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Quality award models, such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, have stimulated considerable interest in quality management and provided guidelines for organizations seeking to introduce quality management. The notion of self-assessment has been adopted by companies throughout the world as a mechanism for guiding the development of such quality activities. This involves regular and systematic reviews of an organizations activities and performance against a quality model, usually based on an award, culminating in planned improvement actions.
In this paper the authors discuss the self-assessment practices of U.S. companies based on a questionnaire survey. A range of issues is discussed including why self-assessment was introduced, how it is used, and outcomesincluding the impact on organizational performance.
The survey data suggest that self-assessment is linked to better-performing companies. The data also highlight some of the self-assessment practices that are used by organizations in their quest to put meaning to quality.
Key words: improvement process, quality award models, quality management
Ton Van Der Wiele, Erasmus University; Alan Brown, Edith Cowan University; Robert Millen, Northeastern University; Daniel Whelan, Boston Section, ASQ
As organizations grapple with quality management, they seek ways of defining and measuring the various dimensions of quality in their efforts to improve organizational performance. Quality awards such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (National Institute of Standards and Technology 1996), the European Quality Award (EQA), or the Australian Quality Award (AQA) all provide a similar framework for organizations to adopt (Nakhai and Neves 1994).
The Baldrige Award in particular has had a substantial impact on organizations, in that each year the guidelines are requested by hundreds of thousands of organizations that use them to guide their quality drive. However, while the guidelines provide general criteria, they dont specify exact means of identifying where an organization might be in terms of these criteria or show the stages of moving toward higher levels of quality. This is where self-assessment provides a more tangible means of guiding the quality drive.
Self-assessment can be defined as a cyclic, comprehensive, systematic, and regular review of an organizations activities and results against a model of business excellence (for example, the total quality management models of the quality awards) culminating in planned improvement actions (European Foundation for Quality Management 1993a). Guidelines for the various international awards usually make reference to the self-assessment process.
Recent research has been conducted in a number of European countries (Finn and Porter 1994; Van der Wiele 1995) and Australia (Brown and Van der Wiele 1996a, 1996b) on the implementation of self-assessment practices and their impact on organizational performance. A search of the literature revealed, however, that no survey had yet been reported on the self-assessment practices of U.S. organizations.
Therefore, for a selection of U.S. firms, the objectives of the research were to
The general approach of the self-assessment process itself is presented in Figure 1. Individual approaches are influenced by the structure of the organization and differ in detail.
Several ways of using award models for self-assessment are possible.
Many organizations that adopt the third option use a quality maturity matrix. This allows the position in terms of quality maturity to be made visible very easily and communicated throughout the organization. The concept of a matrix has its origins in Crosbys (1979) quality maturity grid where he identifies five stages of progression in the quality journey, namely; uncertainty, awakening, enlightenment, wisdom, and certainty. Figure 2 shows an example of such a matrix as adopted by an organization.
Research by Brown and Van der Wiele (1996a) found the use of the matrix to be relatively common in Australia where the various award criteria form the horizontal axis while the vertical axis indicates levels of development along these criteria. Organizations develop descriptors for each cell in the matrix to help identify where they are and give direction to the activities that have to be developed to grow to the next level of maturity. Early applications of the matrix in Australia included BHP (Cleary and Vogel 1989) and Telecom (Telstra Corporation Limited 1994).
All three approaches to self-assessment involve considerable training. This will start at the top of the organization to create awareness and understanding with senior managers. The training can be cascaded down to lower management levels and also for the training of the future assessors for the quality award. Training can be organized internally, but many consulting firms also offer training modules for introducing self-assessment.
In general the self-assessment process demands considerable time and attention, and, therefore, the whole process has to be linked and integrated into the existing planning and review process. This is the only way of ensuring that the quality management criteria serve as a guide for the entire organization.
