When quality breaks down…

When quality breaks down…

Sometimes, because we work in the field of quality, we tend to forget that there are times when quality fails. The reasons for quality failure can be enormously varied but it is rarely something simple and might need special management attention.

Within many businesses there can be a pattern of failure where honest attempts to implement new approaches repeatedly fail. But why is this? Studies of unsuccessful attempts to implement TQM, Reengineering and other similar initiatives regularly reveal that around 80% of all such efforts fail.

Some patterns of failure are so common that the following ‘steps towards failure’ can be clearly identified and labelled!

1. Enthusiasm for the quality objectives
2. Disillusionment when progress falters
3. Searching for the ‘guilty party’
4. Persecution of the ‘Innocent’
5. Praise for the non-participants / Sceptics

But why does this happen? The answer can best be explained by four pressures that typically affect managers who cannot always find a way to resolve them. The result of their inability to cope with these ‘pressures’ thus sets up a cycle that usually leads to failure.

These pressures are as follows:
– Pressure to ‘Improve’ leading to…
– Pressure to adopt ‘New Approaches’ leading to…
– Pressure to ‘Deliver Results’ leading to…
– Pressure to ‘Explain Failures’ leading to…
– Pressure to improve

Pressure to improve stems from an organisations need to decrease costs and increase sales in order to stay in business and to deliver value to demanding shareholders.  When a “new approach” is introduced it tends to promise improvements that relieve the pressure to improve. It can be perceived as the panacea for all ills. The cost and expectations of this new approach is thus added to the pressure to improve and usually the new approach has a limited time in which to succeed.

But, by definition, nobody is yet an expert on the new approach. Early successes may be found but this is often due more to the initial energy and the interest of early adopters than to a widespread and sustainable understanding of how the new approach should be used.

In the longer term, impatience and lack of expertise often leads to teething problems and the quality programme falls into disrepute. Blame and recrimination usually follow and the method is questioned. The pressure to improve does not go away though and the cycle therefore begins again.

Breaking out of this destructive cycle requires two things to happen. The first step is simply to recognise what is happening and the second step is to break the cycle.

To break the cycle an alternative methodology is called for which focuses on success through ‘understanding’ rather than success via ‘blind hope’. For this to work, the cycle must be changed from pressure for ‘quick results at any price’ to a focus on ‘sustainable value based on the long term benefits and real understanding’.

This means not taking a headlong dive into blind adoption but instead employing a more careful approach to check what really works, developing real expertise and identifying how new processes can be successfully integrated into the company. A critical aspect is to manage the commitment of the organisation and its senior officers through authentic engagement that acknowledges initial apathy, and perhaps ignorance, and promotes sustained improvement.

With a sustainable approach, failure is treated as an opportunity to learn and a chance to avoid repeating mistakes. The real key here is to multiply the learning by spreading it throughout the company, including what works and what does not work.

It’s not rocket science – it is simple common sense. Failure is usually down to misunderstanding and false hopes but it is not actually difficult to turn failure into success. It just means breaking the ‘pressure’ cycle and being realistic about what can be achieved within the prescribed time scale.


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