Every business likes to think that they have a commitment to quality. If that were truly the case, no product would ever disappoint, and no service would result in a complaint. So how do we improve quality at IST?
W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, famously laid out 14 points for management—chief among them, the notion of "constancy of purpose." Deming argued that a company's commitment to quality had to come from the top, and it had to be reinforced over and over again. Unless a business views quality as its single, non-negotiable goal, workers will inevitably feel the need to make tradeoffs and quality will slip. "Constancy of purpose means that quality decisions are not situational," writes the operational expert Rebecca A. Morgan. "End of month quality is the same as
So are you ready to commit? If you are, you should tell your staff—and then think about how you will handle the first conflict between your stated objective and a pressing deadline or an attractive short cut.
If you are going to commit to quality, first you must define exactly what quality is. Standards must be clear, documented, communicated and practiced consistently. As quality is compromised, we must not only react to the effect, but track the cause. If we don’t know how frequent our mistakes are, or aren’t understanding the root cause of quality issues, we can’t effectively fix those issues and prevent them from recurring.
An old saw of the quality movement is that any business with a quality control department is doomed to poor performance, for it has demonstrated to every other employee that quality is not his or her chief concern. Instead, quality experts recommend that businesses train workers at all levels to look for ways to improve quality and to ameliorate problems.
Training takes on several dimensions. For starters, you should set up a new-employee initiation program that trains workers to focus on quality issues from their first day on the job. Different CEOs have different perspectives on how best to do this. Ralph Stayer, the quality-obsessed CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, believes your existing employees should be put in charge of training new employees, because only they can provide a firsthand perspective on how your company's operations work.
Ari Weinzweig, founder and CEO of Zingerman's, takes a different approach: He personally leads all new-employee orientation training sessions (which last several days) because he believes an employer never has a better chance of instilling values and a sense of purpose than right after he or she has hired a new employee.
Whether you hand training duties to your employees, take them on personally, or some combination of the two approaches, it's important that you provide workers with a history of the company through the lens of quality. Let them know what problems you have had in the past, how you corrected these problems, and where your company stands with respect to its quality goals today. You should also go over your definition of quality in detail, and show them how you measure quality (see the previous section.)
Finally, train workers to see the connection between their actions and, more broadly, their work ethic, and the company's overall performance. By tying individual behavior to an overall system of work, and then showing where that system can, on occasion break down, you will be giving workers the information they need to be good stewards of your business.
Organizing employees into quality circles can be an effective way to identify and address problems. Quality circles are groups of employees who are encouraged to assess processes and recommend improvements, all with the goal of promoting quality, efficiency, and productivity.
Quality circles, by any other name, are teams of workers who are given the authority and responsibility for making a business better. To succeed, experts say that participation in a quality circle should be voluntary; circles should draw members from all corners of a company, and the circle should set its own agenda (rather than pursuing a company owner's agenda.)
Once you have invited workers to join a quality circle, provide them with adequate resources to pursue their analysis, and schedule a time in the future at which they may present their findings.
It is important that you act on their recommendations, even if the group's conclusion is not necessarily one you would have drawn yourself. Remember, the purpose of the exercise is less to solve a particular problem than it is to engage workers in the process of finding and addressing concerns. Moreover, you should be tracking customer complaints or product defects on a regular basis, so if the circle's recommendations do not produce the desired result, you'll know it, and be able to act.
Too many people turn the quest to improve quality into something oppressive. No less an authority than Deming rejected the idea that the quality management had to be dreary and involve a lot of negativity. "The prevailing system of management has crushed fun out of the workplace," Deming moaned in an interview in the 1990s.
Rather than pointing out inadequacy wherever it might be found, Deming believed that the job of managers was to frame the pursuit of quality as an interesting, noble, and worthwhile goal. If you are to truly improve quality at your business, your first step (and also the hardest) is to resist the temptation to dwell on your company's flaws and instead rally your team around the cause of rooting them out.