In the competitive world of business, the most successful companies will be more efficient, more responsive, produce and support the better products, and so on. In short, the company which practices the best quality control will be successful. To aid in the process of achieving better quality, the principle of Total Quality Management (TQM) was invented. Refined to a dogma of business buzz words, the underlying concept is one of commitment to the ideal of customer satisfaction through continuous improvement.
Barriers to Quality
It may not be easy to adopt an active approach to quality improvement for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of the most likely obstacles:
Apathy - Staff may feel that there is no need for change, particularly if the business is already perceived to be successful in the wider world. There may be room for improvement in a given process, but the employee attitude is 'It isn't broken, so why fix it?'.
Cynicism - Even if everyone involved with the business agrees with the need for change, the staff may see a structured approach as overly elaborate and excessive. Worse, they may see it simply as an excuse for managers to avoid dealing with problems immediately, on an ad hoc basis.
Lack of resources - Change is a big commitment; and there may not be enough time/staff/money to have people trained to administer quality initiatives, or even just to pause to review the business effectively. This is usually voiced as 'we are too busy to make changes', which, if true, would not bode well for the future of the business.
Abuse - Middle managers in the business, who have any of the attitudes outlined above, may take the opportunity to assign staff or themselves to quality work to avoid what they regard as more difficult front-line activity. Also, staff may perceive benchmarking events as avoidance of 'genuine' work.
These obstacles may be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. The key to successful change is rigourous and enthusiastic management of the change process, and making sure every employee of the business is involved in some way. Communicating with the whole business openly may even result in some of those negative attitudes changing for the better.
Achieving Higher Quality
What are the required changes? The simplest way to find out is by consulting staff and customers. Ask if there is anything they can think of that would improve the business or the service it provides. Are there any specific problems that need to be addressed? The method of consultation can vary. It may be best to use a written survey, especially dealing with large workforces or customers spread over a wide geographical area. Alternatively, a forum could be held with a representative cross section of employees or customers, which would allow development and discussion of any issues arising.
Once you have established that changes are necessary, how do you go about making those changes? Regardless of the way the data was gathered, the issues will have to be analysed and addressed somehow. Below is a selection of techniques used by businesses to find and develop suggested improvements and solutions to problems.
The simplest method to generate ideas is brainstorming. It is ideally suited to the forum situation mentioned earlier. Given a specific area to improve or problem to solve, the idea here is to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve it, however silly those ideas may be. Don't discuss or dismiss any suggestions. This method encourages innovation, invention, and creativity; and it could produce solutions that logical thought would not have produced. Once you are certain that the possibilities have been exhausted, look through the list of suggestions and put them into broad categories if possible. Generally, you will find that groups of suggestions are variations on the same approach. At this stage, each suggestion can be evaluated to see if it is a feasible solution as it stands, or if it requires further thought. Hopefully at this point, brainstorming will have produced a number of options with which to make improvements or solve the problems at hand.
The process mapping technique involves the creation of flowcharts, which illustrate the individual steps involved in a given process, and hence pinpoint where problems arise and identify areas that could be improved. Mapping is particularly useful for spotting 'bottlenecks', points in a process where delays may occur. By taking a close look at the process in this way, it may even be possible to remove unnecessary steps entirely. In its simplest form, a flowchart looks like this:
Step 1... Step 2... Step 3... Step 4... etc
Of course, not every process is as linear as this. Subsequent steps may differ depending on the result of a decision made during a previous step. This can be represented by multiple branches from the decision step, one each for the different decision results. If the amount of branching is becoming too complex to illustrate using a flowchart, the solution may be to create separate flowcharts for smaller sections of the process.
As the name suggests, Kaizen is a Japanese set of techniques which promotes efficiency as a means to higher quality. One aspect of Kaizen is the concept of a 'blitz event', where a small team is removed from normal duties for a week or so in order to concentrate on solving a major problem with the business. Over the course of the week, the team will receive basic training in many of the techniques described in this entry, then apply them to the problem at hand. Any aspects of the process concerned which are deemed to be wasteful of resources are removed, and the process is refined. Towards the end of the week, they will perform tests to see if the changes they have made are viable, and then create an action plan to implement the changes. A month is usually the accepted period for the plan to be effective. During that month, the situation will be monitored by the team to ensure that changes are being adhered to, and that the situation has indeed improved.
It should be stressed that this is only a selection of techniques. Others include Pareto Analysis, Cause and Effect Diagrams, Solution Effect Analysis, the Six Thinking Hats method, and Force Field Analysis. All of the techniques mentioned thus far work on the same general principle of taking a sampling of data from the staff or customers and breaking down the problems or suggestions into manageable pieces, which can be solved, implemented, and later reviewed to test their effectiveness.
Benchmarking and Quality Organisations
Assume some of these improvement measures have been implemented, and that they have had a measurable positive effect on your business. As a manager, how do you know whether the improvement is enough to make your business competitive? The answer is to benchmark.
Benchmarking means comparing your business with others in relative terms. To make this easier, various organisations have produced generic standards of quality, which businesses can assess themselves against, regardless of whether they are in the same field. Service providers can therefore compare quality with manufacturing companies, or research laboratories, and so on.
The European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) was formed in 1988, and includes over 600 member businesses and organisations from the private and public sectors. EFQM have produced a model consisting of nine categories, corresponding to key business areas. The nine categories are divided into two groups, as follows:
The first five - Leadership, People (ie, staff), Policy and Strategy, Partnerships and Resources, and Processes - are known collectively as enablers. These are the factors which allow businesses to create quality products.
The remaining four are the results which the business produces - People Satisfaction, Customer Satisfaction, Impact on Society, and Key Performance Results.
EFQM assists businesses to train their staff to objectively identify strengths and weaknesses in their business and assign a score in each of the nine categories. Data for the assessment is gathered and analysed using the techniques discussed earlier, especially staff and customer surveys. This assessment then provides a starting point from which further improvements can be made and measured, and the scores recorded can be verified by independent EFQM assessors and compared against scores from other member businesses.
If the verified scores are sufficiently high, and have shown a significant improvement over a short period, the business may enter itself into competition for the European Quality Award, administered by the EFQM. The competition is run every two years and includes categories divided by size of business and public or private sector concerns. Achievement of the EQA would boost the profile of any business, to such an extent that it would be a role model to other companies and organisations wishing to raise the quality of their business.
There are, of course similar organisations, providing a comparable service to businesses in other parts of the world.
Another point worth considering is simply to apply common sense whenever and wherever improvements are being made. There are very few, if any, organisations that can afford not to make changes in order to remain at their most effective. On the other hand, lack of resources may hinder the use of structured quality initiatives. Common sense will tell just how far a business needs to go, and in many cases it will indicate just what changes are needed to improve quality.
Some thought should also be given to the human component of business. Weighed against the desirability of adopting the most streamline and efficient corporate profile is the benefit to be gained by recognising the psychological needs of staff and customers, of understanding the discomfort naturally associated with imposed change and instability. There are enormous rewards to be gained by treating people like people, with respect and consideration. Similarly, respect and consideration is best earned by behaving like a reasonable person. A successful manager, like a skilled craftsperson, is one who understands his tools and wields them constructively and with discretion. One who is a slave to jingoism and cults, on the other hand, is like an imbecile with a hammer... more likely to make a mess of things and hurt people than produce anything of value.