Total quality management flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. It helped companies to continuously improve their quality to customers. Many still use it to this day.
However, you can now do so much more to achieve a step-change improvement in quality performance by going way beyond total quality and reaching an elite operational status. By doing so, you’ll become the envy of your competitors.
Let me tell you how I’ve achieved that over the years.
Your People Don’t Really Understand Quality
Some years ago, I worked with an engineering client on one of my “Be the Best” (BtB) programs. They made special equipment for the pharmaceutical industry.
One day I talked with the CEO about quality. He commented that he didn’t think his people understood what it meant. “If they don’t know what it means then how can they improve it?” he asked. Good question.
I suggested that we measure his people’s understanding of quality, and he agreed.
I then devised a Quality Attitude Survey, and ran it with all his board members, all senior and middle managers, at least half the supervisory staff, and around 20% of the work force – in both shop floor and office areas.
The results astonished me.
- 83% didn’t know the first judgement people make on quality (Appearance),
- 54% never mentioned the customer,
- 42% did not know who was responsible for quality (Themselves), and
- 37% couldn’t even give an example of something from their everyday life that they considered good quality.
And that result applied at every level across the company.
By the way, the two top answers on that last category were M&S underwear and BMW cars. (The latter shows the power of advertising as very few of the respondents had ever owned or driven one).
Over the following years, my team and I ran that survey with many other clients, covering hundreds of people in different industries. Everywhere, we got similar results. Even companies that had ‘done’ a Total Quality program scored no better.
Frankly I found it scary. It convinced me that too many people had only a vague concept of quality, and didn’t really understand it. That CEO had asked a very valid question.
I realised that, to make a real impact on quality, you need to use a very different approach.
Don’t Rely on Customers’ Requirements
The first judgement people make on quality is appearance. Let me give you an example.
I once worked on a BtB program with another major engineering company that made industrial boilers.
One day, talking with the Quality Manger, I happened to make that same statement about appearance being the first judgement on quality.
He disagreed and argued against it, saying that functionality and meeting the customer’s requirements were far more important.
That day the company had a visit from a Swiss customer who was doing a final inspection on his new boiler.
As the inspector walked towards the boiler, he suddenly stopped, crouched down and looked intensely at the boiler, moving his head from side to side.
The company management looked at each other, then looked at the boiler. ‘What was the inspector looking at?’ they wondered.
Eventually the inspector straightened up, pursed his lips, and said, “That end tube bank. I’m not sure it’s parallel to the others. What do you think?”
The management went into panic mode and looked at the offending tube bank, trying to assess whether it was parallel or not. Eventually the Production Director said, “I really don’t see it myself. It’s maybe a fraction out, but it won’t affect the boiler operation.”
This, of course, was perfectly true. The inspector pursed his lips again and shook his head slowly. “Mmm. Wonder what else is wrong,” he said quietly.
Now the boiler was fully functional and met all the customer’s specifications in terms of its technical performance. Nowhere in that spec did it state that the tube banks must be parallel. But as the inspector looked at the boiler, the slight out-of-parallel run on that one tube bank made him think twice about the quality of the unit.
After much discussion, the inspector eventually accepted the boiler and cleared it for shipment.
The Quality Manager found me later that day. “You remember earlier you said that appearance was the first judgement on quality, and I disagreed with you?” He then told me the story of the inspector’s visit. “I think you’re right,” he said with a nod.
So, How Do You Reach Elite Status?
Today, most companies would claim that their products are fit for purpose and meet the customer’s requirements. And that’s OK as far as it goes.
However, elite companies realise that customers never specify all of their requirements. They therefore create a series of internal quality standards that everyone in the company works to. These standards go way beyond the requirements specified by customers – into the elite zone.
Let me give you an example.
Some years ago, I worked with a major European store-fitting company on a BtB program to improve their performance up to elite status.
I firstly did a survey with their major customers. We then took the top management team off-site for two days.
After discussing the results of the survey, I challenged them to identify the quality performance standards in five areas that would reflect an elite organisation in their market place.
For their Products, this covered the standards required to achieve elite levels in Appearance, Fitness for Purpose, Ease of Maintenance, and Frequency of Updating.
For their Service, this covered the standards required to deliver superior Customer Commitments and Customer Contacts.
For their Premises, this covered the standards required to create a modern, professional and favourable impression for customers.
For their Corporate Image, this covered the standards required to achieve a meaningful impact with customers and the wider community.
For their Management and People, this covered the standards required to create an environment with competent and confident staff that take pride in producing the highest quality products and services for customers.
I give the detailed standards for each area listed above in my specialist-training course, “Be the Best in Your Business”. However, let me show you just one example here that had a big impact on the company’s quality performance.
The simple statement, ‘Veneers must match in grain and colour’ came out of an intense discussion on what would make their products appear special in the market place.
Store-fitting companies use veneers to create soft and warm effects on otherwise hard and cold surfaces.
The company’s practice was to issue the veneers for a job that met the customers’ specification of what was required.
However, now applying that new statement meant that on every job, the designers specified matching veneers; purchasing staff bought matching veneers; the stores issued matching veneers; and the production operators matched the veneers on each panel.
It didn’t actually cost any more or take any longer to use matching veneers. They just had never done it before.
The results were spectacular in terms of perceived product quality. They created two similar back panels, one with veneers done the traditional way, one with the veneers matching in grain and colour, and integrated them into their showroom display.
Over a period of a few weeks, visitors to the showroom were asked which of the back panels they liked best. Without exception they chose the matching one. When asked why they liked it best, they couldn’t really say, other than it just looked better.
Of course, it did look better. But no one knew why. The subtle use of veneers matching in grain and colour transformed the appearance of panels. They just looked a lot better. But no one who didn’t know the secret could say why.
The same applied to most of the other standards as well.
It’s worth noting that in the first contract they completed after implementing these standards, the feedback included, “Quality has taken a leap forward” and “Now they’re the best in Europe”. Wouldn’t you like your customers to say that about you?
You should therefore think how you could apply the equivalent of matching veneers and the other standards to bring quality up to elite status in your business.
I hope you find that the above guidelines help you to implement your change programs more smoothly. Enjoy your success. You can be the best in your business.
Let me know what you think.
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