Getting and Keeping Top Managers Involved

by John E. “Jack” West

Sometimes, I get questions such as, how do I get my top managers to understand the value of ISO 9001 implementation?

Or, we made great progress with quality when we implemented ISO 9001, but our top leaders seem to be losing interest; how can I get them to understand the long-term value of quality?

More frequently, I get questions about how to implement specific aspects of ISO 9001 and whether a proposed implementation technique would comply with the standard for a specific company’s application. This type of question is normally technical and almost always very easy to answer. In fact, the person asking the question typically has a good understanding of the answer and is seeking confirmation.

Sometimes, though, a simple question becomes more complex, and after a series of e-mails or phone calls, we discover the real issue is not related to understanding or application of the requirements but rather to commitment or involvement of top leaders.

In these cases, the technical questions conceal a deeper problem in the organization. Because the top managers do not understand the linkage of ISO 9001 implementation to improved financial results, they continually ask, “Why are we doing this?” Once this underlying situation is perceived, there are several steps to achieving a good answer.

Management’s Responsibility

First, it is useful to understand top managers have a responsibility to question anything that adds activities, time, cost or transactions to the business. Not only is it normal for top managers to ask such questions, but it is their duty to do so.

In fact, you are more valuable to your organizations when your are the first to ask and answer such questions related to value. To do this, you need to understand what motivates top managers and present the quality management system (QMS) in language they clearly understand—quantified in monetary terms and related directly to the needs of the business.1

Second, you can do a number of things to get the attention of top managers:

  • Speak their language—money. Analyze and act on quality cost data.
  • Understand and act on what motivates them. Target improvements in business results by linking quality programs to the strategic and near-term needs of the business.
  • Take their objectives seriously. Tie quality to top managers’ objectives.
  • Tie quality to business results. Maintain this linkage throughout the organization.
  • Encourage continual improvement. Ensure the embedding of processes that make improvement happen at all levels in the organization.
  • Make management reviews im-portant to top managers. Turn management reviews into a process top managers believe they can’t operate without.

Major Contribution

As with many things in life, success in QMSs often appears to be largely a matter of timing.

Many organizations that successfully implemented ISO 9001 have linked their implementation process to other things that are important to the business. This often happens by accident and may involve simple and straightforward issues, such as the potential loss of business if certification/registration is not achieved by a certain date or a requirement of ISO 9001 compliance to compete for a significant amount of new business.

In such cases, an organization without a formal QMS may achieve surprising improvements due to the discipline inherent in the ISO 9001 implementation process. In effect, such situations result in transforming a chaotic company into a disciplined, well-oiled machine.

The real linkage to business results may well have been obscured by the excuse for registration. Registration was required to get or retain business, but the other result—a well-oiled business machine—was not consciously intended.

Several top managers have told me this was a result of incidental good timing: The organization had grown to the point at which a better management system was needed at the same time it was required to implement ISO 9001.

But, others have told me they wish they had understood the need for a more structured management system 10 years earlier: “Looking back, we can see a lot of business we missed because we were not well organized to take it on.”

Some organizations miss great opportunities to link implementation or changes in the QMS to other business needs, but some become experts at it. Following are two very different examples.

Example One

The first organization was in real trouble. It had been losing money for a couple years and on top of that had just been forced to take a huge write-off for a large amount of obsolete inventory.

A new top management team was faced with daunting tasks and had only about 18 months to turn the operation around or have the company dissolved by the board.

The organization had lots of issues. It never seemed to have the product wanted by customers in inventory but had too much of the slow selling items. It never seemed to be making the right quantities of the right products.

It also had problems with quality. Returns from distributors and end users were “eating its lunch.” And on went the list of problems.

After analyzing the situation, the new management team made a list of things to do. It was extensive and included rearranging manufacturing to reduce waste, implementing new scheduling and production control systems to get control of the master schedule, implementing a pull system in manufacturing, measuring and improving process capability and improving input from customers.

The organization also had two major customers demanding it become registered to ISO 9001 within the next three years. There was a tremendous temptation to delay the ISO 9001 implementation for a couple of years when the organization would not be so busy, but that is not the course decided on.