As indicated, the major national award models are definitions of TQM in a broad sense, regarding the whole organization and all activities that take place in it. Research by Brown and Van der Wiele (1995, 1996a, 1996b) in Australia and Europe indicates a strong interest in using the awards for self-assessment purposes with many organizations having already implemented a self-assessment process, or planning to do so. In the Australian survey some 21 percent of respondents had conducted self-assessment using the AQA criteria (Australian Quality Awards Foundation 1996). Of those who indicated that they had been involved in self-assessment activities during the past three years, 30 percent said they had been involved with at least one formal assessment for the AQA.
BENEFITS OF SELF-ASSESSMENT
Many organizations have difficulties with measuring TQM progress, which has been mentioned as one of the reasons for the failure of attempts to introduce TQM (Boyce 1992). Self-assessment on the basis of the award criteria is one means of measuring the overall effects of TQM efforts, and to go through the plan-do-check-act cycle by evaluating the results of the self-assessment and taking action for the following period.
Benefits of self-assessment mentioned by seven organizations forming a benchmarking group on self-assessment in the United Kingdom (European Foundation for Quality Management 1993a) were as follows:
Other possible benefits include the following:
Other research on self-assessment (Hausner and Arndt 1999) suggests that using quality award models for self-assessment purposes tends to improve business performance for a number of reasons. These include regular focus on performance data, benchmarking performance indicators, and the integration of quality into the strategic planning process.
A postal survey was conducted in the greater Boston region with the endorsement and support of the Boston Section of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), formerly known as ASQC. The questionnaire was based on the version that had previously been used in Europe and Australia to allow for comparisons.
The questionnaire included a number of items used by organizations practicing self-assessment. These were derived from a variety of sources including case study material from quality award winners in Europe, Australia, and the United States, interviews with quality managers in organizations using self-assessment, and the literature on self-assessment. The questionnaire was piloted with a sample of organizations in Europe, Australia, and the United States.
The research sought to: (1) characterize the state of self-assessment in a sample of U.S. firms; and (2) determine if self-assessment has contributed to performance improvement in firms.
The leadership of the Boston Section provided a list of its members and cosigned the cover letter asking for members cooperation. Of the more than 2000 members of ASQ in the Boston Section, only those with managerial responsibilities were sent questionnaires. The resulting list was then examined to ensure that only one person at any organization was contacted. This provided a total sample of 640. The sample was comprised of persons at the managerial level or above. Specifically, 53 percent held titles of manager, 24 percent held titles of director or corporate director, 12 percent held titles of vice president, 11 percent CEO or president. Fifty-seven percent had the word quality in their titles or related wording, such as design assurance, reliability, continuous improvement, or product assurance.
Nonresponse bias is always a concern in survey research. One method for testing nonresponse bias is to test for significant differences between the responses of early and late waves of returned questionnaires (Lambert and Harrington 1990; Armstrong and Overton 1977). This method is based on the assumption that the opinions of late responders are somewhat representative of the opinions of nonrespondents.
For the present study, the responses from the last third of the surveys received of those utilizing self-assessment were compared to the surveys received earlier across a number of items. The items compared were the size of the firms, the level of ISO registration achieved, the level of maturity in quality thinking, the criteria utilized for self-assessment, and the extent of improvement attained based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award categories. The t-tests yielded no significant differences among these items. Although these results do not rule out the possibility of nonresponse bias, they do suggest that nonresponse bias may not be an issue to the extent that late respondents represent the opinions of nonrespondents.
The study is limited to some extent by the use of a single respondent from each firm. Social scientists have long been concerned with the problem of common method variance because of the bias associated with using a single informant. Asking a single respondent to make complex social judgments about organizational characteristics may increase the subjective propensity of respondents to seek out consistency in their responses and increase random measurement error. It is not clear whether these random error components result from the reporting process, knowledge deficiencies, inadequate measures, or some combination of these and other factors. It is generally concluded that strong assessment of convergent or discriminent validity cannot be made when there is a single informant. However, the cost associated with gaining both participation and consensus from several individuals from a large number of organizations is very high.
