Quality Culture in Small Biz
Hi. First time posting here in MyASQ. My name is Luis Iturriaga, I have been involved for the past 20 years in activities related to quality. With big, medium and small businesses. Currently I am a senior ASQ member and a Section Chair.

I have been eagerly reading all the posts in the Management Division and there is a lot of knowledge and valuable insights. But I cannot stop to wonder that topics like quality 4.0, corporate governance and similar topics are way off the needs of small businesses.

In my experience, small businesses are way back in the quality culture. Advanced statistical tools, strategic planning and other topics are, in many cases, non appealing since those companies are struggling with basic quality control and quality assurance issues. Most of this businesses are family owned and managed as well, which makes formal management a complete and absolute challenge (I once read in a book that "everything that you know about management does not work in family businesses", and I have verified this once and again many times).

I have this "personal itch" that all the BOK and ASQ certification schemes and books and articles in the QP Magazine are somehow biased towards Big companies and Big industries, which is not bad. But I believe a great number of companies are being left out from grasping Quality culture and Quality management.

I have witnessed small businesses with inventory problems traced to measuring equipment not calibrated and they not knowing it should be calibrated. I have witnessed problems regarding the lack of minimal competence in various positions but the company prefers loyalty and trust rather than technical and management skills. I have seen quality management implementations go south due to family feuds. And also production problems linked to an ignorance of something as basic as the concept of a process, process variability and things like 4M's (Material, Man, Machine, Method).

I believe small businesses and family business (about 90% of the companies in my country) cannot grasp Quality Management as it's been presented in the literature, training and certifications (not just from ASQ). And I cannot stop wondering how can this be addressed with a "specific BOK" or similar curricula which guides these companies from some very basic but necessary elements of Quality Management. Elements which will allow their companies to improve and grow and to overcome some basic issues that basic quality management can handle without overwhelming them with Quality 4.0 and else. Some thing that allows them to, first of all, get in track with the quality culture and from there to be able to grow in the quality management practice as it is needed in todays industry. I know the BOK of the CQPA and CQIA are the way to go, but I feel they are not presented with the Small business Manager or Owner in mind.

I just wanted to share this thought and to ask if you believe this to be so or am I being biased by my own experience or there actually is a division o section of ASQ that addresses Small Businesses Culture that I might not be aware of.

I would love to read your comments and insights. I also look forward to commenting and participating more in the Division's Discussions

42 Replies
Kudos Luis. A dose of reality, finally. I do enjoy reading all the concepts and ideas presented in this forum as well, but it is far too often geared to some academia, but not practical in the "real" world, and not speaking about just family owned businesses, but small to medium ones struggle with this as well.

Anyone who works in a manufacturing setting, especially with small companies where many individuals wear many hats can attest to this, yet, the companies cannot add additional resources, since they are struggling to stay afloat profitably as it is with their current economic situations to even think about implementing these high higher level strategies and ideas.

Luis, Brilliant! You are so right on about quality or lack of it in small businesses. I never realized that it is why when I get Quality Progress that I barely skim through it because it is so almost useless for my organization. I work for a small woman owned family business with 80 employees in the aerospace manufacturing business. It is so true everything you said about how difficult it is to apply any of the management principles used by large companies in this small company. All of your points were so well taken. I would collaborate with you at any time to write a new BOK for small businesses! It is sorely needed I am sure by so many.

Just had to tell you how enlightening it was to read your post ... a whole different management style is prevalent in a small company. It is very difficult to implement usual and expected quality management principles. And your statement about hiring and maintaining employees for loyalty vs fit and competence is again right on. Thank You very much for your insight. I look forward to hearing more from you.

Shelley Baldwin
Dear Dominic. Thanks for posting your thoughts. Wearing many hats is definitively one of the traits of small companies. It helps this persons to have a broad view of the company, but due too the workload and lack of time it limits their ability to go deep in some subjects necessary for a quality culture and quality systems implementation.

You make a point that bothers me, how to help these companies with the Quality Management Good Practices to achieve a reasonable profitability and improvement without drowning them in these higher level concepts.

Your point about some concepts being academic is a whole new topic which has its own implications both in big and small businesses.
Dear Shelley, I am glad to hear that these insights resonate within you too. It is, as you mention in your own experience, a completely different world.

I just recently consulted to a small owned company. It has 35 years as a business. The son is taking over the business and the first talk that we had was about his personal goals as an owner, the need of the company for a formal management and the basic concept of a process in order to achieve quality in the service. In all of these, talking about the family relationships and dynamics is a must in order to proceed into any further action.

It would be great to share ideas and to structure some basic guidelines or a concept map to introduce small companies to the quality world, taking into account all their specific differences and cultures vs the big industry. I will give a thought and probably make a new post on this matter. The real challenge is filtering all the quality management knowledge and to extract the minimum indispensable tools and concepts, readily applicable within a small biz culture and reality. Some more food for thought.

Hey Luis, you have touched a much needed topic for discussion. I also share your point of view regarding applicability of many of the current discussions on Quality Management for small businesses. I have done consulting and worked in a range of roles for 20+ companies in two different countries, some of these companies were world leaders, some were small Mom and Pop organizations, and many were in between. After implementing a QMS for several of these companies, my experience has been that the difficulty for the adoption of proven quality principles has been inversely proportional to the size of the organization. I learned this when naively volunteered to join a good friend’s small business (30 employees ~$10M annual revenue), thinking it would be a short, quick, and positive impact to elevate the operations to a decent level of quality performance. It turned out to be one of the most frustrating experiences, primarily for the reasons you state, my training and field knowledge was based on using the practices and theory that has been developed over the past 50 or more years, to which I keep going back regularly to reinforce my expertise and to enjoy the sense of community and connection with peers that ASQ provides. But after dedicating my career exclusively to Quality Management for the past 10 years, I agree that most of the QM-related publications I read these days remain at the level of the larger corporations.

I am of the opinion the reasons for this are tied to the consultants that work around the Quality Improvement mantra, and particularly to the large consulting firms, where core QM concepts that were proven as useful in the past and remain solid go-to practices today, gets covered every five to ten years with a layer of new language and marketing lingo that, very effectively, permeates the practice and is quickly adopted and replicated by many of us. The problem with this is that the new coat of paint make it seem like a freshly developed concept, and for new generations it looks like something that just came out, an ‘innovative’ approach that can be used, praised and practiced. There is my rant. I thank you for your thoughts.

That was an epic rant 😀
Dear Luis and colleagues,
From 2017 to to early 2020 I was working with the International Trade Center to develop a basic program in quality for micro-to-small-to medium sized industries. As part of that effort, I created a book which they published on the "Fundamentals of Quality." We were challenged in this program to deal with family firms where the only person with literacy was the owner and the opportunity we had was to create "quality improvement specialists" who would consult to these organizations. I was astounded when we began to find that these organizations believed that if you followed whatever checklist management gave you then you were doing quality work. They had no idea of continual improvement or how to think about doing work using any analytical methods. This book is just the start of the program. We created an eighteen-month program of development for these quality specialists which also included Green Belt training, project improvement work, and team facilitation.
I will attach the book here in PDF form.
ITC e-Book - Fundamentals of Quality - Watson - 2019 Final.pdf
I challenged the Quality Improvement Specialists to develop the basic training in their own languages and we extended their influence by having long-term coaching to support the local companies. I would like to reiterate that this was not the training for the small businesses, but the development of nationals to do the course creation and development based on simple training outlined based on the operator level training offered by JUSE in Japan.
Best regards,
I had quite the opposite experience with a small Biz company.
The president wanted to be ISO 9001 certified. He was constantly relying on partners to meet the contractual requirement of ISO 9001 for the Navy.
He asked me to come in as a consultant and get them certified.
He gave me one of their Program Managers to work with me on the project.
The president was completely behind the program and his son (the VP) helped to drive the process through the company of 50. (15M in annual revenue)
Complete success. They were certified in less than 6 months with a complete QMS including a strong NCR/CAPA program, a strong Audit Program, and a strong Risk Management program.
I attribute their success to top leadership wanting to drive this home along with a willingness of the employees to embrace a QMS with strong processes to manage their growth. Processes were scalable, and I only need to come in quarterly at their Quarterly management review to evaluate their continued progress.
Getting the top management to buy into the benefits of a strong QMS is the key in my opinion.
Dear Raul, thanks for your "rant". I agree, small size has its challenges and it can work against a successful implementation. People have many things in their hands and a quality system is not always a priority for them. Definitively, quality concepts have to be "adjusted" to the small business reality. They can certainly cannot be implemented with the strategy used for a big company and probably there lies the key, to develop a roadmap "based on the small business reality".

