The dictionary defines corporate culture as, “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Every organization has a culture whether or not leaders think about it or try to shape it. But smart executives know that culture is a crucial (if not the most important) ingredient for success. Leaders who are dedicated to the practice of continuous quality improvement (CQI) should understand the role that culture plays and actively work to shape it. Here are ten best practices for creating a culture in which CQI can thrive.
1. Be Clear about What Culture Means
Culture is a tricky thing. It can’t be dictated by the C-suite, but the decisions leaders make have a huge impact on how employees behave when no one is looking. Culture is the paradigm in which people make decisions on a day-to-day basis. It defines what is and isn’t OK. For example, if there is a piece of litter on the floor, do folks ignore it and walk by, or do they stop and pick it up? That will tell you more about the state of an organization’s culture than anything you will read in the employee handbook.
2. Craft and Socialize the Definition of Quality
Most organizations will declare quality as a goal, but few make the effort to define it. Many people associate quality only with the final product or service that is delivered to customers, but CQI requires a more complete definition. Every process should have quantifiable quality metrics based on providing maximum value with as little waste as possible. Discussions about quality should be commonplace and built into the daily cadence of work.
3. Focus Improvement Efforts on Processes – Not People
Devotion to quality can actually hurt corporate culture if it takes the form of blaming people for waste, defects, and delay. Continuous quality improvement is not about putting pressure on people to produce perfect results no matter what. It is about analyzing processes and looking for the root cause of business problems to make adjustments so that quality outcomes are inevitable. Once the best practice for a process is defined, it should be documented so that the same excellent results can be achieved no matter who is performing the work.
4. Invest in CQI
One thing that businesses leaders often forget is that budgets are values documents. If CQI is something that is of high worth in your culture, then your investments should reflect that. This may take the form of purchasing improvement management technology to support CQI. It may mean having team members with improvement work as their primary role or freeing up resources to work on occasional rapid improvement events.
5. Provide Frequent, Meaningful Training and Practice
There are a host of CQI techniques and tools that can be used to execute opportunities for improvement. It is essential to invest the time and resources to make employees comfortable with them and ensure that everyone knows when each approach should be used.
6. Align Incentives and Goals
Too many leaders talk a big game about quality but fail to ensure that individual goals and objectives have a component that takes quality into account. In a culture dedicated to CQI, every employee does not doubt how they can contribute to quality goals, and each person knows that their performance will be evaluated accordingly.
7. Create the Conditions for Collaboration
A culture in which CQI thrives is one that eliminates silos and encourages cross-functional teamwork. This is essential because many of the most significant opportunities for quality improvement involve the handoffs between one function and another. One way to take the friction out of collaboration between departments or teams is to deploy a common platform for improvement work so that all documents, status updates, and task assignments reside in a unified platform that anyone involved in a project has access when and where they need it.
8. Infuse CQI into the Hiring Process
A candidate’s aptitude for improvement and their fit with the culture should be primary criteria during the hiring process. While it might not be necessary that each person hired have experience with an organized approach to CQI, it is essential that they have demonstrated the willingness to embrace and participate in positive change.
9. Lead by Example
We said at the outset that culture can’t be dictated, but the desired values and behavior can be demonstrated. Leaders should engage in improvement projects and apply the principles of CQI to their activities. Quality should be part of regular meetings and employee communications.
10. Broadcast Success
When improvements result in fewer defects, reduced costs, happier customers, or any other positive business impact, the good news should be shared far and wide. When people are recognized for these achievements, everyone becomes more engaged and cultural values are reinforced.
Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, famously said, “Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.” It might not be that easy exactly, but if you get the culture right, continuous quality improvement will become second nature for every member of your team.