Why do we have to ‘sell’ quality improvement initiatives?

I am amazed how difficult it is to convince organizations to adopt quality improvement practices. I look at organizations that I interact with and easily see systemic failures due to faults that can be corrected by adopting management improvement strategies that are decades old. Yet executives resist improving. The desire to retain the comforting embrace of existing practices is amazingly strong.

What usually sells to executives are ideas that require little change in thinking or practice but promise to eliminate current problems. What W. Edwards Deming called “instant pudding” solutions sell well. They are what executives have historically “bought,” and they don’t work. I can’t actually understand how people continue to be sold such magic solutions, but they do.

If you want to enable effective management improvement, as I do, you need to have both buyers for what you offer, and offer something that works. Honestly, I am not much of a salesperson. Based on what I see executives buy, the sale should be packaged in a way that minimizes any effort on the executive’s part. However, that doesn’t interest me because it nearly always leads to failed improvement efforts. For years (decades?) the cartoon character Dilbert has provided a humorous view on the continuing tragedy of these efforts.

Another sales option is to look for desperate executives who have already tried taking the easy way out five or six or seven times and are still desperate for improvement. Once they can’t see any options offering simple solutions, they may be willing to work at an effective solution.

An even rarer opportunity is to find executives who share a belief that significant improvement will actually require changing how executives work. This can be done. Small organizations are often more responsive to this way of thinking (they often have little time, so often struggle with how to move forward, but there are plenty of strategies to do that when executives are committed). Another good option is organizations that work closely with very well-run organizations (Toyota suppliers, for example).

Or look for organizations that are not afraid to challenge accepted management practices. When these organizations hit an inevitable downturn, executives—often brought in after working for decades at old-school management system organizations—say things like, “It is time for us to grow up,” and adopt traditional management practices (e.g., the “let’s buy from IBM, and we won’t be fired” attitude). If you are lucky you can sell the organization on the benefits of better ideas before they revert to the traditional ideas. If you fail, you can wait a year or two, and often people get very frustrated. This may result in a critical mass that wants something better. They may still remember how they succeeded before and will be willing to fight the slide into old-school management.

Another common occurrence, however, is a flight of leaders away from the organization. That is a less ideal situation in which to sell and is often a sign the old-school thinking is winning out.

Another successful strategy is to play into the desire to follow the latest management fads. For several decades (since at least the 1980s TQM fad), quality experts have been in the habit of discussing why various quality strategies are different from other business fads. It is important to consider why business fads are so unsuccessful at delivering results, but it is also true that organizations adopt these fads (they wouldn’t be fads otherwise) before they fail, then move on to the next fad. Although this illustrates the failure of fads to achieve long term success, it also shows that businesses are willing to “buy” these fads consistently. Use this tendency to “buy” fads to sell quality improvement. Keep in mind that it will be trickier to make the improvement work because these are usually sold as “instant pudding” fixes.

Turning the initial decision to attempt significant management improvement into success is something I am much more comfortable with than selling those who are reluctant to try for serious management improvement. Getting an initial “sale” to purchase instant-pudding quality isn’t worth much, in my opinion. The best you get is an adoption of a few useful quality tools. That can result in significant improvement, but it is very limited compared to changing the management system (including adopting ideas that have been known for decades from Deming, Russell Ackoff, Taiichi Ohno, George Box, Douglas McGregor, Peter Scholtes, Brian Joiner, and a bit more recently, Clayton Christensen).

It isn’t for lack of good ideas that management is still failing to execute at close to the level it should. It may be due to a failure to sell the best ideas well. Or it may be due to a failure to sell them correctly. If executives are sold on instant-pudding ideas, that may get a sale, but it makes significant improvement very difficult.

If you want significant improvement, expect the management systems to change – i.e., what senior managers and executives do on a daily basis should change significantly. If these systems don’t change, you are selling some minor adoption of some small improvements. That is fine, but it isn’t what I think of as management improvement; usually it is just a matter of adopting a few useful tools for process improvement.

First published on the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. Published on July 22, 2019 in Quality Digest, a Kaizen Institute Online partner.

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