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Three Pillars of Quality

David Straker

 

This article first appeared Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute

 

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How do businesses work? What is the role of the quality profession in this? These have been questions that have challenged many of us in different ways over much of our working life. Unlike most other professions, those of us with ‘quality’ in our job title have changed direction and scope many different times. This article describes a simple model of how businesses work and the changing role of the quality profession within this.

 

The picture above shows the simple model of business that is used, and how understanding of our external business environment and internal capabilities and desires lead to changes in our business system for creating and delivering changing value that enables us to sustain and grow our businesses. This system is discussed in further detail below, along with consideration of the impact on the quality profession.

The Three Pillars

Understanding

The first stage of any business is understanding, including understanding what is needed and how to satisfy these needs. A sound understanding will lead to sound decisions, whereas decisions based on assumptions and guesswork will lead to surprises and fire fighting which is not a winning strategy.

Understanding needs (and attendant expectations) is not merely about customers but all the players in the game. It means knowing who they are, what value they bring, and what they want to take out of the pot in return for continued patronage. Stakeholder needs are met by a complex system involving many other stakeholders. Just as traditional quality uses tools like Cpk, the classic measure of manufacturing capability, so we need to understand how the entire delivery engine works.

Understanding includes present and future needs and capabilities, with a consideration of external forces such as competition and legislation. Imagination, based on knowledge, is an important factor here: when customers change their goals and competitors change strategy, we still want to stay ahead of the game.

Real-world understanding includes understanding where incomplete knowledge exists. When this is openly accepted, associated risks can be identified and actively managed. Much of the work involved in business is about managing surprises. Quality should include reducing surprises by highlighting realities in time to prepare for possibilities. With an improved understanding, we can make decisions that will lead to better chances of staying in business. This means balancing stakeholder value needs with current and future capabilities of both internal and external systems. It means saying no and focusing resources to retain key stakeholders and increase targeted value flows (such as more lucrative customers and growing markets).

Improvement

Decisions are, in one sense, promises. They commit resources to the achievement of objectives. They are investing value now to achieve value later. Most business decisions at a strategic level lead to necessary changes in the business system to achieve new business goals. Serious business improvement is undertaken to meet explicit or implicit promises of strategic decisions.

Improvements in practice have not always been successful in helping to meet promises. A classic failure has been to target improvements off the business line. Practicing in safe areas is one thing, but as Wallace Andrews said: ‘You can learn all you want about Freud, but sooner or later you have to go out with the girls.’

Understanding is the foundation of improvement. Attempting to improve systems with intuition and pseudo-brainstorming can be a dangerous game. Systems are interconnected wholes: changing one element can have a significant impact on other, often distant, parts of the system. Improvement without true understanding is easy. You shift the work somewhere else, but improperly fixing one problem just causes another to pop up somewhere else.

As well as working on meeting today’s promises, improvements can target the longer-term. In Competing for the Future, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad highlighted how competencies can take years to develop and that tomorrow’s competitions are already being won or lost in improvements we are making today.

Assurance

When needs and capabilities are understood and the system improved, all we need to do is make sure that it actually works. Ideally, there would be no need for assurance, but it is part of the system where specifications are important. The previous stages ensured that definitions of what was to be done were optimal and clear - this stage is about making sure things happen on time, every time.

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