Research suggests that common method variance can be mitigated by paying greater attention to informant selection when practical considerations require single respondents. In particular, previous studies have determined that higher-ranking informants are more reliable than their lower ranking counterparts (see, for example, Phillips 1981). The managerial level and job responsibilities (as estimated from their titles) of the sample indicates that this group of managers is in a position to be aware of their organizations efforts in the area of self-assessment.
In addition, this approach is consistent with recent exploratory studies of other managerial innovations. For example, recent empirical studies of the implementation of advanced manufacturing technology (Ramamurthy 1995; Small and Yasin 1997) and the study of organizational culture and effectiveness (Denison and Mishra 1995) have employed single informants.
Returns were received from 206 organizations, representing a response rate of 32 percent. This is reasonable considering the complex questionnaire and the sample characteristics, and is better than the Australian and European response rates (18 percent and 25 percent, respectively).
Differences Between Users and Nonusers of Self-Assessment
While the main focus of the survey was to identify the practices of firms using self-assessment, the authors were also interested in what differences, if any, existed between users and nonusers. Thus, approximately one-fourth of the questionnaire contained items that both groups could respond to effectively; namely, size, performance, and quality practices in general.
Of the respondents, 71 percent indicated that their firms were using self-assessment. Of those not using self-assessment currently, 45 percent reported that their firms planned to start self-assessment activities in the next three years.
On average, those firms employing self-assessment had conducted slightly more than 10 formal self- assessment cycles. Approximately half of the respondents had been utilizing self-assessment before 1994. Hence, the respondent group can be considered relatively well advanced in this process.
Employment statistics for both the firms that reported using self-assessment and not using self-assessment are provided in Table 1. Although nonusers tend to be smaller firms, as expected, a number of large organizations are also represented in this group.
Data on sales turnover for both users and nonusers are also provided in Table 1. Of companies using self-assessment, 31 percent had annual sales in excess of $100 million with only 15 percent of companies using self-assessment having an annual turnover of less than $5 million. This compares with 36 percent of the companies not using self-assessment having the same turnover, suggesting that self-assessment is more widespread in companies with higher turnover levels. The differences are somewhat less apparent when looking at the number of employees, where self-assessment is relatively widely practiced in smaller organizations (less than 100 employees). Thirty percent of those using self-assessment were in this group as compared with 45 percent who were not. No statistically significant difference in either measure of size was found between the two groups.
Both users and nonusers were asked a series of questions regarding their quality management programs in general. The first question was whether their firms had quality manuals, and, if so, if the manual has a reference to self-assessment. As expected, significantly more of the users had such manuals than the nonusers. Of those with a quality manual, users were three times more likely to have a reference to self-assessment in their manuals. Specifically, 93 percent of the users indicated that their firms had a quality manual whereas only 40 percent of the nonusers indicated that such a manual existed at their firm (difference significant p < 0.01). For those with quality manuals, 75 percent of the users indicated that their manual had a reference to self-assessment versus only 20 percent for the nonusers (difference significant p < 0.01).
All respondents were also asked to indicate the percent of their company that had been registered to the ISO 9000 series (see Table 2). About half of the nonusers indicated that less than 20 percent of their company had been registered. On the other hand, about half of the users indicated that more than 80 percent of their firm had been registered. A chi-square test indicated that the responses were significantly different ( p <0.05).
The results in Table 2 suggest that, in general, more companies practicing self-assessment tend to also be certified to ISO 9000. Certification may provide the stimulus for further quality activities such as self-assessment (Brown and Van der Wiele 1996c) although this is by no means certain. Companies that have a committed approach to quality typically see the adoption of broad concepts of quality such as TQM and more process focused approaches like ISO 9000 as complementary. They are more likely to use ISO 9000 as a basis for ongoing organizational improvement that may be combined with broader self-assessment processes.
While gaining ISO 9000 certification might normally mean that a company is stimulated to continually improve its processes and systems, many adopt a minimalist approach (Brown and Van der Wiele 1996c) where certification is gained simply to get the certificate on the wall. Many such organizations feel forced to gain ISO 9000 certification either through market pressure or their suppliers insist on it. Having gained such certification, these firms may not undertake regular assessments of their processes, and may simply focus on meeting the next audit requirement. This might be a reason for nonusers of self-assessment to still be certified to ISO 9000.
