How Does Knowledge Management Complement Quality?

Arun Hariharan is a quality, knowledge management, and performance management practitioner. He has worked with several large companies and is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach.

 

His latest book, The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook, provides “hands on” advice for implementing Knowledge Management (KM) – not merely with technology, but with the more challenging leadership, strategic, and culture / behavior aspects of KM. The primary purpose of this book is to enable the reader to implement a strategic KM program in an organization and derive business results. This book is particularly addressed to CEOs and senior management to help them understand how they can use KM as a strategic tool to achieve their business objectives.  Purchase The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook from ASQ.

 

Arun spoke with ASQ about Knowledge Management, how it can be used effectively, and best practices.

What is Knowledge Management (KM)?

KM is an enabler to achieve an organization’s objectives better and faster through an integrated set of initiatives, systems and behavioral interventions – aimed at promoting smooth flow and sharing of knowledge relevant to the organization, and elimination of re-invention.

KM seeks to facilitate the flow of knowledge from where it resides, to where it is required (that is, where it can be applied or used), for achieving the organization’s objectives.

In your experience, what are the challenges that prevent some organizations from achieving results from Knowledge Management? How can these challenges be avoided or overcome?

The root of the challenge is that some organizations and their leaders seem to think that KM is all about technology. Examples abound of companies that have sunk truckloads of money in KM technology such as portals and collaboration tools, but did not get the results that they expected.

In my experience, there are four groups of factors, which I call the four pillars of KM, which will determine whether you get substantial and sustained results from your program. These are – in order of importance – (1) Leadership, people, and culture; (2) Keeping KM relevant to your business; (3) Measurement of KM (you need to measure both the enablers and results); and (4) Standardized KM processes and technology.  Your KM program will give you sustained results only if all four pillars are in place.

Does KM, with its emphasis on knowledge storing and reuse, kill innovation?

No, it doesn’t – KM only kills re-invention. And re-invention is not the same as innovation. If a particular type of work has been done by someone somewhere in the organization (or, ideally, even outside), another person re-inventing it or trying to get results through trial and error methods is not being innovative, but merely wasting their own and the company’s time and resources.

KM seeks to actively promote innovation by encouraging sharing of new ideas and at the same time eliminating re-invention. In fact, KM, by ensuring that your existing organizational knowledge is available in an organized fashion, facilitates further knowledge creation (in other words, innovation).

Our experience shows that every time existing knowledge from the organizational knowledge-base is reused, some new knowledge is created in the process of applying or customizing the existing knowledge to the present situation. Some companies that I work with also have KM initiatives such as IdeaExpress (a scheme for generating innovative ideas from employees), which are nothing but innovation factories.

Can quality and KM complement each other?

Absolutely. While Knowledge Management and quality are distinct disciplines, my experience working with both taught me that there are several ways in which the two can complement each other. Companies that have both a KM program and a quality program have the unique opportunity to get them get in tune with one another.

How KM can help quality: In several companies that I worked with, the KM program frequently helped us to identify potential quality-improvement projects. For example, some of our high-impact Lean Six Sigma projects were identified as a result of our KM program bringing in relevant knowledge in the form of competitor benchmarking information. Some of our best quality-improvement projects started as employee-ideas from our structured idea-generation initiative, a part of the KM program.

Also, successful quality-improvement projects were often done as pilot-projects in one part of the company. Once successful, these projects could be quickly replicated across the company through the best-practice sharing process that is in place thanks to the KM program.

How quality can help KM: On the other hand, we were able to quickly institutionalize best practices identified through the KM program by making them part of standardized business processes. This was possible because the company’s quality program ensured that it had a strong foundation of standardized processes, subject to continuous improvement. Secondly, the quality program ensured that critical business processes are clearly identified and mapped, making it easy to prioritize and focus KM efforts on these processes.

In companies where we implemented lean management, I added “re-invention of the wheel” to the list of different types of waste that lean commonly talks about. And, clearly, re-invention is one of the evils that KM seeks to eliminate.

In several companies, KM and quality are both important components of the business excellence program, and they complement each other beautifully.

The synergy between KM and quality is also borne out by the fact that, several years ago, well known excellence models such as Baldrige and EFQM added KM-related criteria. The revised ISO 9001:2015 also emphasizes the importance of KM in a new clause.

Is KM primarily about technology, or is there a strategic and/or culture aspect to it?

