Facing Cultural Barriers by Leaders to Strengthen a Culture of Quality

This is a guest post by Luciana Paulise, the founder of Biztorming Training & Consulting. She is a speaker, author, and examiner for the National Quality Award and Team Excellence Award in Argentina.  She is also a columnist for Infobae, Destino Negocio, and a blogger for ASQ Influential Voices.  You can visit Luciana’s blog at: http://www.biztorming.com.ar/en/news.

Something was not going well at an organization we’ll call Company ABC, a small business within the automotive industry in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some improvements were being made, many procedures were being followed, and employees were adopting new control processes.

Still, turnover was high, as well as frustration with certain processes that had not shown any improvements at all—while profitability was decreasing. Managers said that line employees were the problem; they were generating issues and not solving them. On the other side, employees were convinced the problem was in the communication channel to top management.

Even though it was a small business, communication from the bottom up was as difficult as in a larger corporation. The owners were asking for feedback on issues, but they were not providing ways to actually receiving the feedback. E-mails to leaders were not being replied to, approvals took longer than expected, and meetings were almost impossible to schedule.

What went wrong in this organization? How could managers and employees bring issues forward as required by a quality culture? How could they strengthen the culture of quality in this environment? What were the main barriers?

Experts says that the employees’ behavior is based on company culture, but what is organizational culture, exactly? As per Wikipedia, “Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.” But who determines these factors in organizations so as to define the culture?

Usually top management defines which habits or behaviors are right by rewarding or punishing them. Therefore, company culture is modeled upon top management behavior.

That was my “a-ha” moment. The main cultural barrier to making this company a better place was actually the top management. They thought the problem in the organization was their people, but they had not considered themselves as part of the problem. They were not “walking the talk.” And people were noticing it.

Then I recalled Gandhi’s quote: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Leaders needed to take the first step, and needed to be trained to do so. So now the question was, how best to train them?

Edwards Deming developed a leadership model that could be really useful here to train the top. The “System of profound knowledge” that he introduced in his last book, The New Economics, has four interrelated areas: appreciation for a system, knowledge of variation, theory of knowledge, and psychology. Managers were probably not going to get this theory easily, but an analogy could help.

I compared the four areas with four human types of intelligence, so that leaders could understand that they needed to manage their behavior in an integral way so as to solve all the problems at the same time:

  1. Spiritual: understanding the company in a holistic way, as a system, is appreciating the business as a network of interdependent components that work together to accomplish the same aim. These components includes planning, context, competition, processes, shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, the community, and the environment. Like an orchestra, it’s not enough to have great players. They need to play well together. Leadership needs to focus on all the parts that affect the organization and how they work. The leaders wanted their middle managers to work together, but they didn’t have common objectives, so each of them just focused on their part of the game.
  2. Intellectual: In any business there are always variations, like defects, errors, and delays. Leaders have to focus on understanding these variations. Are they caused by the system or by the employees? Usually employees are blamed for the errors, but 95% of them are really caused by the company system. Distinguishing the difference between variations by using data and statistical methods, as well as understanding its causes, is key to management’s ability to properly remove barriers to profitability. At company ABC in this case study, leaders were focused on the people, while many delays were due to late approvals, lack of the right tools, and lack of training, which the people (i.e. employees) couldn’t handle.
  3. Physical: Leaders assert opinions as facts based on hunches, theories, or beliefs, but they don’t always test those opinions against the data before making a decision. Leadership needs to focus on contrasting their ideas with real data from the operations. The automotive shop started to use daily physical scorecards on the walls to capture and communicate real performance numbers, so that leaders and operators could act on them together.
  4. Emotional: Finally, in order to get real data from the operations, leaders need to work with their people. The problem is that people perform based on how they feel. They are primarily motivated by intrinsic needs, including respect and working with others to achieve common goals, in contrast to simply being motivated by monetary reward. So leadership has to focus on understanding and respecting people so that they can all work together to solve issues. One of the managers used to push a lot on his employees because his monthly payment was based on performance. When his salary was moved to a flat rate, he started to work much better with his team, they all were motivated and happy at work.  Turnover decreased sharply.

So my “a-ha” moment in regards to strengthening a culture of quality was that leaders need to change their behavior first if they want to change the entire company culture—and they have to do it through a systemic model considering four types of intelligence.

What about your company? How is leadership helping to develop a quality culture?

Talking To the C-Suite About Quality

This is a guest post by Dr. Suresh Gettala, a director at ASQ India. He holds a doctorate in quality management from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, and is also a recipient of the renowned post-doctoral fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt  Foundation, Germany. He is a quality expert with a unique blend of academic/research as well as industry experience spanning several years in various aspects of quality management across multiple industries. He has published many research articles in reputed, peer-reviewed international journals. Suresh blogs on LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: Suresh is part of the ASQ Influential Voices program and is also employed by ASQ India. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of ASQ or ASQ India.

If you look at any survey, study or a research work on the critical success factors for the success of quality initiatives, it will invariably list “top management commitment and leadership” as the top most criterion. Needless to mention, on the flip side, the reasons for the failure of most quality initiatives will also list “lack of top management commitment” as the key.

It is quite palpable that top management commitment is central to the success or failure of any quality program. Therefore, as quality professionals, how should we harness the support of C-suite leaders? Unfortunately, quality professionals are experts only in the quality field and they lack the nuances to build a business case to sell quality to the top management.

In order to effectively talk about quality and convince the C-suite about the importance of the same, we need to first understand the intricacies of the C-suite mind set. Focus on what the executive needs to know rather than what you want them to know. Essentially you should apply the lean principle of “pull” in contrast to “push.”

Portray quality as a means of building the capability of individuals as well as the organization so that the C-suite perceives some tangible value in investing in the quality initiatives.

Given this backdrop, I would like to discuss the following five rudiments that are indispensable, in my view, when you are talking about quality to the top management.

1.    The long term – short term continuum
C-suite personnel have the uncanny knack of marrying the long-term vision and strategy with the short-term operational elements. Therefore, when you are talking about quality to the C-Suite, it is mandatory to ensure that your talk on quality addresses both of the above aspects so that it keeps them engrossed in what you are saying.

Jack Welch, former GE CEO, felt that the job of the C-suite is to deliver profit in the short term and strength and sustenance in the long term. It can be argued that there is no long term without the short term. In other words, what they perceive is a multitude of short- term links that make up the long-term chain.

For instance a methodology like lean or Six Sigma could provide profits or bottom-line savings in the short-term. They may also help the organization focus on getting some early wins. However, if those methodologies have to be institutionalized across the length and breadth of an organization, a culture of quality has to be fostered. A business-level framework such as the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award could help in adapting to a new culture, thereby addressing the long-term requirements of the leadership.

2.    The Language of Metrics
Before talking to an executive, do enough research on the background of the issues or the improvement opportunities faced by the company. Present your case with enough evidence in terms of metrics, instead of your personal views and surmises. Metrics are very swaying, as the executive’s decision to a great extent will depend on what he/she sees as hard evidence.

Talk about metrics that are important from strategic and tactical levels rather than operational levels. Metrics can also be presented in terms of enterprise level (focusing on shareholders), business level (focusing on external customers) and operational level (focusing on processes). Again, more focus should be laid on shareholder and customer- related metrics.

Try and quantify the risks of taking no action so that it is hard to say no to your idea. With the advent of big data analytics, most executives will rely on a fact-based approach for decision making. Therefore, the metrics that you present should provide them with enough evidence in terms of improvement opportunities.

3.    Economic Case for Quality
The lexicon of the top management is quite different from the language of the quality professionals. In order to validate quality’s effect on business, you need to talk the lingo of business – which is money and nothing else.

The primary customer for the C-suite personnel is the shareholder and hence the focus of executives is to ensure a streamlined management process that yields the maximum benefits to their shareholders. One of the salient characteristics of the executive leadership is their ability to tie actions with quantified financial benefits. Show the top management where money is lost due to poor quality and eventually they will focus on how money can be saved or accumulated due to good quality.

Make them realize that money spent on quality initiatives should be viewed as investment and not cost. Develop an economic case for a wider application of quality through models such as Cost of Quality and illustrate to them how bottom-line savings can be achieved through the astute use of the concept. Philip Crosby’s seminal work, “Quality Is Free” accentuated the importance of right first time instead of doing rework that would be piled up in the hidden factory.

If you can provide a strong case for value creation, you have effectively put across your quality idea to the leadership.

4.    Success Anecdotes

Metrics are important, but it is equally important to weave a story around them. Top executives work in a high-pressure environment that encompasses daily problem-solving to long-range planning. Flooding them with only facts and figures will not pass muster.

Tell a story that has lots of similarities to the challenges faced by the executives.
Storytelling is an art. Developing a story requires a sagacious mix of information evidenced in the form of critical metrics and having an emotional appeal to the success story. Create enough anecdotal evidence to make a compelling story that quality indeed pays. Lace your story with examples about how others achieved success through the vehicle of quality.

Senior leaders are always interested in comparative information and competitive positioning. Talk about how Fortune 500 companies benefitted from a quality initiative. Present the success stories of the Baldrige winners. Try to stick to case studies in their own industries so that the executives can coherently relate to how a similar approach can be applied in their organizations. Always close the story with a “before” and “after” state so that the benefit of the quality approach is intelligibly discernible.

5.    The Big Q Approach

“Big Q” is a term coined by Juran in the 1980s in order to broaden the scope of the quality initiatives so that quality would mean improving every aspect of everything the company does. On the other hand “small q” basically refers to the quality of a product or a service on a limited basis. While small q connects to the short-term span, BIG Q epitomizes the long-range perspective.

Research on the traits of C-suite personnel indicates that comprehension of business fundamentals coupled with strong leadership is far more important to them than technical and functional expertise.

The Big Q approach to quality is highly imperative to get a positive response from the C-suite. It will provide them with a holistic view on the usefulness of the quality philosophy from a business point of view. Top management will not be too concerned about improving some aspects of the business via a “silo” mind set. For them the entire business is extremely important.

The need is to emphasize how the quality approach could be leveraged to address all aspects of the business.

I have discussed some of the possible approaches while talking about quality to the C-suite. Fundamentally, one needs to understand that when you are talking to the top leadership, you should operate at the strategic level and talk the language of money using metrics that could help create value and improve the organization as a whole.
“Quality makes money” is a phrase that should resonate in the minds of the C-suite.

If, as a quality professional, we can help with this task, our job is complete. In addition we should clearly communicate the message that “quality approaches” have the potential to yield high-quality products/services, streamlined processes, highly satisfied customers, supremely energized employees, increased market share, and sustained excellence in everything that we do.

Human beings, by nature, tend to resist change. We need to openly accept this and look at ways of presenting facts and stories on the efficacy of quality initiatives so that the resistance is minimized. Accentuating on ASQ’s mission – “To increase the use and impact of quality in response to the diverse needs of the world” – will go a long way in getting the acquiescence of the C-suite towards quality initiatives.

Does Mission Matter?

This is a guest post by Pat La Londe, ASQ Fellow and incoming ASQ board chair. La Londe is a retired executive in supply chain management with expertise leading teams in all areas of procurement including supplier quality.  She recently retired as an executive from CareFusion, a large medical device company.

How often do you consider a company’s mission when choosing a retailer or a business partner? As it turns out, probably more often than you think. At ASQ, we recently conducted a global brand and reputation study.

One of the most surprising findings of the study is that respondents rated organizational mission as highly important in their consideration of an organization that provides training, certification, membership or books/publications related to quality, continuous improvement or performance excellence.

These results are encouraging us to reflect on the value of ASQ’s mission, and how we’re bringing it to our audience—whether members, customers, or the quality community at large.

First, the ASQ mission is: To increase the use and impact of quality in response to the diverse needs of the world.

As stewards of the global quality movement, ASQ is advancing ideas, tools, techniques, and systems that will help the world meet tomorrow’s critical challenges.  Yet there remain significant opportunities to dramatically and positively impact public thinking around the role of quality.

What are we doing about these opportunities? We have identified the following themes that underscore our mission and developed plans to address them.

•   ASQ is aligned and united to grow and advance the Global Quality Community.

We’re continuing to expand our global footprint with offices in the United States, Mexico, India, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil. Our aim worldwide is to enhance and sustain the role of quality, help those who need quality concepts and tools for professional and organizational success, and to demonstrate the value of quality. This is, of course, in addition to our established geographic, topical, and industry-specific communities that foster career development and facilitate professional networking.

ASQ is committed to and investing in member value, this year and beyond.

In the next several years, we’re making significant technological improvements to our technology infrastructure to improve the customer experience with ASQ. For example, we will be addressing our website experience, expanding offerings available in multiple formats (i.e. hard copy, mobile, Kindle), and optimizing the volume of emails sent from the entire Society.

•   ASQ in 2015 has its challenges, yet is responding, evolving and adapting, to ensure our members’ and customers’ success in a rapidly changing, competitive, global environment.

It’s critical to the future of quality that ASQ continues to evolve and grow with its members and customers to provide them with the up-to-date knowledge and tools. By systematically studying emerging topics and monitoring the future of quality, we’re working to ensure that we respond to the global needs of today and tomorrow.

For example, ASQ will be testing new membership and engagement models and programs, locally and globally, for individuals and organizations over the next year as well as increasing the Society’s attention to leadership and professional development programs. ASQ is also cultivating the next generation of leaders through programs designed for young professionals.

What is your organization’s mission? Do you update and refer to it on a regular basis? All too often, leaders tend to “shelve” the mission after developing it or we take it for granted. Through our research on Culture of Quality, strong leadership is essential to developing and sustaining a culture of quality.

