ASQ asked the ASQ influential voices to respond to this question: What is the best way to ensure quality and customer integration grow together?
When I first got involved in the quality field that name (quality) seemed to vague for me. And different people and organizations seemed to have vastly different meanings in mind for efforts they all grouped under the heading of quality. What I came up with to capture what I was interested in was customer focused continuous improvement. Continual is actually a better word than continuous for what I had in mind, I now know.
But that phrase has held up in my mind (unfortunately it is a bit long and so isn’t ideal either). Focusing on continually improving with a deep understanding of customer needs and the marketplace will do you well. Customer integration is required in the customer focused continual improvement framework I have discussed on this blog and in my book: Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.
Accepting that as a wise course of action leaves the question of how to continual improve with an integrated deep focus on customers. These shouldn’t be two isolated activities. And even to continually improve without worrying about customers requires viewing the organization as a system is critical in my view (which further enhances integrating the customer into the organization’s DNA). As anyone reading this blog knows my beliefs build on the work of W. Edwards Deming, so appreciating the importance of a systemic view is to be expected.
A deep appreciation for the long term needs of your customers and potential customers should guide where in the system to continually improve. And my belief on how to continual improve is to create and continually improving management system with principles of experimentation (with the necessary understanding of what conclusion can be drawn from results and what cannot), an understanding of the organization as a system and respect for people as principles to be guided by to achieve continual improvement.
Quality practices of experimentation directed at continually improving management practices and internal processes need to be completely integrated with the efforts to continual improve customer delight. Those efforts should be one process and therefore they automatically grow together.
The success of improvements should be evaluated at the system level (outcome measures not merely efficiency measures). In process measures are useful in adding evaluating improvement and monitoring processes but the end result for the overall system must always remain the primary concern.
As Deming said: “The consumer is the most important point on the production-line“. If the organization pursues optimizing parts without considering the whole that leads to problem, including disconnection between internally focussed process improvement and what customers experience.
Occasionally an organization will put itself into a position where the very survivability of the enterprise has become questionable (through a poor understanding of their customers, or poor internal management, or a failure to understand where the market was heading, or very bad luck when they do many things right but still find themselves in a situation most well run organizations should avoid). In those instances short term survivability needs to guide priorities.
But outside of these times effort should be directed at continually delighting customers. This requires an understanding gained at the user gemba (to truely understand what customers are trying to achieve and how your product or service facilitates them doing so successfully and how it could be improved).
There are specific concepts to integrate into a unified effort to continual improve while delighting customers, such as: Ask customers what one thing could improve. Follow the links in this post to find more details on those management concepts, strategies, tools and tactics.
The successful application of quality (customer focused continual improvement) naturally integrates and iterates your efforts so that internal process improvement and innovation grows with customer integration. There is no sensible way (organizations are remarkably adept at finding ways to implement sensible concepts in ways that completely undermine the success so I think “sensible” is a necessary modifier to include) to apply a management system that I have discussed in this blog for over 10 years without continual feedback from the impact on process improvement and continual feedback from customers.