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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


Do Your Top Leaders Speak QMS?

Top brass must understand the benefits of quality improvement.




Quality professionals often comment that it’s very difficult to engage top managers in the quality process. Some say it’s impossible. Often the major issue isn’t with top managers but rather with the process used to get them engaged. Managers often make statements such as, “I really want good quality and satisfied customers, but the quality system just wastes my time.”

Top management involvement is critical to successfully implementing quality management system standards such as ISO 9001. In fact, the standard requires managers to accomplish many tasks, including:

Establishing a quality policy and objectives

Conducting regular management re-views

Ensuring the availability of necessary resources

Ensuring that customer requirements are established and designed to enhance customer satisfaction


The message is clear: There are many roles for top managers in the quality process, and their active participation in developing the QMS is a basic requirement for its effectiveness.

Quality professionals must carefully consider what motivates top managers’ actions. Quality per se generally isn’t a motivator. Instead, executives often view it as just one of many items requiring periodic attention. A top manager once made an analogy between his organization and the human body. There must be a balance between the various elements of the body, he said. It serves no purpose to have a strong heart if the lungs don’t function.

Thus, top managers are often motivated to achieve a balance across their organizations. They believe this balance is necessary to produce planned results. Though they might not even be conscious of this motivation, they’ll champion activities and projects that contribute to achieving and maintaining the balance.

Top managers look for ways to meas-ure the value to the organization of each activity or project. This means they judge the value of activities based on their effect on the organization’s financial performance. This fixation on financial measures is often criticized, but we must realize that in most cases ensuring an organization’s financial success is the primary--some would argue the only--job of top managers.

Fortunately for quality professionals, quality products and services tend to attract customers and are positive revenue drivers. Likewise, eliminating defects, solving problems and preventing failures are among the best tactics to lower costs. Customers are important to most organizations. Activities that improve products and services while reducing costs can increase customer satisfaction and revenue.

There are eight virtues that quality professionals can adopt to help engage top management:

Talk with managers in their language

Include quality management in strategic and tactical planning

Embrace customer satisfaction throughout the organization

Embrace continual improvement throughout the organization

Promote quality objectives at all levels and functions

Take the objectives seriously

Analyze and act on quality cost data

Turn the management review process into an activity that top management will value


These aren’t the only virtues that quality professionals should practice, but they’re good starting points. Before we complain that “top management isn’t fully engaged in the quality process of the organization,” we should ask ourselves if we’re doing our part all of the time, every day of the year, to motivate them.

Emphasize process performance rather than policies, documentation and procedures, which give the appearance of building bureaucracy for its own sake. Focus instead on improving process performance to achieve results that are valued by customers. Documentation is important, but an emphasis on achieving planned results sends a more valuable message.

Most important of all, learn to speak top managers’ language. Always talk about the financial aspects of anything you discuss with them. Don’t rely on executives to understand quality jargon; present quality in terms they’ll clearly understand. Constantly remind them that good,
customer-focused quality drives revenue up and costs down. Emphasize the point with real examples from your organization, presented with monetary data.

When you ask top managers to spend their time on quality, make certain they know the financial effect for the organization!

Note: This article is based on concepts from Unlocking the Power of Your Quality Management System: Keys to Performance Improvement, by John E. (Jack) West and Charles A. Cianfrani (ASQ Quality Press, 2004).

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards.