Probing the Limits: Short-Term Focus

February 1, 2007
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Quality professionals need to address the problem of short-term focus on profits by shifting to improvement methods that give short-term results.

The main reason that so few organizations fully utilize quality improvement methods is because they have a short-term focus in their business. For the quality profession to meet its full potential and play a strategic role in organizations, it needs to listen to its customer-top management-and start developing and offering quality improvement methods that show short-term results.

Based on my experience in the quality profession, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the root cause in the vast majority of quality issues-and performance issues-is a short-term focus on profits by top management. This isn’t new insight because Deming named “Emphasis on short-term profits” the second item on his list of seven deadly diseases that affect organizations.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that the quality profession is taking the wrong strategy with this absolutely key issue in the profession. When faced with top management’s lack of support, many quality professionals, like Deming, will point out management’s short-term focus and say, “There isn’t much we can do if management has a short-term focus.” Then they wash their hands of the problem-having found a perfectly good excuse and a suitable person to blame.

Maybe it’s my experience of starting a company that has changed my perspective. I would love to deploy elaborate quality improvement methods to the problems, but I just don’t have time. As a small business owner, I need short-term profits to survive. At the other end of the spectrum, large corporations need quick, large profits to keep their shareholders happy. This isn’t ever going to change.

You need short-term profits too. Let’s take the situation of a long-term quality improvement project and turn it around. Instead of proposing a long-term quality improvement project to upper management, let’s say upper management comes to you and says, “We have a great two-year project for you to work on that looks like it will help the company save lots of money. Your pay for this project will be very good, but it will be withheld until the project is complete and the promised results are achieved.” Would you accept a project that paid you nothing for two years-and only if it was completed on time and it worked? I wouldn’t.

In a situation like this, I would be worried about going that long with no pay and the risk that I would get paid nothing if something, possibly out of my control, goes wrong.

Top management feels the same way about long-term quality improvement projects.

Within organizations, top management and the quality department have a customer-supplier relationship. If top management asks for improvement projects that have a short-term focus, then quality improvement suppliers should provide what the customer wants and not tell the customer that they are wrong. If there are other longer-term options that might give better results, those should be presented to top management, but the customer, top management, still gets to define their needs.

The quality profession needs to change and adapt its methods in two ways.

First, quality professionals need to break down long-term projects into many sequential short-term projects that have visible and significant short-term results. When top management sees a plan for a steady stream of short-term, tangible successes, then they will support the project when it is proposed and as it progresses. This mitigates the risk for top management by making the initial investment minimal and gives them the ability to quickly kill a project that fails to deliver results.

The second change is that quality professionals need to develop and communicate methods that deliver quick results. Improvement specialists need to be trained to look for low-hanging fruit projects that are quick to fix and garner big results. This retraining takes away the tension between top management and the quality department, and positions quality improvers in the company to be seen as people of strategic importance rather than necessary overhead.

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