Quality is primarily viewed in terms of corporate culture, multi-departmental ad-hoc task forces and the salvation of entire companies. This article, instead, will view these ideas as they might be applied by a Team Leader with a small permanent staff.
Quality has become the philosophers' stone of management practice with consultants and gurus vying to charm lead-laden corporations into gold-winning champions. Stories abound of base companies with morose workers and mounting debts being transformed into happy teams and healthy profits; never a day goes by without a significant improvement, a pounds-saving suggestion or a quantum leap in efficiency. With this professed success of "Quality" programmes, there has evolved a proscriptive mythology of correct practise which has several draw backs:
Of course, these criticisms do not invalidate the ideas of Quality but are simply to suggest that the principles might well be viewed from a new angle - and applied at a different level. This article attempts to provide a new perspective by re-examining some of the tenets of Quality in the context of a small, established team: simply, what could a Team Leader do with his/her staff.
In current management writings "Quality" has come to refer to a whole gambit of practices which themselves have resulted in beneficial side-effects; as a Team Leader, you will want to take advantage of these benefits also.
In simple terms, attaining Quality has something to do with satisfying the expectations of the customer. Concern for the wishes and needs of customers becomes the focus for every decision. What the customer wants, the company provides. This is not philanthropy, this is basic survival. Through careful education by competitors, the customer has begun to exercise spending power in favour of quality goods and services; and while quality is not the sole criterion in selecting a particular supplier, it has become an important differentiator.
If one ten-pence ball-point runs dry in one month and another ten-pence ball-point lasts for three then the second ball-point is the make which the customer will buy again and which he/she recommends to others - even if it costs a little more. The makers of the first ball-point may have higher profit margins, but eventually no sales; without quality in the product, a company sacrifices customers, revenue and ultimately its own existence. In practical terms, Quality is that something extra which will be perceived by the customer as a valid reason for either paying more or for buying again.
In the case where the product is a service, Quality is equated with how well the job is done and especially with whether the customer is made to feel good about the whole operation. In this respect Quality often does cost more, but the loss is recouped in the price customers are prepared to pay and in the increase of business.
The clearest manifestation of Quality is in a product's reliability: that the product simply works. To prevent problems from arising after the product is shipped, the quality must be checked before-hand - and the best time to check quality is throughout the whole design and manufacturing cycle. The old method of quality control was to test the completed product and then to rework to remove the problems. Thus while the original production time was short, the rework time was long. The new approach to quality simply asserts that if testing becomes an integral part of each stage of production, the production time may increase but the rework time will disappear. Further, you will catch and solve many problems which the final "big-bang" quality-check would miss but which the customer will find on the first day.
To achieve this requires an environment where the identification of errors is considered to be "a good thing", where the only bad bugs are the ones which got away. One of the most hallowed doctrines of Quality is that of zero defects. "Zero defects" is a focus, it a glorious objective, it is the assertion that nothing less will suffice and that no matter how high the quality of a product, it can still be improved. It is a paradox in that it is an aim which is contrary to reason, and like the paradoxes of many other religions it holds an inner truth. This is why the advocates of Quality often seem a little crazy: they are zealots.
While Quality has its own reward in terms of increased long-term sales, the methods used to achieve this Quality also have other benefits. In seeking to improve the quality of the product, manufacturers have found that the people best placed to make substantial contributions are the workforce: people are the most valuable resource. It is this shift in perspective from the management to the workforce which is the most significant consequence of the search for quality. From it has arisen a new managerial philosophy aimed at the empowerment of the workforce, decision-making by the front line, active worker involvement in the company's advancement; and from this new perspective, new organizational structures have evolved, exemplified in "Quality Circles".
Without digressing too much, it is important to examine the benefits of this approach. For such delegation to be safely and effectively undertaken, the management has to train the workforce; not necessarily directly, and not all at once, but often within the Quality Circles themselves using a single "facilitator" or simply peer-coaching. The workforce had to learn how to hold meetings, how to analyse problems, how to take decisions, how to present solutions, how to implement and evaluate change. These traditionally high-level managerial prerogatives are devolved to the whole staff. Not only does this develop talent, it also stimulates interest. Staff begin to look not only for problems but also for solutions. Simple ideas become simply implemented: the secretary finally gets the filing cabinet moved closer to the desk, the sales meetings follow an agenda, the software division creates a new bulletin board for the sports club. The environment is created where people see problems and fix 'em.
Larger problems have more complex solutions. One outcome of the search for Quality in Japan is the system of Just-In-Time flow control. In this system, goods arrive at each stage of the manufacturing process just before they are needed and are not made until they are needed by the next stage. This reduces storage requirements and inventory costs of surplus stock. Another outcome has been the increased flexibility of the production line. Time to change from one product run to the next was identified as a major obstacle in providing the customer with the desired range of products and quantities, and so the whole workforce became engaged in changing existant practices and even in redesigning the machinery.
