Evolving Process Excellence (Part 2): Booooring! Why isn't process "sexy"?

Do people in your organization run the other way when they hear that you’re from the "quality" or "continuous improvement" department?

In too many organizations, process excellence (whether defined as quality, continuous improvement or known by another name) is seen as a boring but essential function. In the worst cases, it may have even become synonymous with the job-cutting axe.

But, process excellence is about improving how we do things in fundamental and exciting ways. It’s about continually get better, solving problems, and finding new approaches to how we work. So why isn’t it considered sexier?

In the second of a 7 part series on PEXNetwork.com on next generation process excellence, senior process professionals debate whether quality and continuous improvement have an image problem and speculate on what it will take to get the X-factor back in process excellence.

Is process just too boring?

The following discussion has been excerpted from the transcript of a roundtable discussion recorded last year. For the full discussion, download this whitepaper: Quality and Continuous Improvement in an Age of Transformation.

The following transcript has been edited for readability.

Question: Do you think that quality and continuous improvement have an image problem? Why or why not?

Estelle Clark, Business Assurance Director at Lloyd’s Register:

"I think there is an image problem, particularly for quality professionals. I’ve been in this field for quite some time and I think that one of the problems is that quality can sometimes be thought of as being something that prevents change from happening, rather than something that supports it.

If you think about quality purely in a compliance sense meaning that anything that deviates from the documented system is, by definition, a non-compliance (and therefore needs to be stamped out) then you get yourself into this way of thinking, that if you want change, you want continuous improvement and if you want transformation, you need to go somewhere else to find it.

I think it’s getting worse, to a degree, because all of the brand new roles that have come in relation to IT. I’m sure we’ll touch on it later, but things like a Chief Process Officer and some other terms, are being sponsored, largely, by IS organizations. The idea is that IS is sexy whereas quality is just about business as usual and not change. I fundamentally disagree, but I do believe that there’s an issue."

Gregory North, Vice President Lean Six Sigma, Xerox:

"I completely agree with Estelle’s point, that we do have an image problem in, what I would call, generally, the quality industry. Let’s stick with that idea of what’s sexy and what’s not.

Let’s think of it in terms of product, life-cycle and brand. Bringing it home to Xerox, we’ve had a history of quality over the years. Quality leadership was a program that was in place in the 80s. There was a Xerox-wide quality problem solving process in the 80s and 90s, a leadership management model that was used in the 90s. Later on, Lean Six Sigma was introduced in 2003, and so the arc of that shows a quality journey, if you will, from the vantage point of the Xerox employee and our customers. But like any other product and brand, we have to continuously refresh it.

This gets back to this question: is it cogent for the times? Do you bring forward, out of the past, what is most important or successful? For instance, do we need the things like the quality basics Estelle was just mentioning - the rigor of quality management systems and controls?

Those were needed and important 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and they’re needed today. But in addition to that, what do we do to meet the challenge of net speed? Moving as fast as the market is moving? Moving as innovatively as our customers require us to move? And that’s where the constant transformation really comes in and I think it’s up to the quality industry and the continuous improvement industry to be able to change and, ultimately, take advantage of, and drive those waves going forward.

For example, we’ve introduced Lean Six Sigma 2.0 over the last 18 months at Xerox and that is a reboot, from our standpoint. It’s a way of looking at the fundamental truths in Lean and Six Sigma, but approaching them through a much more pragmatic, much more business focused, well-aligned to the top and rapid rate of improvement manifestation and that requires all of our quality professionals world-wide to, first, up the bar in themselves and perform at a better, faster level. It also ups the bar in the business, in terms of the expectations for what this can deliver. We see this as a journey, we also see it as a continuous need to press on ourselves, to transform and change, so we can help change the business."

Vince Pierce, Senior Vice President Global Business Transformation, Office Depot:

I agree with both Estelle and Greg, so I’ll try to come at this from a little bit of a different angle. I would say we’ve got two challenges in this space: first, there seems to be an evolution of terminology with very similar operating definitions.

So, back in the early 90s, I was part of a quality group. But I don’t use that terminology much these days. Quality management or quality assurance - quality looked at the world from a management system. Fast forward to today and people that focus primarily on Lean also see Lean as a management system.

Sometimes we use the term, continuous improvement to mean much more than incremental, so I think one challenge with our industry is do we call it process excellence? Do we call it continuous improvement? Quality? Lean Six Sigma? Do we mean the same things? Are they all different? Part of a larger construct? So, I think we do ourselves a disservice in not having clear, standardized definitions for what we mean when we say these things.

It was a little bit difficult for me to answer, for instance, how I define quality. That’s because I can define it a number of ways. It depends on whether I think of it as a system such as in those earlier days or if I think of it tactically around a product or a service.

The second challenge we have is around our professionals in the space. I’ll call it process excellence, which is a term I use for the broader portfolio of things. I think there is a prevalent risk or issue that some of our professionals - particularly those in the younger generation that are learning the ins and outs of these principles and concepts - sometimes aren’t very relevant to the business leaders they’re working with. We try to focus on the tools and the concepts of quality, continuous process excellence and sometimes have a hard time connecting that to, ‘so how do we drive the business? How do we use those concepts and that thinking to reshape the business model or the operating model in the company?’

I think when we talk about transformation, it’s important for us to acknowledge that it goes well beyond just process excellence. That’s why a lot of folks that have spent ten, 15, 20 years doing continuous improvement, quality and process excellence, sometimes struggle in the transformational space - there’s so many other things that have to be contemplated and addressed in a transformational piece of work.

I think as we struggle it can create an image in the mind of the executive, in my opinion, that we will look towards continuous improvement when all is well and we move things forward on a more incremental, slow pace. But when it’s time to transform the business or achieve a major objective that’s a radical departure from today, they turn towards consultants and other methodologies."

For a full transcript of this discussion, you can download the free whitepaper: Quality and Continuous Improvement in an Age of Transformation

But what do you think? Do quality and continuous improvement have an "image problem"?