The University Record, May 23, 1994

A look at the evolution, refinement of ‘quality’

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of invited articles on different aspects of the University’s M-Quality initiative.

By Catherine Lilly
Organization Development Specialist,
Information Technology Division

As the University moves forward with activities related to the M-Quality initiative, we have had to make a shift in our understanding of what the word “quality” means.

From the 1850s until recently, quality was used as a characteristic of output. It described something that would endure, that was made from pure or durable ingredients, that was aesthetically pleasing or that had extra desired features. An institution like the University of Michigan provided a “quality education” because it was “best in its class” or achieved certain recognized standards.

We described our commitment to quality work by saying: “If it breaks, bring it back; that’s why we gave you a good warranty.” “If we can’t give you exactly what you need, or what we do for you isn’t right, come back and we’ll fix it for you if we can.”

Organizations thought of customers, if they thought of them at all, as people who would want whatever we had to offer. We approached most of our employees from a command and control model. We put them into narrow job categories and classifications, told them what to do, expected a good job, watched them closely, and gave them limited amounts of responsibility.

Redefinition of ‘quality’

The late 1970s saw the beginning of the revolution in our definition of the word, which seemed to imply that quality meant being committed to a set of principles. This change was largely brought about in manufacturing circles, when American consumers became more interested in consuming Japanese products than American ones.

We asked ourselves: “How could we be losing in the marketplace when our belief was that we had always been focused on quality and being ‘best in our class?’”

Initial implementation of quality principles

Organizations struggled with new definitions: perhaps we should be more careful not to give poor service or wrong information or allow mistakes in the first place.

We began to see “quality control” functions and “inspection steps” springing up everywhere to try to avoid mistakes:

  • “Let me see it before it goes out the door.”

  • “Even for purchases of $15, we have to have a pre-assigned PO number.”

  • “Only the dean’s (director’s/department head’s/financial operations’) office can make that decision.”

    We started to recognize the need to please customers...sort of. “The customer is always right” sent University employees into a tizzy. “How can the faculty or students or staff I serve be right when they don’t know the rules, policies and limitations with which I work?”

    As a result, in the 1980s, we took an active role in training employees to be nice and better mannered, and to “smile” on the telephone. We taught them how to communicate and how to deal with someone who was angry.

    We also began to recognize that employees might have something to contribute outside their jobs, resulting in retreats, talk of “buying-in,” win-win conflict resolution, different styles of decision-making, consensus, and “participative management.” In industry, we saw quality circles, employee involvement systems, even the good old suggestion box.

    We sought out and made significant one-time investments in technology to improve our work, because we could see a glimmer of what it had to offer.

    We soon found, however, that we still had to re-enter data we needed, and we still weren’t able overall to do our jobs more easily.

    There were predictions that technology would take so much work out of our lives that we would all have to deal with the problem of too much leisure time.

    After these 10 or 15 years, has anyone seen the overall time, energy and dollar-savings that we were told technology would bring us? Employees say they’re working faster, longer, harder and smarter, just to keep up.

    The concept of quality matures

    As the M-Quality approach becomes part of our daily lives and we focus on the principles of managing by fact, respect for people and ideas, continuous improvement, and satisfying those we serve, we see that additional actions are needed.

    We see that much of our inability to meet customer needs seem to be outside the control of the group looking at the problem. In typical employee groups, quality improvement teams and continuous improvement sessions, staff indicate that most of the major obstacles to improvement can’t be overcome because “they’re outside of our control.” We begin to understand how much our work is related to and dependent on individuals outside our unit:

  • “I can’t process this any faster because I can’t get the information I need from that group over there.”

  • “We can’t process this student’s request any more efficiently because we have to wait until we receive the paperwork.”

  • “I can’t answer their questions because I don’t even know where to go for the information.”

    As a result, we select only what we have control over to work on.

