Talking To the C-Suite About Quality

This is a guest post by Dr. Suresh Gettala, a director at ASQ India. He holds a doctorate in quality management from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, and is also a recipient of the renowned post-doctoral fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt  Foundation, Germany. He is a quality expert with a unique blend of academic/research as well as industry experience spanning several years in various aspects of quality management across multiple industries. He has published many research articles in reputed, peer-reviewed international journals. Suresh blogs on LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: Suresh is part of the ASQ Influential Voices program and is also employed by ASQ India. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of ASQ or ASQ India.

If you look at any survey, study or a research work on the critical success factors for the success of quality initiatives, it will invariably list “top management commitment and leadership” as the top most criterion. Needless to mention, on the flip side, the reasons for the failure of most quality initiatives will also list “lack of top management commitment” as the key.

It is quite palpable that top management commitment is central to the success or failure of any quality program. Therefore, as quality professionals, how should we harness the support of C-suite leaders? Unfortunately, quality professionals are experts only in the quality field and they lack the nuances to build a business case to sell quality to the top management.

In order to effectively talk about quality and convince the C-suite about the importance of the same, we need to first understand the intricacies of the C-suite mind set. Focus on what the executive needs to know rather than what you want them to know. Essentially you should apply the lean principle of “pull” in contrast to “push.”

Portray quality as a means of building the capability of individuals as well as the organization so that the C-suite perceives some tangible value in investing in the quality initiatives.

Given this backdrop, I would like to discuss the following five rudiments that are indispensable, in my view, when you are talking about quality to the top management.

1.    The long term – short term continuum
C-suite personnel have the uncanny knack of marrying the long-term vision and strategy with the short-term operational elements. Therefore, when you are talking about quality to the C-Suite, it is mandatory to ensure that your talk on quality addresses both of the above aspects so that it keeps them engrossed in what you are saying.

Jack Welch, former GE CEO, felt that the job of the C-suite is to deliver profit in the short term and strength and sustenance in the long term. It can be argued that there is no long term without the short term. In other words, what they perceive is a multitude of short- term links that make up the long-term chain.

For instance a methodology like lean or Six Sigma could provide profits or bottom-line savings in the short-term. They may also help the organization focus on getting some early wins. However, if those methodologies have to be institutionalized across the length and breadth of an organization, a culture of quality has to be fostered. A business-level framework such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award could help in adapting to a new culture, thereby addressing the long-term requirements of the leadership.

2.    The Language of Metrics
Before talking to an executive, do enough research on the background of the issues or the improvement opportunities faced by the company. Present your case with enough evidence in terms of metrics, instead of your personal views and surmises. Metrics are very swaying, as the executive’s decision to a great extent will depend on what he/she sees as hard evidence.

Talk about metrics that are important from strategic and tactical levels rather than operational levels. Metrics can also be presented in terms of enterprise level (focusing on shareholders), business level (focusing on external customers) and operational level (focusing on processes). Again, more focus should be laid on shareholder and customer- related metrics.

Try and quantify the risks of taking no action so that it is hard to say no to your idea. With the advent of big data analytics, most executives will rely on a fact-based approach for decision making. Therefore, the metrics that you present should provide them with enough evidence in terms of improvement opportunities.

3.    Economic Case for Quality
The lexicon of the top management is quite different from the language of the quality professionals. In order to validate quality’s effect on business, you need to talk the lingo of business – which is money and nothing else.

The primary customer for the C-suite personnel is the shareholder and hence the focus of executives is to ensure a streamlined management process that yields the maximum benefits to their shareholders. One of the salient characteristics of the executive leadership is their ability to tie actions with quantified financial benefits. Show the top management where money is lost due to poor quality and eventually they will focus on how money can be saved or accumulated due to good quality.

Make them realize that money spent on quality initiatives should be viewed as investment and not cost. Develop an economic case for a wider application of quality through models such as Cost of Quality and illustrate to them how bottom-line savings can be achieved through the astute use of the concept. Philip Crosby’s seminal work, “Quality Is Free” accentuated the importance of right first time instead of doing rework that would be piled up in the hidden factory.