Regarding old concepts being resold as new gold I think you are absolutely right. And that is a whole new topic to be discuss. I think a read somewhere a quote saying something like this "everything that needs to be said has been said. But like nobody was listening it has to be said again". (I will look for the quotes author).

Thanks for your comment.
Dear Gregory,

Thank you very much for sharing this experience aimed at family firms. I will thoroughly review the material. An outline is a good way to go. I understand the approach of letting the nationals to develop the training materials. I believe that the instructional design is key to be useful for the Small Businesses.

I will let you know my thoughts when I finish. Thanks Again.
David, I totally agree with you. Actually over more than 20 years I have had similar experiences with Small Businesses. When there was top management support things went smoothly towards a quality system, but there was also only one leader, no family involved. On the other hand, I also had experiences completely different, affected by family dynamics and just a couple of people been literate in some business or quality issues, as Gregory stated. In those cases, things are complicated. Second generation owners (sons or grandsons) struggling with fathers and grandfathers to change culture, and that could benefit from some quality management good practices, even though a complete quality system is an utopia at a certain point.

I have this vision that something can be done to help more small business with a clear outline based in good practices and previous experiences as the one that Gregory kindly shares with us.

As I said "my own personal itch" and all your insights and comments are helping me to layout some new ideas. Thanks for your comments.
Dear All,
I would like to reinforce David's post - the leader of a small business establishes its culture based on what they believe to be most important - this is THE critical success factor - I have many examples of this in high-technology start-ups with less than 20 people working in the firm where they have grown to be highly successful companies.
Best regards,
Dear Gregory,

I totally agree with you and David in this one. Top management support and involvement is fundamental in any endeavor, regardless of the size of the organization in order to create meaningful change.

Probably I will have to rephrase my initial point. Small businesses "suffer" from some cultural issues that prevent them to adopt some quality management practices since their companies have a great gap in relation to basic quality management knowledge.

From all this conversation I recall that Top management is a must in this situation, and probably my new point is how to "help this top management" to see quality management and its basic principles to be a tool for improvement amidst family feuds, personnel selected by loyalty and trust rather competence, and other issues so specific to some small businesses. Small businesses founded from people having worked in Big Companies, and used to formal management practices, will certainly bring those concepts and benefiting from the "speed" of implementation in small companies (in relation to some big companies). Small businesses founded by your entrepreneurs knowledgeable in quality management will certainly get this practices to their small companies.

My "itch" is that many small companies, by whatever reasons, are not aware of the benefits of quality management and presenting them something like the QP magazine might not appeal to them into buying the required concepts and the setting the leadership required to make a meaningful change.

I do appreciate very much your comments. It helps me clarify my point and to set course for something useful.

"It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others" - Michel de Montaigne

Jon Lord
1 Posts
In my experience, most quality initiatives are great - if you are making large quantities of identical widgits. My business is a job shop: each job is big, expensive, and unique. Most of the errors we encounter are because someone overlooked one little detail. As we encounter them, we share the information, but that isn't enough. We are far too dependent on common sense, and, as you all know, common sense isn't very common. That's why I am always looking for quality initiatives that can be applied to a small, not-very-repetitive business.
We keep talking about Quality Initiatives and wondering why a Culture of Quality just doesn't catch on. The problem with getting Quality concepts across to executive management, in particular cultural benefits is that most initiatives don't address the fundamental core reason for the lack of awareness of executives or non Quality professionals. Looking for Quality in all the wrong places such as initiative flavor of the month or quarter with a promise to make things better won't get them there. When results are not what was expected, then on to the next trend in improvement. Most Quality professionals have come up through the ranks or stepped into the job by accident or when they realize there is a contribution to made that can bring improved results to a company though quality actions and behaviors. The root cause for this perpetual question of what to do next to make things better, in my humble opinion, is that the college level educational system does little to address the fundamentals of Quality let a lone the cultural imperative for business success. ASQ as a global Quality organization is in a good position to be lobbying colleges and universities to make Quality part of the curriculum as a requirement for most disciplines (or even a degree program). Executives with little to no awareness of Behavior Based Quality as a cultural imperative will continue to founder until they are properly educated as to the benefits to bottom line results of a culture of Quality. LSS tools alone with not achive sustainable results unless backed by education of Compliance, Prevention and Improvement, the core tenants of Behavior Based Quality.
Hello Luis,

You have touched on an interesting point, as evidenced by the lively response. I have worked with both a Fortune 500 company and several small businesses. Small businesses, even more so than large ones, have a hard time absorbing the abstract concepts of Quality Management Systems. However, owners are often very willing to identify their biggest risks and current problems. Once identified, Quality Tools can be applied to those issues.

