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Culture Club: How Upper Stratosphere Companies Make Quality Pervasive

Culture Club: How Upper Stratosphere Companies Make Quality Pervasive

Design engineers and project managers work closely with the quality department and know that quality is as important as functional utility in driving the design effort. Time-to-market pressures and the consequential need to get products right the first time has placed much greater emphasis on quality.

Today's high-performing companies exhibit a distinct "culture of quality," according to Stephen Hacker, chair of the board of directors at the American Society for Quality (ASQ). This pervasive culture shines forth across such organizations, "in everything from training to informal conversations in hallways and break rooms," he stated in a recent report jointly developed between ASQ and Forbes Insights.

The report, "Culture of Quality: Accelerating Growth and Performance in the Enterprise," shares insights from a survey of 2,291 executives and managers. Researchers asked them to rate their organizations on maturity in developing some key characteristics of a "culture of quality," including:

- Focus on quality at the leadership level

- Quality vision

- Quality values

- Customer focus.

The latter, a focus on the customer's quality needs, spotlights the contributions of the design function and voice-of-customer design to the corporate quality culture, according to ASQ's managing director, Laurel Nelson-Rowe. "One of the biggest barriers to building a culture of quality is understanding the customer's needs," she said in an interview with Design News. "The designer has to get an understanding of what the customer is going to want and is going to pay for. Then you have to be prepared to act quickly on those customer needs."

In a marketplace where innovation and time to market are accelerating, getting it wrong can be costly. Customer focus can contribute a preventative function in a quality management regime, Nelson-Rowe said, noting, "Quality is often viewed as a problem-solver, a function that comes into play only when something goes wrong."

Design and product development teams have the potential to build in quality from the beginning. "Planning and trying to predict excellence is really challenging, but it's a great opportunity," she said.

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When it comes to customer focus, there's room for improvement at many companies. In the world-class organizations identified by the ASQ-Forbes survey, only 52% said they are "highly effective at identifying customer needs and expectations." However, these high performers outstripped the other companies, of which only 24% made such an observation.

Listening to the voice of the customer can help product designers and developers understand to what extent quality is important. And understanding customer expectations at the early project phase can exert downstream influence, including control of manufacturing costs.

A quality-focused organization might feel driven to achieve maximum quality in all respects, regardless of cost. But Rudy Hacker, senior manager of enterprise quality and reliability at Intel, told researchers in the report:

"You don't want to do anything poorly. But at the same time, you should not try and polish things that the customer doesn't need or notice. You want to do the right things right -- and that means a focus on the things that create value for the customer."

Company leadership visibly and actively advocates quality, but this has to go further than simple slogans and posturing, ASQ's Stephen Hacker insists. In high-performing companies, he said, "Quality-driven goals are translated into clear performance expectations, all of which are supported by regular organizational performance reviews and expressed in business performance reports."

Nelson-Rowe echoes what the ASQ-Forbes report stresses about the importance of company leadership in nurturing a culture of quality. "Leaders really have to be modeling a culture of quality and performance excellence," she said.

Jeffrey Ray, director of operations and quality at the strategic missile and defense division of Boeing Defense Space and Security (BDS), told the report's researchers that Boeing believes "leadership sets the tone, clearly articulates the vision and the expectations." But beyond commitment and support at the top, Ray said "you need to define what quality means, define quality goals, disseminate these objectives, measure group and individual performance, and then reward those who are making it happen."

A quality vision is something much more than a fuzzy statement to ASQ. The idea is defined very specifically as "the business case showing how the pursuit of quality advances an organization's objectives and elicits buy-in from senior executives." World-class companies translate that vision into key quality performance indicators (KPIs), which are tracked internally and used to promote cooperation among business units.

AT BDS, for example, company strategy requires that all employees know their customer, know their product and deliverable, know the customer's quality expectations, and have a metric for measuring quality. BDS employs a continuous corrective process to identify, solve, and prevent quality problems.

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Al Bredenberg is a writer, analyst, consultant, and communicator. He writes about technology, design, innovation, management, and sustainable business, and specializes in investigating and explaining complex topics. He holds a master's degree in organization and management from Antioch University New England. He has served as an editor for print and online content and currently serves as senior analyst at the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations.

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