Where to begin

Prepare

You may have some formal responsibility for quality improvement. On the other hand, it may be going on around you. Either way, especially if you have some managerial or supervisory role, you can influence the developments more effectively if you prepare yourself and others around you. In quality speak, become a Quality Champion. The point is not only to increase your own influence, but to positively affect people’s attitudes. This is because, if techniques are the vehicle of improvement, people’s attitudes are the fuel. Only once you have fuelled the corporate atmosphere with motivation and involvement is it time to redesign the systems and perhaps the organisational structure.

Sell the idea within your work area

Whatever your role in the organisation, it will be an uphill struggle if your colleagues are pulling in opposite directions. So it makes sense to start with internal communications and meetings. Having continuing conversation with (rather than broadcasting to) employees and other interested parties is a key part of preparing the ground. The idea is to engage everyone’s creativity and commitment, without which any attempt at quality improvement is, at best, likely to turn into a box-ticking exercise.

Sustainability begins before any change event with preparing the ground. Recognise that there is a threat to people who have been doing a job for perhaps many years. These people are not necessarily reactionary but may well be justifiably cautious. Take time to explain but also to seek their help and involvement.

John Bicheno, The Quality 75

Overcome resistance

You may notice this in colleagues or in yourself. People may have natural anxieties. Their fears may be about having to change roles and learn new skills, or even about actually losing their jobs. For example, will it undermine your/their own position if you encourage more junior staff to take on more responsibility? Their fears will be real to them, whether or not they have any foundation. Either way, it’s important to talk about these things openly. Then you can deal with the issues, and they will not remain hidden and festering.

Talk to people about what is happening. Become informed about the things you don’t know. Share what you do know with colleagues. If you have responsibility for launching a quality initiative, be aware that grand launches can be counter-productive. Some places have tried way-out fun razzamatazz launches with great success, while others have tried the same to the horror of their employees. You can start the ball rolling with some low-key techniques.

Become a role model

Your personal behaviour and working style will influence everyone around you. Even if your company has no quality aspirations, you can improve results just by the way you act. If you have any formal responsibility for quality, you will find progress much easier if people trust you. Good ways of influencing others in this respect are to

  • Walk the talk
  • Focus on results and what enables them to be achieved
  • Minimise the bureaucracy/documentation (making it more flexible, where sensible)
  • Encourage everyone to
  • think about the procedures and how they might be improved
  • be open about things that ‘went wrong’
  • take responsibility for their actions
  • Recognise people’s contributions, whether through formal appraisal and reward, employee of the month schemes or a simple word of acknowledgement.

Whatever suits your context, do it, and keep doing it.

Encourage a customer focus

Help your colleagues to raise their awareness of the needs of whoever uses the result of their work, and to seek to meet those needs. It’s often the simple things that count in changing attitudes.

A manager’s tale

Sue was amazed at the difference in her team’s attitude when she moved out of her personal office in the corridor of power, and found a space in the team office. Sure, people were suspicious at first, so her next step was to roll up her sleeves and help out when the team was under pressure. She found the time to do this by giving up some of the micromanagement tasks that her bosses had told her were essential. That felt scary, but it paved the way for encouraging the team to streamline their procedures – and talk to teams with the same function in other regional offices of the company – in place of fierce rivalry over results. Funnily enough, her boss stopped micromanaging her too when head office started sending compliments instead of brickbats, and when results started to get better.

Involve customers in the process

At the very least, conduct surveys to find out what they would consider quality or excellence in doing business with you. You might also wish to consult some of them about your procedures and products. This reinforces their relationship with the company, and encourages future sales.

Talk with key suppliers

They will feel part of the show if you take them more into your confidence. You might want to share training with them. That sort of thing can reduce the volume of defects markedly, and they are more likely to help you out in a crisis.

Consider competitors

It may seem weird to talk cooperation with competitors, and there will be areas of commercial sensitivity. Nonetheless, there will be many areas of mutual benefit, and the concept is the basis of benchmarking – a technique for learning from others by comparing notes in a structured way.

