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Time to Cultivate Business-Minded Staff

Quality leaders want and need staff with business acumen, but their efforts to acquire them aren’t working. The missing ingredient is an "enabling environment"

Corporate quality teams’ job is to make sure that the products or services that a company creates – and the processes it uses to do so – produce as few errors as possible. This requires two things; first, a good understanding of the product, service, or process in question and how to monitor and reduce errors and, second, a way of communicating this and helping colleagues reduce the number of errors they make.

As with any kind of interaction, communicating with business partners, and especially encouraging them to do something differently, is much easier for those Quality employees who understand and can empathize with the pressures and challenges that their business partners must deal with.

And it’s this commercial savviness that quality teams tend to struggle with. CEB data underlines how important this commercial savvy is: when Quality staff members with a high level of business aptitude put forward proposals that meet corporate needs, and when they make initiatives easy for their internal partners, 60% of Quality’s projects are put into practice; but when quality staff without business chops get involved, only 44% of their solutions are implemented.

A Downward Spiral

When Quality projects don’t get implemented it can degrade any “culture of quality” that the firm has built, which in turn will likely lead to more mistakes. From then on, it’s a spiral effect: with initiatives ignored, employees observe more bad (and fewer positive) behaviors, sending signals that taking quality risks may be acceptable. And then the cycle repeats.

Senior Quality managers understand this. Yet departments across a variety of industries still suffer from a shortage of employees with an understanding of the business’ point of view.

This state of affairs doesn’t result from a lack of trying, but rather from misguided effort. The traditional methods of cultivating a business mindset through hiring and training aren’t producing the desired results. Quality teams are not hiring enough people to make a big difference to the outlook and overall approach of the function, and development activities only generate a small uptick in the skills that Quality leaders seek (see chart 1).

Expected versus actual relationship between hiring and development focus versus competency performance

Chart 1: Expected versus actual relationship between hiring and development focus versus competency performance  n=405 Quality staff  Source: CEB 2015 Quality Talent Test

What’s Going Wrong?

There are three things in particular that are preventing the changes that Quality teams need.

  1. Leadership sends conflicting signals: Quality leaders confuse staff with mixed messages about what to prioritize on a day-to-day basis – 79% of the 405 Quality staff responding to a CEB survey reported as much.

    One minute, they are told to improve their statistical process control, and the next, they are told to work on their ability to develop solutions with the business, employees said. The end result? Employees play it safe and stick to familiar process-oriented work.

  2. Messages about performance are not getting through: Quality staff believe they are doing well while their bosses think otherwise — 79% of Quality staff assessed themselves as “above average” whereas Quality leaders only ranked 39% of employees as performing at that level.

    That’s a big gap,and an indicator that Quality leaders need to do more to clearly explain what they really want their reports to accomplish.

  3. Support isn’t provided for meeting new expectations: While the job of the Quality employee has become more demanding over the years, the tools used to accomplish the work have stayed the same.

    As specific examples in chart 2 illustrate, Quality staff feel unequipped to become more commercially focused.

    Asked to do more with the same

    Chart 2: Asked to do more with the same  Source: CEB analysis (click to expand)

The Path Forward

It’s time for a change of tune. Hiring and traditional development tactics won’t do the job alone. Quality leaders should also work on creating an “enabling environment” that removes the barriers inhibiting business partnership and influence.  Future posts will cover how to do this in more depth but, in short, Quality leaders should do three things.

  • Send clear and relevant messages to their teams.

  • Make project implementation as easy as possible.

  • Provide direct support with the right tools and processes.

Quality leadership can achieve twice as much improvement in staff performance across critical competencies by investing in an enabling environment. More than 7 in 10 (72%) of top performers in these categories work in organizations that do both: help them develop and help them apply the lessons they learn from training (see chart 3).

Distribution of staff in the top quintile of competency performance

Chart 3: Distribution of staff in the top quintile of competency performance By development investment and strength of ‘enabling environment; n=405 Quality staff  Source: CEB 2015 Quality Talent Test

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