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.