The quality profession is not one you enter if you need constant external validation. Your job will essentially boil down to finding people’s mistakes and suggesting how to fix them, and few people like having their mistakes pointed out to them. Over the decades, “Quality” earned the reputation of being a blockade against delivery, an army of terracotta soldiers sitting in front of the shipping door, preventing anything from escaping. It only partly deserved that reputation, but sorta-kinda-partly did, too.

During the decades of the 1950’s through 1980’s, however, new approaches were introduced that reduced the levels of inspection originally demanded by Quality, in order to ensure quality while maintaining adequate delivery times. Soon, Quality also taught companies how to improve processes altogether, in order to generate more products in less time, with fewer errors.

But the decades of disrespect had already been burned in: no matter what Quality did, no matter how many books Deming or Juran or Crosby published, no matter how many times ISO updated ISO 9001, Quality was still seen by many as a roadblock. It remains something to tolerate, often for the sake of meeting some customer demand, rather than a “valued-added activity.”

To which I say, so what?

The problem is that Quality professionals rarely take this view. Instead, they rely on two tropes that they repeat ad nauseum, in a hopeless attempt to berate “top management” into giving them the respect they feel they deserve.

You can guess how that ends.

Trope # 1: It’s All Management’s Fault

The first trope is one you’ve heard — and maybe uttered — countless times: that quality cannot exist with full “management commitment.” The trope has gained so much steam, that it culminated into one of the fastest-growing clauses in ISO 9001 since the standard was first published in 1987 (and, then, based on the MIK-Q-9858 standard from the late ’50s.) What was once a single sentence has turned into a massive, bulleted list of go-to Quality grievances.

Article after article from so-called Quality “experts” and consultants will tell you, over and over, how failings in quality are not the responsibility of the guy with the word “quality” in his title, but instead the fault of some invisible, all-seeing, and omnipotent power called “top management.”

It’s frankly embarrassing.

Imagine if the chemist in a laboratory blamed chemical errors on the CEO. Or if the garage mechanic who borked your brakes blamed the Regional Manager. Or if your doctor misprescribed a treatment regimen, and then blamed the Hospital Board of Advisors.

This off-loading of responsibility is endemic in the Quality profession, and it ultimately results in the opposite desired effect: instead of winning over management, it results in top management resenting Quality as a gang of disgruntled whiners who can’t do the one thing they were hired for.

To put it simply: if your title says “Quality Manager,” it’s your job to manage quality.

But what if your senior management won’t give you the resources you need? Or hire enough staff? Or apply the desired quality and process controls?

Well, first of all, welcome to the club. No manager gets 100% of what they want. You’re not special in this regard.

Now go back to that title — “Quality Manager” — and look at the second word. Part of being a “Manager” means having the necessary skills to make your case for your resource needs, your staff requirements, and your intended outputs, and getting top management to approve them. In fact, convincing top management is a huge part of the job.

But Quality Managers want to ignore the second word in their title entirely, and then gripe when they don’t get what they want, every time they want it, and immediately upon wanting it.

From the CEO’s point of view, this is ludicrous. All their other managers, from Sales to Engineering to Human Resources, likely have the same gripes — not enough resources, staff, etc. — but they pitch their case and sometimes they get approval for what they want. Sometimes they don’t.

That’s what being a middle manager is. It means you don’t get 100% of what you want every time. Someone sits above you to make decisions for the whole of the organization.

If your boss isn’t sold on your ideas, there are two possibilities: your boss is an ass, or you’re shit at managing. If you find that keep encountering the same situation no matter where you work — and based on the Quality articles whining about “lack of management commitment,” this seems likely — then the first possibility is likely negated. Not every boss on the planet is an ass. This leaves one reality: you’re shit at managing. Sorry, but if you didn’t like to hear that, imagine how the Production guys feel every time you tell them their products are crap. Same thing.

The best Quality Managers succeed because they work hand-in-hand with their executive management, convincing them of their case by proving their value to the company every day. A good manager can — in many (but not all) cases — take a skeptical boss and convert them into a supporter. But you have to prove yourself.

Quality Managers need to stop expecting automatic respect and “complete management commitment” out of the box, before they have even shown up for the job interview. That is magical thinking, and sets you up for guaranteed disappointment.

Trope # 2: Quality Must Run the Entire Company

The second trope is worse than the first. Having failed to get “management commitment,” Quality then assumes that it deserves the right to run the entire company. That’s insane on its face.

Again, we see this creep up in ISO 9001, the international standard on quality management systems. In the list of disgruntled Quality Manager grievances appearing in clause 5.1.1, it reads:

Top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment with respect to the quality management system by… ensuring the integration of the quality management system requirements into the organization’s business processes.

This same thought is parroted in every quality consultant’s blog and article, too, as they demand that we rename the concept of “quality management system” to, instead, a “business management system.” See here, here, here, here, here, and here for starters. They claim this will finally convince top management that Quality should run the show, it should be the main driver of all other business activities, from accounting to sales to engineering through to the annual Christmas party catering.

What Quality Managers don’t know is other professionals are clamoring for the same thing. Spend five minutes in a cybersecurity subreddit, and you see “Chief Information Security Officers” making the same gripe, that the CEO should “embed cyber” in every management decision and department. Over in the Risk Manager’s office, those folks are saying the same thing, that everything must be based on risk, and therefore risk must drive every business decision.

Meanwhile, some other professions know better. You would not see chemists trying to rename their entire profession to “holistic atomic manipulation management” in order to suggest that the periodic table of elements should inform Accounting or Legal on its decision. You wouldn’t see this from the folks in Shipping, or the company’s resident maintenance manager.

The truth is that a company is a set of processes and internal mini-organizations that the CEO and executive team have to manage collectively; it is a set of tools in a company toolbox, with no single tool more important than the other. The hammer is only more important than the screwdriver when confronted with a nail.

Quality Managers should, instead, be making the argument on how Quality will work hand-in-hand — as equal partners — alongside business Development and Engineering and Sales. Not that it should be lording over them, since that resuscitates the image of the terracotta army.

Quality Managers and consultants — the latter of which have rarely held executive positions other than being the “President” of their one-man consulting company — must start to understand the role and responsibility of the CEO: to drive a massive ship comprised of many moving parts. The CEO does not exist to serve any one middle manager or any one department. They have to make decisions that may one day favor one department, and the next day favor another. Quality won’t win every time, and it’s insanity to demand otherwise.

By ridding oneself of these two tropes, and working to prove your worth either to an employer (as a Quality Manager) or to clients (as a consultant), you avoid self-sabotage. You stop the cycle of negative thinking related to your profession, and can get on with the actual work itself.

About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.

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Traditional Tri-System