Probing the Limits: Top Management and Quality

August 1, 2004
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A recent survey compiled top management's perspective on quality.

The American Society for Quality (ASQ) recently published a study that asked "top management" what they thought about quality. The findings of the study provide insight to the changes that can be made to get the quality profession back on track.

The survey, Economic Case and Image Survey, which can be found at www.asq.org/survey, offers the ASQ a great opportunity to become more effective as an organization and to promote the quality profession so that it can regain a position of critical importance within organizations.

It is a fundamental quality principle that quality improvement projects must have support and leadership from top management before quality-driven continual improvement projects can start. Without support from the top, quality improvement efforts can wither and fail.

The ASQ surveyed 600 executives in various industry sectors to gain an understanding of their perspective on quality and to understand the role that the ASQ plays in forming and perpetuating that perspective. The results were interesting, surprising and full of hope.

The most interesting finding stemmed from a question about the manager's awareness and use of business improvement techniques. To my surprise and delight, total quality management (TQM) was the highest ranking technique overall. It beat ISO 9000 and Six Sigma in the overall results with an 83% awareness and 59% usage rate. Within the manufacturing sector, TQM was a close second with an awareness rate of 91%, while ISO 9000 had an awareness rate of 98%, and Six Sigma an awareness rate of 84%. Even though ISO 9000 had a higher awareness and implementation rate than TQM in the manufacturing sector, I was happy to see TQM still surviving at a much higher awareness and implementation rate than I expected.

I've felt for a long-time that TQM was the best path to get started down the quality and process improvement path, and evidently, despite its age, TQM is surviving incredibly well in the minds of America's top executives. I'm not in favor of replicating the TQM of 20 years ago, but these findings reinforce the feeling by many quality professionals that sticking with a TQM-like approach to quality and avoiding a standards-based approach like ISO 9000 or the flavor of the month approach like Six Sigma will garner more support from top management and thus be more successful.

The other interesting finding from the survey was an insight into what "quality" meant to these executives. In a series of questions, roughly half of these top managers responded that:

u They see quality as a product attribute, but not as a management tool.

u They do not measure the impact of continual improvement efforts.

u They don't see quality as a profession.

u They don't have a quality manager.

u They have not heard of ASQ.

With this insight to how top management thinks about quality, there are some clear action steps that can be taken to put quality professionals in a position to deliver their full potential to an organization. Clearly an opportunity exists to increase top management's awareness of what the quality profession can do to improve the competitiveness of organizations. I applaud ASQ's recent promotional campaign to do just that.

Several months ago, I wrote a series of columns critiquing ASQ and suggesting some changes they needed to make to regain its effectiveness. Ken Case, the ASQ past-president, was receptive to my suggestions and invited me to a board meeting where I presented anonymous feedback based on reader e-mails I received that addressed some of the areas in which the ASQ needs to change. When asked what I thought the association should do, I told them that they needed to talk to CEOs, listen to them and act on what they say.

I doubt my suggestion prompted the ASQ to conduct this study, but I'm glad to see that they are listening to CEOs and not simply blaming them for a lack of support. CEOs should be prime customers of ASQ, and thus ASQ needs to listen to their needs and treat them as partners, not as a roadblock to quality improvement, as CEOs are often portrayed.

ASQ has initiated a series of changes and I hope they use the findings of this survey to continue those changes. It is clear the awareness of quality needs to be promoted and made more visible-in an objective manner. I see ASQ moving that direction and I hope they are successful.

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