The Secret Sauce of Process Improvement

A colleague from a different department recently asked me, “When does this process improvement stop?”. In my response, I explained that improvement is not a destination, but a journey. It is a way for business to tune and align the operations to ongoing changes in the business.

“If that is the case, how do you sustain the improvement effort? What is the secret sauce of continuous improvement?”, he further inquired. I thought about the recipe of this sauce and a few ingredients immediately came to my mind.

First was commitment and rigor with which top management sponsors and pursues improvement effort. Commitment is often related with assigning budgets, providing resources and setting the right precedence through words and actions. Rigor is important too. Pace of improvement, simplification of operations and its subsequent impact on business needs a constant monitoring, follow-up and alignment. Leaders have to set this direction to build a culture where people are motivated to find optimal ways to deliver value to the customers.

Second ingredient in this sauce is involvement of practitioners in defining and implementing improvements/processes. While job of improvement task force is to facilitate improvements, the real improvements should come from people who execute processes – your team members, middle managers, client facing teams and support groups. If they are the ones who drive improvements, implementation and subsequent buy-in comes in easily.

Third and final ingredient is empathy when implementing process improvements. Processes are tools that make people effective. People are at the core. However, many a times, improvement leaders announce a “zero-tolerance” policy towards process compliance. They ignore the contextual (and human) aspect of implementation and end up demonstrating a complete lack of empathy when processes become an overhead, a necessary evil.

I think these are the core ingredients. There would be many more supplements and spices that makes this sauce more delicious. But unless core ingredients are not addressed completely, all spices and supplements will fail to cook a great sauce that your business would love to have on its dish!

Views on The Big Q – Quality of Design

Quality has moved beyond the simplistic definitions like “conformance to customer requirements”. If quality of your product/service merely meets/conforms to customer requirements, it is not remarkable, but a basic expectation. That is because everyone else has mastered the art of ‘meeting’ customer’s requirements.

“Total Quality” is much more than just implementing processes or doing rigorous testing. It is also about building a quality oriented culture, focusing on your organization’s technical competence, differentiating yourself by design of your products/services, building trust and leading with values.

I read interesting and enlightening views about quality recently.

Seth Godin recently wrote a post that defines quality as:

It turns out that there are at least two useful ways to describe quality, and the conflict between them leads to the confusion…

Quality of design: Thoughtfulness and processes that lead to user delight, that make it likely that someone will seek out a product, pay extra for it or tell a friend.

Quality of manufacture: Removing any variation in tolerances that a user will notice or care about.

Apple rules through quality of design. They build products that people crave to buy. They create a buzz and excitement because they build quality into the product. When that is done, marketing becomes a bit more easier. Quality of design is rarely achieved by simply adhering to processes. As Steve Jobs said,

“The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.

“But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.

“And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

I then saw the video interview of Dr. J. J. Irani at ASQ website. Dr. Irani spearheaded quality initiative at Tata Group as a Director to transform Tata’s quality focus.

In his interview, Dr. Irani explained quality as “q” and “Q”. Small q is the quality of product (quality of manufacture in Godin’s terms) and big Q is quality of everything including trust, design, social responsibility and values.

Bottomline: To survive and thrive in a very competitive landscape, companies need to focus on the Big Q – or quality of design. Quality of manufacture is important to control defects, but remarkability can only be built into the design. These are emerging views on quality, and the ones we cannot afford to ignore.

Quality? Excellence? What?

I was casually discussing quality and excellence with one of my old friends. We were exchanging our ideas on these topics, when I realized that he used the words quality and excellence interchangeably. This led to some more thinking and here’s what I realized:

  • Quality is generally extrinsic. It is driven by external demands. We implement best practices in line with industry standards. We write our processes to get certified against a certain standard. We develop our products and services in line with the demands of our customers. When we continuously meet these demands, adhere to processes and improve upon them, we build repeatability in our success.
  • Excellence is always intrinsic. It is our innate desire to go out of our way to deliver a superior experience. Not because someone else demands it, but because ‘you’ want it that way. It is for your own satisfaction of having done a great job. Excellence is a ‘people’ game, and the one that pushes quality one step forward. In either cases, people are at the fulcrum.

So, how are they related?

In my view, quality is a route to excellence. People can do their best, walk that extra-mile and think of adding value once they are absolutely clear of how to do the basic things right. Processes given them a firm base on which they can build excellence. On the other hand, excellent people may fumble if they are not supported with right set of guidelines on delivering quality.

Secondly, excellence has a lot to do with people’s motivation to do a great job. It is their choice. Getting people to exercise their choice of delivering excellence is #1 leadership challenge. It starts with getting the right people and building the right culture.

Finally, just like quality, excellence is a moving target. Today’s excellent becomes tomorrow’s good enough and day-after-tomorrow’s mediocre.

Bottom line:

Pursuing excellence is a worthy goal. Knowing the close inter-relationship between quality and excellence is important. Defining them clearly is important. Getting people to excel, driving their motivation, creating a constantly improving culture and striking balance between adherence and motivation is a big challenge leaders face.

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Connected Thoughts at QAspire Blog:

Quality and Quantity – The Conversation Continues

On 8th Jan, 2010, I wrote a post on Quality and Quantity – Compliance and Excellence. The post resulted in some very interesting conversations in form of comments and in-person conversations. The gist of my post was:

Quality is to first ask “Why are we doing it?”, “Is it worth doing it at-all?”. Quality is to first seek the purpose. Once purpose is clear, numbers can help you measure progress.

It is almost easy to figure out “What” and “How” of processes once you have addressed “Why”.

On 11th Jan 2010, Harvard Business Review’s blog featured a post titled “Why Good Spreadsheets Make Bad Strategies” by Roger Martin. The ideas presented in the post complements my views. Here is an excerpt of some key ideas presented in the post at HBR.

We live in a world obsessed with science, preoccupied with predictability and control, and enraptured with quantitative analysis. We live by adages like: "Show me the numbers" and truisms such as "If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count."

The fundamental shortcoming is that all of these scientific methods depended entirely on quantities to produce the answers they were meant to generate. They were all blissfully ignorant of qualities.

Adding up the quantity of credit outstanding won’t tell us nearly enough about what role it will play in our economy. Adding up sales won’t tell us what kind of a company we really have. We need to have a much deeper understanding of their qualities — the ambiguous, hard-to-measure aspects of all of these features.

We must stop obsessing about measurement so much that we exclude essential but un-measurable qualities from our understanding of any given situation.

Spot on! 

To me, this is the power of social media. You take a subject to explore, think and write about it. On the other side of globe, someone else is thinking about the very same subject, but in a different context. Different views come out, complement each other and just take the subject forward. It is also a great validation of your thoughts.

Hat tip to my friend Tanveer Naseer for pointing me to the HBR post via Twitter.

Article Series on Quality – A Round-Up

As announced earlier, I am writing a very exciting series of articles on QUALITY over at – it is a 12-part series that touches upon some of the most critical aspects of building a quality-centric organization culture. Here is a list of articles already posted so far, in case you have not read them.

I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. The beauty of this series was that I came to realise the power of focused and theme-based writing. It can be a great tool to focus your thinking on a subject and collate that with your own experiences.