Quality: "To Be, or Not to Be?"

I feel that “quality” has been the most misused and misunderstood “buzz” word in the working world since at least the early 50s (“productivity” would be in second place just in case you might be wondering). But what is quality really and how do you improve it? In this blog I want to explain why quality must be a priority in all that you do and present some ideas, techniques and processes on how to define quality, develop an improvement system that matches the goals and talents of your Teamers and how to measure and therefore prove your improvement in quality.

What is Quality?

“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

- Aristotle

The simplest definition I can offer for quality is the “conformance to requirements or expectations.” But that simplicity often doesn’t address the typical real world, that is, the Organization’s questions, problems and concerns about quality. So let me try again. Quality is having the products or services of your Teamers match or exceed the expectations of your client or customer. Much has been written about quality and improvement by famous writers including Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and Stephen Covey and many, many others but I think that the two writers and thinkers that influenced me the most were Philip B. Crosby and W. Edwards Deming.

One of the best book that I can recommend to you is Quality Is Free by Philip B. Crosby. It was written in 1979 and I read it in the early 80s as part of a quality improvement program that was started in my Organization’s engineering team (my thanks to Senior Tom). This book introduced the principle of “doing it right the first time” (DIRFT). It dispels the myths that quality costs more or takes longer to achieve. Crosby’s belief was that an organization that started a quality program would have savings that would more than pay for the costs of the quality program and offered these four major principles for any quality program:

  • The definition of quality is conformance to requirements. Do your projects meet the requirements or expectations of your client or customer?
  • The system of quality is prevention.
  • The performance standard is zero defects.
  • The measurement of quality is the price of non conformance.

But my interest in quality didn’t start with Crosby. I had read an article by W. Edwards Deming who had saved Japan from producing poor quality products and services. My guess is that you aren’t old enough to remember when “things” from Japan were terrible and often the laughing stock of the world. What turned me on to Deming was that he had been teaching quality here in America but was largely ignored. Times were good then! But Japan found him in the early 50s and asked him to help them in their pursuit to improve quality. A number of manufacturers in Japan used his teachings and achieved greatly improved levels of quality and productivity. The improved quality and lower cost created a worldwide demand for products from Japan.

But as I said, his teachings were largely ignored here in America. It wasn’t until 1981 when Ford Motor Company, with sales falling, recruited the services of Deming to jump-start a quality movement. I feel that Deming’s teachings on quality were, to say the least, way ahead of his time. His basic philosophy was that “the key (to quality) was to practice continual improvement and think of manufacturing as a system, not bits and pieces.” I highly recommend two of his books for your consideration. First, Quality, Productivity and Competitive Position published in 1982 and renamed Out of the Crisis in 1986 and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education which was published in 1993.

I recommend that you adopt Philip B. Crosby and W. Edwards Deming as your “partners” in your efforts to improve the quality of the products and services provided by you and your Teamers.

Lastly, perhaps you and your Teamers can identify quality as what it is not, rather than what it is. I remember one of the first quality improvement launch meetings that I had with my Teamers. The team had a tradition of each member bringing doughnuts and pastries for sharing with everyone when you had a birthday. I never understood why it was you who brought doughnuts in on your birthday, but anyway everyone loved a good doughnut or pastry and we often starting meetings with doughnuts and pastries on me.

But for this meeting I arrived with the typical “big white box from the bakery.” I sat the box on the meeting room table and opened it up to share with the team only five packages of cheap store-bought mini doughnuts! I pushed a package toward each group of my Teamers and said “Please help yourself and enjoy!” Their reactions and faces were priceless. This wasn’t the quality that they were used to or expected.

And we all had a “got it” moment that is “what quality isn’t.” Sometimes it is easier to start quality improvement by identifying what is not quality; a process step that often fails, a project hand off between Teamers that has failed or simply training that’s needed. Consider working on the obvious things that aren’t quality to get you started on defining what quality is for you and your Teamers.

Oh, I did excuse myself from the meeting to get another big white box from the bakery filled with the expected goodies and everyone’s satisfaction level went up immediately! Matching expectations will always do that!

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”

- Henry Ford

Tell Me If You Measure Up – This Is NOT Easy!

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

– John Wooden

Trust me, quality systems can be very difficult to implement and make successful. Before you start a quality improvement system with your Teamers you need to make sure you understand that you will need to formally define these requirements.

