A company's quality mission of Six Sigma can be a noble pursuit of process perfection -- an achievement that can entail significant cost and performance benefits. But, in the Six Sigma world, there are levels of perfection. Belden Electronics, a unit of Belden Inc. (Richmond, IN), a manufacturer of specialty wire and cable products, operates in the Five Sigma category, while most companies operate at Three or Four Sigma quality levels. For Belden, this relates to a predicted cable production defect rate of 233 parts per million, whereas a Three Sigma cable company experiences roughly 66,800 parts per million.

This elevated level came about because Belden made a concerted effort to incorporate not only the tenets of Six Sigma, but also a mindset of zero defects throughout the organization. Using Belden's success as a template, other companies can do the same.

Adding strategic value
The company that considers the customer central to its quality program is making a total quality commitment. Sales, marketing and customer service departments are the front line for gathering key customer information, answering customer inquiries, problems and special issues, but quality professionals can become the quarterbacks for a broader analysis of aggregate data.

As successful manufacturers rally their business strategies around customer information on the market side, and as they pursue zero defects on the production side, quality professionals have a unique opportunity to bring cohesion to the quality process by embracing both.

The pursuit of Six Sigma is therefore an opportunity for quality professionals to contribute at a higher, more strategic level in the corporation. And because they have a unique point of reference, they can help offset any lack of cohesion in cross-departmental functions, as these gaps typically have a significant and negative impact on achieving Sigma goals. Re-inventing the role of the quality professional, or the quality team, from product and process control to the interpreters of business strategy, starts with wearing the hat of a customer advocate.

Becoming a customer advocate does two things for the quality professional and team. It aligns quality initiatives with customer input and customer feedback. If the organization is truly customer-driven, it helps to instill customer imperatives at every level of the organization.

Remember when quality meant quality control?
Taking a step back, the quality professional's role in an organization initially revolved around the quality control (QC) concept. QC was predicated on a back-end test and inspection process that measures product performance to a minimum, or passing, standard.

The inherent flaw in this concept is that it is inconceivable to inspect quality into a product. It also is quite disconcerting to think quality goals are based on meeting minimums vs. achieving maximums. Meeting minimum requirements is not in the best interest of the customer, the company, and least of all, the quality professional.

The role of the quality professional should migrate from one of a QC test and inspection manager to a quality assurance manager. And, the optimum extension of the quality assurance manager's position should have him or her embracing quality, in the aggregate sense, as a top priority. With this as their charge, they can become an instrumental player in building quality into each and every interaction and process. They really become an internal quality management consultant that is involved in the company's strategic business practices, operational goals and customer-oriented market objectives. In addition, they become involved in the integration of all quality processes, metrics, tools and accountability systems to optimize the performance of all departments.

Sitting at the management roundtable is key
The key to elevating the role of the quality team in any organization is two-fold. The first critical element is getting high-level management buy-in. Achievements toward Six Sigma will ring hollow and be short-lived if the quality team has a limited sphere of influence.

Secondly, it is critical that quality managers have equal standing among other department heads. Quality professionals with the good fortune to work for companies with a strong quality commitment will often grant this standing simply as a matter of good business practice. Other quality professionals are faced with the task of trying to become an integral part of the corporate strategy and proving their value to each business unit.

Opportunities and challenges go hand-in-hand. Securing and maintaining a position at the management round-table means quality leaders need to train themselves to be multilingual -- the job can no longer exist in the realm of data interpretation and reports, but in the ability to understand and translate quality concepts across departments. Only then will achievements toward Six Sigma truly change a company, its people and its success.

As an integral part of the management team, quality professionals can add strategic value not only in the pursuit of Six Sigma, but can play an instrumental part in helping their companies achieve market success and profitability.