The next question focused on the managers perception of where their organizations would place on Crosbys quality management grid (see Table 3). Similar to the responses to the question regarding the extent of ISO registration, users indicated a significantly greater level of maturity than nonusers did ( p < 0.05).
The final questions posed to both users and nonusers related to the performance of their firms. Executives were asked the annual trends for sales, market share, and profits (or return on sales) during the past three years, and the results are provided in Table 4. Although no significant differences were found in the response for annual sales turnover or market share, more users indicated a positive trend in profits for the previous three years (difference significant at p < 0.05). Thus, while both groups reported positive trends in sales, users appear to be obtaining greater returns from these increased sales.
The importance of various reasons given for using self-assessment is provided in Table 5. All of the reasons that were scored at 3.4 or higher are related to the internal management aspects of working on quality in the organization; that is, to direct, focus, and motivate improvement activities. It is also important to see that quality is linked to strategic processes in organizations.
One interesting aspect of these data is that self-assessment was seen as linked to achieving ISO 9000 series certification. This may reflect some confusion about the role of self-assessment against a quality award model vis-à-vis auditing against the ISO 9000 series standards. The latter involves a type of self checklist in the sense of meeting the standards, yet, at the same time, the ISO standards also promote a broader base to quality such as TQM.
External reasons (for example, demanding customers, competitors using self-assessment, the desire to benchmark against others) are scored low by respondents. Also reasons related to internal competition on quality issues (for example, creating internal champions, internal quality award) are given a relatively low score.
Self-assessment provides managers an instrument to coordinate and give a well-defined direction to all quality improvement activities going on in the organization. It helps increase quality awareness in all aspects of the business, and it is seen as a way to improve business performance. These were the motivations for introducing self-assessment that scored highest. Creating focus for TQM activities and stimulating internal competition were two reasons seen as more important (t-test statistically significant at 0.05) for larger companies.
Trying to achieve a quality award was not considered to be a significant reason for using self-assessment even though the award guidelines were often used as the basis for self-assessment. This demonstrates the usefulness of the award criteria for internal self-assessment purposes. The relatively high profile of such awards means that they help elevate awareness of quality management. However, internal championship and creating best practices for internal benchmarking are not yet very well developed as part of the initiatives to carry out self-assessment.
Criteria for Self-Assessment and Self-Assessment Activities
The extent to which different criteria are used by firms for self-assessment is provided in Table 6. The two main criteria used for self-assessment are checklists and criteria defined within the organization. Interestingly, the Baldrige Award criteria are not significant in this process. From a quality promotion perspective, promoters of the Baldrige Award should not see this as a failure, but rather, as a positive result in terms of heightening quality awareness and widespread recognition that the guidelines serve a purpose for adapting to individual organizational needs.
Thirty-one percent of respondents were using a quality matrix for self-assessment purposes. The criteria used in these matrices are most often strongly related to the award criteria, with sometimes one or more specific criteria added that reflect the specific situation of the organization. Organizations perceiving themselves as further along Crosbys quality maturity grid were also more likely to employ a quality matrix and had been more frequently involved in formal quality management self-assessment cycles.
Further analysis of the data showed that companies with a smaller annual turnover and having carried out more than three self-assessment cycles tended to make greater use of a matrix (p < 0.05). More-experienced self-assessment users also had more criteria in their matrix. This suggests that less-experienced users tend to rely on the mainstream Baldrige Award criteria and not develop their own. The result on company size is somewhat surprising since the Australian evidence is that only very large companies generally had the resources (generally quality specialists or quality departments) to devote to developing and using a matrix (Brown and Van der Wiele 1996a).
THE NATURE OF SELF-ASSESSMENT
Respondents were asked to identify the extent to which different types of activities formed part of their self-assessment processes. The results are provided in Table 7.
