It’s a rare company that doesn’t want to implement a better quality system, resulting in performance excellence for their company, employees, customers and stockholders. However, the pursuit of quality is easier said than done.

A number of organizations claim to pursue quality, but are, in fact, doing nothing new and expecting better results. They continue to pursue improvement using traditional approaches. Some of those approaches might be based on concepts that surfaced decades ago.

Many organizations become short-sighted. They often repackage old beliefs focusing on quality improvement. They believe they have refined their strategy, thinking, and techniques. They might even become convinced they are applying techniques proved so successful by the Japanese post World War II and by a few U.S. companies.

This misconception is primarily the fault of management who, for a variety of reasons, continue to believe what was taught in business schools by people without first-hand knowledge or experience in climbing the corporate ladder.

Management, however, is not solely to blame. Many consultants have misguided unsuspecting companies with the next silver bullet so they can achieve the elusive operational and organizational improvement. These consultants offer only fragments of a total quality effort in whatever terms or concepts management will accept.

For the serious students of quality, the pursuit of a true quality environment appeared to be an uncomplicated journey. It was generally accepted that quality is a process; that it is the concept of continually trying to improve in order to satisfy customer needs, to exceed customer expectations and to add value to product and service without adding costs; that the improvement is done the right way the first time; and that all of this required a new type of management leadership and support to create a new work environment.

In early efforts, the successful organizations with help from quality professionals didn’t decide to launch the journey, then delegate the implementation to others; they didn’t “boss” the effort rather than lead it. Admittedly, it was rather frightening to realize the breadth of the challenge. It was also intimidating to acknowledge that the next quarter or two might not show results demanded by management.

Even now, there is far too much misunderstanding. Perhaps from this basic truth there is the opportunity to learn, to discover that one’s own conventional wisdom cannot direct the approach to quality implementation which will lead to a successful journey.

There are many misdirected pursuits to achieve quality. Among the most challenging hindrance to quality improvement is cost reduction in pursuit of short-term profit. More recently cost reduction is known as productivity improvement. To be sure, as a quality professional and a former manager of a large organization, I believe wholeheartedly in the desired outcome of and the need for such projects, but the way some companies go about them must be reconsidered.

Partial enlightenment can be a dangerous thing. Some organizations, for example, attempt to achieve productivity improvement by empowering their employees to work on management-selected issues. Others institute self-directed work teams to select their own issues and develop solutions. Given enough time and support these teams become high-performance teams.

Employee empowerment can be a powerful improvement tool, but it must be properly focused and supported to blossom. The focus should be dictated by customer needs and expectations, which consequently identify the delivery processes to be considered for improvement. Furthermore, the improvement efforts require management’s attention and involvement to always support the pursuit of quality.

To achieve the desired outcome, it is necessary to understand a basic element of a true quality effort. Improvement endeavors have their greatest potential when they are understood and accepted by everyone. Again, I’m speaking of the way management directs things to be done. In this case the real issue is establishing and conveying why improvement must be done and to whom the improvement is important.

In order to properly convey this seemingly simple rationale for improvement, management must improve itself and its methods. Before it will be seen as having the same importance by others in the organization, managers must first understand why, and when, to communicate the rationale. This is much more than trying to achieve buy-in.

Acceptance, based on understanding and agreement by those directly involved, must be achieved. Real improvement cannot be a one-way, I-win-you-lose pursuit. It should have as part of its charter the desire to have everyone win: management, employees, shareholders and especially the customer.