Introduction: this session evaluates the current approaches found in quality management and considers whether these approaches are adequate for sectors where customer needs are changing rapidly.

An overview of the traditional methods for managing quality

The ‘traditional’ approach to quality is to take the ‘perceived’ customer requirements, turn them into measurable criteria and then manage processes against them.

  • In manufacturing these criteria might include part specifications, tolerances, or functional measurements of assemblies. Levels are set to determine what defect levels will still be deemed acceptable.
  • In the service sector criteria are translated into procedures (written or systemised). Staff are then trained, measured, and monitored against procedural compliance to ensure that variation in service delivery is kept to a minimum.

All of this works if the customer requirements stay static or evolve slowly and incrementally. Unfortunately, for many industries, the days of slow and incremental are long gone and will not be returning anytime soon.

Quality management is a top down affair. Quality Management Systems (QMS) are designed and administered by management. Frontline staff are viewed as executors of the strategy, doers, who need to conform to the standards set by those that hold the information.

Quality management standards, like ISO 9001 has introduced a requirement for a cyclic review process at the heart of the QMS following the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) approach. This has gone some way to breathe life into the system. The lasts version of the standard (ISO 9001:2015) has moved away from prescriptive procedures and introduced concepts such as risk based thinking and the context of the organisation. These are all steps in the right direction, but sadly do not go far enough. Quality requirements, and what is perceived to be important, is still stipulated and controlled by management. This can work if management is fully in tune with the customers. But this is often not the case. Management is incentivised by local targets and these motives will drive the outcomes and effectiveness of the QMS.

Modernising Quality

Modernising quality is not about throwing out all the old processes. But it is about being less precious about them. It is about keeping what is good, and having the courage to change what is not. Adaptive quality management is about establishing good processes, truly integrated into the way the business functions, and then looking beyond them and focussing on the people that use those processes. What I am talking about is not a one OR the other. It is rather a one AND the other.

So how do you establish a quality management system that is forward looking?

  1. The concepts of quality and customer satisfaction should permeate all levels of the organisation. Adaptive organisations recognise that:
    1. People perform better if they recognise the purpose of their work. Making sure people understand who the customers is and how we are trying to serve them helps to create this purpose. If you treat people with respect and recognise the potential in them, they will rise to this.
    2. Staff has the potential to help identify where issues occur. Staff working with products or services as it goes through development will know exactly where issues arise. Most of the time management simply don’t listen to them. Management in adaptive organisation do listen.
    3. Staff has the potential to identify where current processes are counterproductive to customer value. Adaptive organisations create a space for staff to raise these concerns, so that they can act on it.
    4. Staff is an invaluable source of customer information. Every interaction your frontline staff has with a customer is a potential window into evolving customer requirements. Herein lies a massive opportunity to learn and improve your offering. Ignore at your peril.
    5. Great benefit can be gained by tapping into the creativity of each member of staff. You will be amazed at some of the ideas you staff will come up with. Some of my best improvement projects came from talking to frontline staff.
    6. Adaptive organisations seek to break down barriers. The customer should be the common denominator that unite departments. The customer needs should trump local objectives.


  1. Think and manage end to end
    1. Drawing barriers around internal customers can be counterproductive to the end customer.
    2. Local objective often drive the wrong behaviour for the wider organisation.
    3. You need to establish frameworks through which end to end value chains can be managed.
    4. You need to encourage communication and support across departmental boundaries.
    5. Don’t just measure locally. Measure end to end. Think economies of time, not economies of scale. View your value chain through the eyes of your customer. Which of your activities would they be willing to pay for if they were given a tour of your operation and given a chance to select, before checking out for payment?
    6. Think systems. The higher the complexity of your internal systems, the more you need to invest in collaboration techniques.
    7. Adaptive organisations seek to break down barriers. The customer should be the common denominator that unite departments. The customer needs should trump local objectives.
  1. Be willing to experiment (and even fail).
    1. Become a learning organisation.
    2. Become an organisation that is willing to test new ideas.
    3. Learn how to test small and extrapolate large.
    4. Do not be afraid of failure. Failure is merely a part of the learning experience.
    5. There are no sacred cows. You should be willing to disrupt you own processes, if you are not, then I guarantee you that your competitor will.
    6. Create a culture where it is good to raise problems. A problem shared is a problem solved.
  1. Change the way you manage
    1. Management should not micromanage the resolution of quality issues. They should act as a guide and coach.
    2. The work of management should be about A) Enabling the work, and B) Enabling the development of capability in the people.
    3. Grow your people while you solve your problems.
    4. Solve problems as close as possible to where they occur.
    5. Coach and guide the problem-solving journey. It is as much about developing the problem solver as it is about solving the problem!
  1. Don’t just pay lip service to root cause/condition analysis. Actually do it!
    1. So often quality managers opt for quick fixes.
    2. To get to the root of the problems you will need the help of the people that do the work.
    3. Quality should be owned by all the functions that interface with the delivery of the product or service (not by the Quality Department).
    4. Cross functional collaboration is the key to success.
    5. Invest in developing problem solvers.
    6. Consider all the layers:
      1. Immediate causes (those conditions or behaviours that led to the failures in quality).
      2. Underlying causes (those conditions that allowed the immediate causes to exist or persist).
  • Root causes (failures in the management systems, culture, behaviour, and beliefs that led the underlying causes).

Deploying the Adaptive Business Model into your quality management systems is not about relinquishing all control. It is about empowering more people to control what they do to better serve the customer.

Some key take-way points:

  • The latest versions of quality management standards (like ISO 9001:2015) is going in this direction. But these have not gone far enough. You can either wait for a future revision of the standards before adopting a better way of working, or you can become a company that sets the pace for your industry.
  • Make sure you have good processes, but make doubly sure you have great people. Your processes will only ever be as good as your people. Make sure your people are truly aware of your customer. Learn to unlock the potential, capability and creativity of your employees and you will be astounded at the results you can achieve.
  • This will require a different kind of management. The role of management is no longer about shouting a list of orders, or managing by local objectives only. Good management should be about enabling: enabling the development of people, and enabling work to flow efficiently across internal barriers and with quality build into each step of the process.