How to Embed Quality Into Your Agency’s Culture

Quality was all the rage in the federal government’s ranks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The emphasis on quality, however, never really died out in private industry, largely because they quantified its benefits for business.

A recent study concludes: “A company with a highly developed culture of quality spends, on average, $350 million less annually fixing mistakes than a company with a poorly developed one.” The study, by the CEB (formerly the Corporate Executive Board), of more than 60 multinational companies, examined the benefits of embedding quality into a company’s culture and identified the key attributes of an effective “culture of quality.”

Two directors of CEB, Ashwin Srinivasan and Bryan Kurey, summarized their study in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

Benefits of Embedding Quality into an Organization’s Culture. According to Srinivasan and Kurey: “Employees who ranked their company in the top quintile in terms of quality reported addressing 46% fewer mistakes in their daily work than employees in bottom-quintile companies.” Based on the median headcount of the companies surveyed – 26,300 employees – they calculate that a bottom-quintile company spends nearly $774 million a year to resolve errors, which is about $350 million more than a company in the top quintile.

Four Attributes of a Quality Culture. So what drives quality in a corporate culture? Srinivasan and Kurey found that the traditional strategies to increase quality seemed to have little effect. These traditional strategies include: monetary incentives, training, and the sharing of best practices. Instead, they found that companies ranking in the top quintile of companies with a culture of quality instead focused on the following four factors:

· Do leaders walk the talk? The biggest challenge for companies that aspire to embed quality into their culture is ensuring their leaders actually do what they say is important. One company in their survey had leaders define what they believed would be an ideal culture and then led them through workshops to help them identify inconsistencies between their actions and decisions, and the company’s ideal culture that they helped define.

· Is the “quality” message delivered by someone seen as credible? Different groups of employees are inspired to act through different messages. For example, the authors learned that one company had four distinct groups of employees and some groups responded better to messages emphasizing cost savings while others were more motivated by an emphasis on customer satisfaction. Allowing frontline managers to choose the campaign that works best for their site was important.

· Do you encourage peer involvement? The authors say “Fostering peer engagement is a delicate balance” because too much top-down involvement destroys authenticity, but not enough results in employees feeling the initiative is lip service. One company in their survey fostered peer engagement by encouraging employees to generate quality initiatives and then display them on posters lining a busy hallway to encourage collective pride.

· Do you empower employees to act? “One of the defining traits of an organization with a true culture of quality is that employees are free to apply judgment to situations that fall outside the rules,” observe Srinivasan and Kurey. But before empowering workers, they need to clearly understand how quality fits with their jobs and they have to be willing to raise their concerns if they see rules being created that detract from being able to pursue quality.

So how does this apply to government? Leaders interested in embedding quality into their organization’s culture need to look beyond the use of structures, systems, and processes and pay attention to incentives such as providing employees inspiration (by how the leaders act) and empowerment (so employees feel they have both input and control of their work environments). While employees may not tell you how they are feeling, the feedback provided by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey can be one way of gauging their sense of involvement in their workplace.

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos

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