    Activities designed to fix problems of this nature, according to Michael Hammer and James Champy in their book Reengineering the Corporation, are being put in a category called “business process reengineering/business process redesign,” or, more simply put, “process innovation.”

    A focus on continuous improvement and satisfying those we serve leads to a focus on innovating or improving processes. We ask ourselves: “From the time the request is made, the item purchased, the time sheet completed, the application submitted, the call received, what exactly happens until that person is taken care of?”

    As our early quality improvement teams found the answers, they came to the same conclusion as Hammer and Champy: “The problems facing organizations today do not result from their organizational structure, but from their process structures. The underlying problem is that of fragmented processes.” When your process has a flow chart of 30-something pages, you know you have problems.

    Sam Plice, chief operating officer of the Information Technology Division, recently told a group of workshop participants that “by focusing on independently-organized functions and departments, the University, its administrative units and support functions have fragmented the processes that faculty and students experience.”

    We haven’t gotten the gains from technology that were predicted. Hammer and Champy say that “automating existing processes and functions with information technology is analogous to paving cow paths.”

    A recent process innovation team discovered that there are at least 14 separately-maintained databases of staff and faculty addresses. If you need your address updated, do you need to make 14 phone calls?

    This is what is meant by fragmented processes. It also highlights the need for innovation of an entire process, not for a small subset of it.

    Satisfying those we serve

    In a mature quality effort, we also come to a different understanding of satisfying those we serve. Of course we need to continue to make our basic services to faculty and students faster, more efficient, more accurate and cheaper. But what about their other preferences and needs, the “surprise and delight factor?”

  • High school students might like to apply via computer from their counselor’s office, then be admitted and receive financial aid at once.

  • Faculty might want like to assign, comment and grade homework electronically (and have that grade automatically entered into their grade book).

  • Departmental financial administrators and managers might like to know, in real time, the exact balances in their accounts.

  • Staff members might want to update their own address files.

  • Graduate students might want to work on documents from their home (or office, or the library), incorporating pictures and scanning in text and information from databases all over the world, without having to copy material, check it out and re-enter data.

    When an entire process is held in one office, such as University Parking Services, there are fewer problems in providing additional low-cost features that would delight faculty and staff.

    As that unit focused on those who own parking stickers, they made major strides in satisfying specific needs. We now can pay in installments or with a credit card. Having two cars is no longer a problem. Thanks to color-coding of elevators and doors, we have a better chance of finding our car.

    In many cases, however, whole processes cross different units, groups or even different vice presidential areas. What do you do when your group owns only a piece of the whole?

    Organizations that have implemented quality efforts have found that when it comes to process innovation, support and direction from the top is crucial. Strategic selection and coordinated support of a “whole process” focus of teams (called task teams) is the biggest key to making dramatic improvements in cost-savings, speed, effectiveness and satisfying those we serve. If a group owns only a part of the whole, it will have to form partnerships—cross-functional teams—with the others.

    What is the role of technology in process innovation? Hammer and Champy say that “a unit or function that looks at its problems and seeks technology solutions for them is almost guaranteed to sub-optimize.”

    We must first understand the process and then look at technology to see what it has to offer. “In process innovation, technology acts as the essential enabler,” they say.

    Another shift

    As an organization continues to embrace quality initiatives, the focus on employees must move from command and control and “participation” to empowerment, managing diversity and stewardship.

    Perhaps as we take more and more steps toward becoming a mature quality institution, we will see even more movement toward self-directed work teams, teams that have at their heart service to the whole institution.

    These teams will be empowered to satisfy those we serve, to continue to use appropriate new and existing technologies, to continuously innovate or improve whole processes they own and to participate in, and to work effectively and respectfully with all types of staff and all types of faculty and students.

    Thanks to Kim Cameron, School of Business Administration; Andre Strong, ITD diversity coordinator; Hammer and Champy, Reengineering the Corporation; and Peter Block in Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self Interest, for some of the ideas expressed in this article.