How a Culture of Quality Enables Business Excellence – Guest Post, Tim King of Quality Matters LLC

By Tim King on December 8, 2022

What constitutes a culture of quality? Many will say, “you will know it when you see it!”

And one of the best places to see a culture of quality is on site with any Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award recipient. If you ever get a chance to visit an MBQA recipient, take it! You will experience the culture of excellence as soon as you walk in. Some describe the experience as leaving the city and going into the countryside where the air is fresh and invigorating. It is a visceral experience!

If you were to take a closer look at what is going on you might see:

  • Energized and engaged staff.
  • Clear and specific shared values in daily practice.
  • Shared vocabulary and “mental models” (a concept promoted by systems guru Peter Senge).
  • Communication as a well-developed system not a haphazard event. One award recipient stated, “everyone is in the loop and surprises are minimal.”
  • Personal ownership in quality at the source that has been enabled by engaging all employees in improving and controlling the process in which they.
  • A “plan, do, check, act” (PDCA) mindset. It’s the “C” and “A” that matter! Routinely Check what is happening and Act to adjust to achieve goals and targets set for improvement.
  • Goal alignment. Sometimes called hoshin or “catch-ball” deployment, it also works in the reverse where employees see how their personal and team goals align upwards though the organization to the C-suite (referred to as “line of sight”)
  • Personal ownership and passion for the collective success.
  • A “we” not a “me” mind set.

This list could go on. If you were to think that achieving these conditions had nothing to do with a vibrant culture, then you would be wrong. The achievement of best-in-class performance comes from the environment created by the culture’s core values and beliefs. Those beliefs drive specific actions and decisions, and those actions and decisions create the approaches, changes and solutions that are evident in best-in-class organizations.

ISO 9000:2015 and Culture of Quality

ISO 9000:2015 Quality Management System Fundamentals & Vocabulary states “People are essential resources within the organization. The performance of the organization depends upon how people behave within the system in which they work” (section 2.2.5.2 pg. 3). Furthermore, ISO9001:2015 clause 7.1 Infrastructure covers a key list of aspects that enable people to achieve the quality objectives set forth for their process and business. While the clause never states “culture” specifically, this infrastructure occurs in almost exclusively within a culture of quality.

ISO made an important change to the standard in the 2000 version when it added the eight quality principles into the standard (now seven principles in the 2015 version). Why was that change added?

Because compliance with a standard is not enough! For the standard to inspire and enable constantly improving quality, through the shared goal of best in class, it takes commitment to the standard; a commitment that is generated from the organization’s culture. If the culture of quality is in place, it will encourage and foster aligned acts throughout the organization that achieve and sustain internal efficiencies and customer loyalty.

As a side note, the ISO quality principles are very similar to the core values in the Criteria for Performance Excellence that is the foundation for choosing annual recipients of the U.S. Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award (www/nist.gov/Baldrige). These core values were in place on day 1 in 1987 when Congress enacted this national award to inspire excellence in response to Japan’s increasing manufacturing strength and its impact on U.S. markets.  In contrast, ISO 9001 was enacted in 1988 without any quality principles. It was 12 years later that ISO included a set of principles as an essential component of the standard.

Consider this definition of quality one of my students in “Quality 101,” a course I teach for ASQ.

Quality is when your customer comes back, not your product.”

I love this definition. It says it all! And to meet that standard, everyone in the organization must be aligned by the same pursuit of excellence and be given the resources to achieve that goal.

If “safety is no accident” then quality excellence is no accident, either. It happens due to a long-term intentionality that comes from a mind-set continually nurtured by the quality culture.  It is evolved and shaped by people who share in what the culture is promoting.  Culture is that ever-present “true north” that keeps everyone aligned, committed, and focused day after day.

Culture is the soil of quality excellence

Ask a farmer what is more important, the land or the crop, and they will say the land every time. They know if they are good land stewards the land will return a good harvest. This is not to say they won’t have setbacks from other acts of nature, but the rebound will be faster with the right soil that best supports a healthy harvest.

The soil’s attributes enable the sustainable success of the farm and is constantly cultivated year after year. The same must go for an organization’s cultural stewardship. Workers on the farm know the importance of the right soil the same way that employees in your business know the importance of the right culture, especially when they are engaged in creating it.

Also, take a lesson from the Industrial Revolution. Frederick Taylor was the founder of industrial engineering and created several process efficiency techniques that fostered mass production. These changes seemed good at first but were not sustainable. His techniques, along with the Theory of Constraints (E. Goldratt) and systems thinking (Peter Senge), were integrated by Toyota to result in what we know today as “lean manufacturing,” a more powerful approach with greater sustaining power.  What was wrong with Taylor’s approach?

  • The factory separated quality from production.
  • Production had to meet productivity goals and quality control was tasked to prevent escapes.
  • There was little to no quality assurance or improvement as we know it today.
  • It had a “blame the person not the process” management style.
  • Team efforts were few and far between, if at all.
  • Internal competition ran high and fear of losing one’s job prevailed.
  • Taylor operated on the assumption that the “less educated” frontline had little to contribute to his industrial engineering projects focused on achieving quota-based goals.

The enhanced culture of quality that emerged from Japan was based on the understanding that employee engagement and process ownership by all workers was the key to achieving high-quality products and competitive pricing in U.S. markets.

What is the role of management in developing a culture of quality?

ASQ research on senior leaders’ views on quality has pointed out the following:

  • They expect it will impact customer satisfaction, acquisition, and retention.
  • It will impact the financial performance of the business.
  • It will identify and act on chronic problems to eliminate them
  • It will protect against major market issues, such as brand image, excess returns and recalls.

However, business leaders commonly underestimate the critical role their organization’s culture plays in achieving these business outcomes. There are many examples and research that show business results are a direct reflection of the culture that is in place within the organization. It is no exaggeration to say that culture can make or break success.

That may be a foreign concept for senior management who first look for answers in areas other than culture like accountability, commitment, focus, and lack of effective problem solving to correct quality issues. While these elements are important, they are more outcomes of company culture and not the causes themselves.

Why is personal leadership from top management alone insufficient to building culture?

  • It is not built into the system in terms of training, techniques, tools, and reinforced behaviors.
  • It feels mostly top-down to others.
  • It may be narrowly focused and misses other key aspects that drive excellence such as spirit, quality ownership at the frontline, constancy of continuous improvement, staff engagement, and the environment staff work in every day.
  • They are not measuring or assessing their impact on culture.

Top management may try to make change using traditional leadership methods that rely too heavily on their personal influence. This approach is prone to limited success in the absence of establishing a strong culture of quality that supports their vision for change.

Seven simple actions to promote a culture of quality that yields what leaders expect

  • Partner with HR on the framework for a culture. They have a vested interest in a positive and engaging culture as do we in quality.
  • Implement an empowered culture steering team made up of a diverse set of internal stakeholders and early adopters.  Quality and HR can co-lead this group.
  • Set-up a means to assess the culture now and as it evolves. Do some benchmarking on how other organizations do their assessments. Baldridge Award recipients are a good place to start.
  • Include culture checks as part of internal audits and audits performed by third-party registrars.
  • Recognize and reward efforts. Find champions of the culture norms that make up the framework.
  • Help top leaders become enablers. A best practice is for them to explain quality principles to new employees in orientation.

Show correlation between a maturing culture and the shift from a reactive environment to a preventive one.

Go forward with a steady and consistent evolution of the culture that will harvest brilliant quality outcomes that will be a competitive advantage and, as important, a source of pride across the organization from the manufacturing line to the C-suite!