The top five most common steps selected suggest a very systematic approach that was used by management to develop the organization, with particular emphasis on business unit planning. Self-assessment guidelines help promote universal agreement on directions throughout the organization. A further finding is that the self-assessment process is linked to the business planning process, which is more widespread among larger companies.
Further analyses of various subgroups among the sample highlight how some of these features are more widespread among particular groups (t-test at 0.05 levels of statistical significance). Larger organizations tended to practice the following as part of their self-assessment activities reflecting a more formal approach involving greater time and resources.
Other features of self-assessment tended to be found in organizations experiencing positive trends in profits and market share. These were
These findings suggest that self-assessment may provide specific directions for improvement, which is then part of the business unit managers action plans. Self-assessment is also linked to the broader planning process in these organizations.
Most of these features also tended to be found in companies that had progressed further on Crosbys quality maturity grid; that is, they had reached the stage of enlightenment, wisdom, or certainty. Generally, then, these could be regarded as features of self-assessment in organizations with relatively mature self-assessment programs.
Overall, self-assessment appears to have several characteristics including data gathering and scoring, discussing strengths and weaknesses, developing an improvement plan, and linking it to the business plan. These steps promote organizational learning on the basis of communication and feedback of the self-assessment results. Linking the self-assessment results to the business plan will also support the improvement activities, not only because resources will be made available, but also because the defined improvement goals will be an integral part of the regular business review.
The quality improvement matrix in particular provides a methodology for linking quality indicators into business planning. As noted, the more experienced a firm was in terms of self-assessment cycles, the more likely it employed such a matrix. Hence, there appears to be a level of experience required before firms are aware of the potential or have the capability to implement such a methodology.
What Benefits Has Self-Assessment Given?
Analysis of the data on benefits indicates considerable improvement on many of the prescribed indicators. Executives were asked to rate on a 5-point scale the extent of improvement realized since the implementation of self-assessment, where 0 = no improvement and 5 = considerable improvement. Out of the seven indicators related to the categories of the Baldrige Award model, customer focus scored highest, followed by quality of product, process, and service (see Table 8). All categories apart from leadership scored at 3.3 or above on the 5-point scale, suggesting considerable improvement on these criteria. Improvements in quality of product, process, and service may also partly reflect the fact that many of these companies with self-assessment also have ISO 9000 series quality systems in place in much of their organizations.
A subsequent question addressed the benefits achieved regarding a number of more specific items. Seven of the more specific items of improvement resulting from self-assessment scored more than 3 on the improvement index scale (see Table 9).
The top five items for organizations that reported the strongest improvements were
These results support the idea that the self-assessment process is very useful as a way of defining TQM for the organization and making it meaningful for all managers in the organization. Managers not only get a better understanding of what TQM is all about, but also, and even more crucial, they see the importance for their business units and job.
Respondents reported only moderate improvements on issues related to the human aspects in the organization related to the implementation of quality management self-assessment. For example, employee turnover, attendance, and the safety and health of employees received improvement scores of 2.5 or less. This is consistent with earlier findings (Van der Wiele et al. 1996) that self-assessment is seen as a management issue and thus effecting only the management-related indicators.
Improvements in reliability, errors, defects, and cost savings tend to support one of the core principles of quality management; namely, quality reduces costs. Better customer retention and fewer customer complaints is also another core principle of quality management.
In an effort to gauge the relationship between the level of involvement in self-assessment activities and the level of improvement in performance, the correlation between these items was examined as to significance. That is, a test of significance was performed on the correlation between each of the 15 activities and each of the 26 improvement areas (seven for the Baldrige Award and 19 more specific areas). The number of correlations found to be significant is reported in Table 10.
In general, the results support the contention that higher levels of self-assessment activity and higher levels of improvement are related. Those activities with the largest number of significant correlations with improvement in the Baldrige Award areas were as follows:
The results, when the improvement on more specific issues are examined, is nearly identical. That is, the activities with the greatest number of correlations remains almost the same.
