Bringing New Energy to Quality Improvement Programs
Part 1: Background and Planning
This seven page document is the first of two related to quality improvement. It addresses the principles behind metaphor languages and how to use them. The second shows how metaphor language drove the introduction of TQM in a software company.
Together, they make two assertions:
1. The lack of strong top management leadership need not doom a TQM effort.
2. Programs that are losing their momentum can be re-vitalized with new tools
This paper describes a method for introducing or giving a “mid-life kicker” to TQM. By finding issues at mid and lower levels of an organization and by employing metaphor language tools, a manager can generate new team energy and build widespread ownership for TQM.
When Quality is not the organization’s first priority…
Imagine that you have been appointed to be the head of a quality effort in your company. You, like everyone involved in quality, have heard these statements:
– “TQM succeeds only when there is strong leadership from the top”
– “TQM requires a real crisis in order to take root”
Imagine that your management is starting a TQM effort because it seems like a good idea, not because they think it’s the only way to save the company. Management thinks it’s important but there are many important issues to be addressed. What do you do if your boss says: ”I have to spend my time on critical competitive issues. You go and get the organization to improve quality. ”
Many quality experts would tell you: “Get someone to convince your management that quality should be their foremost priority” or: “Find a new job. You’re going to fail.” The experts would likely continue with: ”No one in your company will take TQM seriously. Employees will see it as extra work, a staff program that will be forgotten in a few months.”
Certainly, your job would be a lot easier if your boss were giving a strong leadership push, but there is a solution to your dilemma. You can make an important contribution if you can build organization pull for TQM principles and tools. The key is finding the sources of energy in the company and using them to your advantage.
Tapping and Directing Energy
What is energy? Energy is emotion. Energy is attention, action, enthusiasm, involvement. Energy may be positive and aligned toward achieving results: “We have to figure out how to get that sale! ” or ”We have to meet that project deadline! ” But, energy may also be negative, trapped in the form of frustration and complaints: ”We’re really in trouble” or “I have no idea what the priorities are around here” or “The other groups are keeping us from doing our jobs right” or “I work as hard as I can, but it’s not enough.”
People have energy for the things they care about. They’ll work hard, put in long hours and take risks to solve problems they own themselves. No matter what you preach about TQM, busy people won’t see it as their issue, they’ll see it as yours. You become just one more person asking for their time and attention …. Time and attention they would rather be applying to their own issues…Ones that are truly important to them!
Rather than being the teacher or preacher trying to convince them that TQM should also be their issue, put yourself in a consultant’s role. Go with their energy and help them use TQM principles and tools to solve their own issues. When you succeed, you will have a ready and willing audience for the next stages of your TQM program.
You may have often heard the advice, “Start small, succeed and let your success power your move to more important areas? That is not the message here. The careful but slow approach may keep TQM on the sidelines at a critical time when it could be playing a central role in helping your company.
Here are guidelines for initiating a quality program with the “pull” method:
1. Find the natural starting point
Don’t be overly analytical. Ask yourself and those helping you, “Where is the energy?” Look for departments, function or groups that have a big problem or share common concerns. Start looking at higher levels in the organization and work down. Ask yourself and those involved: “What is the underlying process here?” The energy will most certainly be around some series of activities that involve a lot of hand-offs between people and groups.
List possible focus areas, talk them over with your boss or associates and develop the big picture. Pick the one that has the most visibility and the one that will produce the most benefit to the company. Typically, this will be one that directly brings value to a customer. Remember, you are in the role of a consultant trying to help your company succeed. Don’t spend months tolling in a small, less important area because you aren’t confident that Quality tools will help or be accepted.
2. Find the Right Sponsor
Do a quick analysis of the underlying process. List all the groups or individuals that participate in it, are its customers or suppliers or are otherwise concerned with it. Identify the one that is most critical to the process and might be considered the process owner. Speak with that person or group, propose your assistance in improving the process and agree on a “contract” of how you will help.
