Should you adopt a particular quality model?

Searching for specific procedures among ideas is a sign of a lazy mind.


Following a model will save you reinventing the wheel and will give you some ideas about how to proceed. On the other hand, if you follow one too slavishly you risk losing the spirit, turning the whole thing into a lifeless box-ticking exercise. That’s fatal, and the reason why some models get a bad name, but you know the old saying – ‘It’s a poor workman who blames their tools’?

A model is intended to give you broad principles – ideas rather than specific procedures. A model is incomplete, like a map. It simplifies reality for a specific purpose. A road atlas, a walking map or a geological survey are all models of topography. To be useful for their purpose, they must omit different details. Yet for those purposes, they tell you more than an aerial photo – which is arguably a fuller representation. Similarly, genuine quality will elude you if you follow a model too closely or see it as an end in itself.

The important thing about a model is that it should be as good a fit as possible for your needs to start with. Then you can tweak it to suit. In particular, if you need external assessment, accreditation or awards, you will need to argue the case very strongly if you step too far away from accepted wisdom. On the other hand, if your organisation has chosen a model that you feel is unsuitable, there is every reason to propose modifications.

One guy modified things so much he just about built his own model! He didn’t call it that, but that‘s pretty much what Ricardo Semler of Semco did in Brazil. He did everything ‘wrong’ and (overall) it worked – in his circumstances. But then, he owned the company. If you have the freedom and want to follow that route though, bear in mind what else he did – lots of research from examining very carefully what other people had done (including PWC and Harvard Business School). In most circumstances, building your own approach is a bit like making your own shoes: fine if you like that sort of thing, but otherwise why would you bother?

The point of Semler’s story is simply to show it’s OK to modify if you can be sure your way is better than the standard way, for your circumstances. Anyway, you might say ‘all’ he did was get the corporate culture right, and let the quality follow through. Now that’s something any manager at any level can do, within their own area.

The way that Ricardo Semler runs his company is impossible, except that it works, and works splendidly for everyone.

Charles Handy, reviewing Maverick by Ricardo Semler

Choosing a quality model

Many larger organisations insist on their suppliers having ISO accreditation. So if you are looking for a widely recognised accreditation which will get you a foot in the door in competitive tendering exercises, you may need to opt for one of the ISO 9000 series. But of course not all companies are keen on ISO themselves.

The ISO 9000 series is in use across the world, while the EFQM Business Excellence Model is widespread in Europe. It has a US equivalent in the Malcolm Baldridge Criteria for Performance Excellence. There are others, mainly in specialist fields, such as primary healthcare, chartered surveying, legal services, environmental issues and diversity. Some companies have chosen to develop their own models. Examples of the latter include Toyota (which apparently rejected ISO registration after piloting the approach in one of their factories) and Semco.

So it all depends on your circumstances and what you want out of it. Each model has its evangelists and critics. The essential thing is to fit the model to your needs rather than the other way round.

If your company has already implemented a model, you may feel you have to live with it. That may be true in your position, or it may not. It is possible to use different models in different parts of an organisation. Know that it is OK to argue against a model that’s already in place, subject, of course, to organisational culture and politics.

If you have been asked to propose a choice, there is a decision-making process to be followed.

  • Make sure you understand your organisation – the environment in which it operates, its management style and culture, and its critical success factors.
  • Get an understanding of the reasoning behind the views of the influential thinkers in this area, The main quality gurus.
  • Look at as many models as seem relevant. Many of the specialist models will not apply to your circumstances. Compare each aspect of relevant ones with your company’s needs. For example, compare the importance of
  • customer focus in the model, with its importance to your organisation
  • targets and standards with your own views (or the corporate view)
  • documentation, as the bureaucratic drag may inhibit success.
  • The same goes for other elements within any model – you need to think about whether the level of importance given to factors is congruent with your needs and practice.
  • Perhaps contact some companies which you regard as outstanding and seek their experience.

Whatever approach you choose, there are four key factors for success. The approach to quality should:

  • Add to rather than hinder the organisation’s aims (financial success, market domination and so on)
  • Be an influence for change rather than preservation of the status quo
  • Help, not hinder, people in their work
  • Be done by not to the organisation’s employees at all levels.

Regardless of the model adopted, the keystone of the whole structure is building a Quality Attitude.