Face of Quality: Leading the Quality Culture

The other day a discussion about organizations and quality centered on how to create a quality culture. Who is responsible for creating it? Certainly, we all play a role, but the primary function is leadership.

Business leaders have a powerful influence on the development of their company’s culture. They may not be conscious of their culture, or they may just think of it as “the way we do things.” Every company has a culture, and it reflects the leaders’ values, good or bad. Employees will have adopted their leaders’ behaviors and attitudes in the performance of their work.

If the leadership in place has cynical or close-minded attitudes, its employees will come to believe that these attitudes are appropriate when they are on the job. This does not mean that the leaders’ attitude is the best way to get things done or please the customers. It just means that most employees will adopt it because they believe that it is the boss’s attitude and it must be what leadership expects.

Leaders need to be aware of their influence and consciously use it to instill values that result in efficiently and effectively delivering quality products and services to customers.

Leaders need to appreciate that values they read about may not necessarily be effective for them. They need to take ownership of those ideas and make them their own. They need to work with others in their company to express those ideas in ways that are consistent with their personality and the needs of their company.

There are proactive steps leaders can take to move their culture toward one based on quality values. When leaders see the benefit of doing this, then they can begin to work with others to articulate values and develop policies and procedures that are consistent with them. These can cover such areas as the implementation of teams, the development of open-door policies for communication and the establishment of regular all-employee meetings to inform everyone what is going on that affects them.

To get started, leaders may want to make some drastic gestures. One such gesture is to eliminate assigned parking places. Another would be to eliminate executive dining rooms and have everyone eat lunch in the same cafeteria. Remember, what is needed from people is not compliance with imposed programs but commitment to the company, which comes with the trust shown when rules are minimized.

Rules and policies get in the way of people’s performance. Use cross-functional teams to study current rules and policies to emphasis behaviors and actions which will be most consistent with the cultural values the leaders develop. These values will naturally suggest appropriate programs and policies to establish or eliminate.

Training in teamwork, effective communication, total quality management tools and ongoing skill development are all vital in this transformation process. Leaders need to be enthusiastic members of the class, as well as formal and informal teachers.

Establish recognition programs for individuals and teams. Effective recognition doesn’t have to cost a lot of money and can be more symbolic than material. It should reward behaviors and actions that support cultural values of “we’re all in this together” or process improvement. It is important that it be fair, sincere, ongoing and timely.

The goal is to continuously demonstrate the company’s commitment to its cultural values in a way that makes them come alive for everyone. The single most powerful thing senior leaders can do is show a consistent and unwavering commitment to the values they choose to focus on-in their words and their actions-even when they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Leaders are the role models and when they walk the talk long enough, fairly soon these values become standard procedure, no longer dependent on any single person for their vitality. Leaders must make that their objective. When they do, leaders, as well as their employees and customers, won’t regret it. Establishing an effective quality culture is a journey, not a destination.

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Charles J. Hellier has been active in the technology of nondestructive testing and related quality and inspection fields since 1957. Here he talks with Quality's managing editor, Michelle Bangert, about the importance of training.
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