Quality Culture: Getting it right the first time

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by Dan Blacharski

A popular management theory, especially in the software world, is the culture of “minimum viable product (MVP),” which is often accompanied by a “fail fast” approach that encourages experimentation. In this environment, when things don’t go right, it’s not seen as a disaster, or even as a failure — but as an opportunity to learn and improve.

A second management theory, which would on the surface seem to conflict with MVP, is the encouragement of a quality culture combined with a goal of “getting it right the first time.”

Each approach has its relative merits, and the software industry does very well with MVP, and buyers tend to be more involved and appreciate the opportunity to provide early feedback and become part of the development process. Other industries, such as pharmaceuticals, must get it right the first time when it comes to releasing a product to the public — and releasing a product before it’s perfect could have disastrous or life-threatening consequences.

What is a quality culture?

It seems obvious. Who doesn’t want quality? Nearly every company, were they to be asked, would agree that quality is a goal — but without a strategy, defined metrics, and a quality culture, it’s nothing more than an empty slogan.

Before embarking on a quality initiative, a company must define what it is and how it’s measured, and defining “quality” is a little more difficult than it sounds. Tunnell Consulting works with global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and emerging life sciences firms, helping to build quality cultures and “right first time” initiatives.

According to Al Riles, Principal Consultant at Tunnell Consulting:

Quality culture is characterized by employees who are motivated to consistently strive for the highest level of quality, as well as an ongoing process of continuous improvement. It’s a mindset that’s shared by everyone in terms of understanding the organization’s objectives, policies, and procedures, and their roles in helping to achieve them. This is reinforced by leadership at all levels that is actively engaged in supporting the development of a quality culture.

A true quality culture goes beyond the simple goal of producing goods that meet a set of standards. It is the sum of all of its parts, and Riles goes on to say that it must be continuously monitored and fine-tuned as the organization grows, and that encouraging a sustainable quality culture requires strong communications at all levels, rewards and recognition, and engagement.

The actual benefits of quality culture also must be defined, and according to Tunnell’s Group Vice President Bob Johnson, “Quality culture generates improved operating performance. There’s greater productivity and less compliance risk. There’s less re-work and fewer interruptions of supply to the market, which often result in lost revenue. So if you have a culture in place that drives these types of outcomes, then that is the one you want to embrace to ensure the company is moving in the right direction.”

Quality culture, by the numbers

Despite the defined goals and outcome, what gets measured, gets done. Metrics have to be in place, and unless those quality initiatives are tied to metrics, the outcomes get lost amidst lofty proclamations and slogans. Every company says, in one way or another, “We’re great” or “We’re the best,” and they try to encourage a feel-good attitude amongst employees — and the marketing department takes it to the next level with more meaningless slogans.

Johnson notes that metrics are very important, and offers some very specific ways they put those in place. One way is to use visual boards as a way to remind people where they stand on those metrics. “It does fluctuate, and the narrative does happen,” said Johnson. “So the combination of having clear metrics, and making them measurable and visible is another way to encourage people to live the quality culture.”

Riles also notes that the goal is to build a culture where “the working fabric of the company gets well defined because everyone is functioning around the same key elements that constitute what’s considered to be a strong corporate culture.”

Quality Culture and MVP – Not Too Far Apart

Riles notes that a quality culture requires continuous improvement — a factor that plays a large role in the MVP camp as well. Quality culture may, as in the case of pharmaceutical companies, depend heavily on a “right first time” environment.

Tunnell takes a “top down, bottom up approach” to building a quality culture. “We’re working on the shop floor, side by side with the second-shift people to help make change happen. If you want to have a quality culture, change has to happen where the work actually takes place,” said Johnson.

Recognition may come in the simple fact that employees want to work for a company that is generating a quality product that meets the customers need. “They have pride in the fact that they are producing a high quality product, and that it’s quality over production,” said Riles.

Communicating the goals and benefits of the culture isn’t enough though, gaining the cooperation of those people on the front line requires reward and recognition

“Another part of our approach is coaching and mentoring,” added Riles. “We look for the bright young stars, and we coach and mentor them on how to implement these tools and maintain a quality culture.” As a result of this coaching, once the consultancy phase is finished, the company is left with people on staff who have gone through the system, and who are trained, confident, and know what success looks like. And they become the future leaders of the business.

Four components of a quality culture

Defining and creating a quality culture requires a defined strategy, and can be characterized by four main points:

  1. Employees who are motivated to strive for the highest levels of quality.
  2. A continuous improvement mindset where everyone understands the organization’s objectives, policies and procedures, and their individual roles in achieving them.
  3. Leading by example. Leadership is engaged in supporting the development of a quality culture.
  4. Quality culture is the sum of all parts of the organization, and requires continuous monitoring and fine-tuning as the organization grows.

Quality culture – whether it’s applied to getting a product out so that it’s right the first time, or an MVP process that involves consumer feedback – is much more than slogans, and requires constant attention, and the participation of everyone from the C-suite to the shop floor. With the right attention, buy-in, rewards and participation levels, any company can change their culture to embrace a new mentality of quality and pride.

image credit: pinterest.com


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Dan Blacharski is senior contributing analyst at Compass Intelligence, a market acceleration research and consulting firm; and the founder and senior PR counsel at Ugly Dog Media, a thought leadership, and public relations consultancy. Follow @Dan_Blacharski