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Selling Quality Internally:
The Key to Employee Buy-in

by John Guaspari

(Note to readers: This month I've decided to interview myself. I figure that it will be the most efficient way to communicate what I have to communicate, since I know that the questions will all be insightful and just the right follow-up questions will be asked. On the other hand, I'll only have myself to blame if I'm misquoted.)


Q: Many organizations discover that when they try to implement quality efforts, the degree of enthusiasm from their employees often is disappointing. Why is that so?

A: Because an important step usually gets left out.


Q: Which is?

A: It goes back to that old adage, "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." That's a profound sounding statement. It's a pity that it happens to be wrong. If all you do is build a better mousetrap, about the only thing you can be sure of is that you'll have a warehouse full of mousetraps. What the adage ought to say is, "Build a better mousetrap, and tell the world why it will work better for them." Then you're on to something.


Q: So you're talking about doing better at marketing and selling the quality of your products out into your marketplace? With advertising?

A: No, I'm talking about selling and marketing the benefits of quality principles and methodologies and technologies to your employees and why the application of those things will be of benefit to them. Those quality tools and techniques do work, but if what you're after is buy-in, then selling them also is part of the task. The quality orthodoxy also says that quality must be viewed as a "process issue." Well, the way that we present the concepts of quality to our people is in itself a part of the process. And to overlook that fact introduces a serious process problem.


Q: How so?

A: The typical way that quality is approached is that management "gets religion" and, with great vigilance and effort, applies standard quality techniques. The quality orthodoxy says that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. So we begin to take measurements. Correct, necessary and responsible things to be doing. Now, I know why we're taking the measurements, and you know why we're taking the measurements. But if we neglect to explain to our people why measurements are being made--in other words, to position the quality activities--people may begin to wonder what's up. They may feel threatened and defensive, like they're being watched over and criticized, which, given the information they have to go on, they are.

After we take the measurements, we use the results to help us tune the process--again, correct, necessary, responsible. But unless the context has been established, unless quality has been positioned, people's backs are going to stiffen again. After all, tuning the process is just a fancier way of saying, "Change." And we all know how much people like to do that. Those reactions are very common. And they also are avoidable if some explicit attention is paid to how "all this quality stuff" is sold and marketed intra-organizationally.


Q: But if the techniques are so powerful, and the improvements are so productive and necessary, is it really that important to worry about semantics?

A: Yes. Take this interview, for example. We're in the process of completing and publishing it on time. I could say to you, "I demand complete editorial control, period." How smoothly do you suppose the process would flow in that case? But what if I say instead, "I'd like to review the manuscript because I can help readers get the most value from the time they spend reading this interview." Do you suppose the process might work more smoothly? That quality might be positively affected?

As a purely substantive matter, the process steps would be pretty much the same in either case. The only difference is in the words I used--the "semantics." But I submit that the second approach would be markedly better than the first and that improvement would be owed exclusively to the way I marketed my wishes--positioned them--to you.

Again, the same logic holds when it comes to institutionalizing quality in your organization. Unless we recognize that this intra-organizational positioning of quality matters, we can introduce all kinds of process problems for ourselves.


Q: What are some of those positioning pitfalls?

A: We can wind up telling our people, in effect, "It's important to me, so do it." This is what happens when top management realizes that quality is tied to things like profitability and productivity and market share. And--no small point--those things in turn tend to be tied to management bonuses, compensation plans and the like. So you can muster all the troops and announce that "Quality is essential to 'our' continuing business success." But unless it's framed in terms that resonate with people who don't spend their days sitting around conference room tables, some understandable skepticism concerning who "our" refers to might result. And if that happens, buy-in is likely to be withheld.


Q: Any other approaches to be avoided?

A: There's one I call, "More than you ever wanted to know about quality." This is what happens when we tell everyone every last glorious technical detail associated with the quality orthodoxy. Again, the quality orthodoxy has emerged as such because it's right. It works. But saying, "Quality is everybody's job" does not logically require that everybody study for a Ph.D. in modern quality methodology. Or stated somewhat more bluntly: You don't want to bore people to death about quality, because dead people tend not to have a lot of energy left over to actually effect quality progress.

The general point is this: If we don't consider how we present the concepts--how we market them intra-organizationally--we can turn people off.


Q: OK. So far you've talked about all the things not to do. But what can we do? How should quality be positioned, to use your term?

A: The challenge is to position quality in a way that resonates with people, and that means appealing to them both intellectually and viscerally. It needs to make sense as well as to feel right to them. The intellectual part is usually pretty well covered by the quality orthodoxy, those standard technologies and methodologies. It's the visceral part that gets left out.


Q: How do you get to people viscerally?

A: You talk in terms that they can relate to personally. You seek out shared experiences. Look for a common denominator. That's easier to do than you might think. Because we've all had a lifetime's experience at being a customer. We know what that is and what that means and what that feels like--and "feels like" is exactly the right phrase. We know what pleases us as customers and causes us to go back for more. We know what displeases us and causes us to consider alternatives. And yet there is a real tendency to get on the job and lose that perspective. Why? Is it because people don't care or aren't committed? Because people aren't motivated to do quality work? Not a chance. It's because we care so much, we work so hard, we become so wrapped up in the details of the job that we get too narrowly focused. Our attention goes to the "how" and the "what" and we forget about the "why."

And this is where it can all come together for everyone in an organization. Because it's that shared experience as customers that can help people understand and feel why quality is so important; it's the single most powerful lever we have at our disposal to deliver the value for which our customers have paid us. And if we deliver that value, our customers will come back. If we don't, they won't.

It's just that simple a proposition in the marketplace. And just that powerful a concept within our organizations. Because we've all been customers a dozen times every day, it's the concept that enables us to make that connection between quality as an intellectual proposition and customer value as a visceral reality.


Q: So you're saying that our common experience as customers makes it easier to "sell" the concepts of quality internally?

A: Yes. You see, we've all got that lifetime of experience as customers stored up. There's energy in there. Our task is to channel it toward our improvement efforts. It's not a matter of teaching anybody anything; we all already know it--profoundly. It's a matter of making the connection, of describing it more effectively . of positioning quality as "the foundation on which to build customer value."


About the author

John Guaspari is a senior associate of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm Rath & Strong. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.

Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.

E-mail him at jguaspari@qualitydigest.com
Visit Rath & Strong's Web site at www.rathstrong.com

Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.


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