If you can provide a strong case for value creation, you have effectively put across your quality idea to the leadership.

4.    Success Anecdotes

Metrics are important, but it is equally important to weave a story around them. Top executives work in a high-pressure environment that encompasses daily problem-solving to long-range planning. Flooding them with only facts and figures will not pass muster.

Tell a story that has lots of similarities to the challenges faced by the executives.
Storytelling is an art. Developing a story requires a sagacious mix of information evidenced in the form of critical metrics and having an emotional appeal to the success story. Create enough anecdotal evidence to make a compelling story that quality indeed pays. Lace your story with examples about how others achieved success through the vehicle of quality.

Senior leaders are always interested in comparative information and competitive positioning. Talk about how Fortune 500 companies benefitted from a quality initiative. Present the success stories of the Baldrige winners. Try to stick to case studies in their own industries so that the executives can coherently relate to how a similar approach can be applied in their organizations. Always close the story with a “before” and “after” state so that the benefit of the quality approach is intelligibly discernible.

5.    The Big Q Approach

“Big Q” is a term coined by Juran in the 1980s in order to broaden the scope of the quality initiatives so that quality would mean improving every aspect of everything the company does. On the other hand “small q” basically refers to the quality of a product or a service on a limited basis. While small q connects to the short-term span, BIG Q epitomizes the long-range perspective.

Research on the traits of C-suite personnel indicates that comprehension of business fundamentals coupled with strong leadership is far more important to them than technical and functional expertise.

The Big Q approach to quality is highly imperative to get a positive response from the C-suite. It will provide them with a holistic view on the usefulness of the quality philosophy from a business point of view. Top management will not be too concerned about improving some aspects of the business via a “silo” mind set. For them the entire business is extremely important.

The need is to emphasize how the quality approach could be leveraged to address all aspects of the business.

SUMMARY
I have discussed some of the possible approaches while talking about quality to the C-suite. Fundamentally, one needs to understand that when you are talking to the top leadership, you should operate at the strategic level and talk the language of money using metrics that could help create value and improve the organization as a whole.
“Quality makes money” is a phrase that should resonate in the minds of the C-suite.

If, as a quality professional, we can help with this task, our job is complete. In addition we should clearly communicate the message that “quality approaches” have the potential to yield high-quality products/services, streamlined processes, highly satisfied customers, supremely energized employees, increased market share, and sustained excellence in everything that we do.

Human beings, by nature, tend to resist change. We need to openly accept this and look at ways of presenting facts and stories on the efficacy of quality initiatives so that the resistance is minimized. Accentuating on ASQ’s mission – “To increase the use and impact of quality in response to the diverse needs of the world” – will go a long way in getting the acquiescence of the C-suite towards quality initiatives.

A Leader’s Roadmap to a Culture of Quality: Building on Forbes Insights-ASQ Leadership Research: Part 3 of 3

This is a guest post by Rob Lawton, an author, executive coach, and expert in creating rapid strategic alignment between enterprise objectives and customer priorities. He has directed strategic and operational improvement initiatives since 1985. Lawton coined the term “customer-centered culture” with his first book, Creating a Customer-Centered Culture: Leadership in Quality, Innovation and Speed (ASQ Quality Press, 1993). He has been published in Brazil, China, the U.K., and is referenced widely. Many of his articles are available at www.imtc3.com. Contact him at Robin.Lawton@icloud.com.

Part one

Part two

The Forbes Insights-ASQ research published in fall of 2014 distills several guidelines from interviewees that can be especially useful with more detail.  My purpose in this three-part series is to provide details and references to the missing specifics for successful action.

This blog post is the last in the series.  It spells out how to successfully address point #3, below (page numbers from the report are shown in parenthesis):

1.    All employees must apply the four key elements of any strategy for building a quality culture.  (Page 8: Boeing’s Ken Shead.)
2.    Closely understand customer expectations so you can focus and give them what they want.  Study respondents overwhelmingly report low effectiveness by their organizations in doing so.  (Page 16: Intel’s Stan Miller and Rudy Hacker.)
3.    Develop a formal quality policy, common language and leader behaviors as deployment mechanisms. (Pages 18-19, HP’s Rodney Donaville.)

