What Do We Expect from Senior Leaders?

This is a guest post by Scott Rutherford, who works in quality assurance at a nuclear shipyard, and specializes in performance improvement. He blogs at Square Peg Musings.

“It is most important that top management be quality-minded. In the absence of sincere manifestation of interest from the top, little will happen from below.” – Joseph Juran

This quote began Quality Progress’ September 1986 review of Dr. Juran as an honorary member of the American Society for Quality Control (as ASQ was then called). It has stuck with me like a musical earworm; seemingly to pop up again and again when I read blog posts on changing organizational culture, items pontificating on employee engagement, or people lamenting the fact that senior leadership failed again in their role of championing change.

The earworm struck last night as our local ASQ section hosted a presentation from a local manufacturer’s director of quality. He was hired to effect culture change. He called in a quality “guru” to help and got some good advice on how to proceed with limited leadership buy-in. For the first 18 months, they were highly successful in effecting change; energizing the workforce, breaking silos, and seeing some real success. The quality director was ready to implement round two of changes…until he was told by top management that, “Thanks, you have made some good change for now, but we need to get back to being a manufacturer. “

I did ask one question that still has gone unanswered, not only by this director of quality but also other quality “gurus” out there: “Did you specify the necessary outcomes, behaviors, and expectations to top management?”

I did not ask the follow-on question of, “How would you hold top management accountable to the outcomes, behaviors, and expectations that you need to be successful?” I have not seen a lot of literature on how quality practitioners need to achieve meaningful actions as answers to these questions.

As a senior leader in our organization I am also faced with not only creating the environment for change but also with clearly communicating when change needs to occur. For example, my quality manager came to me with a request to redirect a critical resource to his project in support of clarifying organizational self-assessment metrics. I told him no. The priorities of that resource are correct.

If that was the extent of my answer there could be a misperception that I was not “quality-minded.” But my quality manager came back to me requesting clarification, and after our discussion left with a better understanding why I responded the way I did. He may not have liked it but he better understood my reasoning.

There are so many improvement initiatives that are born with great fanfare and energy, especially when there is a senior leader championing the change. When the focus is shifted away from the care and feeding of that initiative, there has to be discussion with senior leadership on the change and dialog on what expectations are needed to support the change in leadership perspective. That’s not all. There must be focus on the current improvement initiatives to keep good momentum going. This is often not understood by both parties, which leads to frustration from the quality community.

Organizational priorities change. The quality practitioner needs to be proactive in specifying the expectations required to show senior leadership support and finding the magic wand that keeps senior leadership committed to change once the first successes have been achieved.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What Do We Expect from Senior Leaders?

  1. Jim Magditch says:

    Good points and informative article; altogether on target. My recent (May, 2016) experience and illustration is with an automotive supplier to the OEMs – recently did not achieve the 3rd party quality systems assessment.
    In fact, had more major findings than previous annual (2015) assessment. When inquiries abounded this year after the audit; ‘what is game plan going forward?’ ‘What is our action plan to improve and correct / get better?’ Posed numerous similar questions to the local leadership….guess what…crickets. No response, no reply whatsoever. Amazing!
    Needless to say – not a few employees are very apprehensive about the situation and lack of ‘take charge’ attitude.