Quality Is a Competitive Advantage

March 26, 2013
Companies spend a lot of time on financial and competitive analysis, but many fail to realize that the most significant threat to their business can come from within.

I recently had a scare that drove home the importance of quality. I have a bad back and get steroid injections periodically. When the news of contaminated steroids came out, I had some anxious moments until I found out that my doctor does not use products from the suspect compounding facility. Companies spend a lot of time on financial and competitive analysis, but many fail to realize that the most significant threat to their business can come from within. Quality issues ruin companies. On the positive side, companies with strong, consistent quality have a competitive advantage.

In my time running a large business, I had exposure to every possible quality process from Deming to Six Sigma and OEE. All have merit, but many companies jump on one of these processes, train a lot of people, and then have the whole thing die a slow death. Here is some advice based on my experience on how to light a slow and steady fire about quality.

First, resist the temptation to use slogans, banners and trinkets like coffee cups or T-shirts. This is not the way to build quality awareness. Focus on measureable results and use the results to build awareness and momentum. Don’t reduce quality to a flavor-of-the-month company initiative.

Next, if you choose to adopt one of the quality processes, you can use a consultant but wean yourself off the consultant as fast as you can. Consultants can add value, but lasting commitment to quality must come from within and be sustained from within. Also, don’t train everybody right away. Doing this often results in people coming out of training charged up, but soon losing interest because they are not provided a way to use the newly-acquired skills. Start by training a few teams and then let them tackle specific issues.  Use the first small victories to build momentum. Also, don’t train from the bottom up—start with management. I’ve seen many companies where managers are not trained because they are “too busy.” What kind of message to the organization is that?

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Recognize that a commitment to a quality process means a commitment to uniform terminology and metrics. This language has to permeate everyday conversation and issues need to be framed using this consistent approach. I will say, however, that it is easy to get lost in these processes. They are a means to an end, not an end unto itself.  Beautiful charts don’t improve quality. There needs to be some hard-nosed pragmatism as well.

For example, any organization should be able to list its top five quality issues and what is being done about them. If you are in management, you should ask quality questions just as often as you ask operational or financial questions. Energy must be devoted to the top five issues. Mow them down and then go onto the next five. Make sure that the customer experience is an integral part of understanding your quality issues. Use satisfaction surveys, social media and, if you have a service organization, make sure that you get direct input from them as well.

Finally, use real world testing before you launch something new. I have an expression—“If you are going to build windshield wipers, test them in the rain.” You’d be surprised at how much testing is simply not real world. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself the last time you found a comfortable chair in a hotel conference room.

John Berra, [email protected], is retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management.

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