Ask any business executive whether quality is important, and you’re likely to get a very quick response: “Absolutely, it’s one of our top priorities.” But the true measure of management’s commitment to quality rests upon their action, not their words. To be sure, the words are still very important; building a culture of quality requires top leaders to consistently articulate its position as a top priority for the organization. But those words must be combined with the right actions to drive a crystal-clear awareness that quality should drive people’s behaviors and decisions in the workplace every day.
In a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, authors Ashwin Srinivasan and Bryan Kurey outlined four key factors in a culture of quality: leadership emphasis, message credibility, peer involvement, and employee ownership of quality issues. Those first two items emphasize the role of top-down leadership in creating and promoting a quality culture in the workplace. The latter two are equally important, though. Leadership is also involved, but the emphasis is on cultivating a bottom-up approach in which quality can truly flourish.
As a starting point, management must make its priorities clear. In other words, they must talk about quality on a regular basis. They must constantly be articulating its value to the company and its stakeholders. Quality generates revenue and prevents customer attrition. It saves money. In many cases, it saves lives. It ensures that the organization can meet regulatory requirements and avoid financial and reputational repercussions.
When quality appears as a recurring theme in company meetings, internal and external newsletters, employee recognition programs, and elsewhere, it sends a clear message to the workforce: “Quality is a priority for our company.”
At the same time, it’s critically important that such messages be backed up with the right actions. Employees can read between the lines, and when management’s actions and decisions don’t align with what they are saying, the non-verbal messages often win out.
Boeing has learned this the hard way. Several catastrophic failures with the company’s 787 Max aircraft led to devastating losses of life, severe reputational damage for the company, and subsequent financial losses amounting to billions of dollars.
In an interview with National Public Radio, former Boeing engineer Cynthia Cole described the cultural shift she observed at the company first-hand: “Greater emphasis on maximizing profits over safety caused all kinds of problems as the company developed the 787 Dreamliner, which ended up three years behind schedule and billions over budget.”
Instead of living up to their company’s statements that emphasize safety and a culture of learning, Boeing’s management drifted into a “profits above all else” mentality that eventually contributed to the 787 Max tragedies.
While most examples will not be as powerful as this one; the lesson is clear. Words are important, but if they’re not backed by the right actions, they will be rendered meaningless.
Quality programs also flourish when employees are involved in creating and implementing them. In this respect, quality managers may prefer to think of themselves as coaches or facilitators whose job it is to help internal teams build alignment and develop strategies for quality, compliance, and continuous improvement.
Suggestion boxes, idea boards, and group discussions that focus on quality related issues ensure that stakeholders throughout company have an opportunity to affect positive change in the way work gets done. This often reveals important details that need to be considered as part of the process, and it often generates innovative new ideas.
Employee Ownership of Quality
Perhaps just as importantly, peer involvement leads to another important factor in a culture of quality, – employee ownership. The vast majority of people strongly prefer not to function as cogs in a larger machine, – simply following instructions and performing their assigned tasks. In order for people to have a sense of pride in meaning in their work, they need to have a sense of ownership and shared responsibility.
Peer involvement helps to drive that because it engages employees in building the systems and processes by which they can deliver quality results. But there is more to employee ownership than that. It’s also about giving workers the power to make important decisions. When Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno first announced that assembly line employees would be authorized to stop the production line at the company’s assembly plants, he was making a powerful (and for most people, unprecedented) statement about employee ownership.
A culture of quality requires constant effort and consistent behaviors, – both top-down and bottom-up. Clear messaging from upper management, backed by the right actions, sets the tone. When employees are engaged in the process and leaders cultivate a sense of ownership across the organization, a culture of quality can flourish.