Q. My small company has been having quality problems. We've looked at some programs like Six Sigma, but they seem very complex. Is there a simple, straightforward way that we can systematically improve our quality?
A. The business world is full of quality experts and quality programs, but for most small to midsize businesses, an extensive quality program utilizing higher-level mathematics is not going to be the best solution. Rather, what’s needed is a down to earth, common-sense approach to quality as outlined in the following four steps:
Document your processes – For small and mid-sized businesses hoping to improve quality, processes must be consistent across the organization and over time. This can be best accomplished documenting your processes and ensuring that the way the work is actually done matches the documentation. Documenting your processes is not glamorous work, but quality improvement requires that things be done consistently.
Identify quality issues – Employees and management must embrace quality issues as opportunities to improve. Management must take extra care not to “shoot the messenger.” No company wants to discover that quality issues exist in its processes. However, companies must view raising the issues that do exist as a positive thing. They should not sweep them under the carpet. Companies that routinely chastise people who raise quality concerns will find that people hide these issues. Reward employees who identify quality issues; don’t punish them.
Fix the problem for the customer – The owners of two very successful businesses, an auto repair shop, and a frame and body shop, both observed essentially the same thing. Mistakes happen. Most people understand that. The issue is how you deal with the problem when one occurs. Handled poorly, the mistake can result in the loss of a customer. Handled well, the result can be a loyal customer who feels well cared for. The key is to accept full responsibility and ensure that you treat the customer more than fairly. When a problem occurs, resolving the issue for the customer must always be the top priority.
Ensure that the problem doesn’t reoccur – Having executed the three prior steps, too many companies call the issue closed. After all, the customer has been satisfied. The urgent issue is resolved, but this approach misses the opportunity to prevent future quality problems. It is imperative to ask, “What caused this problem, and what do we need to do to ensure that it never happens again?” Once you have answered these questions, you can correct the process. This is why having well documented processes is the first step to quality improvement. When a flaw in the process is identified, the fix can quickly be rolled out across the entire organization only if everyone is doing things in the same way.
While following this course of action sounds simple, it requires a disciplined approach and getting the nuances right can be critical. But, properly executed, it will put your enterprise on the path to continuous improvement. In the long run, the rewards will be well worth the effort.