DEVELOP QUALITY POLICY, COMMON LANGUAGE, AND LEADER BEHAVIORS

Mr. Donaville states in the study that establishing a common language (absent ambiguity) is essential for the culture leader.  We have found there are six essential levers that a leader can push on to strengthen and change the culture: language, values, measures, power, assumptions and modeling.  Specific guidance was provided in the preceding two blogs on the first four.

The moment we talk about a quality policy, we encounter another frequent stumbling block on the road to a strong quality culture.  Just about everyone in the study agrees that quality starts and ends with the customer’s definition of it.  If that is true, is there a difference between a customer satisfaction and quality policy? The evidence suggests there is.

A traditional quality policy generally points us toward technical product or process performance.  In practice, it is common to find that quality policies encourage action to find and reduce defects and errors. If it is possible to have a product with a very low defect rate but a high customer defection rate, there is a difference between quality and satisfaction that matters.  Likewise, if we can have a product with a modest defect rate but fanatically loyal customers, there is a difference between quality and satisfaction that matters.

Sadly, we find quality policies are far more common than those on customer satisfaction. Let’s solve the issue by putting the emphasis where all the leaders in the study say it should go, on customer satisfaction.   The following Customer Satisfaction Policy, displayed prominently by a major retailer, is a typical approach to the matter.

We guarantee customer satisfaction by refund, replacement or return. (Labeled as Walmart’s customer satisfaction policy and displayed on the wall at the returns or customer service desk.)

Is this really a policy on satisfaction?  Does is address Dimensions 1 or 2 in the graphic below (discussed in part two of this series)?

Since the intent is to describe the corrective action the company will take when the customer is unhappy with a purchase, it is a dissatisfaction policy focused on Dimension 2.

Consider a second example.

All employees, associates and partners will:

•    Proactively solicit customer needs and expectations.
•    Confirm that we have understood those expectations.
•    Develop, package, deliver and support our products to meet those expectations.
•    Measure the degree to which our customers’ product and outcome expectations are achieved.
•    Never blame the user when he or she cannot make a product or process work; provide understanding then help.   Assume they have done their best.
•    Aggressively seek to close any gap between what our customers expect and what they experience. (Developed by International Management Technologies, Inc. and provided to many of its clients with permission to use.)

This policy puts all six cultural levers to work here: language, values, measures, power, assumptions and modeling.  Bullets 1-4 are related to Dimension 1, bullets 5-6 cover Dimension 2.

SUMMARY

ASQ and Forbes Insights have provided us with great food for thought.  My purpose in this three-part blog series has been to put some practical guidelines and references on the table for those wanting to take action.  I invite you to spend about six minutes on a self-assessment and see where you are on the road map to excellence.  The questions are designed in such a way that, once you give your response, you’ll already have the start of an action plan forming in your mind.  Just select item #1 here. The average score across thousands of responders is about 70 (out of a possible 125).

You can also take the Forbes Insights/ASQ Culture of Quality self-assessment, which gives an overview of your organization’s culture of quality.

ASQ provides a catalyst to apply culture-strengthening practices to your own organization: the course Excellence in 8 Dimensions. My hope is the short action plan outlined in this series, or implied by your self-assessment results, has offered you useful insights and a practical path forward.

A Leader’s Roadmap to a Culture of Quality: Building on Forbes Insights-ASQ Leadership Research: Part 2 of 3

This is a guest post by Rob Lawton, an author, executive coach, and expert in creating rapid strategic alignment between enterprise objectives and customer priorities. He has directed strategic and operational improvement initiatives since 1985. Lawton coined the term “customer-centered culture” with his first book, Creating a Customer-Centered Culture: Leadership in Quality, Innovation and Speed (ASQ Quality Press, 1993). He has been published in Brazil, China, the U.K., and is referenced widely. Many of his articles are available at www.imtc3.com. Contact him at Robin.Lawton@icloud.com.