In working with small businesses on identified issues, the application of quality tools is very similar to large companies. Differences are often in the area of data availability and manipulation capability. Problem-solving methodologies are essentially identical. Pen and paper often work as well as automated SQC system in tracking control and distributions.

I enjoyed skimming Dr. Watson's e-book "The Fundamentals of Quality, Route to Market Access and Commercial Success: A Course Book for Quality Champions" (see his entry in this discussion). It appears to be very accessible in the context of a small business environment.

I would enjoy continuing a discussion in which we sort out how to best map quality methods to the small business environment.

Hi: I am most interested in your perspective re the needs of small business. I am a Senior Member of ASQ with 50 years of quality experience coming from working for both large corporations and small business. What I have found out in consulting with businesses implementing a Lean Six Sigma culture is small businesses like the Lean approach as it offers them a quick return. Most of the small businesses do not have the level of education or enough qualified people to form the team required to do Six Sigma and are reluctant to adopt anything that has statistics as the main tool of problem solving. Larger corporations I found are easier to adopt Six Sigma as they want a team approach and a standardized process to rely on as a sure way to solve the problems hopefully permanently. As a consultant it important that the educational gap be filled by getting these business educated in the quality principles that will improve their quality and make them successful. As far as myself I am working on a Master Black Belt as I have functioned as one and should get certified.

Dwight E Carroll AScT (mech) CQT/SSGB
Jon Lord:
In my experience, most quality initiatives are great - if you are making large quantities of identical widgits. My business is a job shop: each job is big, expensive, and unique. Most of the errors we encounter are because someone overlooked one little detail. As we encounter them, we share the information, but that isn't enough. We are far too dependent on common sense, and, as you all know, common sense isn't very common. That's why I am always looking for quality initiatives that can be applied to a small, not-very-repetitive business.

Jon Lord, it's like your speaking to my soul, ha. We are a fabrication shop that corners a large share of our market due to our ability to customize anything and everything...on the fly. Most of our mistakes are simple things. We will build a 40' high by 190' long cage and build it to 1/16", but we will not notice that one panel made it on the drawing that did not make it to the parts list, or that we reversed the 5 and the 4 in a part number. Frusturating. However, due to the customization, it does get hard to dig down into "root cause" when each job is so different and knowledge and understanding are the key to getting these things right. It becomes hard to standardize to the level necessary when there is such a high level of customization.

Dear Jon, you do make and excellent point. Many small businesses are the job shop business. And that, as you say is in a different league to mass production. I have worked myself with several job shop small companies, and as you say "common sense", which in my opinion is the ability to make robust decisions.

This definitively is another item to add to the equation and I am taking note of it.

Thanks for your comment.
Arron, an interesting addition to the conversation that you propose here. I do have to agree that quality is not a "required topic" in our colleges and universities. And that quality culture is a must in many technical professions as well as university degrees.

As a Section Chair we have a priority in promoting Student Chapters along our assigned geographic space and we work hard to have good relations with the Student Chapters. The challenge is to bring the Quality Culture behind the technical and engineering areas. Many others would benefit form a basic quality culture. It would be hard to change universities curricula, but promoting student chapters has given good results, even though there is a great distance to go yet.

On the other hand, many small companies, in my experiences are composed of the founders, a couple of leaders and labor. Most labor may be high school or college dropouts and many leaders are promoted from those labor ranks. Lacking any cultural benefit from those finishing a college or university degree. All this folks need access, somehow, to the quality culture. But everything starts with the founders. Many of which do not posses, in some cases a college or university degree. Many second generation owners are university students. Some in technical degrees other in marketing and management, but without the required Quality management fundamentals.

This give me a lot to think of. Thanks for your comment.