Face of Quality: Big Q vs. Little Q

September 29, 2009
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Should an organization focus on continual improvement or aim for the home run? As a follower of Dr. Joseph M. Juran, I see the value and power of his philosophies. Juran displayed his concept of continuous improvement gained through hundreds of projects with his spiral of progress in quality.

Basically, Juran believed that as organizations take action to make improvements in products and processes, the performance and success of the company spirals up. Each completed project is a step up the spiral staircase. Subsequently, each improvement builds on the previous one to take the organization to greater heights and levels of achievement.

After one of my quality classes, in which we were discussing Juran’s concept as it applies to organizations, a student asked what speed of improvement is needed for an organization to be successful. In my 45 years experience, the answer is not the speed or how fast improvement is being made that matters, but whether improvement is happening at all.

On the surface it would seem that the faster improvements are made, the better. That may not be the case at all. Several factors need to be considered as to how fast continual improvement and change should occur.

Data might suggest that few organizations really have an effective corrective and preventive action system or process. There may be a framework for such a system that would satisfy a third-party auditor during surveillance audits. Few companies, however, actually leverage the corrective and preventive action process to make dramatic (a.k.a. the “Big Q”) changes that may have a greater impact on the bottom line.

If an organization has a corrective and preventive action system that is effective and deployed across the organization, it might be one of the very few organizations that really does. This is a systemic issue for most organizations.

Aside from how fast improvements are being made, merely having a quality system in place delivers major value to the organization through continuous improvement while its competitors’ quality system most likely is not. In most industry, even slow improvement is a strategic advantage that the quality system contributes, as long as the improvement efforts pay off with high-level changes capable of impacting the organization’s results.

If an organization is making significant improvements that drive Juran’s spiral of improvement up, then the issue of how fast to go remains and the question still begs for an answer. I’ve always prescribed to the recipe that continual improvement, over the long haul, one step or project at a time (a.k.a. “the little q”), will get an organization farther than waiting for the long ball.

Continual improvement usually involves making changes-and changes often are disruptive and uncomfortable to an organization.

Managers have a vital responsibility to their people and organization to drive improvement, but also to gage the rate of change their groups can effectively tolerate and absorb. When rates of change and improvement are high, employees may be so uncomfortable and even disoriented, that any efficiency gained from process improvement may be lost with an unproductive staff.

Giving employees time to settle in and get comfortable with change to one process while applying slight, but constant, pressure to improve a different process works well toward moving up the spiral staircase of improvement.

There are many examples of the heroic, rapid change approach to improvement, and they are usually effective for a short period of time, if that. As a rule, long-term results are rarely achieved even though some organizations or managers often are seen as successful for short-term results. In fact, many managers get rewarded for short-term results.

Across industry, many companies have demonstrated that incremental improvement has outperformed postponed perfection and heroic efforts to make the transformation with breakthrough improvement. There is no doubt that successful organizations need both, but organizations that subscribe to sustained improvement have historically won in the long run.

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