Building a Strong Quality Culture

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We at ASQ tend to be scientists and engineers.  Words like culture leave us confused, because we can’t measure it.  And we know that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.  I’d like to show you how we found a way to dramatically strengthen the quality culture in our organization, despite the fact that it was led by a scientist (me) with a marginal, at best, understanding of human motivations and behavior.
I wish that I could tell you that our discovery process itself was rational.  Alas, no.  It was chaotic; slinging ideas at the wall and keeping the ones that stuck. 
Change is Hard
When I first came out of R&D and started managing people in manufacturing, I knew that we had to change.  Too many employees were making too many errors.  Not big errors; rather thousands of little ones.  It was the death of a thousand cuts. 
Let me be clear:
  • We had a good set of quality procedures in place. 
  • Everyone had been trained on the procedures. 
  • We were using Statistical Process Control and Lean techniques.
But we were swimming in small deviations and nonconformances.  Our problem was in connecting our training to daily worker actions at a level of reliability that made the workers successful.  That’s not so easy when even one error in a million actions can ruin a batch of drugs. We had to bridge that gap between what management thinks is happening and the reality on the ground (Hacker, 2014).
We were trying to automate those errors away.  We dug into root causes and rewrote SOPs.
But you can’t automate everything.  You can’t write an SOP for everything.
The Decision to Act
I gathered the staff and asked them, “How much are all these errors costing us?”  Nobody knew.  I said that we were going to find out “Now”.
Our “cost analysis” was quick and dirty.  It told a gruesome story.  The visible costs were just the tip of the iceberg.  The real costs don’t show up as identifiable lines on a cost report. 
Cranking the numbers had convinced the management staff that our problem was our culture.  The enemy was us.  Furthermore, if we did nothing, nothing would change.
Finding a Solution
How to fix it?  It was clear that for me to harp on the supervisors to supervise more closely would never work.  They were already up to their necks in investigations and corrective actions. 
I tried giving pep talks to the troops.  Guess what.  I’m no Winston Churchill.  The operators and maintenance techs were all mystified why the plant manager would stand in front of everyone and make such a fool out of himself. 
I realized that we needed to find a solution to our culture problem that makes use of my skill set, which lies more in the realm of analytical administration than being a charismatic leader.  The first task we set was to figure out what culture is, and define it in a useful way.
In Juran’s Quality Handbook, Frank Gryna defined Quality Culture as “A culture throughout the organization that continually views quality as a primary goal.  It is the pattern—the emotional scenery—of human habits, beliefs, commitments, awareness, and behavior concerning quality.” (Juran, 1999, p. 22.65)
The problem with this definition is that “beliefs”, “commitments”, and “awareness” are all blurry concepts.  We needed to find a definition of Quality Culture that could be connected with actions that could be taken by workers.  We concluded that “habits” and “behaviors” would have to do.  At least they were measurable.
The types of behaviors that we were focusing on here were not complex activities.  Rather, they were the millions of tasks that happen every day, like Good Documentation Practices, correct protective garb, or proper cleaning of floors; simple tasks that, if not done correctly 100% of the time, can kill quality and costs.

Norm Howe
Chair-elect
Follow this link to the full article in the Quality Management Forum to find out how we built a strong quality culture.

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Norm Howe
Norm Howe
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Date Added: Sep 2, 2022
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