Avoid the Quality Swamp; Think Backwards From the Future

You can get lost in the quality swamp.  An organization can slosh around forever in the muck of quality improvement programs, tools, processes, steps, guidelines, steering groups, and structures–and never find its way out.

A recent Wall Street Journal article described a growing number of companies which have invested years and millions in open ended quality improvement processes, with no results.  Many never got beyond navel-gazing the possibilities.  In the name of quality, they created bureaucracies instead of improvements.  In these cases, executives lost direction, the organizations lost momentum, customers and suppliers lost faith, and employees just plain got lost in the swamp.

Too many organizations are mired in a quality swamp of their own making, focused too much on the problems of the day and their own internal myopic view of quality.  It is possible to avoid the swamp, and get beyond the day-to-day diversions.

Start with the future and the customer and think backwards from there.  There are five critical steps in this approach to improving what you do: (1) Build a vision, (2) Get clear about the “Why,” (3) Get in touch with your customers, (4) Think backwards from there, and (5) Turn people loose.

Build a Vision

Build a vision, not for tomorrow or next week, but for the next five years.  This is not a mystical dream step.  It is a realistic picture of what success looks like.  Imagine taking the roof off your company and peering inside.  Describe what would be going on if you were truly successful.  What would you see and hear?  How would people behave?  What would be any different from today?

A useful vision cannot be timid.  Think far enough out to stretch your capabilities.  Capture in writing all those things that, today, seem impossible to do.  Be as descriptive as possible.  Generalities and catch phrases of the day will blur the vision and dilute its power.  Buzzwords like “world-class” and “empowerment” do not excite the imagination and move the heart.  Look behind the words to real actions, sights and sounds.  Use this touchstone:  HWIKIWISI.  (“How will I know it when I see it?”)  Be specific.  In both descriptive terms and quantifiable terms, what will tell you that you’ve arrived–or that you’re even getting close?

Anticipate your environment.  Look closely at the world in which your organization operates.  Make some intelligent guesses and predictions about the future of your customers, suppliers, technology, products, capital, your workforce.  Set down some assumptions about what the world around you will look like in the future.  This will help you create a vision for the future, instead of a prescription for today’s problems.

Finally, describe the critical core competencies you will need to be ready for the future.  Determine what skills, attributes, and abilities will be essential for the organization to communicate effectively, cooperate constructively, and operate competently.

Key to this first step out of the quality swamp is the word build.  A vision for your organization cannot be handed down from the board room on stone tablets.  Ownership of the vision by everyone in the organization is paramount to moving forward.  A vision without support and commitment has no soul.  It is only words on paper.  To build the commitment needed, let people talk about it, argue over it, add to it and make changes.  In the process, the vision becomes theirs too.  Only by their involvement in building the vision will they want to make it become the guiding force for working and living in the organization.

Get Clear About “Why”

Leaders must define and communicate why anything needs to be better.  People need to know, in both business and personal terms, what “better” looks like, and “what’s in it for them”.

The first question people ask about change is, “Why bother?”  If there is no reason to be dissatisfied with the way things are, we will keep doing what we’ve always done–and keep getting what we always got.  Sermons, slogans and banners about the importance of improving quality will not encourage change.

Clear information, forcefully presented, about the state of the business, changes in the marketplace, the competition, and the company’s current performance will grab attention.  If there is no dissatisfaction with the status quo, leaders must create it.

The answer to “Why bother changing?” need not be a threat.  It can also be an opportunity, a compelling challenge to exceed our current best effort.  In either case, honestly spell out the consequences of continuing as you are, and the rewards for moving in new directions.

Get in Touch with Your Customers

Get in touch with your customers to learn who they are, what they expect from you, and how they think you are doing.  Customers are the lifeblood of any organization.  Without their input, uninformed decisions about products and services will lead to costly disasters.

Customers are internal as well as external.  Building internal customer relationships leads to more comprehensive problem solving within the organization, better cooperation between functions, and higher standards of performance.  For example, all employees are customers of the Human Resource function, Manufacturing is a customer of Engineering, and Sales is a customer of Marketing.  None of these internal functions can operate on its own.  They are dependent on knowing the expectations and getting feedback on their products, services, and performance in order to build strong and responsive internal relationships.  The lack of internal customer knowledge courts costly organizational confusion.

External customers are a treasure trove of valuable information.  Do not take them for granted.  Find out who they are.  Invite them in.  Visit them.  Ask a few simple questions:  “What are we doing right and wrong?”  “What works and doesn’t work for you?”   “How are we doing, and how could we do better?”  Then listen, listen, listen.  Their input about your organization will help determine future products and services, potential market share, and cost and profit elasticity.  There is no substitute for pinning down what your customers want, then finding ways to surpass their expectations.

Think Backwards from There

When you are clearer about your customers’ expectations, when you have thought about what you need to become, and when you have defined what “better” is, then think backwards.

Start looking at how the work gets done, from your customers backwards into your organization.  Map out your core work processes, and identify the essential tasks.  Challenge those activities which are not essential to the business of the business.

Examine the structures, procedures and roles now in place to see how they help meet internal and external customer needs. Test functional and structural boundaries to understand if they add value to customer understanding and relationships.  Challenge roles and procedures to uncover redundancies, growing empires, and stifling red tape.

Change whatever is keeping you from delighting customers, continuously getting better, and creating your own future.  Give people the tools to proceed in a systematic way, and they will make a difference.

The employees know best what activities, actions, systems, and processes are needed to change the organization.  They are aware of the barriers to success and productivity:  those they can do something about and those that are out of their control.

Developing avenues for surfacing employee knowledge about the hurdles to success, and encouraging solutions to become actions will change what needs to change.  Then the organizational picture of “better” becomes authentic whether on the shop floor, in the accounting office, or on a sales call.  When leaders articulate the “why” for changing and employees initiate the “what”, the organization will begin to move forward.

Turn People Loose

Above all, get serious about turning people loose.  They either are your company or they are not.  They either have the ability to make a difference or they do not.  There is no middle ground.  Keep asking:  “Who needs to be part of this?  How will we get the right people engaged in continuously improving the work?   How can we multiply the power of people to contribute their best?”  Sure, you will make mistakes, and sometimes make the wrong choice;  but the resulting commitment to succeed will far outweigh the occasional setbacks.  Turning people loose is not chaos.  It is simply trusting their ability to look for solutions, to turn initiative into actions, and to do what is best.  Establish the opportunities for them to build the skills and abilities necessary to succeed.  Then get out of the way.

The point is not to create an elegant quality management vehicle for an endless journey into the quality swamp.  Creating cumbersome structures and procedures,  or training people to use statistical tools without clear focus misses the point.  That is mistaking the means for the ends.  The point is to engage people in the process of getting better and better at what they do for real live customers, in clear and uncomplicated ways.  You can do that more simply by thinking backwards from the future.

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