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October is “Quality” month and industry seems frantic to climb upon a bandwagon called Total Quality Management. It’s an old idea dressed up as the new cure-all for the economic woes of small business. I’m not against it — it makes good sense — concepts like: do it right the first time; make sure that everything your employees do is the best that can be done; get everyone in your organization providing top quality service; negotiate with your suppliers and talk with your customers to help you do this! But what owner or manager would have ever planned or hoped for anything different? Have business gurus now realized that doing the job right is the secret of success? Get serious. The drive for quality is not new.

What’s new is that the Japanese, once known for poor quality (at least in the 1950’s and 60’s) are now consistently producing top quality, while some leading North American organizations, once proud of their high quality work, can’t seem to hit the mark. This affront to their egos leaves these organizations searching for the Japanese “secrets”, forgetting that scores of North American and European companies have always provided top quality product and service and still do.

But if you operate a small- to medium-sized business, the issue isn’t that you need to appreciate the importance of top quality from all your employees. To me that’s a given. Of course you value quality and for most operators you know what that quality must be or you wouldn’t be in the business.

Manufacturers know what top quality is for their products. Merchants know what top sales service should be. Restauranteurs fully understand quality in food preparation, presentation and service.

The real issue is, how do you get control over your organization so that you can ensure top quality happens all the time? And for many, this issue is a Catch 22, because if you haven’t been able to control the quality of work in your business up to now, you can’t expect things to suddenly be any different just because you launch a Total Quality Management campaign. Why should you suddenly be able to get everyone to do their jobs as you would like, if you weren’t able to do that in the past?!!

The “secret” to getting quality is this: companies who have their acts together constantly produce the quality they want. Companies who don’t have their acts together, can’t. The difference between the two is a lot of hard work.

So, to control quality in your company start doing the following:

  • Analyse why you weren’t achieving consistent quality in the past and plug the holes. Could it have been, for example, that your standards and procedures for quality weren’t clear, documented, communicated or enforced?
  • Set quality standards at the level you really want for all jobs in the organization. Don’t settle for second best quality anywhere, just because a few people object to doing their jobs the correct way or to being held accountable for their performance. Everyone can do his or her job the right way if you make it clear that’s how the job has to be done! Extensive research has shown that employees in all industries perform much better when they know what’s really expected of them. So don’t be afraid of being precise and demanding.
  • Systematize as much as possible. Make the capacity to achieve consistent high quality as system-dependent as possible — rather than being dependent upon individual employees. Top quality has to become “the way things are done” and built into your organization.
  • Enforce “quality” through a general management system which makes “quality” a condition of work and an integral part of all jobs. Your profits will improve dramatically if you prevent quality problems from happening through consistent adherence to quality standards, rather than trying to fix up quality mistakes after they’ve happened. Ensuring quality does not mean adding a few more quality inspectors!
  • See that all your managers are themselves managed, from the top executives to the shop floor supervisors. If you don’t, your attempt to implement a total quality focus will fail. In particular, make sure that all your managers are, in fact, coaching or giving direction to their employees the way you want it done.
  • Set measurable performance standards for the way people are managed and then ensure it happens. Don’t just presume it will. You’ve got to control your management before you’ll ever control quality.

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