3. Involve all the stakeholders
When many people work together on an issue, they jointly own the solution and commit to making it become reality. Any stakeholder who doesn’t participate may disagree and block implementation, so all key stakeholders should be included. The sponsor is best suited to identify them. As a rule of thumb, a stakeholder representative should understand the overall process and know parts of it in detail, be respected by his or her peers and have energy for reaching a solution. The stakeholder group should be empowered by the sponsor or other
company management to make whatever improvements they jointly agree upon.
4. Employ the proven three step change model:
1. Current State Analysis -> 2. Ideal State Vision -> 3. Action Plan
Start by getting the group to jointly understand and agree on how their process operates
today and what are its problems. Agreeing the context of their issues is the critical first step toward a solution. If the group doesn’t air differing views of today’s problems and their causes at the beginning, they will surface at later stages and poison opportunities for agreement.
The next step is to leap to the future and envision an ideal state where today’s problems are corrected the company’s and customers’ objectives are being met. Don’t let the group worry about how they are going to achieve the ideal or their creativity will be diminished.
The final step is to analyze the gap between the current and ideal states and develop transition strategies and actions.
The Role of Metaphor Language
Getting any group to agree on where they want to go is always difficult and may be so time consuming that it is not practical. Barriers to reaching agreement are often less in the substance of the issue than in seeing the issue from different points of view and using abstract words that are open to differing interpretations. (Cross-cultural problem solving is the most difficult.)
Metaphor Language is a tool that can help groups get past communication problems and develop participative leadership. It helps them use systems thinking and have fun while they apply the TQM principles of process improvement, customer orientation and full participation.
Metaphor Language is the systematic use of visual symbols to communicate. It may sound like a novel idea, but visual languages have been around since Egyptian hieroglyphics. Images help groups in three ways:
First, they help people escape from the prison of personal jargon so they can communicate more effectively. Many disagreements are caused by simple mis-communication and mis-understanding of the context of the point under discussion. If you are using a language other than your mother tongue or you are in a different culture, images help ”level the playing field. ”
Second, images can help you clarify complicated problems. Consider these two bottles. The label on the one on the left may contain more information but the one on the right IS much more useful. By using images, you can clarify complicated issues
and motivate action.
Second, images can help you clarify complicated problems. Consider these two bottles. The label on the one on the left
may contain more information but the one on the right IS much more useful. By using images, you can clarify complicated issues and motivate action.
Metaphor Language uses meaningful images to supplement words and numbers. A language provides a vocabulary of symbols to represent functions, communications, problems, benefits, actions, obstacles, roles and other matters of importance in organization life. The symbols are drawn in advance and may be printed in color as self-adhesive stickers. They are applied to background paper to build a picture story of the complex issue they are addressing.
For example, one language called River Mapping uses a journey down a river to convey messages about strategies and plans. Its symbols represent the generic parts of a strategy such as actions, targets, measures and responsibilities. The river represents the flow of time and symbols are placed along side and on top of it.
For example, if you wanted to show the decision process about whether to use a metaphor
language at your next problem solving or planning meeting, you might use these symbols:
A rowboat shows your progress along the river
A Not having any experience with visual languages
is an obstacle to quickly reaching decision:
(Like a tree blocking the river)
You may need to study the literature:
(In detail, as with a magnifying glass)
Discuss the benefits with your colleagues:
Evaluate the findings:
(Balancing pros and cons)
And, determine the direction you will take:
(As with a compass)
If you don’t try a new approach, your next
problem-solving meeting may get bogged down:
(As in a swamp)
If you try a visual language, there will be a
(A veritable treasure)
The overall story might look like this:
Group map building
When you work with large groups of stakeholders, break them into small groups at separate tables to build visual language maps of the same subject. While building their maps, each group talks among themselves about the subject, exchange information and jointly decide how to build the map. When finished, they and the other groups present their maps to each other. They recognize differing points of view and ideas, discuss them and as a full group, decide how to build a consolidated single map. Workshop sessions can last from two hours to
two days, depending on the size of the group and the magnitude of the task.
Group size varies with the task and the organization. Typical sizes are from twelve to twenty-four. The largest session we’ve done was 300.