Quality Conversations: When Quality Takes the Lead

What role should quality professionals play in driving organizational success? What built-in advantages do quality teams have when it comes to setting the strategic agenda for the business? Mike Turner, Managing Partner of Oakland Consulting, has been pondering these questions—and many others—for years. As an experienced business consultant who specializes in bridging the gap between CEOs and quality teams, Mike understands the role that quality professionals have traditionally played in organizations, and he sees an opportunity for them to take the lead in helping their organizations to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Read on to hear his quality insights.

First of all, thank you for taking the time for us. You’ll be giving a talk on “Effective 21st Century Leadership” at the ASQ World Conference later this month. Care to provide a sneak preview?

Sure. The subject that I’m going to be talking about comes from some work that I did in partnership with the Chartered Quality Institute in the UK. Back in May 2013, the CQI recognized that, despite the advances made in quality management over the last 50 years, the quality profession in the UK wasn’t quite hacking it. It wasn’t delivering what organizations required and quality professionals felt like they weren’t being valued and used properly. This led the CQI to create a Competency Framework, which they believed would develop, enhance, and prepare quality professionals to meet the challenges of quality in the 21st century. Right at the core of the Competency Framework is good effective quality leadership, and that’s where I come in. My organization was asked to support the rollout of this framework by undertaking some research. We talked to over 30 senior quality leaders and professionals to find out where they saw opportunities in their organizations related to this framework. The conversations were especially rich around effective leadership: I was able to identify some key learnings for the profession about how quality professionals can develop leadership in their people. At ASQ, I’ll be sharing some stories from the field, some areas of good and not-so-good practice, and will talk about how I’ve seen some large organizations develop leadership competency in their people.

Competency Framework
The CQI’s Competency Framework


We’ll be in the front row for that! Of the quality leaders you spoke with, did you get a sense for how many felt that quality was a strategic imperative versus a necessary evil?

Good question. I got the impression that about 25 percent of them were making good headway in putting quality onto the strategic agenda. But the majority said they were still struggling to address some of the misperceptions in management as to what quality is about, and having a hard time evidencing the value of quality and making what they do relevant to what is on the Board’s agenda. This is important feedback, because when people in quality are not able to address these issues, they slip away from the center of gravity of the organization, and in the worst cases, they are almost put into a “box” labeled “QMS” that sits on the side of the business.

A QMS box. I’m sure many of our readers can relate to that.

Yes, they tend to operate within the QMS as their main way of influence. They come out of the “box” to do audits and assessments, provide information to the business, and then go back into the “box.” That’s a bold statement, but it’s how some of the leaders I spoke to described what they saw.

That tracks with conversations we’ve had with quality leaders. They struggle to make the case for quality as an organization-wide responsibility and imperative, rather than just a departmental one.


Moving on, I loved what you had to say about quality as the “strategic conscience” of the business. Can you expand on that?

One way that quality can get into the boardroom is by actually helping to turn strategy into action. All too often, quality people get involved when the strategic plan has been implemented and risks have actually manifested as issues. Here’s one example: a large global organization that’s been around for over 100 years, and was the market leader based upon technology, discovered that far-Eastern competition was beginning to enter the market at significantly reduced pricing levels. They had to address this very quickly, and they did so by altering their manufacturing business model to manufacture their component parts in lower-cost countries. This was a big strategic change that happened quickly, and the quality function was not involved. When it actually got implemented, there were a number of issues, and then the quality people were left to mop up the mess. If they’d actually been involved up front, they could have helped the organization avoid those quality issues, so I think the idea of the “strategic conscience” is that the business looks to the quality profession to help protect it from that kind of scenario.

Right. They have a fuller understanding of the potential risks and issues.

One of the features of the quality function that is so often either missed or underplayed is that it’s one of the few parts of the business that has a complete end-to-end view of the value chain. That is a hugely valuable resource for the business. To illustrate this I have termed the phrase “quality across the value chain.” When I work with clients, I always ask them how they manage quality across the whole value chain, because once you see the whole value chain, then you can start taking a systems approach to identifying pockets of risk and opportunity.

When you get down to the level of day-to-day operations, and I find quite amazingly, it seems to be a step too far for many organizations to really get to the root cause of issues. Time and time again, I’ve been into companies to look at issues and found myself looking at incomplete root cause analyses.  I discover that they stop short of getting to the root cause because, when adopting the classic “5 whys” technique, they don’t get to the last “why.” And there’s so much potential that gets lost in failing to drive to the real source of improvement. The quality profession has a significant role to play in helping organizations get better and learn from their mistakes, as well as identifying pockets of potential failure and mitigating those risks before they occur.

Let’s talk about manufacturing. What are some of the biggest challenges that today’s companies face when it comes to upholding quality in an age of globalization?

I think there are a number of challenges that emerged from the research we did. One is a confidence challenge. Consumers and buyers are looking at some of the major failures reported in the media and asking, “How could that happen in the modern age?” Quality leaders are still concerned that there’s a challenge out there, and we need to rebuild some confidence in the minds of customers, consumers, and citizens. We need to broadcast some of our successes—we drive cars hundreds of thousands of miles with very few issues and experience very beneficial warranties as consumers, and that’s because the quality management profession in some areas has moved on. We must work to rebuild confidence. Another challenge facing manufacturing companies is one of protecting their reputations for product and service integrity: the failure of your product becomes very evident to large numbers of people in minutes. Because of that, it’s crucial that companies carefully manage their reputations. This is a huge challenge for organizations that make consumer products, particularly ones that service a broad geographic footprint that brings with it different tastes, expectations, and preferences. Products have to meet different standards and organizations need to be aware of that. Demands are changing significantly; there’s a necessity to provide variety and choice to consumers. There’s been a real competitive challenge, and speed-to-market is crucial.