If an organization is seeking to improve its culture of quality, a closer look at the three areas —vision, values and leadership—is likely a good place to begin. I encourage you to take a fresh look.

A Leader’s Roadmap to a Culture of Quality: Building on Forbes Insights-ASQ Leadership Research: Part 2 of 3

This is a guest post by Rob Lawton, an author, executive coach, and expert in creating rapid strategic alignment between enterprise objectives and customer priorities. He has directed strategic and operational improvement initiatives since 1985. Lawton coined the term “customer-centered culture” with his first book, Creating a Customer-Centered Culture: Leadership in Quality, Innovation and Speed (ASQ Quality Press, 1993). He has been published in Brazil, China, the U.K., and is referenced widely. Many of his articles are available at www.imtc3.com. Contact him at Robin.Lawton@icloud.com.

The Forbes Insights-ASQ white paper published in fall of 2014 distills several guidelines from interviewees that can be especially useful with more detail. My purpose in this three part blog series is to provide details and references to the missing specifics for successful action.

Part 1 in this blog series addressed the first of three research findings on what leaders must do to create a quality culture:
1.    All employees must apply the four key elements of any strategy for building a quality culture.  (Page 8: Boeing’s Ken Shead).
2.    Closely understand customer expectations so you can focus and give them what they want.  Study respondents overwhelmingly report low effectiveness by their organizations in doing so.  (Page 16: Intel’s Stan Miller and Rudy Hacker)
3.    Develop a formal quality policy, common language and leader behaviors as deployment mechanisms. (Pages 18-19, HP’s Rodney Donaville)

Part Two in this blog series spells out how to successfully address point #2, above.


“Duh! Well, of course!” would be the expected response by many leaders and quality practitioners to this exhortation.  The intent to understand what customers want is easily agreed with but not well executed.

Most culture change leaders do not have the time, patience or inclination sufficient to adequately understand and apply the many quality methods and tools available.  Abundance, complexity and competing priorities abound.  The voice of the customer (VOC), customer experience, QFD and other labels refer to organized ways of uncovering and satisfying what customers want.  They’re all valuable but not necessarily easy to apply or relevant to every organizational setting.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of information is aimed at widget-making enterprises.  Only 13% of us personally make widgets so we need another way.

There are two practical and easy-to-apply versions of the cultural transformation roadmap. For those leaders who prefer text and a step-by step recipe, follow the path of answers to questions 1-8 covered in the first blog in this series.  For those of us who like pictures, think in terms of relationships and systems, like a reference that applies to every aspect of excellence in every context, and want to be able to point to “we are here,” use the 8 Dimensions of Excellence  graphic below (more on this graphic).

A culture of quality must address all eight topics labeled in this graphic.  Attacking the Dimensions in the sequence shown by the numbers works best.  Traditional quality management practices put especially heavy emphasis on Dimension 8.  In fact, most initiative names (lean, Six Sigma, activity-based costing, business process improvement, etc.) explicitly work on processes to benefit the producer.  Dimension 4, the customer’s process for acquiring and using the product, generally gets far less attention.

Leaders who have defined and measured Dimensions 1-4, in that order, have effectively uncovered the VOC.  That defines the target to hit; it is what quality or excellence means to customers.  The mechanics of doing this in any context is described with some detail in “Voice of the Customer In a Widget-free World.”

An easy way to test whether what we have said we value is actually valued is to examine what gets measured regarding each of the 8 Dimensions.  Most healthcare organizations will admit that their customers (patients, let’s say) want to achieve, above all else,  “good health.”  This is the voice of the customer for Dimension 1, their ultimate desired outcome, and should not come as a surprise.  Yet the vast majority of healthcare providers have no written definition for good health (though the World Health Organization has had one since 1948), has no measure for it, and no numerical goals for improvement.  Other than that, everything is wonderful.

Happily, there will be many measures for other things, mostly regarding operations and compliance, but the most important customer outcome is not defined, measured or linked to compensation or performance reviews (but volume, cycle time and cost are).  Customer surveys ask many questions (on courtesy, cleanliness, wait times) but few to none regarding the good health outcome (not to be confused with the clinical outcome).  We assume high scores indicate satisfaction, but we have carefully chosen which questions to ask and which to avoid.  The power of customers is therefore diminished and staff behavior is not linked to what the strategic plan intends.

You can fix this situation by using the 8 Dimensions framework with the steps outlined in the article referenced above. You will have a practical sense for what it takes to “closely understand customer expectations.”

The third blog in this series will outline the specifics of taking action on the third major research finding: Develop policy, common language and leader behaviors for deployment.