The differences between KM as a strategy and a limited technology-only approach is that a strategic KM Program has the following:

•    Senior management involvement
•    Link with broader organizational priorities
•    KM initiatives (such as knowledge bases, communities of experts and collaboration) centered around pre-defined “mission-critical” areas
•    KM roles clearly defined
•    Close-looped processes for knowledge-sharing and replication in mission-critical areas – not left to choice or chance
•    Technology as an important enabler, but clearly one component  of a larger KM program

On the other hand, a technology-only approach to KM is a narrow view that treats the implementation of some form of technology (usually an intranet / portal with features of document management, storage and collaboration) as the be-all-and-end-all of KM. In such an approach, KM is not linked to organizational priorities or employees’ performance.

Not surprisingly, organizations that take the technology-only view end up getting hardly any results from KM. What is the use of the best technology if we have an organizational culture where people are reluctant to share their knowledge with others, or unwilling to “copy” even proven best practices?

Establishing a Culture of Excellence: A Conversation With Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan is a quality, knowledge management, and performance management practitioner. He has worked with several large companies and is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach.

 

Written for both quality practitioners and business leaders, his latest book, Continuous Permanent Improvement (Quality Press, 2014), is a strategic distillation of experiences, anecdotes, stories, case studies, and lessons learned from successes and mistakes in nearly three decades of experience.

 

Hariharan has worked with business processes, systematic thinking, customer focus, quality, and performance measurements in a variety of companies and industries as diverse as financial services, telecom, manufacturing, conglomerate, and management consulting.

 

He spoke with ASQ about key lessons in establishing a culture of continuous permanent improvement.

Q. You talk often in your book about the need to establish a culture of excellence at an organization as a way to ensure success. Others would use profitability or market-share as a way to gauge success. How do excellence and profitability work together to define success in an organization?

Arun Hariharan: In a business, clearly, profitability and market-share are key measures of success. A culture of excellence is an important enabler to achieve financial results – in any event – to achieve them in a sustained way. A culture of excellence will ensure that the organization is proactive and does not miss any improvement opportunity. It can be said that financial results are the end and a culture of excellence is an important means of achieving this end – that’s how they work together.

I would like to use the example of Toyota and another automobile manufacturer (that shall remain unnamed out of respect for the dead!). Both started their automobile manufacturing operations around the same time some decades ago. Toyota decided to follow the path of excellence.

The other company, because it enjoyed a monopoly for many years in its market, made good money for several years despite palming off a shoddy quality product. The party lasted as long as customers had no choice. In the 1980s competition set in, but this company still refused to pay attention to quality or excellence. It believed that it would always have a bunch of “loyal” customers despite its poor quality and despite competitors offering better value.

The reality turned out to be very different. From the very first year that competition set in, the company that did not believe in excellence started losing market-share, eventually going bankrupt. An announcement of its shutting down appeared recently. On the other hand, Toyota, a company that believes in a culture of excellence, is a world-leader in profitability and market share.

Q. How big of a role should upper management play in establishing a culture of excellence versus regular employees?

AH: Upper management is the biggest make or break factor in establishing a culture of excellence. More than merely telling people that excellence is important, it is important to demonstrate to employees that upper management means this. The best way to convince employees is for senior people to actually get involved and spend time in excellence.

For example, I know CEOs who have spent time month after month for years in reviewing quality and customer related performance measures – with the same seriousness with which they review revenue and profits. Another important thing that upper management must do is to ensure that employees’ performance appraisals, starting with the CEO, include measures related to excellence – and that people’s bonuses and growth in the company are actually linked to this.

Perhaps the most important element in establishing the culture of excellence is for upper management to create an atmosphere where employees genuinely feel encouraged, not afraid, to make quality problems, defects and customer-complaints visible, so that they can be solved and prevented.

Q. Is there one particular tool or tools that you recommend are used every day in an organization that wants to commit to establishing a culture of excellence?

AH: We found that if strategic COPIS, root cause analysis, value stream mapping and simply listening to customers can become the organization’s habits rather than merely seen as tools to be used by a few, they will go a long way in establishing a culture of excellence.

Q. How should leaders capture, retain and apply organizational knowledge gathered in the pursuit of excellence?

AH: I look at customer-voice (which could include complaints or data obtained by surveys) as the most important part of organizational knowledge gathered in the pursuit of excellence. Once this knowledge is captured, some of the methods described in my recent book (such as root cause analysis to get to the root of the problem, identify the solution, and make the solution permanent by embedding it into the process) could be applied.

Another important part of organizational knowledge that we found worth retaining and replicating is completed excellence initiatives, including formal quality improvement projects. For example, an improvement project done in one part of the organization could be easily replicated in other locations if the organization has a structured way of capturing, storing, retrieving and applying relevant organizational knowledge.