Quality Culture Reloaded


ISE Magazine -Volume 49: Number 11
By Frank Lesmeister

Sustainable improvement requires an environment that gives employees rational reasons to change

During the last 10 to 20 years, companies have invested heavily in optimizing quality processes and structures with only moderate success. Quality is a key competitive factor in every industry. Quality problems quickly translate to lower levels of customer satisfaction that, in turn, are reflected in declining sales figures. Improving quality generally demands a change in employee behavior. If you want to change a specific behavior, you have to create a rational basis for the desired change. This generally means addressing many different issues, which can be effectively and efficiently bundled in one holistic quality management transformation program.

Forgetting the people factor
The Boston Consulting Group joined forces with the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) of the RWTH Aachen University to conduct an international study that examined the factors contributing significantly to the quality predicament. The approximately 150 companies surveyed in the manufacturing industry were virtually unanimous in naming quality culture as the central issue.

  • More than 75 percent stated that quality management is a top management task and that the topic should be included at least once a month on the corporate management agenda.
  • More than 90 percent said that mistakes can occur, but management and employees must view these mistakes as the basis for continuous improvement, with prevention being paramount.
  • More than 90 percent also mentioned that cross-divisional, effective quality control loops constitute a basic prerequisite for sustainable quality improvement.

In the meantime, many companies have recognized the problem and are introducing projects that will raise the awareness of quality within the organization, steering employee behavior more toward a focus on higher quality. This is often much harder than anticipated. After all, how do you persuade employees to change something they have been doing for years?

Understanding the people factor
In order to raise performance and quality, employee behavior has to change, and it is here that a rational foundation for a change in behavior needs to be laid. And this is exactly where many companies fail. They attempt to change employee attitudes, and therefore behavior, directly through broadly based communication programs, for example. But this approach only triggers human self-defense mechanisms. If you want to change employee behavior, you have to change their work environment. For instance, you need to change processes, organizational structures, performance metrics, incentive systems or the distribution of roles and tasks.

Make changes here, and employees, who will continue to behave rationally within the system, will alter their behavior. Selecting the right measures here means you can influence their behavior more toward greater quality. In the medium term, values and attitudes that are important to employees also change, which leads to a sustainable improvement in quality.

In order to sustainably improve quality within the company, you should tackle the root causes of the behavior, i.e., you have to create an environment where your employees see other more desirable behaviors, such as cross-divisional cooperation, fast decisions and a focus on sustainable improvements, as useful, worthwhile and therefore rational.

Observing six simple rules often leads to a noticeable change in behavior within a short period of time. Understand what your people do, reinforce integrators (those employees who foster cooperation), increase the total quantity of power by creating new power bases to increase quality ownership, increase reciprocity by eliminating buffers, extend the shadow of the future to ensure sustainable solutions and reward those who cooperate.

Introducing quality transformation
Changing a corporate culture necessitates a holistic transformation program. As a rule, a few adjustments made here and there do not suffice. Such a program typically addresses four issues.

Governance: It is often necessary to streamline organizational structures and to adjust roles and responsibilities in order to speed up decision-making processes and to embed sustainable quality metrics within evaluation systems.

Quality flow: Some behavior is caused by process and system inefficiencies.

Capabilities: A whole range of methods that promote cross-divisional cooperation is available for preventive quality management.

Communication: Strategic communication is an important accompanying measure.

Three success factors can be derived from companies that have already implemented such a transformation program. A European electronic company, as one example, was able to reduce its customer complaint rate by more than 70 percent for a successor product model after going through the quality management transformation program.

  1. Recognizable commitment of corporate management: Any sustainable change in quality culture necessitates far-reaching adjustments.
  2. Cross-functional responsibility for implementation: A quality management transformation program must be implemented throughout the entire company.
  3. Central, systematic project management and success management: A central project office has proven very useful.