Link Employee Surveys and Quality

Avoid what happens if an organization has gaps between its values and measurements perceptions

by Hank Lindborg

A small manufacturer with significant commitments to career development, customer satisfaction and continual improvement administers its first employee survey.

A good response rate, high levels of satisfaction with supervision and safety, and positive employee comments about having their voices heard encourage management. Issues of pay, praise and promotion are identified as topics for planning.

To build trust, survey results are shared with all employees. Sound good? Unfortunately, this promising beginning was also a lost opportunity.

The company, preparing itself for an ISO 9000 audit, didn't ask a single question directly related to the standard's eight principles. Customer focus, process, continual improvement and employee involvement were neglected, while pay--about which little could be done--was a major theme.

Strategically, the survey instrument had limited usefulness because it was mute on leadership, systems, suppliers and factual approaches to decisions. Why was the organization blind to the gap?

Nancy Dixon suggests failure to survey a range of strategic measures may have its origin in our professional history.1

Human resources and quality disciplines developed along parallel tracks. In many organizations they did not intersect, with hard measures the focus of quality and soft measures the domain of human resources. This separation, which also led to distinct training programs, has lessened but not disappeared.

A study of people measurement by the Metrus Group and Quality Progress found only 42% of respondents used surveys, and fewer used them strategically.2 Organizations miss opportunities to integrate metrics, often preferring separate people (soft) and process (hard) measures.

Our sample company represents a common failure to bring all parties to the table to think broadly about strategic issues. The authors of the Metrus study say balanced scorecard approaches help overcome turf wars, but professionals in quality, marketing and human resources often think differently about measures.

So our hard-soft thinking may have perpetuated measurement system silos, with quality professionals sometimes deprived of strategically important organizational effectiveness feedback.

Lynn Priddy Rozumalski, associate director of the Academic Quality Improvement Project (AQIP) of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has developed an integrated strategic approach to surveys in higher education.

Rozumalski sees the instrument being used to identify action improvement projects on campus as "the beginning of a conversation." Designed around AQIP's criteria and values, "it frames a strategic discussion of quality," she says, and provides an index of opportunities for improvement through focused action.

Realizing the strategic advantage of balanced employee surveys, some organizations have begun to integrate quality and satisfaction measures. The Louisville, KY, Water Co. has developed a variety of assessment instruments including team effectiveness, climate and culture, and systems assessments.

Nora Freeman, business systems owner for quality and organizational effectiveness for the water company, is leading an initiative to combine instruments and interpretation systems. "We want to bring together our sets of data for better understanding," she says.

Freeman sees additional benefits: reducing costs and time spent administering separate instruments, avoiding employee resistance to repeated surveys and creating focused follow-up to a single instrument that can help strengthen a quality culture.

If your organization fragments measures and regularly deploys surveys without collecting perceptions of quality systems, here are five suggestions:

1. Research who is conducting surveys, when and why. You may find a variety of uncoordinated efforts that annoy employees, lead to few improvements and fragment understanding. Or you may discover some best practices in using feedback--although they may not have been shared organizationwide.

2. Track back to strategy. Review surveys in use to see if they are measuring key strategic objectives. Identify gaps between espoused values and measures.

3. Clearly define what you need to know. Be able to translate criteria and standards into questions that will help identify opportunities for improvement. If feedback will help for an audit, you have a strong practical reason for designing quality issues into a survey.

4. Look for partners. Costs and survey fatigue affect everyone. If other areas still get the data they need, a centralized survey may seem attractive.

5. Engage senior leaders. Surveys that are clearly designed around quality values, translate values into significant measures and provide opportunity for interpretation across functional boundaries facilitate the work of leaders.


1. Nancy Dixon, Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

2. Brian S. Morgan and William A. Schiemann, "Measuring People and Performance: Closing the Gaps," Quality Progress, January 1999, pp. 47-53.

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ's Education Division and currently serves on the Education and Training Board.

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