Assess current performance

You need specific data. This will help you decide what to concentrate on, and estimate the work involved. You may be able to get it from an existing management information system, or you might need to do some fresh analysis.

For example, you might want to reflect on the things you think you are especially good at (or not), and the effect of external influences on how you might address those characteristics. A useful technique for doing this is SWOT analysis, although there are others, such as the RADAR® self-assessment tool, which is used within the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) Business Excellence Model.

This process should give you valuable insights, but it will be an internal perspective. Surveying customers, suppliers and employees will all add fresh dimensions to your view – provided you ask questions that matter to the organisation and prepare the ground so people believe you really want to know the answers.

If you intend to use corporate statistics, look under them to check they tell you what you think they do, and that what they measure matters.

Remember

Would a customer care if a telephone is answered in three rings, if they then don’t get the quality of response they are looking for?

Decide which aspects of your business to improve

What you tackle first will depend on your business priorities, your position in the company, and the time and resources available.

Find some areas for improvement that people will notice. Some that will capture the imagination of people in different levels and functions of the organisation. Some that will signal change to customers and/or suppliers.

People sometimes say the first thing to tackle is those few processes at which you really must excel. This is as true of a small team as it is of the whole company. You may know them as Critical (or Key) Success Factors (or even Mission Critical Factors). The idea is that these are vital to achieving your business aims and objectives, so tackling them will make the greatest difference to your business results. That’s true, but you might like buy in some expertise you can trust, or to get some practice first.

Tackling a cross-section of issues with high, medium and low priority, including some easy targets, will develop and maintain vital motivation while enabling you to attend to the issues that matter to the company’s results.

Plan your action

You might be working within your own area. You might have been offered responsibility for some or all aspects of quality improvement across part or the whole organisation. It doesn’t matter. Planning and (if you can) delegating the work will make life a lot easier. It’s much like any project.

If there are several projects going on, someone should coordinate work. Whether it should be you or someone else depends on circumstances. Only you can decide that.

If you’re in charge of a programme or project of any size, you’ll need to allocate resources. Even if you’re going to do it all yourself, you’ll need to know what resources are available and what you are responsible for. It is normal to make sure people are clear about their responsibilities, what they have to deliver by when and that they have the skills and motivation to do so. Check out how things are going at sensible intervals, and offer your encouragement and support or get help, or whatever is needed, when appropriate.

It makes sense to include project tasks in job descriptions, particularly if people are working on the tasks part-time. You should also incorporate work on the project into the normal performance management appraisal and accountability system.

It makes sense to identify (and take steps to minimise) the risks, and make contingency plans in case things do not go as expected. This basically involves imagining what could go wrong with each task, assessing which are the most likely or potentially calamitous setbacks, and thinking up alternative ways of reducing the risk or dealing with the fall-out if it happens. The advantage is having time to propose sane solutions when you are not under pressure because it has all gone horribly wrong.

All interested parties should regularly be told what’s happening. It is important to establish at the outset what the key stages are at which to check in with the team, and when and how to report progress and obstacles to senior management. Remember it should be a two-way conversation though, not a broadcast. If you don’t attend to this, rumour will take over. Unless you control any tendency to broadcast, you might find conflicting or negative messages circulating, instead of positive ones. Then you will get bogged down in dealing with whinges, instead of getting on with the job.

Training may be needed, for you or your colleagues. It’s helpful to consider the cost of external trainers and the time ‘off-job’ of trainees. For example, it may suit your circumstances to pay for external training for a small core of employees, who would then be expected to train/coach their colleagues. Some will just need to understand the concept. Others may need technical skills, if they are likely to use ‘quality techniques’ in their work. Some say that everyone should know about the techniques. It can send helpful messages about openness and common purpose if delegates on a course come from various levels in the company.

As quality beds into the corporate culture, you should still keep checking out and prompting further progress.