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Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI)

Clint Maun, CSP

Many organizations today are making a concerted effort to improve the quality of their products and services. This new wave of quality concern has been sparked by the tremendous success of many innovative companies throughout the world, which have implemented quality improvement programs.

Much of this work has centered upon Japan's success with placing their products at the forefront of a global market. With Japan's success has come the revitalization of teaching and training techniques, which have been around for a number of years. The Japanese were very successful in implementing many of the techniques as taught by Deming and Juran. These techniques have regained popularity in the United States recently and we will see a tremendous utilization of them in the future. The United States marketplace missed the calling when it went after quantity rather than quality of products and services deliverable to the marketplace.

With that in mind, Maun-Lemke has centered its attention to effectively assist clients in achieving successful implementation of a Continuous Quality Improvement program. We believe in Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) rather than the development of a Total Quality Management program. One reason is that many TQM programs end with the success of goals, rather than continually building quality. For example, examination of recent Baldridge Awards for Quality winners shows a lull in their commitment and passion for quality. In fact, once this milestone has been achieved, some organizations have even abandoned their TQM philosophies because they simply don't have anywhere else to go. CQI would incorporate consistent adjustments to quality. Another reason for CQI over TQM is many organizations, when embarking on a TQM process have actually scared individuals because it sounds like a fad rather than a cultural philosophy of doing business. This is particularly true when it's associated with the attempt to achieve enhanced productivity or downsizing the organization. These are scary thoughts for a great number of individuals.

Therefore, we build a sense of commitment into an overall project of Continuous Quality Improvement. In the real world of organizational development, many companies need to embrace the concepts of Continuous Quality Improvement in their own work situation rather than be thrown into a new "save all" project.

With these thoughts in mind, Maun-Lemke has realized the most critical group for success in a CQI process is the mid-management level. Top management usually is eager to start a CQI project. It can also be relatively easy to have employees throughout the organization embrace the concepts because they see the light at the end of the tunnel. Many of them have wanted to produce better quality products or services for a number of years but felt thwarted in their attempts to work on these types of issues.

This is not to say that mid-managers don't want to improve the quality of their products or services. However, it is our experience that this group is under a lot of pressure by both the top and the employee level to get work done, things accomplished and continue in the same practices which have been utilized for a number of years. This is a group that requires a critical thinking change. It is important this group be involved in the appropriate activities that allow them to understand how this process is going to unfold. It is equally important to have mid-management's concerns and feelings expressed openly at the front end of a project because there certainly will be intentional and unintentional sabotage occurring later on if they are not brought on board.

The mid-management group is sometimes very fearful their jobs will go away. They will be unable to manage this new workforce that is empowered. They may certainly feel these changes could cause a major amount of confusion, lack of authority and even potential anarchy within the organization. It may be said, however, anarchy is often needed to get new thinking in place. It is important for the mid-management group to be involved in the conceptualization of this shift.

In looking at Continuous Quality Improvement, the simplest and most efficient way to start is by looking at the various customer relationships everyone experiences within the organization. Everybody has a set of internal and external customers they must satisfy. Those internal and external customers guide the way employees do business, set up policies and procedures and provide the end results that are required.

Organizations should start by looking at what their customers want. Then they have a starting point from which to develop teams who can work on Continuous Quality Improvement activities. A survey process identifying the internal and external customers is a critical starting component for our work on CQI projects. Before we start with innumerable statistical analyses and training on productivity techniques, it is important for organizations to get a handle on who the customers are and what is really going on with those customers.

Customers only want one thing: "perceived satisfaction". If a customer thinks they are satisfied - then they are satisfied - even if they really shouldn't be satisfied. If a customer doesn't think they are satisfied - then they are not satisfied - even if they really should be satisfied. In other words, it's all perception. It is important to find out what the customer perceives rather than predetermining what we think they want or what we think they currently have. This is the quickest way to bring the entire organization on board to think about the various ways we can improve quality with a number of different customers - both internally and externally.

Continuous Quality Improvement accepts the notion that all product and services can be continually improved. This is the attitude that must be accepted in the organization. It is important this particular belief system be worked on and developed so we are always in a mode of trying to improve quality. Quality is defined as exceeding expectations. If a product or service meets or exceeds the expectations of all customers internally and externally, and meets or exceeds the expectations of the producer of the product or service (the organization) then it is, by definition, a quality product or service. This is an important definition because it establishes the customers' perception comes first. Then we tag on our perception of what we want to produce in the marketplace for those customers.

It is not good enough to set minimum standards, ratios, quotas, amounts of errors, etc. This only leads to the minimum becoming the maximum. If we establish a policy that we are always striving to improve the quality of products or services, then we have adopted a belief system to obtain the highest level of satisfaction for our customers on an ongoing basis.

While it is important to note some customer are satisfied with less than 100%, this doesn't mean our obligation to produce a value added product or service that goes well beyond the customers expectations is eliminated. The value added customer product or service will allow us to achieve a better price in the future because we are always seen as an organization that gives more than what is expected. This also allows the organization to empower individuals in the spirit of quality improvement.

We have found when CQI programs are implemented and the organization has captured a true spirit of trying to improve the product or service there is the sense of commitment, purpose and accomplishment associated with a winning team. This sense of accomplishment leads to improved morale or the increase of motivational activity most CQI programs are trying to attain. That winning team attitude really takes form by constantly generating new ideas and thoughts about how to improve the product or service.

CQI is not only a way to have an organization work on how to meet or exceed the customer's expectations - it allows people to have a true sense of accomplishment. Acknowledgement by an organization of the contributions and accomplishments of employees involved with Continuous Quality Improvement activity sets up a snowball effect. If the organization now rewards quality improvement ideas and involvement as the "in thing" to do rather than hold back or continue doing business as always, employees are motivated to contribute to looking at ways to improve the quality.

