Taking quality back from the bureaucrats

I’ve spent a good deal of my career wondering about quality.


Be it pure ISO 9000- and TQM-style quality management, more tangential activities such as methodology and process architecture (waterfall, Agile, SOA and others) or innovation and research management, I think I have done pretty much everything in this field.

One persistent theme in all this experience – and in most organisations this seems to be as true today as it has ever been – is the tendency for quality to degenerate into bureaucracy. For serious professionals quality should be the sexiest thing on earth, but in fact most people find that quality management is a tiresome chore of jumping hurdles, filling in forms, being subjected to irksome and apparently pointless audits, and being admonished to do better by tiers of senior management who plainly haven’t a clue about what your working environment is really like.

Hence the collapse into bureaucracy. If I can’t/won’t join up all the dots, then some of them will have to remain mysteries and I can only get you to do what I want by simply ordering you to do it. It doesn’t have to be a direct order – I can just create a system of bureaucratic controls and reports and you’ll do as you’re told anyway.

Well, that’s the theory. But as every real manager knows, it just doesn’t work like that. In fact, if I wanted to design a system for stifling commitment, creativity, and passion, that’s how I’d do it – replace a real understanding of quality with a bureaucracy.

So how to take back quality from the bureaucrats? Not easy. Perhaps, ultimately, not possible. But here are three steps that should take you some way towards that goal.

Step One – Define quality as excellence

If you want passion, commitment and creativity – without which Agile is completely unworkable, of course – then your quality management system absolutely must nurture professional, managerial and operational excellence. If you want to create a culture in which everyone wants to do their job and then some – the basis of every truly triumphant organisation – then there is no alternative.

But isn’t this the norm now? There are many preliminary definitions of quality (e.g., ‘compliance with specification’, ‘fitness for purpose’, ‘customer satisfaction’, and so on), but surely everyone in quality management would like to define quality as ultimately about excellence? Isn’t that what, for example, ‘exceeding expectations’ implies?

True so far as it goes, but as so often, it’s not far enough. The problem is that all these definitions – whether or not they apparently aim at excellence – tend to stay on the rhetorical level. In the absence of a genuine culture of quality, it is extremely difficult to move quality on any further. So what is needed to make that move? What is needed is a practical definition of what excellence is. I would suggest the following key elements that, if accepted, provide a basis for practical change. In a sense they are quite simple and already very familiar:

  1. Excellence must be the explicit, overriding goal. Not conformity or standards or even customer satisfaction.
  2. Excellence must be founded on a personal desire to excel, not bureaucratic procedures. Formal controls have their place, but if the individuals who you plan to make accountable for delivery really don’t care, you cannot order them to excel.
  3. Your organisation can only excel as a whole. Privileging supposedly ‘key’ functions and roles is self-defeating.
  4. Excellence can only be known through practical results. These results must be defined in terms of achievements, not activity, and achievement itself should be defined in terms of, at a minimum, your customers’ gratitude (so much more than simply signing off on a deliverable!) and, even more so, their astonishment.
  5. Excellence must be driven. Leadership should be the goal at every level – corporate, functional, team, individual. To achieve this, innovation must be actively pursued and external research, benchmarks and resources vigorously exploited.
  6. Excellence is suffocated by ignorance, distraction, trivia and noise. Excellent people need excellent leadership, processes, systems, skills, tools, information, and support.

All quite familiar, really. But how many of these are embedded in management systems that facilitate accomplishment, development and leadership? In my experience, very few. And they are almost invariably confounded by the presence of countervailing forces, such as the standard ‘Not in this financial year’. ‘Not in my backyard’ and ‘Not invented here’ syndromes. There is seldom any investment in standing back and looking at the organisation as a whole or in looking to what other have achieved, and little reward for creating change. And where there is, this investment is generally squandered on asking consultants for the latest fad and fancy, instead of asking yourselves (in as constructive a manner as possible) whether you are really good enough.

Step Two – Map management to excellence

Hence step two – creating the management system that will actually communicate, support and track this translation of corporate goals into local objectives. Here are some basic elements of such a system:

  1. Quality is defined and measured by intrinsic values – delivery, satisfaction, ROI, etc., and not by formally correct ‘quality metrics’.
  2. Quality management is recognised as a key investment, not just an overhead or cost. Reward and recognition focus on and celebrate improvement.
  3. Quality is more than just a nominal ‘company value’. Not only does everyone routinely ask ‘How can we do this better?’ but there are regularly meetings and improvement systems for making sure that they really do get better.
  4. Your management systems are intrinsically adaptable – and regularly adapted. That is to say, they are rigorous but not rigid, and driven by explicit objectives that are traceable to real corporate goals.
  5. The Quality System itself is driven exclusively by identifiable risks, not by formal models or methodologies. If you can’t say what risk your management system is responding to when it makes me follow some formal routine, then what is the point in my doing so?
  6. The management system is owned by its users and stakeholders, and no one else. The ultimate test of this is that your management systems are valued by its users, not imposed from without.

Again, not exactly startling. At least, I hope not, after a couple of decades of consultants like me ranting on about this sort of thing.

But again, how much of this is real in your organisation? Have you ever looked? Have your ever gone about your organisation, in disguise like a medieval prince, to see what life is really like for the teeming masses? You don’t seriously believe your own executives’ and HR department’s protestations that all is well, do you? Remember, Dilbert s the closest thing we have to a science of management.

Step Three – Make it happen

Finally, some basic mechanics of a management system that will help you deliver all this. There are endless things that could be done, but I always feel that these are the most directly useful.

  1. Insist on black-box management – it’s the ideal way to combine empowerment with responsibility. Make sure that you define all four ‘outside’ sides of a black box – the expected output, the available inputs, the underlying infrastructure and information sources and the overarching context information that tells your team what they are contributing to. And make sure you define the ‘inside’ of the box too – the basic standards, frameworks and tools for doing the job. Otherwise you will end up with everyone making it up as they go along.
  2. Build processes and systems that explicitly connect your strategic goals and tactical activities together. And make sure that they work in all directions – top-down, bottom-up and side-to-side.
  3. Promote a significant fraction of your best people to managing the management system itself. Respected individuals with vision and imagination who really get things done.
  4. Make a stint in some form of quality management a precondition of promotion. You might be astonished how must there is to learn from a simple exercise like conducting a quality audit or updating a corporate methodology.
  5. Make everyone take a turn at doing something they depend on or which depends on them – even if only for a day or two each quarter. They’ll learn the reality of their work fast enough.

By |2018-04-17T11:19:35+00:00Wednesday, May 21 2008|Categories: All, Bureaucracy, Empowerment, Maturity, Quality, Risk|0 Comments

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