We see that play out in the news sometimes. Uber recently made headlines because they were doing some tests on self-driving vehicles and there was a fatality. This just goes to show how quality-through-safety needs to be built in at the earliest stage of development.

That links to my next point very neatly. I’ve concluded that there’s a need for the quality profession to “shift left” in its influence. How could that risk have been identified and mitigated? Quality needs to be up front in the design process in order to have an influence. There needs to be less recovery work done in operations and more preventive work done in design, development, and implementation.

Yet another way for quality to add value to the business. What are some common supply chain issues that manufacturers face, and how are they solving them?

We’re actually doing some research into the supply chain right now. To state the obvious, it’s getting more complex and international. Quality is learning how to work across international boundaries. There are certain contextual and national cultural issues that differentiate people working, for example, in Chinese factories, Indian factories, American factories, and at your peril you sit there in headquarters in Europe or the US or wherever and think that everyone thinks the same way you do. They don’t. So we need a new way of managing change and communicating expectations across the whole supply chain. How do you build that collaborative environment in which you can get the best out of the expertise and perspective that’s offered from different parts of the supply chain? You have to work hard at building that up, because it’s not something that naturally occurs. More so now than ever before, we need greater visibility into the supply chain.

Can you provide an example of what that greater visibility might look like?

Absolutely. I was at an Industry 4.0 event a few weeks ago, and I was struck by a number of developments that will change how quality professionals operate. For example, I saw a piece of software that will allow a Tier 1 customer to look throughout the tiered supply chain online, and look right into the heart of the manufacturing operations in a Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier 4 supplier. They can look at the real-time performance of any machine on which the product or component is being made and see the current process control chart. That can be a chief executive having his cornflakes, viewing it through his iPad or smartphone!


Just stop and think of what that kind of visibility is going to do in terms of management of the supply chain. The interconnected world will bring some benefits along with challenges. For example, if you consider the potential for collection of bits of data and information throughout this tiered supply chain—who’s going to look at the whole picture and see how all that could possibly be combined into insights that benefit the whole supply chain? There’s a job to do there.

How has technology changed quality management in the past decade or two, and how will it change the profession moving forward?

Technology has raised the expectations of stakeholders and customers. Very quickly we can compare what happens in different parts of our worlds, and we carry those expectations across different markets. As we have discussed already, technology highlights reputation, making what we do more visible, and it shortens product lifecycles. Therefore it puts a lot of stress on organizations’ reliability management approaches: How can organizations use modern methods, data, and good quality data analytics to mine that information and understand the reliability of their products? How can they forecast the reliability of the products that they’re putting out into the market, and how can they de-risk that? Technology supports quality across the value chain, linking together all parts of the organization. Because of technology, we can now gather data much faster and more extensively, and start to use machine learning and analytics programs to mine the data and forge connections. You might have a very complex process, and in the past you’ve used spreadsheets, and now you’ve got powerful programs that allow you to do multi-functional analysis and identify causal or correlated relationships between variables to help you better understand your processes. So I think technology has already made some changes to the way we do things—quality management software is so much more sophisticated now, and you can engage a broader community in your quality initiatives, which is exactly what the profession needs.

And you have these massive leaps forward, like in the case of the tiered supply chain software you mentioned earlier.

Yes. I’ve also heard of airframe manufacturers who used to employ a number of inspectors who would walk through the airframe checking the systems for certain fixings, the quality of welding, etc. and now they’re starting to deploy drones that will fly through the airframe using cameras to take photographs and compare those to standards. So suddenly we have the opportunity to do some semi-automatic inspection. Those are the kinds of opportunities that exist.

Indeed. Any final thoughts?

One big message I would give is that traditionally, we in the quality profession have focused on the quality of products and the quality of services. Now we’ve got to help organizations focus on the quality of data. Consistency, currency, and completeness: those are the three big areas to control. Can we use our understanding of quality management and apply it to data and quality? You can have the best technology, and you can have digital strategies coming out of your ears, but if the raw data is not accurate, not consistent and complete, then at best you have something that is not on time and not competitive and at worst you have something that is highly misleading and actually damaging.

Exactly. It all comes back to the data: are you collecting the right data, is it accurate, and are you able to focus on the metrics that matter in order to drive quality.

Data is important, but so is a bottom-up approach to Quality 4.0. When I listen to people, they’re so often coming at this top-down and saying, “Let’s put a big Quality 4.0 strategy in place and let’s build it from the top down,” and I think that is fraught with risk and danger. You could spend an awful lot of money adopting something that very quickly becomes obsolete. Technology moves at such a pace, and you could invest a whole amount of money in an area that doesn’t necessarily deliver value. Quality people can help organizations take the bottom-up approach, which I think is the way it seems be developing. Organizations do little projects, little improvements, using some of these technologies and approaches and bit-by-bit, they build towards their strategic intent of a more digitalized operation.

That makes a lot of sense. Prove it out, one project at a time.

The question is where do you start? And again, what the quality profession can do there is to help organizations identify where the critical quality areas of risk and opportunity are. Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck from adopting a pilot step-by-step approach? We can have a real effect on this and deliver some quite significant value, but we need to be describing to the world our understanding of Industry 4.0, and we need to develop the brand of Quality 4.0, and we need to be advocating it so that we start to get businesses engaged in wanting our help.

Hopefully this interview will do its small part to advocate and promote the next phase of quality. Thanks so much for your time, Mike.

You’re welcome.

To learn more about Mike Turner and his extensive expertise in quality, visit Oakland Consulting, connect with him on LinkedIn, and make sure you catch his talk at the ASQ World Conference on Quality & Improvement if you’ll be in attendance. To learn more about ARMATURE and our next-generation quality management software, visit our website or contact us to start a quality conversation of your own.