Greater improvements in organizational performance (t-test statistically significant at 0.05) had been realized since implementing self-assessment by companies experiencing positive trends in profits, market share, and sales than those who were not. While the direction of causation is not certain, this gives some indication that self-assessment may be a process that impacts positively on organizational performance.
The contributing factors to such enhanced improvements vary. For companies experiencing positive trends in profits, they suggest policy and planning, quality of product, process and service, reliability of operations, employee suggestions, better understanding of TQM by line managers, cost savings, and customer retention among others as reasons. Greater levels of improvements have also been realized by companies with positive trends in market share.
Larger enterprises, in this case with more than 250 employees, found improvements in the information and analysis categories and customer focus to a greater extent than smaller enterprises. In addition, these larger firms noted larger improvements in the level of errors or defects and in the sharing of best-in-class across business units.
Self-assessment is clearly defined in organizations as a management issue aimed at increasing quality awareness, driving the quality improvement activities, and improving business performance. Many respondents are familiar with the Baldrige Award model (and others) and the underlying criteria that help to assess the organization. Many organizations have adopted these and other criteria for their internal self-assessment process.
Specifically, this study has found the benefits of self-assessment to include the following:
These findings must be considered tentative in light of certain limitations to this study. Respondents were from a limited geographical region; namely, Boston, which may be considered one of the more progressive regions in terms of managerial advances. Hence, the results would not be characteristic of samples conducted elsewhere. However, this does indicate the need to examine self-assessment practice in different regions.
In addition, even with a response rate in excess of 30 percent, the pool of respondents was still not sufficiently large to conduct highly refined analyses by firm demographics. For example, the authors were able to split the sample into small and large firms, but not any finer than this. With additional respondents, it would be possible to examine self-assessment practices and outcomes across a number of other dimensions, such as industry type and production process.
Finally, a causal link cannot be established based on these data. The reported greater return on sales by those utilizing self-assessment is particularly intriguing. Yet, it is unlikely that self-assessment alone accounts for this difference. However, the adoption of self-assessment may indicate a level of development that heightens the probability of achieving such results. To this end, further research is needed of not only those firms that continue to conduct self-assessment activities, but also of their nonadopting counterparts. This would permit the investigation of the link between performance and self-assessment.
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Ton van der Wiele is the co-founder and director of the Strategic Quality Management Institute at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His specific research interests are in quality management, especially in developments related to self-assessment in relation to the internationally, nationally, and regionally recognized quality award models. He has been involved in projects sponsored by the European Commission to stimulate quality management developments in India and Romania. He is the author of numerous publications on quality management and general management issues, and has made presentations on his research throughout the world. He received his Ph.D. from Erasmus University on the thesis, Beyond Fads: Management Fads and Organizational Change with Reference to Quality Management.
Alan Brown is professor and head of the School of Management at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. His research and teaching specializations include quality management and human resource management. He has published papers in a range of international journals and consulted with public and private organizations in these areas.
Robert Millen is professor of operations management in the College of Business Administration at Northeastern University, and is the contact author for this article. He has served as a visiting faculty member at Monash University (Australia), Groupe HEC (France), and UCLA. His research, teaching, and consulting activities focus on implementing and enhancing continuous improvement programs. He has authored or co-authored more than 60 articles, and has made numerous presentations on his research. He continues to consult with a number of organizations, including several Fortune 1000 firms. He received his Ph.D. from UCLA, and may be contacted as follows: Management Science Group, College of Business Administration, Northeastern University, 314 Hayden Hall, Boston, MA 02115; 617-373-4754; Fax: 617-373-8628; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Whelan, is chair of the Boston Section of the American Society for Quality (ASQ). He was certified as an ASQ quality auditor in 1989. Whelan has conducted numerous audits in the medical device industry and elsewhere, both domestically and in Europe. He has also conducted training in a number of subjects, including ISO 9000, quality auditing, and FDA good manufacturing practices. Whelan was the 1999 recipient of the Boston Society Award, a nationally recognized prize for distinguished achievements in the quality profession. He is an ASQ senior member, a certified quality manager, and is principal consultant at Quality Assessment Services, based in Plymouth, MA.