Want better quality? Decentralize your Approach

Wallace Stump

Benefits of Promoting Local Responsibility for Quality in Your Organization

There is an old Chinese proverb that everyone knows: "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." I think this concept should be applied to the execution of our quality improvement efforts today. We often give our local teams the programs we think they need to pursue improvement, when we should be teaching them to develop those programs themselves.

Quality improvement efforts are usually designed to focus and align teams within an organization in order to address opportunities or threats which its leadership has identified as priority. This is inherently a top down approach. Such efforts, accompanied by KPI’s and incentives, create the framework in which the local teams will operate.

One of the key components of any implementation will involve gaining "buy in" from local teams by explaining the thinking behind the program and the benefits that will arise from its successful execution. But let’s face it - although a great deal of time, effort, and thought goes into the design and implementation of these efforts, they often fail to last. I would suggest that many of these efforts fail because:

  1. Local teams are not given real and meaningful input in the design of the effort
  2. The wrong problems or solutions are identified
  3. Incentives are misapplied and/or used ineffectively

Using a more decentralized approach to the design and implementation of quality improvement will help to make it longer lasting and more effective. By providing support and placing responsibility on your local teams to devise their own improvement strategies, organizations can make them more committed to the improvement effort while providing opportunities for the development of a learning culture in the organization.

Ceding Authority to Teams: Doing Quality the Hard Way

Admittedly, developing a system by which local teams play a meaningful role in the design of their own continuous improvement process is initially far more difficult to manage than the development of a strategy with the sole input of the quality leaders in the organization.

If you seek long term gains that can come with from establishing a sustainable, self perpetuating, learning environment you must equip local teams with the skills and knowledge to make their own decisions about how to pursue improvement. This is quite often very difficult to execute since most managers have difficulty giving control away to local teams. For a decentralized approach to work, leaders must see themselves more as educators charged with teaching their teams to better understand the business, rather than as the generals who issue orders to the troops.

The long term benefits that come with successfully involving local teams in continuous improvement efforts is that employees will be engaged, turnover will decrease, and you will begin making local leaders ready for increased responsibility.

Should the role of a process excellence leader be a coach?

Don’t underestimate the ability and willingness of the local teams to understand and learn. They are no less vested in the success of the organization than those at the executive level as their livelihood also depends on it.


Diagnosing Problems and Prescribing Solutions

Once established, a decentralized approach to continuous improvement will also result in the best and quickest diagnoses of the problems affecting product and service quality. It is unlikely that a single solution can apply with equal effectiveness to all corners of an organization so allowing local teams to develop strategies appropriate to their local market is more likely to create solutions that fit the unique situations they face. Not all customers and markets behave in the same way.

Most quality problems can best be evaluated by closely observing the effect that they have on the customer. Those in the organization who are in most frequent contact with the customer will identify the customer pain points more quickly. They are also not as encumbered by the functional priorities within the organization.

In industries where innovation and frequent change occur, giving the local teams a voice in identifying and solving the problems within their own area of responsibility will develop cross functional problem solving skills that will help the organization adapt more quickly to threats to the business. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes that "Localness is especially vital in times of rapid change. Local actors often have more current information on customer preferences, competitor actions, and market trends; they are in a better position to manage the continuous adaptation that change demands."

Rewards that Really Motivate

Financial incentives to encourage quality improvements can actually be counterproductive to establishing a continuous improvement culture. Financial rewards need only be sufficient to ensure that other organizations do not poach your most talented employees. As you educate your employees and as they become more valuable to your organization, you should increase their compensation in proportion to their added value.

Establishing financial incentives for achieving performance targets can actually have undesirable effects. Once targets are announced, they become the focus of all behavior. If the reward is significant, employees will often make decisions that help achieve the target but have negative effects to the business. For example, a call center representative incentivized on minutes per call may find ways to end calls quickly without fully resolving all of a customer’s issues. This results in a poor customer experience and a second call from the customer later, yet the measured objective for minutes/call is achieved.

And if the entire department is incented on such a measure, a culture is certain to develop that places a priority on making the calls brief rather than on satisfying the caller’s needs. Allowing an incentive system that creates opportunities for such contradictions does more harm than good.

KPI’s and other measures should certainly be used to understand the state of the business and as an input for decision-making, but they should not be used for providing incentives. What does provide incentive is to provide opportunities for the personal growth of your employees. People want to play a meaningful role in the organization. Allowing teams to meaningfully contribute to decisions that are made about how business is conducted around them is a far more effective reward than incentives based on targets.

According to Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist, human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. Maslow described self-actualized people as those who were fulfilled and doing all they were capable of. Isn’t that what we want from our teams?