Getting Quality in the Air

Tom Peters

A telecommunications engineering concept, the signal-to-noise ratio, provides a vital key to cranking up your organization’s emphasis on quality. During transmission over distances, or through certain media, the “noise” (random electromagnetic interference, for instance) may destroy the clarity of the “signal.” Clarity (a signal strong enough to override surrounding distractions), redundancy, and repetition (rebuilding the signal at intermittent points) are the principal tools used to ensure that words spoken into a phone in Beijing can be heard in Palo Alto.

Clarity, redundancy, and repetition are also the manager’s chief tools for overcoming an organization’s noise and for instilling a distinctive strategic thrust. Here, then, is a menu of ideas for turning up the heat on the quality issue in your firm.

1. Go to your local bookstore and buy every quality improvement book you can lay your hands on—there are a bunch these days. Then stack them on your desk. You don’t even need to read them. Soon enough the whispers will start: “What’s this?” “He’s really serious.” “There must be 20 books there.”

2. Ostentatiously take off five days to attend a full-blown quality course. You don’t have to go to class. Instead, the rumors about your absence will do your work for you: “Five days!” “I’ve never seen him do this sort of thing before.”

3. Begin clipping every newspaper and journal article that deals with quality. Circulate the clippings throughout your organization, writing dozens of “fyi’s” or some short message, such as “Can we do something with this? Please get back to me in 10 days.” Even if you haven’t a clue about what might be done, your subordinates will quickly present you with some solutions: “He must think we’re deficient here. We’d better turn to.”

4. Start every meeting—dealing with personnel, accounting, legal affairs, manufacturing, sales, or engineering concerns—with a five-minute “quality update.” Additionally, every agenda item, no matter how apparently unrelated to quality, should begin with a brief “quality implications” discussion. Top it off with a full-dress quality review each quarter. Again, you may have no idea what to expect from such routines—except that they will cause others to react.

5. Insist that quality improvement be counted in every performance appraisal. How? Don’t sweat it. People doing the appraisals will figure it out.

6. Start making regular calls or visiting work spaces to chat with people from all levels and all functions: “What’s our progress on the quality-improvement process here?” Silence will not await you for very long. Masses of folks soon will be pouncing on these opportunities to tout their accomplishments.

7. Schedule a three-day “Commit-to-Quality Summit” six to nine months from now to celebrate progress. Appoint an aggressive, fast-tracker to lead the meeting. You can bet that he’ll/she’ll fill the days with worthwhile sessions—even though you don’t have an inkling as to what the topics will be.

8. Schedule one-hour, bi-weekly meetings about quality with selected suppliers and customers. Half of the people in the organization will be petrified about these meetings, but they’ll figure out something substantial to do with the events.

Whether you are a supervisor or president, you easily can add another 25 items to my eight suggestions. The point of my list, or yours: Do a lot of different things and keep upping the ante. When long-time colleagues start muttering, “He’s darn near obsessed with this quality thing,” you’re starting to get through. That’s the sign that your “signal” has overwhelmed the bewildering “noise” that comes from the standard and confusing array of issues competing for busy people’s attention.

The best news is that you not only do not have to plan—and know—exactly what you’re doing, but it actually helps if you’re not certain. If you had a precise agenda, you most likely would narrowly channel the process, thereby stifling others’ energy and creativity. Your real challenge is to establish a quality-is-in-the-air feeling throughout the organization, to get people to wrestle with defining quality and to get them to launch numerous, creative quality-improvement initiatives. You need enough looseness of definition to up the odds of generating a few exciting initiatives.

Inducing an organization to vigorously pursue a new and essential strategic thrust means focusing the creative attention of a lot of talented and busy people. In fact, you are, at your best, a director of attention—or, the manager of the signal.

Systems are essential, but are the least weighted of the four attributes in successful programs—a 10 as I see it. Yet this is where the gurus and the average company lavish most of their attention—about 75 points each.

Not only, then, are we not obsessed with quality, but also most of our inadequate efforts are misguided. It is not overstatement to suggest that the importance of product and service quality deserves status on the national agenda equivalent to defense affairs. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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