The Forbes Insights-ASQ white paper published in fall of 2014 distills several guidelines from interviewees that can be especially useful with more detail. My purpose in this three part blog series is to provide details and references to the missing specifics for successful action.

Part 1 in this blog series addressed the first of three research findings on what leaders must do to create a quality culture:
1.    All employees must apply the four key elements of any strategy for building a quality culture.  (Page 8: Boeing’s Ken Shead).
2.    Closely understand customer expectations so you can focus and give them what they want.  Study respondents overwhelmingly report low effectiveness by their organizations in doing so.  (Page 16: Intel’s Stan Miller and Rudy Hacker)
3.    Develop a formal quality policy, common language and leader behaviors as deployment mechanisms. (Pages 18-19, HP’s Rodney Donaville)

Part Two in this blog series spells out how to successfully address point #2, above.

CLOSELY UNDERSTAND CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS

“Duh! Well, of course!” would be the expected response by many leaders and quality practitioners to this exhortation.  The intent to understand what customers want is easily agreed with but not well executed.

Most culture change leaders do not have the time, patience or inclination sufficient to adequately understand and apply the many quality methods and tools available.  Abundance, complexity and competing priorities abound.  The voice of the customer (VOC), customer experience, QFD and other labels refer to organized ways of uncovering and satisfying what customers want.  They’re all valuable but not necessarily easy to apply or relevant to every organizational setting.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of information is aimed at widget-making enterprises.  Only 13% of us personally make widgets so we need another way.

There are two practical and easy-to-apply versions of the cultural transformation roadmap. For those leaders who prefer text and a step-by step recipe, follow the path of answers to questions 1-8 covered in the first blog in this series.  For those of us who like pictures, think in terms of relationships and systems, like a reference that applies to every aspect of excellence in every context, and want to be able to point to “we are here,” use the 8 Dimensions of Excellence  graphic below (more on this graphic).


A culture of quality must address all eight topics labeled in this graphic.  Attacking the Dimensions in the sequence shown by the numbers works best.  Traditional quality management practices put especially heavy emphasis on Dimension 8.  In fact, most initiative names (lean, Six Sigma, activity-based costing, business process improvement, etc.) explicitly work on processes to benefit the producer.  Dimension 4, the customer’s process for acquiring and using the product, generally gets far less attention.

Leaders who have defined and measured Dimensions 1-4, in that order, have effectively uncovered the VOC.  That defines the target to hit; it is what quality or excellence means to customers.  The mechanics of doing this in any context is described with some detail in “Voice of the Customer In a Widget-free World.”

An easy way to test whether what we have said we value is actually valued is to examine what gets measured regarding each of the 8 Dimensions.  Most healthcare organizations will admit that their customers (patients, let’s say) want to achieve, above all else,  “good health.”  This is the voice of the customer for Dimension 1, their ultimate desired outcome, and should not come as a surprise.  Yet the vast majority of healthcare providers have no written definition for good health (though the World Health Organization has had one since 1948), has no measure for it, and no numerical goals for improvement.  Other than that, everything is wonderful.

Happily, there will be many measures for other things, mostly regarding operations and compliance, but the most important customer outcome is not defined, measured or linked to compensation or performance reviews (but volume, cycle time and cost are).  Customer surveys ask many questions (on courtesy, cleanliness, wait times) but few to none regarding the good health outcome (not to be confused with the clinical outcome).  We assume high scores indicate satisfaction, but we have carefully chosen which questions to ask and which to avoid.  The power of customers is therefore diminished and staff behavior is not linked to what the strategic plan intends.

You can fix this situation by using the 8 Dimensions framework with the steps outlined in the article referenced above. You will have a practical sense for what it takes to “closely understand customer expectations.”

The third blog in this series will outline the specifics of taking action on the third major research finding: Develop policy, common language and leader behaviors for deployment.

