Do You Have a Clear Vision?


European Organization for Quality Annual Congress: As I returned on Lufthansa Flight 436 from Gothenburg, Sweden, I found myself reflecting on some of the big ideas I was exposed to while attending the European Organization for Quality’s 58th Annual Congress this past June.  The Conference was organized by EOQ, the International Academy for Quality (IAQ) and several Swedish quality organizations.  Our Swedish hosts showed us the most gracious hospitality.  Sweden, as you well know, is an incredibly beautiful country and Gothenburg is a city that is both modern and historic.  With English spoken so commonly, it was a breeze to get around, and everyone we encountered was courteous and friendly.  I would like to briefly tell you about three presentations I attended and the one big idea I got out of each one.

Solving Current Problems vs. Preventing Occurrence: The first was Professor Noriaki Kano, an elected fellow of ASQ and the recipient of two ASQ Medals of Distinction: the E. Jack Lancaster Medal for 2002, and the E. L. Grant Medal for 2007.  He is one of the most respected voices on quality in the world.  He traced for us the history of the quality movement, and how Dr. Deming’s concepts were largely ignored here in the U.S. but found a receptive audience in Japan.  He posed a question for us at once simple and telling.  What’s more important, he asked: to solve the current problems you are facing or to prevent their future reoccurrence?

Well, when you ask a group of accomplished quality professionals that question, they naturally tend to start thinking about root cause analysis and finding metrics to help them see where you are going wrong, etc.  About two-thirds of the audience answered that prevention of future reoccurrence of the problem was key.  With a bit of a twinkle in his eye, Dr. Kano emphatically said “NO!  Your house is burning down; you have to put out the fire first.  Only then can you think about preventing a fire in the future.”  The idea I took away from this is that quality tools and principles are not just theoretical knowledge that may help solve some as yet unknown problems in the future.  They are every bit as much for today’s urgent issues and challenges: in our businesses, our communities, and our respective countries.  Quality is not magic, but quality tools can help right now with our toughest problems and it is a good thing for us to remember.

The Success of Ikea: The second presentation was from a gentleman from Ikea, Mr. Ulf Gustavsson.  Ikea has thrived for many reasons, but one reason, according to Mr. Gustavsson, is that Ikea stays in touch with its customers. By that, I mean they give customers what they want–stylish, practical products that are “cost-conscious.” (He explained that the word “cheap” is considered a curse word at Ikea and is never used!) They constantly think about the customer’s experience from the time customers get out of their cars, to finding what they need, to getting Swedish meatballs in the café.  Part of the process of staying in touch with the customer is that every executive at Ikea spends one week a year working in a job that puts him or her in direct contact with customers.  My take-away on this ethic of customer focus was summarized in a key question that Ikea continually asks, “Where and when is customer satisfaction created for your offer?”  That’s a really powerful question.  It forces you to think through what the customer is experiencing and where and when he or she will find satisfaction.

The Vision of Volvo: Finally, we went to the Volvo factory.  I have never been to an automobile factory before, so it was cool to see the big stamping machines and welding robots do their thing.  My takeaway, however, did not come from the factory.  It came from a visit to the Volvo Visitors Center, and the Volvo representative telling us about the evolution of safety features in Volvos, demonstrating their latest safety developments, and explaining the priority safety holds for Volvo.

My big take-away from this visit was discovering the clearest organizational vision statement I have ever come across, which Volvo calls Vision 2020.  It states simply, “by 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo.”  Think about that for a minute. They are saying that by the year 2020 (not that long away) you cannot be killed or seriously injured if you are in a new Volvo, no matter the circumstances of the collision.

The Key Takeaway: I came away moved by the power and clarity the vision can bring.  This focus on safety gives Volvo purpose and direction. It helps Volvo prioritize everything they do.  That’s what I found so enlightening.  We all understand focus isn’t going to solve all your problems for you.  If Volvo makes cars that are too expensive for their market, or lack the features people want, it won’t succeed as a business.  But there is only so much organizational energy, and if it is evenly distributed, you’ll never have a breakthrough.  There has to be focus–and a real vision brings real focus.

Here at ASQ I have been talking a lot about focus as we go through our strategic planning process.  Do we have the right focus and does everyone know it?  How about your organization?   Do you have a clear vision—and is it giving you the focus you need to succeed?