However, I believe that the most significant shift in perspective which accompanies the introduction of Quality is that long term success is given precedence over short term gains. The repeat-sale and recommendation are more important than this month's sales figures; staff training and development remain in place despite immediate schedule problems; the product's reliability is paramount even over time-to-market. Time is devoted today to saving time in the future and in making products which work first and every time.
While the salvation of an entire corporation may rest primarily with Senior Management, the fate of a team rests with the Team Leader. The Team Leader has the authority, the power to define the micro-culture of the work team. It is by the deliberate application of the principles of Quality that the Team Leader can gain for the team the same benefits which Quality can provide for a corporation.
The best ideas for any particular team are likely to come from them - the aim of the Team Leader must be to act as a catalyst through prompts and by example; the following are possible suggestions.
There will be no overnight success. To be lasting, Quality must become a habit and a habit is accustomed practise. This takes time and training - although not necessarily formal training but possibly the sort of reinforcement you might give to any aspect of good practise. To habituate your staff to Quality, you must first make it an issue. Here are two suggestions.
The first idea is to become enthusiastic about one aspect at a time, and initially look for a quick kill. Find a problem and start to talk about it with the whole team; do not delegate it to an individual but make it an issue for everybody. Choose some work-related problem like "how to get the right information in time" and solicit everybody's views and suggestions - and get the problem solved. Demand urgency against a clear target. There is no need to allocate large amounts of resource or time to this, simply raise the problem and make a fuss. When a solution comes, praise it by rewarding the whole team, and ensure that the aspects of increased efficiency/productivity/calm are highlighted since this will establish the criteria for "success". Next, find another problem and repeat.
The second idea is the regular weekly meeting to discuss Quality. Of course meetings can be complete time wasters, so this strategy requires care. The benefits are that regularity will lead to habit, the formality will provide a simple opportunity for the expression of ideas, and the inclusion of the whole group at the meeting will emphasize the collective responsibility. By using the regular meeting, you can establish the "ground rules" of accepted behaviour and at the same time train the team in effective techniques.
One problem is that the focus on any one particular issue may quickly loose its efficacy. A solution is to have frequent shifts in focus so that you maintain the freshness and enthusiasm (and the scope for innovative solutions). Further benefits are that continual shifts in emphasis will train your team to be flexible, and provide the opportunity for them to raise new issues. The sooner the team takes over the definition of the "next problem", the better.
The initial phases are delicate. The team will be feeling greater responsibility without extra confidence. Thus you must concentrate on supporting their development. Essentially you will be their trainer in management skills. You could get outside help with this but by undertaking the job yourself, you retain control: you mould the team so that they will reflect your own approach and use your own criteria. Later they will develop themselves, but even then they will understand your thinking and so your decisions.
One trap to avoid is that the team may focus upon the wrong type of problem. You must make it clear any problem which they tackle should be:
This precludes gripe sessions about wages and holidays.
As with all group work, the main problem is clarity. You should provide the team with a notice board and flip-charts specifically for Quality problems. These can then be left on display as a permanent record of what was agreed.
If you can, steer the group first to some problem which has a simple solution and with obvious (measurable) benefits. A quick, sharp success will motivate.
To succeed, a Quality push must engage the enthusiasm of the entire team; as Team Leader, you must create the right atmosphere for this to happen. Many aspects of team building can be addressed while Quality remains the focus.
You must create the environment where each team member feels totally free to express an idea or concern and this can only be done if there is no stigma attached to being incorrect. No idea is wrong - merely non-optimal. In each suggestion there is at least a thread of gold and someone should point it out and, if possible, build upon it. Any behaviour which seeks laughter at the expense of others must be swiftly reprimanded.
One crude but effective method is to write down agreed ground rules and to display them as a constant reminder for everyone, something like:
Another method is to constantly talk about the group as the plural pronoun: "we decided", "we can do this", "we'll get back to you". This is especially effective if it is used in conversation with outsiders (especially management) within ear-shot of the team. Praise and reward the whole team; get the team wider fame by a success story in an internal newspaper.
Most importantly, you must enable failure. If the team is unable to try out ideas without rebuke for errors, then the scope of their solutions will be severely limited. Instead, a failure should be an opportunity to gain knowledge and to praise any safe-guards which were included in the plan.
