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Columnists: Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Photo: Pat Townsend


Photo: Joan Gebhardt


Quality From the Inside Out

Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt



Quality efforts are too often put in place from the outside in. It starts when someone very senior decides to give some variant of “quality”--or “continual improvement” or whatever other synonym is used--a try, and proceeds to try to “make it happen.”

Plans are subsequently formulated at the senior levels of the organization and the new attempt to become the “quality alternative” in the organization’s particular niche is launched. One approach is to train an appropriate number of in-house experts who will, perhaps festooned with distinctive articles of clothing, carry the message throughout the company. Another is to establish an outsider as the person who will determine if the company has correctly fulfilled some set of specifications agreed on as the goal.

In any case, people eventually sally forth into the internal workings of the organization and attempt to implement the agreed-upon system. As the quality disciples are explaining to everyone what statistics and measurements they (the experts) need to do their work, the boss who initiated all of this is preparing the marketing folks to proclaim “quality” (or “excellence” or whatever word the marketeers decide is hot) as their competitive edge.

This approach can be called quality from the outside in because the people internal to the company--the ones who truly do the work and who actually know the functional details of the processes--first hear about it either in reading the ads pushing their products or in hearing that they have to provide certain numbers to an unfamiliar person. The experts--either long-time employees who have only been recently trained or newly-hired outsiders--take the numbers and, after appropriate calculations, dictate new work processes. The employees, resentful of the implication that they’ve been doing it wrong all these months or years, balk. Absent heavy pressure, the quality effort will begin to grind to a quick halt. With heavy pressure, it can limp along, grudgingly reaching minimal levels of improvement. At the first crack in the resolution from the top, the effort will die.

The alternative? Quality from the inside out.

This approach will look to be slower at the outset--but first glances can be deceiving. As regular readers of this column know, one of its authors (Pat) is the director of a quality effort at an insurance company in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. The effort there, dubbed a Complete Quality Process, is an example of quality from the inside out, and the results at his company belie the assumption that such an effort will be either a slow-starter or a short-term effort on two counts:

Every person on the payroll was on a quality team, and the process was begun within six months of the decision to “do quality”--and the 81 quality teams implemented 556 quality ideas with more than $5 million in annualized impact in the first year of the effort. In addition, the second year of the CQP effort has shown even better results than the first thus far, with the number of implemented ideas exceeding 1,000 after 11 months.

After two years, the effort is gaining strength, and plans are being worked out for steadily expanding the bag of tools used by the quality teams and middle and senior level leaders.

What will make the expansion of the scope of the effort very possible are these points:

The quality teams have already done extensive work improving their processes. They’ve taken care of the majority of the “little” stuff that never made sense to them. Although still admittedly imperfect, at least the processes are better, and the people who have to deal with the procedures--on a very personal, change-my-work-day basis--took part in the improvement efforts. They know that they aren’t finished.

The senior executives have been visibly involved from the beginning--not as dictators of new procedures, but rather as people who have been taking part in discussions about how to change what they do (senior execs are on quality teams) and who have been supporting and congratulating the quality teams for two years. Saying “thank you”--in several ways and with some frequency--has been an integral part of the effort and will continue to be.

At this point, a series of classes on measurement will be providing quality teams with tools they can appreciate. Teaching mid- and senior-level leaders techniques of process analysis will give them the skills to take full advantage of workers who are already attuned to the idea of trying to find better ways to get from where they are to where the company needs them to be.

In short, the senior executive who originally makes the decision to do quality is in a position to be authoritative in directing his or her direct reports to get serious about quality. But the facts of corporate life are that, with each succeeding bureaucratic layer, there’s less need to heed--and even less reason to enthusiastically embrace--the boss’s latest hobby.

By first engaging the folks at the lower end of the corporate ladder--primarily a matter of recognizing their expertise, giving them the first chance at improving things, and working hard at saying thank you--an organization can establish the basis for a long-lived quality effort, one that moves from the inside out.

About the Author

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. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.