Is Top Management the Quality Scapegoat?

April 30, 2003
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Building a bandwagon can re-light the quality fire at any company.

Stop blaming top management for all the things that ail the quality profession. While management is not blameless, they are more a scapegoat than a root cause to the problems in the quality profession. They need a reason to re-light the quality fire -- a fire that is being doused by quality busy work.

Top management buy-in and support of quality initiatives is an underlying theme of W. Edwards Deming's teachings. As a wholehearted Deming advocate, I think that Deming could never have anticipated the paperwork vs. quality assurance situation that exists today. It is time that the issue of "top management support" that Deming postulated needs to be re-examined. Prior to Deming's death, the quality movement was showing real, bottom-line results in organizations and ISO 9000 registrations had barely started in the United States.

Things have changed. Since Deming's death in 1993, the quality profession as a whole has declined. Top management no longer calls upon the quality professional's skills to drive fundamental business competitiveness improvements. Instead, quality professionals are often delegated to compliance management -- a sometimes necessary, but low value-adding task.

Deming's quality revolution has been replaced by ISO/QS-9000 and by quality trends du jour such as the current rage, Six Sigma. During the 1990s, I believe Deming saw the quality movement as an opportunity to improve American competitiveness. Since then, I believe many quality consultants have seen ISO 9000 and quality trends du jour as great opportunities to line their pockets.

Quality professionals are no longer operating in the height of the quality movement. We are operating in an environment where top management has spent lots of money on quality programs, such as ISO 9000, that we recommended, but these programs have not delivered valuable results. The main effect of ISO 9000 registration at my company was erosion in the time available for my quality department to tackle projects that delivered bottom-line results. Like many others, we got focused on quality certificates, not quality improvement.

Lack of support justified
I do recognize that top management, in most companies, is not supportive of the quality department. Where I differ with many people is that I think that the lack of support is justified, based on what the quality department has advocated in the past and what they are currently contributing. When quality departments champion high-cost, high-effort, low-value programs like ISO 9000, and the department starts to focus on paperwork instead of making better products, who can blame top management for losing the faith in the quality department?

I strongly agree with Deming that getting top management support is critical to any quality improvement campaign. The issue is not how to get management support, but how to regain the support that justifiably has been lost. I believe this support can be regained, but not without significant effort.

The best way to regain top management support for fundamental quality techniques is to demonstrate the techniques' effectiveness. Make it easy and riskless for top management to endorse basic -- not trendy, not expensive -- quality methods again.

To start this process, find a problem in your organization where quality techniques could solve a problem. Ideally, the problem would be a high-profile, nagging issue affecting profitability. Attack the problem using solid, basic quality techniques. I call this step, "building a bandwagon."

The bandwagon is built on a successful project so you must document your success and distribute the report to top management. Top managers will step all over each other to jump on your quality bandwagon when they see it generating important bottom-line results. From my own experience, I guarantee top managers will put quality techniques (and quality professionals) on a pedestal when they see documented results improving the bottom line.

The building a bandwagon cure that I advocate usually requires adding to your workload. The question is: Are you prepared to put in the time? Are you willing to spend the extra hours to demonstrate to top management how powerful basic quality techniques can be? Or, do you find it easier to complain about the lack of top management support?

I hope you will choose to take on some extra work to build a great quality bandwagon that management will clamor to jump on.

In most cases, blaming top management is nothing more than a self-victimizing excuse to do nothing to change what frustrates most quality professionals. The quality profession will re-gain the credibility it so deserves, once basic, successful, continual improvement project at a time. Pick a high-profile problem and work the extra hours to improve it. You will be improving the quality profession at the same time.

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