Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Don't You Love It When a Plan Comes Together?

As the intrepid leader of TV's "A-Team" used to say in the early 1980s, "I love it when a plan comes together." This month's column will be used to describe the different efforts that together are leading up to the inauguration of the "Quality First" process at the UICI Insurance Center.

 As regular readers of this column know, one of its co-authors (Pat) returned to the corporate world in February of this year to help in the definition, implementation and maintenance of a quality process at a 750-person organization in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. At the end of March 2000, following a series of classes for the senior management team, there was a unanimous decision to proceed with a 100-percent employee-involvement, team-based quality process. That process will be officially "launched" Sept. 14. On that day, every person on the payroll will be on a "quality team" with a trained "team leader"--and those teams will begin meeting regularly to make decisions on how to improve whatever it is that they do. The fact that the company got to this point so quickly can be traced directly to the strongly held belief that the personnel department has long been in the habit of hiring trustworthy adults.

 A moment first on the basic scheme: 100-percent employee involvement. In the overwhelming majority of cases of quality process efforts in the United States and around the world, the first question asked after the decision is made to "do quality" is, "Who should we involve?" While it's a question that can lead to many scintillating discussions ("Should we involve Mary Jane and her department in this? They've never been very interesting before"), it's also a question for which there is little logical explanation. Why would any organization make the conscious decision to encourage only a limited number of its people to get better at what they do? The correct opening question is "Who can we afford to exclude from the quality effort?" and the obvious answer is "Nobody." Welcome to 100-percent participation.

 Many efforts have been taking place simultaneously during the last five months. Daring to proceed with so many different projects is another outgrowth of that belief that the payroll is populated with adults. Here are some of the projects:

* Strategic planning. It had been a long time since the company had made the formal effort (if they ever had) to spell out exactly who and where it thought it was and what and where it wanted to be. It would be foolhardy to launch a journey toward excellence if an organization was unsure both of where it was starting from and where it wanted to end up (at least as an interim plateau on the way to even more demanding goals).

 With the help of a professor/consultant, the senior management team invested several days of effort in spelling out and agreeing on a mission statement as well as specific goals and programs for achieving those objectives. There are monthly meetings of the senior leadership team (approximately 20 people; the company functions as a very "flat" organization) in which each person responsible for one of the programs reports on progress toward completion. The strategic plan will serve as both a gold mine of ideas for the quality teams and as a touchstone to confirm alignment with the overall direction of the company.

* Leadership training. Both to bolster the leadership skills of all those in positions of responsibility (from supervisors to the president of the company) and to strengthen the feeling and practice of teamwork within the company, approximately 110 members of the company have received three days of intense, consultant-led training. Virtually everyone who is going to be a quality team leader was included in the training, even if not a supervisor or above. A member of the organization is going to be certified by the consultant firm to continue with the instruction for future team leaders.

* Process analysis. One way to look at a quality process is to consider it a matter of both doing the "right things" and doing "things right." The quality teams will, in the main, concentrate on doing things right (i.e., looking at defined processes and determining how to use them most efficiently). The question of determining if the defined processes are the optimal ones is a separate, even if overlapping, task. There are two different consultant-driven efforts ongoing in the company, one in each of two of the largest departments. It's anticipated that process analysis efforts will continue throughout the company in the coming months. Doing the right things, using the best procedures, is a necessary step toward lasting improvement.

* Interim quality program. Essentially a computer-based suggestion program, this program has served well as a way to introduce employees at all levels to the idea of continual improvement and to get the discussion started. Approximately 250 ideas have been submitted since the program was launched on April 4, with a high percentage either implemented or in some stage of resolution. This program will, of course, come to an end on Sept. 14.

* Communications. Recognizing that different folks hear things in different ways, the idea of a quality process and a good deal of detail about the implications of such a process have been presented by everything from a changes-every-week "QualityFone" message [just call (817) 255-8438] to signs on the walls to various presentations to a newsletter to all-employee e-mail messages.

* Quality teams. Every employee will be on a quality team--and the computer folks (both hardware and software) will be "distributed" throughout the quality teams in the rest of the company (approximately two per team). The teams will be given authority equal to their responsibility and will use a "Quality Idea Tracking Program" to record their progress. The quality team make-up, procedures and early progress will be detailed in the November column (which will be written in early October, three weeks or so after the opening ceremony… the plans for the ceremony will be described in the October column).

 In addition to all of these time-consuming activities, the normal business of the company (to include several major projects) continues at full speed. Perhaps in response to the emphasis on quality and continual improvement that meets employees at every turn, the measurements that have been in place for a long time are already beginning to show an upturn, something that serves to underscore the basic premise of the whole effort: that the company is made up of talented adults who, with proper direction and competent leadership, can make continual improvement a simple fact of life.


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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