Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

The Interim Quality Program

At the end of last month's column, we noted that "There's a problem… most folks don't want to wait until the fall for the beginning of the Insurance Center Quality Process," and we promised that the effort to define a "solution" to this very welcome "problem" would be included in this month's column.

 The Insurance Center's quality process is to be defined and ready to launch in August or September, an unusually fast start-up as the time between the end of March (when the unanimous, informed consent of the leadership of the company was verbalized) and the end of September is only six months.

 Most efforts, even with considerably less than 100 percent of the employees involved, take far longer to get underway. If the consultant who is the primary resource and architect of the process in construction has been willing to make a commitment to having 100-percent involvement be part of the process, it's normally a good bet that the announced date for that level of involvement is far enough down the line to ensure that at least two of the consultant's children will be able to attend fine, private universities.

 At the Insurance Center, 100-percent involvement will be an integral, assumed characteristic of the process from the outset. How, then, will everything start so quickly? The first step is remembering that, at its base, a quality process is not complex, even if it is difficult to implement. A quality process is, for the most part, formalized common sense plus some mechanical tools, good manners and mutual respect.

 If a high-powered team of organizational leaders with a clear vision of what they want their quality process to be can define the procedures that make up the process and accomplish the first round of training, six months is a reasonable goal. At the Insurance Center, a quality steering committee led by the COO is grappling with those tasks and their decisions and progress will be described in future columns.

 In the meantime, the Insurance Center has the "Interim Quality Program," essentially a computer-based suggestion program. After what a computer program would need to include was spelled out, a manager who attended the four 'quality classes' in March took it upon himself to create a program that reflected everything that had been specified and more.

 On April 4, after both a flyer and an e-mail message announcing and describing it were distributed the previous week, the Interim Quality Program was launched. For the small number of employees who don't have e-mail capability at their desks, two "Quality Qubes" were built to house PCs that were available for anyone to use to submit quality ideas.

 There has been a steady flow of ideas, with the vast majority of them being focused on small improvements that either benefit paying customers or simply make work more efficient. Shortly after anyone submits their first quality idea to the Interim Quality Program, someone senior shows up at their desk with a coffee cup commemorating their contribution to putting "Quality in the Fast Track."

 The Interim Quality Program isn't expected to yield any major breakthroughs, as there has been virtually no formal instruction and no teams have been formed. What it is doing is making "quality"--and the idea of being able to initiate change--part of the company vocabulary and expectation. By so doing, it is preparing the organization for a high-speed acceptance and launch of the "real" quality process this fall.

 Two other activities deserve mention. One is the inauguration of a quality newsletter, which is delivered to everyone in the company as an insert in the biweekly company publication. Since the Insurance Center is often abbreviated to "IC," the newsletter is titled, "I See Quality." It's a two-sided single-page production. The lead story in the first issue was "Why Quality?" The lead story in the second issue was "What is Quality?" The publication will be used both to report on the process's successes and to offer ideas about the various aspects of quality for consideration.

 Of tremendous long-range importance to the company in general--and the quality process in particular--is the series of strategic planning workshops in which the leaders of the Insurance Center have taken part during the past month. The meetings were designed to articulate not only the organization's strategic goals but also the strategies and specific programs that will make it possible to reach those goals.

 By reaching unanimous agreement on exactly "who" the company is and what major initiatives must be accomplished to make it possible to achieve organizational goals, management has not only established a very clear path for the quality process, it has also underscored the vital importance of the quality process.

 In the next month, the quality steering committee will begin weekly meetings. Its role is to define exactly how the company is going to do this quality thing, using the four classes in March as their starting point and the newly-articulated company goals as their guidelines along the way. Their initial decisions and results from the Interim Quality Program will be included in next month's column.

Due to some recent technical difficulties with Quality Digest's Web site, Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt's article for June was not posted as normally scheduled. We apologize to the readers for this, and to Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt for their patience. The column will return to its normally scheduled distribution in the month of July.

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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