An important aspect of team interaction is the idea of mutual support. If you can instill the idea that all problems are owned by the entire team then each member will be able to seek help and advice when needed from every other team member. One promoter of this is to encourage mutual coaching. If one team member knows techniques or information which would be useful to the rest, then encourage him/her to share it. Specifically this will raise the profile, confidence and self-esteem of the instructor at the same time as benefiting the entire group. And if there is one member who might never have anything useful to impart - send him/her to a conference or training session to find something.
One of the central tenets of Quality programmes is the idea of monitoring the problem being addressed: Statistical Quality Control. Quite simply, if you can't measure an improvement, it probably isn't there. Gathering statistics has several benefits in applying Quality:
and, of course, some problems simply disappear when you try to watch them.
The statistics must be gathered in an objective and empirical manner, the outcome should be a simple table or graph regularly updated to indicate progress, and these results must be displayed where all the team can watch. For example, if your team provides product support, then you might monitor and graph the number of repeat enquiries or the average response time. Or if you are in product development, you might want to monitor the number of bugs discovered (i.e. improvement opportunities).
In the long term, it may be suitable to implement the automatic gathering of statistics on a wide range of issues such as complaints, bug reports, machine down-time, etc. Eventually these may either provide early warning of unexpected problems, or comparative data for new quality improvement projects. It is vital, however, that they focus upon an agreed problem and not upon an individual's performance or else all the positive motivation of staff involvement will be lost.
Clarity of purpose - this is the key to success. You need a simple, stated objective which everybody understands and which everybody can see achieved.
Any plan to improve the quality or effectiveness of the group must contain:
By insisting on this format, you provide the plan-owners with a simple mechanism for peer recognition (through the displayed notice board) and yet enable them to manage their own failure with grace.
For a small established team, the "customer" includes any other part of the company with which the team interacts. Thus any themes regarding customer satisfaction can be developed with respect to these so called internal customers. In the end, the effectiveness of your team will be judged by the reports of how well they provide products for others.
A simple innovation might be for a member of your team to actually talk to someone from each of these internal customer groups and to ask about problems. The interfaces are usually the best place to look for simply solved problems. The immediate benefit may be to the customer, but in the long run better communications will lead to fewer misunderstandings and so less rework.
Quality costs less than its lack; look after the pennies and the profits will take care of themselves. To build a quality product, you must do two things:
It is a question of attitude. If one of the team spots a modification in the design or the procedures which will have a long term benefit, then that must be given priority over the immediate schedule. The design is never quite right; you should allocate time specifically to discussing improvement. In this you should not aim at actual enhancements in the sense of added features or faster performance, but towards simplicity or predicting problem areas. This is an adjunct to the normal design or production operations - the extra mile which lesser teams would not go.
Many products and services do not lend themselves to quality monitoring. These should be enhanced so that the quality becomes easily tracked. This may be a simple invitation for the "customer" to comment, or it could be a full design modification to provide self-checking or an easy testing routine. Any product whose quality can not be tracked should naturally become a source of deep anxiety to the whole team - until a mechanism is devised.
One of the least-used sources of quality in design and production in the engineering world is documentation. This is frequently seen as the final inconvenience at product release, sometimes even delegated to another (non-technical) group - yet the writing of such documentation can be used as an important vehicle for the clarification of ideas. It also protects the group from the loss of any single individual; the No.7 bus, or the head-hunter, could strike at any time.
In devising a mechanism for monitoring quality, many teams will produce a set of test procedures. As bugs emerge, new procedures should be added which specifically identify this problem and so check the solution. Even when the problem is solved the new procedures should remain in the test set; the problem may return (perhaps as a side effect of a subsequent modification) or the procedure may catch another. Essentially the test set should grow to cover all known possibilities of error and its application should, where possible, be automated.
As your team develops, your role as leader changes subtly. You become a cross between a priest and a rugby captain, providing the vision and the values while shouting like crazy from the centre of the field. Although you retain the final say (that is your responsibility), the team begins to make decisions. The hardest part, as with all delegation, is in accepting the group decision even though you disagree. You must never countermand a marginal decision. If you have to over-rule the team, it is imperative that you explain your reasons very clearly so that they understand the criteria; this will both justify your intervention and couch the team in (hopefully) good decision-making practices.
Another role which you assume is that of both buffer and interface between the team and the rest of the company: a buffer in that you protect the team from the vagaries of less enlightened managers; an interface in that you keep the team informed about factors relevant to their decisions. Ultimately, the team will be delegating to you (!) tasks which only you, acting as manager, can perform on its behalf.
By applying the principles of Quality to an established team, the Team Leader can enjoy the benefits so actively sought by large corporations. The key is the attitude - and the insistence on the primacy of Quality. As a Team Leader, you have the power to define the ethos of your staff; by using Quality as the focus, you also can accrue its riches.
Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by any other method found here