  • State your quality objectives.
  • State your quality processes. You will need to develop documents on the quality assurance steps within each Project Life Cycle phase and step
  • State how you monitor and measure quality, perhaps client surveys
  • State how you improve quality

This is difficult and time consuming work. You need to know what you and your Teamers are getting into. I once wrote the manual for the Organization that I worked with to become ISO 9000 quality certified. Now ISO 9000 is a strict family of standards for quality management systems to help organizations ensure that they meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders. Here’s a summary of the topics and concepts covered in this manual that your quality system must have to be ISO 9000 compliant:

Management Responsibility, Quality Management System, Contract Review, Design Control, Quality Management System Document and Data Control, Purchasing, Supplied Products, Product Identification and Traceability, Product Creation and Process Control, Product Inspection and Testing, Testing Tools and Techniques, Inspection and Test Status, Control of Nonconforming Product, Corrective and Preventive Actions, Product and Service Delivery, Control of Quality Records, Internal Quality Management System Audits, Training, Servicing and Product Maintenance and Statistical Techniques and Measurements

Now, I don’t want to scare you, but are you and your Teamers really ready to implement a quality improvement system this complex?

Quality programs usually start up in one of two ways. Things are “really bad” for the Organization and the Seniors decide to launch a quality program so it comes “top down” to you and your Teamers. Or, the other reason for the start of a quality system is that it is launched by a Middle (that’s you!) for reasons that I’ll cover later in this blog.

Whichever “way” the quality system gets launched there’s lots to do and think about, but trust me it can be worth it and extremely rewarding for everyone. Seeing your Teamers working together, brainstorming ideas to improve the quality of their products or services for their clients or customers is a most rewarding experience for everyone!

But, it is best to match the quality improvement system selected to the real everyday needs and abilities of you and your Teamers and the Organization from day one. Don’t try to do too much too soon. Ease into the quality system if you can. Once you’ve had some success, you can take on more and more complex and challenging quality improvement steps in your system.

“Quality has to be caused, not controlled.”

- Philip Crosby

How to Improve Your Quality

“If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today. As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.”

- Thomas J. Watson

Improving your quality is simple, find a problem or process and fix it. Have regular team building meetings and empower your Teamers to find things to fix or improve. Help your Teamers adopt the “do it right the first time” attitude in all that they do to help improve the quality of the products and services provided by you and your Teamers.

Start with having a staff meeting to announce the start of your new quality improvement system. Send out your announcement with the single agenda item of having each Teamer bring their idea(s) on a “potential problem to fix” that the team should tackle. My guess is that some “old problems” will come up, things that you’ve heard before. “Purchasing always takes too long to approve printing bids and puts us behind schedule” or “the designers never check the proofs quickly enough!” Be prepared! Some of the problems that your Teamers will bring to the meeting may have been “stewing” for them for some time. 

If you can afford it, get a copy of Quality Is Free by Philip B. Crosby for all of your Teamers, sort of like a “handbook” for their new quest to improve their quality.

Some of your Teamers will complain that they “don’t have time for this” so you should reassure them that all of the quality improvement stuff can be recorded as “administrative time” on your time recording system. Simply, I would encourage you and your Teamers to find the time to address quality improvement. If one of your Teamers simply does not want to participate in any of this “quality BS” don’t force them to participate. Give them the option to leave the meeting now.

Here’s the agenda that I suggest for your first quality improvement meeting:

  • Collect The Problems - Collect all of the problems from your Teamers on a flip chart or a blackboard. Have a scribe, if you need one, to create an electronic list of the problems. Ask each Teamer to explain and describe the problem briefly and why they think it should be considered. Also consider using a recording device. The key is to collect all of the problems, discussion and ideas so everybody’s got “skin in the game.”
  • Vote On The Problems To Work On - Have your Teamers vote on which problems to attack. I suggest that you give them more than just one vote with these options and of course make the voting anonymous.The top problem to work on, the top three things to work on, the top five, the top seven (this may be too many!)
  • Choose Up Sides For Teams - Once you have the “winners” of the problems to work on, you will need to form quality improvement teams for each problem selected. My suggestion is that you don’t want to take on too many quality improvement projects since you will most likely be the facilitator for all of these meetings until you can get more facilitators trained and ready for team assignments. Depending on the size of your staff, I would start with three to five quality improvement projects and teams.
  • Volunteers Anyone? - Once you have the projects selected, ask for volunteers to work on each project. Try to get a cross section of your team to work on the project to give you a variety of views and opinions. You need to have at least three Teamers for a team, but don’t have too many Teamers assigned to any single problem. Try to spread them out and a Teamer can serve on more than one team if they like. Work to get as many of your staff involved in a quality improvement team as possible. Again, if Teamers don’t want to participate don’t force them.
  • Collect Results and Problems – Each team needs to take minutes of each meeting highlighting their results, plans and any problems or concerns that they have in making the needed changes to address and fix each problem.