The training involved with the teams on Continuous Quality Improvement centers around the attitude of wanting to look good, wanting to look better to the customers, wanting to survey the customers, wanting to find out how the customers think we are doing and wanting to produce a better end product or service for those customers. Training is essential in the start of a CQI program because you want teams to become self directed, to be able to develop their own measurement system and to check its own products or services. This allows the team members to feel they have control because they are the ones to go back to their customers and determine if the organization is producing a better product or service.

The entire training takes on the form of a contract with the customer. It includes direct involvement with the customer and being able to check our own products/services against what the customers want and our production goals. This leads to a closer realization of the true obstacles occurring within the organization, and enables the organization to produce exceptional products or services. This type of process puts checks in place throughout the development of a product or service, rather than the traditional approach of producing a product or service and then check to see if it is broken. You are now in a position to set up a system in which the people involved in developing or producing the product or service are allowed to check the product or service throughout the development and determine if it is exceeding the standards set. This puts an entirely new process in place for quality assurance. Not only is it important to check quality in the marketplace but it becomes more important to check quality at the time of implementation. Quality check systems now take on a new meaning because it is now everyone's job to check the quality of their product or service instead of waiting for an external quality team, audit group, survey process, etc.

An entire belief system is created for the organization in which it is now measuring success against what customers want and what it wants to deliver. The organization is no longer spending all of its time comparing product to product, competitor to competitor or service to service. Normative references are certainly helpful since they allow us to have an understanding about how we are doing against our marketplace competition. Remember, you do not become the industry standard or the industry leader by comparing yourself all day long to your competitors. You must make a decision that your product or service meets or exceeds your customer's expectations because you know it is true. Then you put the product or service in the marketplace so people can readily distinguish the product or service is different from anything else out there. This is how you become the industry leader. If you sit back and spend all day long comparing your products or services to everybody else'' you are going to get yourself in a mediocrity campaign, a minimum standards campaign and you are also going to set yourself up for being just like anybody else.

Comparing people to people is also a dangerous process because it could allow for organizational inbreeding. In other words, everyone is against some other person or entity within the organization. This is fine if the person or entity is performing at an exceptional level, but too often there is a facade around that person or entity and what we think is a high level of performance is not actually happening. Too many organizations compare people to people rather than comparing people to expectations. If you want to produce quality you will set up expectations, standards, goals and targets that are involvement oriented. We know these are tough standards but they are set because the employees at all levels believe they can achieve them. We can then compare people's performance to those expectations, not to each other. If you do not involve your employees in the development of the standards that need to be accomplished, it becomes a problem.

If you impose tough standards without peoples' ability to get involved in the development of those standards, you will have people simply coming up with reasons why they can't do it or actual sabotage of the effort. This leads to accepting watered down achievement as an end result. In fact, we start saying things like, "Well that was close", "We did pretty good", "Most of our organization or operations achieved success", "We aren't too bad", "We are no worse than anybody else", and so on. These types of statements lead to the age-old comparative process again with the marketplace and does not allow us to have a marketplace difference.

To set quality standards, allow people to check themselves against those standards. If there is a problem with the delivery of a product or service at that level, the group has the ability to get busy and fix the problem. They will also have the opportunity to work on the goal measured against the customer expectations for the particular group, whether those customers are internal or external. Those same people self-check and self-measure the product or service all the way along the implementation process.

We then can validate a product or service that is distinguished against the marketplace in our area because:

            Our customers are paying for that product or service
            They are buying it at a high level
            They are paying for it at a premium level

If we can accomplish this, then Continuous Quality Improvement has been set in motion within the organization. For large organizations we believe it is important to begin in certain pilot areas, work on those areas first and then spread the process within the organization. We believe it is important to use internal trainers or facilitators to incorporate the philosophy throughout the organization. We also believe it is important for us to act as a catalyst or facilitator in the development or implementation of the project but not to be involved forever as an organizational psychotherapist. Our job is to set in motion the philosophy and the facilitation of the project so the true snowball effect can come from excited, empowered individuals that are able to take the message throughout the organization and get other people involved with the same excitement.

We believe Continuous Quality Improvement is the catalyst for making the best possible products and services against our customers expectations and what we want to produce for those customers. We believe it is important to get the mid-management people involved in the acceptance of that philosophy. Let them practice with it first and then take it to the specific pilot projects to the lowest level possible. This allows those employees to be involved in the solution teams and the related training so they can implement the necessary changes that are needed in the organization's work efforts. The process allows those products or services to be enhanced, checked, evaluated and reworked at the level where they are being completed. This sets the belief system in motion for the organization that we can improve quality and fix problems. This nurtures that winning team attitude or philosophy which ultimately is necessary in any organizational development activity.

Most of our work with CQI implementation begins with a discussion phase and follows with a philosophy development process. We then take it to a training phase where we work with key groups and individuals within the organization (specifically mid-management). We believe it is important to pilot the program in some part of the organization to establish success. We focus on a specific concern, problem, issue or area to develop the necessary pilot team at the source closest to the problem. We then celebrate success and give recognition to the team for their involvement. Now it's understood that CQI is the new way of thinking in the organization. Then we assist with facilitation of additional team formations so CQI can "catch hold".

The monitoring and evaluation activities that take place around the CQI process are all developed to reward successful attempts at trying to improve quality. They also are set up to recognize obstacles or challenges to a Continuous Quality Improvement attitude. This evaluation in the monitoring areas is the job of top management. They can nurture seedbed activities that are going to take place within the organization. This facilitates the adaptation of the CQI attitude for organizational success.

If you'd like more information on how you can begin a CQI project in your organization, click here.