Quality cops and the quality patrol. These are just two of the many names quality managers and technicians have been called over the past 70-plus years. Yet, as quality concepts and efforts as a whole have evolved throughout the past century, the role of the quality manager, or more appropriately the quality professional, has not. However, a recent trend within the ranks of quality professionals appears to show that even the old dogs in the quality world can indeed learn new tricks. But, to truly understand the significance of this shifting of approach within quality, a history lesson is in order.
The History of Quality in the US
Quality was a major concern of manufacturing during World War II, since the need for ammunition that was reliable in firearms from various gun makers was critical to the war effort. Walter Shewart’s statistical sampling techniques and the creation of military-specification (Mil-Spec) standards became the core of the quality system created during the war. To define standards, develop sampling requirements, measure outcomes, and generally enforce the rules of the quality program, the role of the quality professional within the organization quickly matured to one of definition and enforcement.
The role of the quality professional must become that of teacher and mentor, coach and player.
The quality manager’s role is shifting from sitting in the quality office telling employees that they have a defect to one of helping employees find the root cause of the defect, working in partnership to find a solution, and implementing that solution.
They must ensure that the employees understand the effects of both the defect and the solution.
The quality movement in the United States secured a stronger role within companies in the 1970s as the concept of Total Quality Management (TQM) emerged as the quality methodology that would provide U.S. companies with the necessary edge to compete against the ever-growing competition from Japan. The approach to quality preached by Joseph M. Juran and W. Edwards Deming, embraced by the Japanese after World War II, had largely been ignored in North America. This all began to change as the whole-organization approach embracing quality circles and quality teams brought the concept of total quality to the forefront.
Looking Back at Missed Opportunity
The obvious problem, in hindsight, is that the role of the quality professional under the TQM methodology never changed in most companies; even as the thought processes and interest level of employees and managers throughout the organization were shifting in a positive direction. Quality managers continued to be in the role of defining and enforcing quality—not improving quality. This is not to say that quality professionals were not getting results; they were. But, where Juran and Deming’s concepts were embraced by the Japanese, the U.S. quality movement was slow to respond to these concepts. In part, this compartmentalized structure where the quality staff retained the power and company employees and management alike had little ownership contributed to TQM being labeled as a fad by the late 1990s.
A Shift in Mindset
However, as the acceptance of lean manufacturing (lean healthcare, lean distribution, lean enterprise, etc.) and the problem solving power of Six Sigma have both found a place in the quality world, the role of the “quality team” has begun to change. This change is being driven from both the quality office and the C-suite in many companies. Just as many people envisioned with TQM, quality is now truly becoming a partnership comprised of all parts of the company.
What does this shift in methodology mean for the professional quality manager? The quality team, both managers and technicians, can no longer be just the enforcer. These dedicated employees, who once decided what was good and what was defective, must expand their contributions to the organization. The role of the quality professional must become that of teacher and mentor, coach and player. The quality manager’s role is shifting from sitting in the quality office telling employees that they have a defect to one of helping employees find the root cause of the defect, working in partnership to find a solution, implementing that solution, and ensuring that the employees understand the effects of both the defect and the solution on the organization.
Darin Craig, facility quality manager at OneSubsea, an oilfield equipment manufacturer in Brazil, has stated that the future of quality is in an “Integrated Business Quality” system. “This model focuses on the success of the business by integrating the traditional quality roles and adding a bias for action that improves the financial performance of the company.”
“Instead of: We found a defect. Here is what management needs to do to fix the process, it becomes: The process identified a defect. When we implemented the improvement, we saved the company X dollars and increased productivity Y percent.” Craig continues, “This Integrated Business Quality model will not only improve the financial performance of the company, but will also improve our (quality professionals’) image, credibility and leverage to make bigger and better improvements.”
Lean and Six Sigma’s Impact
Many quality managers, such as Craig, who are well versed in lean and/or Six Sigma, and embrace the process ownership by employees concept, have begun to push this effort of a “quality partnership” throughout the company. Where lean implementation has been successfully sustained, a key component is always employee involvement and process ownership. When employees can improve a process and drive out waste (which includes defects) without the quality department or management watching over their shoulders, the pride and desire to succeed is evident over the long-term. The gains can be even greater if quality managers and technicians, without ego or ulterior motives, can become a part of these teams. When quality concepts and techniques are represented as a part of the team, as opposed to being the giant stick over everyone’s head, solutions analyzed and implemented are generally stronger.
Six Sigma has also contributed to the rise of this shift in quality management. However, the effect has been a learned perspective through trial and tribulation. Over the past decade, many organizations around the world have jumped on the Six Sigma bandwagon. As with all process/quality improvement methodologies introduced to the business world, some companies adopted Six Sigma simply because it was the “flavor of the month.” Others earnestly became Six Sigma companies wanting to solve difficult defect and variation problems, only to see solutions not sustained in the long-run. As a result, many of these companies have also abandoned their Six Sigma efforts.
But, quality managers who understand the importance of employee buy-in and process ownership have done an admirable job of learning from others’ misfortune. The secret to any and all quality/process improvement effort is employee ownership. Employees must believe in the change process and have ownership in the process being changed. To create this ownership, it has become evident to many a quality professional that partnering with the lean and Six Sigma initiatives, as opposed to trying to “own” them, can produce significant results.
It Comes Down to Doing
The epiphany for this new way of thinking is the realization that a quality partnership within a company requires “doing.” You can no longer sit back and reject bad parts or tell management what is broken expecting someone else to fix it. Quality’s role is changing.
Steve Nixon, a lean Six Sigma master black belt, has recruited and directed teams in quality improvement efforts for multiple companies and the U.S. Army Reserve for the past 18 years. When discussing the changes he sees in quality teams and departments, he does not mince words. “Quality is doing. Reading requirements, understanding needs, and helping customers—internal and external—communicate their satisfaction with improvements. Then, you must lead the implementations that realize those expectations. Just as you cannot inspect in quality, you cannot point to failures, develop or identify a solution, and tell someone else to do it. That implementation has to be collaboration between the doers, the communicators, and the beneficiary of the improvement. And the quality professional has got to be a doer.”
As the understanding and implementation of employee-based quality and continuous improvement efforts expands, not just in the U.S. but globally, more and more board rooms and executive teams will demand that their quality teams embrace this Integrated Business Quality concept. Those quality professionals that see the power of the approach will succeed. Those that do not “get it” may find themselves retiring early. The question for the traditional quality professional is: can you learn a new trick?