“For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

- Steve Jobs

The Post-Mortem Meeting

“By three methods we may learn wisdom; first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.”

- Confucius

If you have a problem project do this meeting! Or, if you have an exceptional project, do this meeting to find out what made it exceptional. Don’t spend all of your time looking for problems, also look for successes to duplicate those efforts on other projects.

Meeting rules are:

  • Everybody who worked on the project attends with their prepared written agenda of items, things that went poorly and things that went well along with their reason(s) why.
  • The facilitator gets all of these agendas together before the meeting and shares them with everybody so that they can review and prepare for the meeting.
  • Have a time keeper.
  • Also have a scribe to collect and record all of the information developed during the Post- Mortem meeting. Use a recording device if needed
  • Topics for the agenda must at least include: what worked and why, what didn’t work and why, what went really well and why, lessons learned and why and formal changes needed in policies or process and why?

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

- W. Edwards Deming

How to “Prove” Quality? Ask Your “Client” and Measure!

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

- Carl Sagan

If you think of the people that your Teamers do projects for as your “clients” you need to ask them how satisfied they are with the projects or services provided to them. At the end of a project send them a “satisfaction survey.” Email is not good for this since it is not anonymous, so I suggest that you send the survey by email, suggest that they print it and then snail mail back to you the completed survey. Keep the survey simple to encourage your clients to respond. A team that I worked with had a simple five question survey sent to the client after the completion of all of the marketing communications projects with these questions:

  • Was the project completed on time?
  • Was the project completed within budget?
  • Did the project meet your overall communication needs?
  • Would you use the team’s services again for your next project?
  • How satisfied overall was the client with the project or service provided to them by rating their satisfaction on a scale from “1” (Very Satisfied) to “5” (Very Dissatisfied)?

Collect the responses to these questions and prepare anonymous reports to your Teamers and to your Senior frequently, perhaps monthly. If you get a survey with really poor satisfaction ratings meet privately with the client and be sure to do a Post-Mortem meeting on the product or service to find out what went wrong and why, but always keep this information anonymous.

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”

- Kim Collins

Have Patience; They’ve Never Done This Before!

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

- Steve Jobs

After you start your quality improvement system and teams make sure that you have patience with them and yourself.

Most of these folks have never thought about their work under the watchful eye of quality improvement before. They’ve never done brainstorming sessions to find problems, had Post-Mortem meetings after the project completion to look for good and bad results or surveyed clients on their satisfaction and actually listened and responded by making changes and improvements based upon what they heard from their clients.

Quality improvement takes total honesty, trust and a complete lack of judgment.

Coach your Teamers to be tolerant of one another and not judgmental in meetings.

“A cardinal principle of Total Quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships.”

- Stephen Covey

Most Quality Programs Are Started by Middles

“Whoever you are, there is some younger person who thinks you are perfect. There is some work that will never be done if you don’t do it. There is someone who would miss you if you were gone. There is a place that you alone can fill.”

 - Jacob Braude

I was attending a quality improvement training session (I honestly can’t remember how many sessions that I’ve attended!) when the instructor mentioned on break that most quality improvement efforts were started by middle managers to gain agreement on “what is quality” between their team members and their management.

I’m not sure if this is true, but starting a quality improvement system can provide these specific benefits for team members, management and you:

  • Provides a contract between management and the workers - helps the middle manager know what to do.
  • As W. Edwards Deming points out “Quality is everyone’s responsibility.” This must be true within your Organization. Work with management and the workers to address quality improvement.
  • Defines what and how everyone wants quality to be.
  • Helps the Middle be truly effective in satisfying their Teamers and their Senior and the rest of the Organization.
  • In most cases, you can initiate a quality improvement system within your team without approval from your senior! Just do it and seek “forgiveness” later, if needed.

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There’s a thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the biggest idiot on earth.”

- Cynthia Heimel

I wish you empowerment, happiness and every success!!