Through the years, I’ve implemented quality initiatives at my former company and helped others do the same after retirement. This has given me the opportunity to field questions from quality professionals such as “Why don’t my senior managers understand the value of our quality system?”

Another common lament is “We made great progress with quality when we implemented ISO9001, but our senior leaders seem to have lost interest. Why don’t managers understand the long-term value of quality?”

More frequently, questions have been about implementing specific aspects of ISO9001 that overlap with the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence elements. Often the query centers on whether a proposed implementation technique would comply with the standard for a specific company’s application. This type of question is normally technical, but almost always easy to answer.

Sometimes, however, a simple question becomes more complex. After a series of emails, text messages, or phone calls, it is often discovered the real issue is the commitment of senior leadership.

We should be more than adequately prepared to put forth an economic case for quality.

The technical questions in these cases conceal a deeper problem in their organization. Because senior managers do not understand their quality system, which are typically based on the Baldrige Criteria or the linkage of ISO9001 implementation to improved financial results, they continually ask, “Why are we doing this?”

It is important that quality professionals understand that senior managers have a responsibility to question anything and everything that adds activities, time, cost, or transaction to their business. Not only is it normal for senior managers to ask such questions, but it is their duty.

As quality professionals, we would do well to lead the discussion by asking these questions first. In fact, we become more valuable to our organizations when we are the first to ask, and answer questions related to value. To do this, we need to understand what motivates senior managers and present the quality management system (QMS) in language they clearly understand. We need to follow the teachings of Dr. Armand Feigenbaum and Philip B Crosby, who told us that the language of management is quantified in monetary terms and related directly to the needs of the business.

Many organizations that successfully implemented ISO9001 have linked their implementation process to other things that were important to their business. This often happens by accident and may involve simple, straightforward issues, such as the potential loss of business if the QMS is not certified/registered by a certain date.

Some organizations achieve surprising improvements due to the discipline inherent in the implementation process. In these situations, the results are due to transforming a chaotic company into a disciplined, well-oiled machine.

The real linkage to business results may well have been obscured by the reason for QMS registration. Registration might have first been required to get or retain business, but when achieved the result was often efficient business processes.

Many senior managers have told me this was improvement was not due to the new quality system but was the result of incidental but good timing. Their organizations had grown to the point at which a better management system was needed at the same time they were required to implement ISO9001 quality system.

Many other managers have told me they wish they had understood the need for a more structured quality system years earlier. Many said, ‘Looking back, I can see a lot of business we missed because we were not well organized to take it on.’

Keep in mind that competitors are more than willing to step forward to take advantage of weaknesses.

As quality professionals, we can do several things to get and maintain the attention of management:

Speak their language (money). Analyze and act on quality cost data.

Understand what motivates managers. Target improvements in business results by linking quality programs to the strategic and near-term needs of the business.

Incorporate their objectives. Tie quality to senior manager’s objectives. This is relatively easy to do because quality touches all aspects of the business.

Connect quality to business results. Maintain this linkage throughout the organization.

Encourage continual improvement. Ensure the embedding of processes that make improvement happen at all levels in the organization.

Make management reviews important to senior managers. Turn management reviews into a process managers believe they can’t operate without.

Certainly, timing may be important to drive quality initiatives but in the current business climate we should be more than adequately prepared to put forth an economic case for quality. As quality professionals, we need to lead the initiative and be the catalyst for our organization’s quality improvement.