One of the ongoing struggles for any profession is maintaining relevance in a world in which technical, economic and social changes are continually shifting individual and organizational values, perspectives and priorities. These shifts cause particular tangible and intangible issues to become more interesting to an organization. One such issue involves the performance improvement methods promoted by quality professionals.

Many empirical studies have proved organizations can significantly enhance performance with quality improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma and the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. In a highly competitive world it is imperative organization leaders be aware of the potential value these methods can provide.

In a relatively recent study, scores of mid to higher level managers from service sectors and manufacturing were interviewed to determine their perceptions of the value of a focus on quality and to determine how widely quality methods were being deployed. Ninety-nine percent of respondents agreed quality improves their bottom line profitability.

Only a fraction, however, had actually used, or been directly involved in, the specific ones mentioned, such as ISO 9000, Six Sigma, Baldrige, and quality improvement teams. Certainly this raises other questions, concerns and potential actions by quality professionals.

When asked to name a performance management approach where one or more of the quality initiatives could help their organization, most could not do so. Potential responses could be partially constrained by the background, profession and experiences of the individual being interviewed.

It is therefore important quality professionals understand the specific performance objectives each method is associated with, as well as the scope, required technical skills and cultural implications, when talking about performance management or improvement methods. For example, both Six Sigma and lean can impact costs but do so through different mechanisms (reducing errors vs. reducing wasted time and space).

Additionally, quality professionals can better influence organizational adoption of quality methods by speaking less about the tools and more about what the tools can accomplish. Rather than try to sell management on ISO9000 or the Baldrige, quality professionals should ask if they would like to have an organization where department and employee objectives are aligned to organizational strategy, customers praise the organization, and financial analysis shows a higher return on equity. Now you’re talking their language.

Quality professionals can be of value in addressing organizational change issues. We can do what Dr. W. Edwards Deming prescribed: develop a system of profound knowledge, which includes the ability to understand a system, knowledge about variation, theory of knowledge and psychology.

While many quality professionals have immersed themselves in process/system thinking and statistics, their understanding of the human side of change is often limited. This is certainly an area where most quality professionals need to improve to be effective now and in the future.

Most quality methodologies focus primarily on improvement of the technical system, but much of the long-term success of such initiatives depends equally on the social system. While employee training and involvement can help, they do not adequately address the depth required for planning and changing culture. Quality professionals could benefit from studying the field of organization development, which provides a broad spectrum of approaches on the dynamics of individual, group and organizational change.

It is critically important for quality professionals to understand resistance to externally imposed change is a natural and rational response. If we mistakenly view it as irrational, we are likely to deal with the resistance in less than productive ways.

Some futurists describe three ways we can deal with the future. React to it when it gets here; predict it and prepare for it; or co-create it. Quality professionals should certainly avoid the first. It is far better to be part of the solution by helping to co-create the future, which will ensure sound predictions and being ready for the changes sure to come. 

To believe the changes now under way around the world will not impact our organizations and us personally is, to put it simply, suicidal. The effect of additional human resources around the globe plus the leveling effect of the digitalization and the internet places us in the midst of a major transformation of the world.

Who better than the quality processional is positioned to supply leadership to their organizations? However, to do so we must learn some new tools, new language, and be bold in our approach. Take a little time to reflect, but don’t wait too long, as others are already being proactive in taking the steps necessary to lead their organizations into the future.