed. Senior executives can best demonstrate their interest through personal commitments of time and ego, backed by organizational resources. They can involve themselves in the committees that define their organizations' quality process or in their organizations' program of recognition, gratitude and celebration. Another option is through active and ongoing efforts to improve their own work procedures. As one quality entrepreneur in Texas puts it, "Their hips and their lips have got to go in the same direction."
Ask this question: "Of the last 10 decisions made by senior management 'in the name of quality,' how many required that senior management change its own behavior?" If the percentage is low, then the company's quality efforts will run into trouble.
* Leadership. A common understanding of what leadership means must exist throughout the organization. This does not happen without frank discussion, training and empowerment, i.e., authority equal to responsibility. Encouraging employees throughout the organization to practice leadership behavior is the hallmark of an active quality process. This requires a leap of faith; a hop of hope won't cut it.
* 100-percent employee involvement -- with a structure. It is logically indefensible to involve less than 100 percent of the people on the payroll in quality improvement. Whose help isn't wanted or necessary? It is unrealistic, however, to ask people to leave their comfort zone and embrace change without giving them clear guidelines for how things will get done in the future. These guidelines must address two questions: "Are we doing the right things?" (i.e., reengineering, value analysis and blueprinting) and "Are we doing things right?" (i.e., creating quality teams and engaging every employee on at least one of them.
Ask this question: "Where do you go with a good idea?" When every employee at every level knows the answer and the answer encourages active participation, the company is embracing quality.
* Communication. Remember that it's what people hear that counts, not what they say. Also, upward communication is as important as downward communication. Companies should structure procedures to help all employees improve their communication abilities.
* Training. An organization is well-advised to train 10 percent to 15 percent of its employees as quality team leaders who can lead problem-solving discussion groups. Other employees will learn by observation or, in future years, through formal training when it is their turn to serve as team leaders. Keep problem solving simple. A major fault with quality training -- besides the inflated prices -- has been the requirement to drag every problem through every step of a consulting company's seven- (or nine- or eleven-) step process. Many problems can be solved effectively by saying, "We do what?! Good heavens, let's not do that!"
* Measurement. Misuse of measurement ranks high as an impediment to quality. While vital to success, measurement is not a religion and involves no mysteries. Benchmarking may sound complicated, but think of the Evil Queen, who asked, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" She was benchmarking, and to give her credit, when she got data, she acted. Employees rightfully resent measurement used as a source or form of punishment. Only two reasons legitimately justify taking measurements: to track progress and to gather data as a source of ideas for improvement. Individuals charged with collecting data must answer the questions, "Why are you taking that measurement? How will the data be used?"
* Recognition, gratitude and celebration. An organization must say thank you. Difficulties often arise because different people hear thank you in different ways. This topic will be addressed separately in a future column; suffice to say that recognition requires a significant time investment for senior executives. Interestingly, the less time invested, the more money required to achieve the same results.
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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).