Selling Quality Improvement

In this month’s ASQ influential quality voices post, Paul Borawski asks How Do You “Sell” Quality?

I am amazed how difficult it is to sell quality improvement. I look at organizations 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 sells to executives are usually ideas that require little change in thinking or practice but promise to eliminate current problems. What Dr. 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 both have 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 minimize 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?) Dilbert has provided a humorous view on the continuing tragedy of these efforts.

Another sales option is look for desperate executives that have already tried taking the easy way out 5 or 6 or 7 times and are still in desperate for improvement. Once they can’t see any options offering simple solutions they may be willing to work at a solution.


An even rarer opportunity is to find executives that 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 they often struggle on how to move forward, but there are plenty of strategies to do that when executives are committed). Another good option is organizations working 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 decades at old school management system organizations) say things like, it is time for us to “grow up” and adopt the traditional management practices (the “lets 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 often wait a year or two and often people get very frustrated. This may result in a critical mass who want something better, and they still remember they succeeded before by managing differently (so are willing to fight the slide into old style management). Another common occurrence however is a flight of leaders away from the organization: that is less ideal situation to sell (it is often a sign the old school thinking is winning out).

Another strategy to sell, that works, is to play into the desire to follow the latest management fads. For several decades (since at least the 1980’s TQM fad) the quality experts often discuss why various quality strategies are different than 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 and move on to the next fad. While this illustrates the failure of the fads to result in long term success it does also show that businesses are willing to “buy” these fads consistently. Using this tendency to “buy” fads can be used to sell quality improvement. It makes it trickier to make the improvement work, as 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 that 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 the adoption of a few useful quality tools. That can result in significant improvement but it is very limited compared to changing the management system (to adopt ideas that have been known for decades from Deming, Ackoff, Ohno, Box, McGregor, Scholtes, Joiner… and a bit more recently 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 with the ideas they can continue their way of doing things that got them where they were for the last few decades that may get a sale but makes significant improvement very difficult. If you want significant improvement, expect the management systems to change – what the senior managers and executives do on a daily basis should change significantly. If it doesn’t you are selling some minor adoption of some small improvements. That is fine, but it isn’t what I think of as management improvement: it usually is just a matter of adopting a few useful tools for process improvement.

I have lots of previous posts on how to move forward in an organization that is ready to improve and how to move forward to build a desire to have the organization make significant improvement.

Many of these posts discuss how to get organizations to adopt management improvement strategies: which often includes elements of selling the idea to those involved (executives, managers, front line workers, etc.).

3 thoughts on “Selling Quality Improvement

  1. It’s sad that we also often have to “sell” safety.

    I wonder if some people just naturally “get it” about quality and if it can even be taught? Do you have to be predisposed (through genetics, your upbringing, etc) to put an emphasis on quality? And by “quality,” I don’t mean specific quality tools, but the mindset.

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  2. It is simply a sad fact that these ‘instant’ solutions are so common. It is a case of the average person perhaps being too lazy to even bother to focus on the ‘big picture,’ how it will benefit an organisation and the people within.

    Maybe the people that sell these solutions deserve a degree of credit, they are capitalising on laziness and selfishness.

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  3. Pingback: Executive Leadership » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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