Are you bluffing quality?

Beth SavageBluffing in poker, if used wisely, can increase your chances of winning. Bluff too much though, and your opponents are on to you. Bluffing quality isn’t so different. Whimsical changes decreed from the top in the form of new quality teams, control charts displayed on large screens, and new buzzwords for everyone to learn might present a confident quality front to customers, employees, and auditors at first. These tactics might even, in some cases, result in improvements and cost savings.

At some point, though, your customers, employees, and other stakeholders will catch on. Unless significant changes in the way the organization operates are made, the gains will eventually slow to a crawl or stall completely. Why? Because the decrees at best temporarily change behavior, but the organization that created the quality issues remains fundamentally the same. When the “heat and light” that was used to alter the behavior is removed, the organization reverts to its former behaviors.

Start with the purpose that may be driving quality improvement. This reason for the initiative will affect not only perception of problems but also approaches to their resolution. Organizations frequently cite the following reasons:


A customer of one automotive supplier demanded a “guarantee” of zero defects, for example, and the supplier considered increasing the amount of inspection to insure that only “good” units were shipped. The increased inspection would result in increasing costs, but the customer demanding the increase would not accept an increase in price, and insisted on receiving no defects. To react to these results, the supplier began a round of cost cutting activities and finger pointing, adversely affecting quality even more.

Organizations that implement quality programs because they have been told to or because competitors are doing it frequently start with the visible activities: forming improvement teams, selecting projects, collecting quality data, producing control charts, and promoting the project results—all outward signs of a quality improvement effort. These steps, however, have little positive long-term impact on the quality of the product or service.

A company culture must support a continually improving mode of operation; without this culture, no visible trappings of quality will bring about change.

True sustainability demands a continuous improvement culture. The systems that are in place cause employees to perform at their current level. How can employees change the way they perform unless the systems in which they perform are changed? The quality improvement process must be embedded into the organization as a natural outcome of the systems that are in place.

To bring this about, leaders must adopt continuous improvement of processes and products as a core value of the organization. Then that value needs to be translated into authentic norms of behavior. Top management must create a climate that stimulates the desired behaviors. Only then can quality become part of the culture of the organization.

In attempting to build a culture of quality, it is important to recognize that the change in an organization is a journey, not an event. The journey will never end.  Organizations must continue to reinvent themselves if they are to be successful. W. Edwards Deming addressed this:

‘We installed quality control.’ No. You can install a new desk, or a new carpet, or a new dean, but not quality control. Anyone that proposes to ‘install quality control’ unfortunately has little knowledge about quality control. (Out of the Crisis, p. 134)

Building a quality culture takes time and effort, but the results are worth it. Employees, customers, and other stakeholders will embrace the effort. The return will be a reduction in variation, improved customer satisfaction, lower employee turnover, and ultimately, organization sustainability.

2 thoughts on “Are you bluffing quality?

  1. Dear Beth,

    Thanks for sharing your insights about quality. I cannot agree with you more that organizations need to focus on building long lasting quality cultures instead of the never ending whimsical changes. Best wishes!

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