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Where Continuous Quality Improvement Strategies Go Wrong

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Feb 14, 2023 10:36:00 AM

frustrated with problems young business man working on laptop computer at homeImplementing a quality improvement strategy is a proactive way for organizations to gain an edge in a highly competitive landscape, especially during an uncertain economy.  Most organizations begin the transformation by taking an unflinching look at operations and identifying which processes are in the most urgent need of improvement. From there, they set to the task of experimenting with better approaches. 

Unfortunately, quality improvement initiatives fail more often than they succeed. McKinsey and Company research suggests that 70% of complex, wide-scale improvement programs fail. Most leaders know that continuous quality improvement is an important goal, but figuring out how to achieve it is no small feat.

Our work with organizations of all shapes and sizes has given us some insight into why quality improvement initiatives often experience short-term wins but quickly fizzle out, failing to achieve long-term transformation. Here are some of the most common.

[Watch Now] The Why, How, and What of Continuous Improvement

Lack of Organizational Alignment

Too often, the long-term strategic plan is a concern for only top leadership. As a result, front-line employees lack insight into the objectives and market conditions that drive high-level decisions. Without this knowledge, it is difficult for team members to prioritize improvement work and make decisions that further the strategic goals. Employee engagement is also hampered when individuals don't understand how their work impacts the organization's overall health.

Our clients that have had the most success implementing continuous quality improvement use a technique called strategy deployment to cascade the most critical priorities throughout the organization. First, they set a few (three to five) breakthrough objectives to pave the path to long-term success. They then break these down into annual goals and specific improvement opportunities. Each goal has an owner and measurable performance indicators. From there, the objectives break down to the department, team, and individual levels. This approach reduces conflict and makes prioritization easier. Leaders often use a tool called the X-matrix to visualize the strategic plan.

A Limited Definition of Quality

When most folks think about quality in the context of business, they understandably think of the quality of goods or services that get into the hands of customers. Of course, quality, as judged by the customer, is critical, but limiting the idea of quality to this alone is a severe error. 

There are likely many people on your team that don't directly produce the goods or services that you sell. They may be in HR, finance, sales, or administration. While they are not directly involved in the value-added activities, their work and the results of their processes impact efficiency, quality, and customer value. Successful organizations see every process as an opportunity to improve quality, whether the "customer" of that process is internal or external. For this reason, the quality (and quality improvement) factors you measure must go beyond defects or customer complaints. 

Trying to Eat the Apple All in One Bite

It is tempting to look for a panacea solution that will revolutionize operations and solve all quality problems in one shot. However, for most organizations, no single change will achieve the desired result. In addition, massive change is usually disruptive, stressful, and high-risk.  

The good news is that quality improvement doesn't have to be big and messy. What it does have to be is continuous. Small, incremental improvements made frequently and implemented by process operators lead to constant progress toward optimal operations. Organizations can turn all employees into quality managers with a bottom-up approach to improvement. After all, the people who understand why errors and defects occur are directly involved in the work. Therefore, they are in the best position to suggest and execute opportunities for improvement.

A Culture That is Not Conducive to Change

We often hear that people hate change. Old habits are indeed hard to break, but in most cases, people resist change for good reasons. If an organization has a culture where it's safer to keep doing things the way we've always done them than it is to take a risk by implementing (or even suggesting) a new approach, attempts at improvement will be short-lived or nonexistent. No amount of lip service about the importance of quality improvement will overcome the reality if there are negative consequences that result from questioning the status quo.  

In a healthy improvement culture, leaders understand that change involves risk. They create space for people to try something new and encourage experimentation even if the results aren't always positive. When we try something that doesn't work, leaders need to react constructively, focusing on learning instead of punishment. To mitigate risk while supporting frequent change, many organizations use a structured improvement cycle such as PDSA or DMAIC. This scientific problem-solving approach involves crafting a problem statement, developing a hypothesis about what would solve it, and implementing controlled, measured experiments. The team repeats the cycle on an ongoing basis, one improvement opportunity at a time.

Lack of Employee Development Related to Quality Improvement

Unless you are extremely lucky, it is unlikely that all team members will come to your organization with a solid understanding of their role in quality, and how to measure and improve it. In the same way, you might invest in technical or role-related employee training and development; it is necessary to invest in continuous improvement skill development.

While the specifics of a quality training program will vary from organization to organization, there are some universal basics. Employees need to know the following:

  • How does the organization define quality, and how do I play a part?
  • What high-level and process-specific metrics are used to measure quality?
  • What is the process for identifying an opportunity for improvement, and how will it be evaluated?
  • What problem-solving and planning tools will I use, and how do they work within our organization?
  • How do I communicate about improvement work within and outside of my team?
  • What do I do if I run into a roadblock?

Employee development is not a one-time event. As people learn and grow, their development needs will evolve, and even the most dedicated employees need coaching from time to time. That's why it is vital to have insight into each employee's engagement in improvement activities. 

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No Unified Platform for Quality Improvement and Measurement

One thing that many failed quality improvement initiatives have in common is that they are managed via email and spreadsheets. While it is tempting to turn to these tools because everyone already has them and knows how to use them, they are passive, error-prone, and disjointed. It's no wonder quality programs lose momentum when there is not one easily accessible and comprehensive platform for managing and measuring quality-related projects.

Centralizing our information about quality improvement with software designed for the purpose has many benefits. It lets the employees know that continuous improvement is a high priority for leadership and that it is worth investing in resources. The platform provides leaders with a dashboard for measuring the health of improvement culture across the organization. The best solutions also offer a way to measure the impact of improvement work and share success. It also provides a knowledge repository so that each quality improvement effort builds on what has already been learned. Improvement software also provides alerts and notifications so that team members can actively manage projects and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.

Continuous quality improvement is a worthy goal for any organization. If you can avoid these pitfalls, the rewards are plentiful, and the risks are manageable. Our team would love to chat about what's worked well for our successful clients.


Topics: Quality, Improvement Culture, Improvement Methodology

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