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Why quality isn’t all it is cracked up to be

Tony Davies

Tony Davies on how to ensure quality management is effective

The management of quality over an organisation’s services and products has been around for centuries and probably even millennia.  When the pyramids in Egypt were built someone must have been overseeing their mighty construction and ensuring every block was hewn out of stone and fitted with precision to form the perfect structure fit for a king.  An everlasting testimony of craftsmanship and the technology of its day.  The ancient Guilds saw to the maintenance and training of skilled craftspeople under strict apprenticeships and they guarded the standards of their profession or trade through a vehement code of rules and minimum standards.  To a large extent, this quality persists today through carefully specified qualifications and a list of skills their members need to achieve and demonstrate.  

Things changed a little after Adam Smith’s visit to a pin factory where he saw the early endeavours of a mass production system in operation and afterwards wrote how each worker was assigned a specific task in the product’s manufacture.  The time consuming production of one pin at a time by one skilled worker had been replaced by a multitude of individuals who were now skilled in only one part of the manufacturing process. Hence, the factory and the production line was born.

But as more organisations adopted the mass production method to gain economies of scale and a competitive edge, it became clear that the processes on the production line needed supervision to ensure all played in harmony to result in the desired finished product.  A different yet still essential form of quality was born to assure and maintain standards across the board and this became a specialist area and profession in its own right.  It later spread into the service sectors where it was believed that if manufacturing costs and processes were not so relevant then the basis of service competition was on the quality of the service provided.  

Quality Assurance, Quality Management, Total Quality Management, Kaizen, Quality Enhancement, Continuous Improvement are all terms that have been thoroughly aired by management gurus in their standard text books and trotted out by managers themselves in various meetings and presentations.  But to what extent do managers and workers really follow the very simple principles and the underlying ethos of quality management?  That depends entirely on a number of influential factors that will determine whether a firm takes its quality management seriously or merely pays lip service to its jargon whilst avoiding the real issues.

Didn’t Henry Ford once say that, “Quality is doing the job right – even when nobody is looking” or words similar to that effect?  It’s a catchy and succinct definition that holds a certain amount of merit and appeal even today.  I believe that workers are not inherently bad or malicious in their work and therefore do not need constant watching from their supervisors’ barbed wire watch towers that house their searchlights but I do think Ford was saying the same thing.  I don’t believe there are many workers who wake up in the morning and think, “Right, today I’m going to work and do a really bad job”.  The vast majority do what is required from them and have a personal pride in what they produce at their workplace.

But that is not to say some workers don’t actually end up doing a bad job because some do and this can be down to several reasons.  Firstly, they were never shown by the firm how to do their job properly in the first place.  No induction, no training even if it was only the “Sitting-by-Nellie” type – which still works fine in the 21st century but is now called “mentoring” or buddying-up”.  Secondly, no one points out to them that they are doing something wrong or not performing to the required standard which is essentially down to weak supervision and management. 

Thirdly, even some of the managers themselves do not understand what quality means and are therefore unsure about which standards ought to apply because they never get to grips with the core business and what the firm is actually about.  This will sound controversial but I believe the point needs to be made or at least further debated, that a Quality Manager employed in an engineering company who has an engineering background will do a far better job on the quality front than a Quality Manager employed in an engineering company who has a background in say, Bavarian Anthropology.  “Nonsense!  Why is that?” I hear some of you Bavarian Anthropologists asking in indignation. 

Well, not that I have anything against Bavarian Anthropologists but simple common sense tells us that the engineer understands the engineering process better, can speak the same language as engineers on the production line, can see why things are working well or not so well, can offer realistic actions or remedies to take and probably gains more respect and credence for that.  A good Quality Manager needs to know what can realistically work on the production line and if need be, tell other managers in polite terms that their suggestions are simply not workable and why they are not workable.

Quality is a process and not an event and this means effective quality systems hold up a mirror for workers and managers to see themselves at work.  And that is not an easy task.  When people look into that quality mirror they expect to see at least a favourable image of themselves and more often than not, a truly excellent image.  Every department and member of staff within believes a great job is being done.  It can come as a nasty shock then when they don’t see what they want to see or expect to see.  And it is at that precise point that Quality Management in an organisation will either succeed or fail.  Disappointment is only natural and can be dealt with by supportive leaders who will work together to put things right but outright denial is a much more serious and time consuming reaction to effectively manage.  Likewise, any member of staff, whether senior or junior, who takes it personally and bears a grudge will scupper any concept of what continuous improvement seeks to achieve.

Initial negative reactions to a poor image can range from providing a whole series of excuses why the situation is so - and it usually starts by blaming others or down to a lack of resources.  Also, by going onto the offensive by questioning the accuracy of the mirror itself by likening it to one of those funny mirrors you find in fair grounds that make you look like a 6 foot beanpole or a short, stubby person of restricted growth.  It goes without saying that of course quality systems need to be accurate and fair but remember they are also agreed by all the managers before the systems are rolled out.  The outrage that some workers and even managers display when confronted by shortcomings in their department can also include picking up a rock and hurling it at the mirror which then cracks – along with the entire quality system. 

Messenger, Kill, The, Don’t – rearrange these words to form a well-known phrase.  It does happen, I’m sure.
In organisations that don’t have a truly transparent, open and honest culture then you can be sure their quality mirror has several large cracks running across it and that really does give a distorted view of reality.  Senior management have their role to play here because it is they who ultimately foster the type of culture that will be dominant in the organisation.  If you have a senior manager who is only interested in his/her own image and will not accept any form of criticism, no matter how constructive, then there are deep rooted problems that no quality system can ever solve by itself.

Alternatively, kicking things under the carpet or spinning the facts to present a different outlook will never accomplish quality improvement.  It merely delays the inevitable.  Problems will fester until the company has some serious health problems and drastic and probably costly attention has to be paid for its recovery.  And by that time, it is usually public.

If Quality Management is to be effective, and clearly in many organisations it is, senior managers down to the most junior of staff must accept that it is an integral process of the core business and not something that is bolted on as a peripheral function of interest.  Neither should it be a weapon of choice for assassination but a means of challenging everyone that things can be improved or done better in other ways.  It is accepted that hardly nothing ever stays the same and the leading organisations are seen constantly reviewing their product or services provided that are based on quality systems and external intelligence. The best systems lead to realistic targets being set by the staff themselves who will take the responsibility and ownership of them.  

Targets must result in an improvement but I believe couching targets under SMART headings will not always lead to the improvements desired.  In fact, once a specific course of action has been identified by staff, how disappointing is it for them to be told there are no available resources to fund it?  With all types of budgets being tightened across all industries there simply isn’t enough money to go round and it is not surprising then that some targets can starve by the wayside.  If this is the case, then let managers explain to their staff the position, preferably the person from Finance who says “no”, otherwise the quality process itself will take the flak from the staff and this will lead to the obvious question, “What’s the point?”

Indeed, what is the point of quality management systems?  The point is that if the organisation cleanses itself of all the negatives listed above and truly embraces a culture of continuous improvement by listening to what “quality” is identifying then it will learn to adapt and compete more effectively by raising its standards. 

It will also have an inclusive culture that takes on board the views of all its valuable staff and, oh yes, a mirror that everyone is not afraid to look at.


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