Maximize the Use of Your Abilities

by Russ Westcott

In the December 2005 edition of Quality Progress, former editor Debbie Phillips-Donaldson asked, “Does your organization make full use of your abilities?”1

If the answer is yes, good for you and your organization. If the answer is no or maybe not, let’s look at some clues to how you can promote your organization’s effective application of quality technologies—and increase your worth in the process.

Defining Performance Improvement

How does your organization define and respond to performance improvement? Does what it emphasizes include achieving:

  • A higher rate of productivity per worker?
  • Better utilization of machines or facilities?
  • An increased measure of quality in terms of meeting or exceeding customers’ requirements, on-time delivery or extraordinary service provided?
  • Greater return on investment (ROI) from performance improvement initiatives?
  • Meeting or exceeding competitors’ performance?
  • Inventory reduction?
  • Increased cash flow?
  • Reduction in waste?

How is performance improvement addressed now? Is the emphasis on:

  • Implementing the latest techniques and tools?
  • Following the industry leaders?
  • Fixing it when it breaks?

Are you beginning to see a pattern? Is there unbalanced attention to using (or wishing for) the latest machine or tool? Is the human element all but ignored? Is the emphasis on process outputs (widgets and reports) with minimal attention to outcomes (the organization’s results achieved)? Have you been facing difficulty when promoting quality in your organization?

An Example

A colleague tells this brief story:

Bend-it, a small metal forming job shop, hardly hesitated in authorizing purchase of a new laser cutting machine for $675,000 based on an estimated productivity increase of 35% and a 4.5-year ROI. At the same time, Bend-it turned down a $30,000 quality initiative that could have generated a 400% ROI within the first year. In addition to a productivity increase, waste reduction, on-time deliveries and improved customer satisfaction, the quality initiative would have involved everyone in the plant in continual improvement.

Purchase of the laser cutter was a decision based on tangible evidence of the machine’s capabilities. Embarking on the quality initiative would have required a leap of faith or a step into the unknown.

The two operators who were trained to operate the shiny new machine were stars for a few weeks. They both stayed for a couple more months before being lured away as experienced laser cutter operators. No one else in the plant received any real benefit from the new machine. The chaotic conditions at Bend-it remained unchanged.

Most quality professionals probably would agree that quality improves the bottom line. When pressed, we often have trouble explaining exactly how. And, because the quality profession has, by and large, failed to adequately translate quality into terms used and understood by senior management, we still have executives who perceive quality as a cost—not as an investment.

Be an Aggressive Salesman

Lesson to be learned: speak less about the tools of quality and more about what can be accomplished. Instead of saying, “We need to implement Six Sigma,” address the need for tighter control, less waste and greater profit. Then add, “Six Sigma can help us do just that.” Adoption of quality technologies must be sold aggressively.

The concept of selling is anathema to many professionals—even some salespeople. It is an all-too-common belief that if you tell people about your fantastic idea they will immediately see the advantages of funding your idea. It rarely happens that way. The “not invented here” syndrome is strong with many people, causing them to reject a suggestion of change from someone else for no other reason than it wasn’t their idea. For a better approach, follow this example:

Paula, a quality engineer at Omega Bearings, took a very proactive approach to her job and constantly looked for ways Omega could improve both its quality and productivity. For example, in performing a quality management system process audit under the ISO 9001 standard, Paula observed a deficiency in the audited process that frequently caused mistakes in communicating customer order requirements. This resulted in costly waste and dissatisfied customers.

Paula learned that to gain approval for a new expenditure of any magnitude required a presentation to the president and his direct reports. But Paula was low in the organization’s hierarchy.

For several weeks, while performing her regular duties, Paula found time to talk with some of the people involved in the process in question, gathered some opinions and many facts, and got support for a proposed change—provided she took the initiative. She analyzed her data, spoke with the finance people about how to estimate the value of the change and picked up some pointers on how to present the financial impact of the change.

Paula discussed the observations with her boss, received his suggestions and gained his support, including permission to contact members of upper management. She then individually visited “all the president’s men” and solicited their suggestions on what to do. Out of five top level men, Paula was able to gain support from three.

With a mock-up of her presentation, Paula went separately to her boss and the three top level supporters to give each a run-through of what they would see at the next funding meeting. She emphasized how she had incorporated their suggestions. After receiving constructive criticism and making finishing touches to her presentation, Paula gave her boss a trial run and asked him to arrange an appointment for her to present the proposal to top management.

What happened? Top management had been exposed to the improvement idea in advance and had been asked for suggestions and support. Three had immediately committed support. During the meeting, it was clearly evident three of the board members had bought in and were supporting the proposal from the outset. Following Paula’s presentation, the remaining two executives nodded their approval. The president approved the initiation of the project. Paula was designated project manager. A done deal.

Paula, who started virtually un-known to top management, successfully sold her improvement proposal by carefully covering the bases up front. She knew, either intuitively or otherwise, you couldn’t spring something new on people, especially if you’re an unknown, without doing your homework first. Paula also knew she needed hard facts to prove her case and that those numbers must correlate with the criteria by which the people she was selling to were evaluated.

Paula had an advantage; she worked in an organization that did not openly discourage new ideas—or a woman taking the initiative. Some readers might not enjoy this advantage. If so, selling the performance improvement proposal—getting the buy-in—will be a tad more difficult.2

How to Do It

Quality professionals can be of immense value in addressing organizational change issues. Follow this advice:

  • Do what Deming prescribed. Develop your system of profound knowledge, which includes the ability to understand a system and knowledge about variation, theory of knowledge and psychology.3
  • Balance your tendency to immerse yourself in process or system thinking and statistics with an increased understanding of the human side of change. This is described as people knowledge, one of five major areas in which quality professionals need to improve in order to be effective in the new world of work.4
  • Don’t just stand there—do something. Strive toward maximizing the use of your abilities. Make it your role to press for improved organizational outcomes through the adoption of quality technologies.

In effect, most quality technologies focus primarily on improvement of the technical system, while much of the long-term success of such initiatives depends on an equally intense emphasis on the social system.

Now, back to the original question: “Does your organization make full use of your abilities?” If the answer is no or maybe not, what are you waiting for?


  1. Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, “Is Quality Everyone’s Job?” Quality Progress, December 2005, p. 6.
  2. Example adapted from: Russell T. Westcott, Simplified Project Management for the Quality Professional, ASQ Quality Press, 2005.
  3. W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, second edition, MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services, 1994.
  4. Russ Westcott, “The Metamorphosis of the Quality Professional,” Quality Progress, October 2004, pp. 22-32.

RUSS WESTCOTT, based in Old Saybrook, CT, is a quality management writer, instructor and consultant. He co-authored The Certified Quality Manager Handbook, second edition, and The Quality Improvement Handbook, first and second editions, and wrote Simplified Project Management for Quality Professionals and The Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook, third edition. All were published by ASQ Quality Press. Westcott is an ASQ fellow and certified quality auditor and quality manager.

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