Common questions

  1. What’s so important about quality?
  2. What is quality anyway?
  3. Whose job is it?
  4. What difference can I make as an individual?
  5. Do we have to have a quality Initiative?
  6. What does Quality cost?
  7. Should we adopt a Quality Model?
  8. What’s the point of a quality manual?
  9. How do you begin?
  10. How does technique X work?

1. What’s so important about quality?

It can keep you in business. Customer expectations keep rising, so you are unlikely to be able to compete on cost alone. Someone, somewhere will always be able to undercut you. Quality can sharpen your competitive edge, or qualify you to take part in a tendering exercise. If you also pay attention to other aspects of keeping ahead of the game, it will help increase sales, reduce costs, and (if you get the approach right) make staff feel more valued and committed to the organisation. On the other hand, if you approach quality as an afterthought or box-ticking exercise, it can cost you money and create an administrative drag on your business.

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2. What is quality anyway?

It’s not luxury. It’s not complicated (at least in principle – although many people make it so in practice). It’s consistent. It’s fitness for purpose. It’s conforming to your customers’ requirements. It’s satisfying them. It’s integration of effort across the organisation to most economically allow them full satisfaction. It may delight them. It means efficient and effective business practices. It means doing all those things better than you used to, and better than the other guy. It means continually looking for a better way. So it means different things in different contexts. This is why you can find a whole bunch of published definitions. So, basically, you have to work out your own. Don’t start from scratch though: pay heed to the gurus.

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3. Whose job is it?

It’s everyone’s. Management (at all levels) have the job of getting the environment right – enabling it to happen. Quality experts (external or internal) can help others get the necessary skills. They may collect and collate information, offer technical and moral support or manage projects. Everyone throughout the company is vital, both as a source of ideas and to make ‘it’ happen.

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4. What difference can I make as an individual?

Quite a lot! Everything anyone does can impact on quality. Use the company procedures for the customers’ benefit rather than hiding behind them. Get the procedures modified if they get in the way. But, most of all, be a role model – walk the talk (and talk the talk). If you’re not convinced, look further into why quality matters.

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5. Do we have to have a quality initiative?

Not in the long term and possibly not in the short term either. At first, it might be useful to have someone working on quality full time. They may play a big part in communications, training or project management. They may need their own budget. That all sounds pretty much like an initiative. On the other hand, an initiative can do untold damage if employees are suffering from initiative fatigue or are cynical about management flavours of the month. In these circumstances, a low-key approach is likely to be more effective.

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6. What does quality cost?

Quality is free! Guru Crosby said so. No, it really is – eventually – if you take it seriously. In the short term, it needs an investment in such things as communications, training, possibly consultancy, and time off-line, while employees undertake special projects. In the medium term, you’ll probably get a return on that investment quite quickly, but you may find a point where the company structure no longer seems right. Restructuring has a cost implication, though it may release the potential for more significant benefits in the long term. But how much all this costs will depend on your circumstances and how far you want to take it.

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7. Should we adopt a quality model?

You can build your own. Doing this has its merits, as you will discover if you read Ricardo Semler (and the original thinkers in quality issues). Most people have neither the time nor the inclination, however. So the practical answer is to base your approach on one of the models in widespread use. In many parts of the world, this means ISO 9001/2 or EFQM. Variations have been developed for specialist areas, such as healthcare. If you think there may be one for your area of interest, ask your trade or professional body. Whichever model you go for, don’t’ just follow it slavishly. Unless there are compelling external reasons, it’s better to adapt one to your circumstances than to shoehorn your business into a model that’s not right for you.

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8. What’s the point of a quality manual?

A manual helps new employees get up to speed more quickly. It also helps more experienced ones remind themselves of procedures they are unsure of. This might be because they carry out the procedure infrequently. A manual can also be the basis for improving the procedures, as it can help identify inefficiencies and unnecessary checking work. People sometimes criticise manuals for inhibiting innovation and improvement, but why not have a procedure for innovation? More seriously, if there are activities which, for good business reasons, are more flexible than a manual could accommodate, don’t put them in it. Not everything a company does has to be in the manual.

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9. How do you begin?

Prepare the ground before you start. Sell the idea within your work area. Have conversations rather than monologues, or you will find it hard to overcome any resistance there may be. Become a role model by finding improvements that benefit your colleagues. Encourage colleagues to put the customer at the centre of their thinking, and involve customers in improving your internal procedures. Make it easy for people to propose change. Think about talking to key suppliers about your aims. There may even be competitors with whom you could safely compare notes about non-sensitive issues.

Begin by assessing current performance in things that affect quality. Then you will be able to take periodic checks on actual improvements in results. Choose which business processes to attend to first. You may want to pick a mixture of the ones that will have most effect on your business results and some which will be easy to improve. Plan what you’re going to do, ensuring it is manageable within the resources you have secured or that are available for the work. Consider getting some training. Check out how well your chosen procedures work. Try out a change, and see if it is an improvement. If not, try something else. Once you know it works, implement it fully. Start following the route of procedures across organisational boundaries – start talking to people outside you own work area – your internal customers and suppliers.

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10. How does technique X work?

Conventionally, the seven basic tools of quality management are considered to be the check sheet, control chart, fishbone diagram, flowchart, histogram, Pareto chart and scattergram. Essentially, these are all means of presenting data in pictorial form, for ease of analysis. Most of the other techniques either follow a similar pattern, or are some form of codifying common sense. Professional experts frequently tweak and re-label the core techniques in the belief that their modification makes it more effective. So if someone mentions the name of a technique you haven’t heard before, ask them to describe it. It may be familiar!

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