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A recent discussion in my quality management class reminded me of the 2010 ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement in which I was a session speaker. The issues most people wanted to discuss were their relationships with management, or more accurately, their lack of relationships. Many wanted advice about how to deal with long-standing conflicts between managers and employees.
In fact, many were surprised when I informed them that the real problem likely rests with us, the quality professional, not with management. Since I retired as a senior leader in a Fortune 50 company and consider myself a quality professional, it gave me a unique perspective.
It isn’t that managers don’t care about quality; the vast majority really does care. Many managers just don’t understand quality and don’t know how to use it as an advantage, rather than view it as a problem. Their primary job is to create a reliable organization, and quality lies at the core of that task.
Unfortunately, many quality professionals haven’t done an adequate job communicating the importance of quality to an organization’s management. The following may be some reasons why ineffective quality professionals are having problems:
1. Quality professionals don’t understand the language of management. Managers talk about customers, marketing, sales, and profit and loss. All of these code words have specific meanings and numbers that are used to measure progress toward meeting targets.
2. Quality professionals don’t understand the language of quality. Quality is not an adjective, it’s a noun. It doesn’t mean goodness-it means doing what you said you would do. Management turns away from those who talk about relative goodness. No action anywhere in business comes from a packaged set of procedures. As an example, managers will generally accept ISO 9000 as a marketing necessity.
Quality professionals who try to convince managers that third-party accreditation makes a difference in the conformance and the output, typically lose credibility. As the late Philip B. Crosby repeatedly said, “Managers think in terms of numbers; they only understand and drive quality when told the price of non-conformance.”
For some managers, the cost of quality is viewed as a tax. Managers are extremely busy people, just like everyone else, so they expect their functional leaders to be able to explain what they do in a few sentences. In other words, plan your approach, know what you need to say and get to the point.
3. Quality professionals can struggle with low self-image. In many organizations, the quality staff can take a lot of abuse and are under constant pressure of justification, elimination or downsizing-even in good economic times. This takes its toll on the psyche. Quality professionals need to take charge of making their organizations reliable. They will get a lot of the credit for this and their efforts will be appreciated.
4. Quality professionals don’t learn well from the nontechnical experience of others. With a nontechnical degree, I rose from an entry-level factory position to retire at a senior management position in a large company. Along the way, I also acquired several ASQ certifications, an ASQ Fellow and two quality professional of the year awards.
Success came because I was useful and reliable to my company. It is the ability to weave the quality knowledge with management acumen and willingness to help your organization and customers succeed that makes the difference. Remember that becoming a team player who consistently delivers value and takes business risks will be noticed and rewarded.
5. Quality professionals think quality is a technical and procedure entity. Sometimes quality professionals concentrate on corrective action rather than prevention. Quality certifications are certainly valuable, but they need to be coupled with building relationships and delivering value, every day.
The solution to the problems of the quality profession doesn’t require a meltdown and reconfiguration of management, or a new set of procedures. The solution just might lie in our own hands. Remember we serve at the discretion of management, so we must learn their language if we want to help our organizations succeed, and help ourselves along the way.
What’s the first thing you intend to do after reading this column? It might be to take a different approach. Take time to think about where you are going or you may not like where you will ultimately end up.