Understanding quality

November 15, 2012

When coming into an organisation for the first time, I am always surprised at the lack of understanding of the concept of quality. Of course, management talk about quality and the need for quality. But, when I ask for a definition of quality, they do not really know, or — worse? — they state banalities like “fit for purpose” without really understanding what that means. If I bring up the topic of measurement, they will typically tell me that they measure time-to-market and budget; but maintain (because they believe that is what I want to hear?) that quality always comes first. To make things worse, they implement a “quality assurance” group, based on something they have read and not quite understood, which does not consider assuring quality, but controlling compliance to some standard. Naturally, respect of standards, in particular industry related standards such as those in place in the financial, security or transport industries. But the respect of standards and the certificates hanging behind the receptionist’s desk are not guarantees of quality.

Understanding quality is the most critical aspect of your job, whatever it is. Quality is what differentiates your products and services from the others. If your sole focus – as reflected by measurements is quick and cheap, you will lose the battle: there will always be someone cheaper than you.

Quality involves understanding the expectations of your customers and the aspirations of those who are not yet your customers. Quality involves the right mix of innovation and tradition. Quality requires commitment and leadership. Quality means understanding your own skills and limitations, and when to call on external skills to assist you in overcoming a particular issue or hurdle and when to make sure you do it on your own.

Quality starts with the people doing the work: they need to understand your vision of quality which needs to be communicated in a clear and memorable manner, then reinforced through every action, every standard, rule, process, principle or communication. Measurement follows; once you have a clear and clearly communicated vision of quality, measurements can be easily identified and implemented throughout the organisation.

Then your quality will be reflected in the attitude of all team members and, more noticeably, in their level of job satisfaction. Few people are satisfied when they are encouraged to rush their work, even less are interested in filling out forms and following bureaucratic standards. But, knowing that someone out there is, consciously or not, appreciating your work…

Once the team members have job satisfaction, we will be able to build up trust, that precious commodity which is so lacking in many management-staff relationships. Trust means that team member meet their commitments, they do not need a lot of paper work telling them what to do, when and how, reporting what they have done, etc. You know that they will do as they agreed, they will show up on time and they will go to their management if they feel they are not able to perform as expected.

But, first, they need to believe in your vision of quality.


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