4 Ways To Improve Quality

Quality Assurance Inspector , US Air Force (source: Flickr user e3acomponent)

Quality Assurance Inspector , US Air Force (source: Flickr user e3acomponent)

Quality separates the professional from the amateur. The commitment to produce on time is admirable and important. Yet, it is not enough. Whether you are managing a multi-million dollar IT project or managing your career, a commitment to quality makes a big difference.

When I think about quality practices, manufacturing and safety are the first concepts that come to mind. When manufacturing firms like Toyota embraced quality, lives AND money were saved (though Toyota’s recent experience shows that quality is a never ending activity). Delivering quality is one of those cases where we can see Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work.

Improving Profits Through Quality: AtlantiCare Case Study

Consider the following quality case study reported in European CEO in 2014:

  • New Jersey-based healthcare provider AtlantiCare has 5,000 employees
  • Pre-quality improvement profit: $280 million
  • Post-quality improvement program profit: $650 million
  • “AtlantiCare decided to ensure all new employees understood this quality culture from the onset. At orientation, staff now receive a crash course in the company’s performance excellence framework – a management system that organises the firm’s processes into five key areas: quality, customer service, people and workplace, growth and financial performance. As employees rise through the ranks, this emphasis on improvement follows, so managers can operate within the company’s tight-loose-tight process management style.”

The above example attracts my interest on several points. The company’s improvement shows that there is still significant room to improve quality in many sectors of the economy. As the services sector continues to grow (in the US, services are 79% of GDP; in Canada, services are 69% of GDP and, in the UK, services are 78% according to Wikipedia), it is vital to improve the productivity of the sector. In the public sector, quality improvements can translate to more services per tax dollar.

Whether you are managing a large project or your own work, we can benefit from improving our quality practices. The following four principles and techniques are tried and true ways to improve quality in a variety of environments. If you are looking for a way to improve your productivity, improving quality is an excellent strategy to pursue.

1. Define quality clearly

In the management literature, there are several definitions to quality. For example, the Six Sigma school of thought developed at Motorola and General Electric defines quality as minimizing the number of defects or errors. That’s a definition well suited to manufacturing and heavy industry. New approaches to quality emphasize customer satisfaction. In this view, quality is only achieved if the end customer or user can effectively use the product.

Action: take the time to define quality for your current work. If you select customer satisfaction as the definition, come up with an assessment tool (e.g. a survey).

2. Use the Pareto Rule to choose which quality problem to solve

Made famous by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek and several other recent books, the Pareto Rule is a valuable concept with many applications in the business world. The rule states that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts (e.g. 20% of the sales staff generate 80% of the revenues). In this context, the Pareto Rule is helpful in identifying causes of poor quality.

For example, let’s say that you manage an online banking application for a large bank. As millions of people use the application every day, you will likely receive a large quantity of comments and feedback regarding the application. Start by organizing the comments into a small number of categories (e.g. system stability, mobile app performance and security). Once you have those categories in place, you may notice that the majority of defects fall into the security category. The Pareto Rule suggests that addressing customer security concerns will improve quality as measured by customer satisfaction.

Action: Organize defect information into categories and identify the top cause of quality problems. Applying your resources to improve the most significant cause of problems is an excellent quality approach.

3.  Choose a quality tool

In project management (e.g. PMBOK Guide) and other management approaches, there are numerous quality tools and methods. These tools include check sheets, control charts, Cause-and-effect diagrams and the Pareto Rule referenced above. Depending on your circumstances,  some or all of these tools will be relevant. If you have never used any of the tools, I encourage readers to start with the check sheet.

Let’s say you are running a technology project to improve customer service at an eCommerce company like Amazon. As you build and test new capabilities, you may be asked (or simply wonder) how the project is improving customer service. One way to improve customer service is to improve the consistency of the customer experience. For example, you can build a check list that describes what happens when a customer places an order: they receive an order confirmation email within 30 minutes of ordering, a shipment status email within 48 hours and so forth. You can then choose random transactions from the project and run them through the checklist.

Action: Checklists improve the performance of aircraft pilots, surgeons, and other professionals. Choose a task that you perform each week (or monthly) and build a check list for it. The quality of your work will improve as you use the checklist.

Tip: For further reading and inspiration on how checklists save lives and improve results, I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande.

4. Make quality easy to improve

Complexity is often the enemy of improvement and effectiveness. The more variables and issues we face in our work, the more difficult it becomes to deliver work. As you build your quality improvement efforts, remember to keep it simple. This quality concept is especially important when you are building quality practices for others to use.

How can quality be made easy in the health care context? As Atul Gawande points out, using checklists is one approach. In a NPR article, Gawande suggests a checklist for surgeons include items such as “we just made sure that the checklist had some basic things: Make sure that blood is available, antibiotics are there.” These improvements do not require new technology or other costly changes and they may seem obvious to some readers. However, health professionals face a great deal of stress and long working hours – simply assuming they will remember everything is not realistic.

My favorite example of making quality easy to improve? Introduce yourself!

When introductions were made before a surgery, Gawande says, the average number of complications and deaths dipped by 35 percent. (NPR)

Action: as you learn about the power of quality improvements, it is easy to get carried away with the options. Start with a simple change first to show the benefits of quality. Once that change is implemented, you will have enhanced credibility to implement other quality improvements.

Tip: For personal improvement, I recommend the Tiny Habits program developed by Dr BJ Fogg (thanks to Ramit Sethi for introducing me to Fogg).

Question for the comments:

What is your favorite example of a quality improvement project (personal or professional)?

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5 thoughts on “4 Ways To Improve Quality

  1. Bruce,
    I want to point out some errors in your article. The seven tools of quality mentioned in PMBOK Guide include the “Check-Sheet” (see description in Wikipedia) which is not use for what you mention. “Checklist” are a tool used in Risk Management according PMBOK Guide. I think you are mentioned other tool for analysing process. Regarding this, I mention that using the “Value Steam Mapping” (a Lean tool) is the best way to improve and analyze a process.
    Best regards,

    • Norberto,
      Thank you for your comment and adding your perspective.

      I think the PMBOK is a valuable resource however I do not consider it the only perspective on how to apply tools. I revised point 3 in the article given your comment.


  2. I work for a metal finishing company located in Ontario, Canada called Plastico. We recently wrote an article on our website discussing the 6 must read articles on increasing quality control. One of the articles on your website made the cut and we thought we should let you know about it so that you could promote it. Here’s the article: http://plastico.ca/The-top-6-must-read-articles-on-increasing-quality-control.htm. Thank you for creating high quality content, keep up the good work!