Learning About Quality From Counter-culture

This is a guest post by Nicole Radziwill, an assistant professor in the Department of  Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She writes about research in the quality field, quality consciousness, and innovation on her blog, Quality and Innovation. Nicole is also an ASQ Influential Voices blogger.

What can you learn about quality in the middle of a counter-cultural gathering in the desert? A lot. And that’s just the start.

Quality and innovation can be managed, but transformation must be catalyzed by new insights and experiences. It’s the process of inner transformation that allows us to see possibilities for creating future value.

On August 24, my partner and I embarked on our annual trek to the Burning Man festival to be transformed. Burning Man is a yearly gathering of hundreds of thousands of people in the harsh wilderness of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada, U.S.

Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

We joined 70,000 others in the creation of Black Rock City, a temporary community dedicated to art, technology, and radical self-expression that is dismantled (leaving no trace) a week later. The entire city is decommodified. No money is exchanged at all; however, gifts are given frequently. If you need something, it’s expected that you ask around. Someone will provide it! The community is guided by 10 Principles that include participation, communal effort, and civic responsibility.

A Quality-Minded Approach: A quality-minded approach is essential. You’ll be in the desert for several days, so you need to bring sufficient food and water. Your shelter must withstand mud, extreme heat, hypothermia-inducing cold, and dust storms with hurricane-force winds. You need to make sure you don’t forget anything; you can’t just run to the store and quickly pick something up.

Basic Quality Tools: Some of our camp mates learned this the hard way. When we arrived, they were building a 30-footdiameter geodesic dome. It would serve as the base of operations for a neurogaming event, which challenges two players wearing EEG headsets to see who can get into a meditative state the fastest. As they unpacked their gear, the discussion became heated.

“Where’s the projector? It’s the most important part of our installation!”

Without a projector, the competitors’ scores could not be displayed to the crowd. No one could find the projector.

The project manager asked, “Who was in charge of the checklist?”

Team members glanced quizzically at each other.

“What checklist? What do you mean?”

Unfortunately, basic quality tools weren’t part of their pre-trip planning.

“Didn’t you make a checklist so you’d be sure not to forget mission critical things like… the projector?!”

Fortunately, they found another camp willing to provide a projector on loan for a couple days.

Waste and Value: Burning Man also trains me to think about waste in a totally different way. There are no trash cans, so what you bring in you must pack out. You can’t dump gray water on the ground due to Bureau of Land Management requirements — it has to be packed out, too. Loose hairs are also considered MOOP (Matter Out Of Place).  I found myself choosing canned drinks instead of bottles (which are easier to safely crush and recycle), sparingly transferring dishwater of varying hues between dishes of varying dirtyness, preparing only enough food for each meal (and eating it all!), and being extra careful combing out my hair. In a socially and environmentally conscious community, I didn’t want to leave any MOOP.

The “out of place” component of the MOOP term is also very instructive because it encourages you to consider whether you’re dealing with true waste, or something that just needs to be somewhere else to add value. (Could MOOP become an established term in the quality profession?)

Embracing Variation and Innovation: What I love most about Burning Man, though, is that you are continually surrounded by technological innovation and beauty — all contributed by the participants. Interactive art installations are scattered throughout the city. For example, one night we sat in a “binaural beats therapy” pod, the size of a cargo van, that provided a light and sound show that stimulated a sensory deprivation environment. The environment encourages you to temporarily embrace variation, experience freedom from marketing and economic transactions, and practice giving, receiving, and expressing gratitude.

To quote another attendee: “To celebrate the collective expression and actualization of an entire city is nothing short of transformational. That’s what happens every second of every day on the playa. No one is just pushing paper or wasting time doing something they don’t want to be doing.”

Key Takeaway For Quality: This exploratory culture has been spreading around the globe for the past few years. Regional events can provide anyone with the opportunity to participate in this experiential, transformational culture that catalyzes innovation.

But you don’t need to attend an event as radical as Burning Man. You can find hints of quality and even transformation in any offbeat event near you. Quality isn’t something restricted to an office or manufacturing floor.

How can we implement liberating environments like this — that drive purpose, value, and meaning–while retaining a focus on quality?