Instead, the team recognized lack of any real systematic management system was one of its major issues. So, it elected to use the QMS implementation as a means to understand, implement, manage and control all the changes.

A plan to completely revolutionize its operation and become profitable in the process was developed, with goals to complete all the changes needed and reach break-even within a year.

The team started by identifying and measuring the activities that had kept predecessors from meeting their goals. It set realistic but tough objectives, and identified and studied key processes needing changes to meet the goals.

It then developed a master plan for all the changes. Early in the change process, it had established a management review process. Weekly, monthly and quarterly reviews were conducted to monitor changes under way, measure progress toward objectives and reallocate resources when things went wrong.

These people were driven, and they succeeded. At the end of the 18 months they were profitable, had almost no back orders or returns and were registered to ISO 9001.

Example Two

In another case, the situation was much different and appeared to be much better. The organization was stable and making money. It had a strong, disciplined but informal quality system and had been that way for about 30 years.

The only issue really worrying top management was its knowledge competitors were beginning to offer products that were more appealing to consumers. The competing products were not functionally better—in fact, they might not have been as functional, but they looked better.

The top managers knew this could mean real trouble down the road. They would need to make a number of significant, incremental changes to the product and manufacturing methods over a period of about three years or lose market share to competitors.

This organization also was under some pressure to adopt a formal QMS based on ISO 9001. In themselves, these changes did not seem daunting, and the organization had time—as much as three years—to make them.

But the top managers knew their workforce. It, too, had been stable for nearly 30 years, and there was great resistance to any changes. Managers recognized an opportunity to use the ISO 9001 implementation as a mechanism to break the logjam on change.

Management realized the changes needed to implement a formal QMS would be minor because their system already had most of the features required by ISO 9001. So it decided to involve the whole workforce in a rapid and intense implementation of the standard over a period of three months.

They were highly successful. In mapping the key processes of the business, employees found a few improvements that needed to be made to achieve full conformity. They also found some efficiency improvements.

Employees recommended top managers use the ISO 9001 management review process as a mechanism to identify and implement the product and process changes needed to make their products more appealing. Top managers realized employee participation in the management review process would make the forthcoming changes much easier.

After six months, the organization passed its first registration audit with no problem—in fact, it could have passed after three months if an earlier audit could have been scheduled.

But certification/registration was not the real thing to celebrate. Rather, the organization had rapidly begun to learn how to turn change into incremental improvements, and four years later it was still gaining market share.

These two examples have some things in common:

  • There was initial reluctance to jump into using the QMS to manage change. Both organizations had to be prodded by a smart, articulate quality manager to do it.
  • In both cases, the organizations’ leaders could well have taken the position they were too busy to adopt a formal QMS. Instead, they used QMS implementation to drive other needed changes.
  • Both organizations acted swiftly, with intensity and kept their implementations focused on results that really counted for top managers.
  • Both organizations recognized the need for early implementation of a robust management review process.
  • Both organizations’ quality managers were close enough to the early planning process to be able to identify the critical issues.

All of these were important to success.

Timing Is Critical—or Is It?

Examples that tie the implementation or renewal of the QMS to other critical business needs may evoke a response such as, “That was great for them; they had a ready-made situation to make the connection. We don’t.” And, that may be true. There may be no major issues in your business.

Normally, however, the issues are there. It just takes a bit of effort to determine what they are, courage to face top management with the value the QMS can bring to bear and intense action to make improvement happen.

Even if issues are not apparent, the astute quality manager should always consider promoting the idea that if the system is not broken, there still is a real opportunity to make it better because competitors are probably working in this direction.

Yes, timing may be everything, but these days there is almost always a big enough business issue facing the organization that you should have no trouble finding improvement targets for the QMS.


  1. John E. “Jack” West and Charles A. Cianfrani, Unlocking the Power of Your QMS: Keys to Business Performance Improvement, ASQ Quality Press, 2004, chapter two, pp. 19-32.

JOHN E. “JACK” WEST is a management consultant and business advisor. He served on the board of examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from 1990 to 1993 and is now chair of the U.S. technical advisory group to International Organization for Standardization (ISO) technical committee 176 and lead delegate to the committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards. He is co-author of several ASQ Quality Press books.

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