Originally posted on Quality Digest by Carlos Venegas and Gaurav Tamta

Quality goes beyond the purview of the quality professional. Quality, it has been said, is everybody’s business, but too many outside this discipline see it as something dry, bland, and boring—and perhaps for good reason.

For example, one of the authors of this article had the painful, all-too-familiar experience of annual quality training, in this case by enduring someone reading PowerPoint slides out loud in an officious monotone. Quality was a check-the-box exercise. Yuck!

Here is how people in a software company (where the other author worked) described quality: “When the quality people talk to us, it seems very boring, monotonous, overly methodical, and number-driven. We don’t even understand what they say. Who wants to hear that? We get pushed by our managers to attend.”

Too many quality efforts are experienced—and received—this way. The result? Resistance. Frustration. Apathy. And the cost to the organization? Quality suffers, employees suffer, and customers suffer.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to turn around a quality program that’s not getting results. It begins with understanding that quality is not just about numbers, parameters, or measures. Like every other business process, it’s also about human behavior. So how can we humanize quality?

Quality = trust
If you want people to care about quality, you need to help them understand that quality is an important part of working relationships. It affects how they are viewed by others, and how they affect others by their actions.

The objective is simple: Help people understand the emotional effect of quality. They need to see that quality is intertwined with trust, a value many hold dear and believe is worth upholding.

Less quality = less trust
Trust is powerful, and not just as an emotionally charged value. It has economic currency.

In the article, “Trust, Transaction Cost Economics, and Mechanisms,” appearing in Handbook of Trust Research (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006), authors Reinhard Bachmann and Akbar Zaheer claim that, in large part, this is because trust increases the speed of transactions. You’ve probably experienced this yourself. Think of those with whom you do business who consistently deliver a quality product or service. Isn’t your decision to use them again easier (and quicker) than deciding whether to use someone you don’t know or trust (yet)? Think of your colleagues: Isn’t it easier to work with the ones you trust to give you quality work? Now think of those you don’t trust because of the lack of quality in their work. You spend more time making sure you are getting what you expect, which is a frustrating, nonvalue-added process.

Trust is built one interaction at a time
“Trust is a practice,” write authors Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores in their book, Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life (Oxford University Press, 2003). This practice, or habit, is built one interaction at a time, whether we are talking about Amazon delivering an avocado to your door in two days, or your facilities department fixing your chair this afternoon, just like they promised. When you get what you expect when you expect it, your trust in the supplier and product or service grows.

Trusting quality: making quality real
If trust is built one interaction at a time, then attention to quality is the machine that builds trust. This is no easy task, but it is doable—and rewarding. A technology company, where one of the authors of this article was the global quality director, was able to build trust in quality with stellar production results. The company reduced defect rates by 74 percent in three months, and first-time-right rates doubled within two months.

These improvements were made on a foundation of trust. The quality units began to demonstrate that their intention was to support operations, not find ways to pull them down. The traditional antipathy between quality and operations resolved into a positive partnership. Here’s how they did it.

Quality champions received training in “soft skills.” This included training in change management, coaching and mentoring, and a change method called Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

In the AI training, the quality team learned a model for analysis, decision-making, and creating strategic change. Rather than focusing on what wasn’t working, the AI training encouraged the quality team to focus on what the operations units were already doing well. Both teams together then envisioned the best possibilities, developed a way to achieve that vision, and then built on their strengths to implement it. With this approach, conversations during root cause analysis meetings and other quality review meetings evolved from judgmental, finger-pointing blame fests into productive, appreciative analyses of past successes, with brainstorming on how to repeat the success or even expand on it. Two opposing camps became two partners.

In coaching and mentoring training, the quality team learned how to approach every staff interaction with empathy and humility. Team members became skilled in motivating the staff to understand and contribute to the quality vision. They felt accountable for the staff’s performance, and this encouraged both the quality team and the staff to develop innovative and resourceful solutions. The staff started taking more ownership of quality and generated more quality ambassadors over time.

With change management training, the quality team learned to communicate effectively, i.e., to speak in a language the staff understood, without using technical jargon. Instead of using buzzwords like sigma value, failure mode and effects analysis, or hypothesis testing, the quality team worked with the operations staff to define the problem in terms that the staff would understand, and linked it to the operations staff’s key performance indicators (KPIs). This activated the staff’s “what’s-in-it-for-me” reflex and got the operations teams’ attention and commitment.

The quality team also solicited and received regular feedback from the operations staff, which helped the team members improve their listening skills and build a connection with their operations counterparts. One example of feedback was when one member of the quality team was viewed as being rude and judgmental toward an operations team. Although this was not the intention of the quality team member, this individual would have remained unaware of the issue had feedback not been solicited. The person could then do something about the communication approach, leading to more productive outcomes.

Although this might sound like a trivial example, there were many such communication disconnects. Each one of those disconnects was yet another brick in the wall that separated the quality team from the rest of the organization.

Armed with skills in AI, coaching and mentoring, and change management, the quality team was able to tap into the workers’ pride and self-respect through skilled, effective conversations. This provided the momentum to build on a technically sound quality program.

In our next installment, we’ll share the strategy used to rebuild this company’s quality program.

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