Small Steps, Big Reward: Quality Improvement through Pilot Groups

Article excerpt

Small Steps, Big Reward: Quality Improvement Through Pilot Groups Almost every corporate manager will acknowledge the need for quality improvement, but it's difficult to get an entire corporation to change management styles and work styles--the entire corporate culture, in effect--and jump on the quality bandwagon. Part of the problem is educational: Many managers just don't know the philosophy and methodology behind quality improvement. Another part is administrative: Making an entire corporation quality conscious demands time, people, and money--and most managers are unwilling to make even an initial investment of workforce time. And another part has to do with translation: Theory doesn't mean much unless you can immediately transfer it to your particular corporation's goals.

At wisconsin Power & Light (WP&L) rather than try to educate and change the entire corporation all at once, we trained two six-person pilot groups in statistical process control (SPC), had them apply that knowledge to actual problems in our generating stations, and showed management the dollars-and-cents savings that come from quality improvement.

We documented the results and reactions in a video, a brochure, and newsletters to make sure everyone involved with the company understood how the program started, who was part of it, who supported it, what kind of success it achieved, and what kind of future SPC training held for WP&L.

The challenge of quality

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of America's quality improvement movement, developed his statistical process control theories in World War II factories. After the war, however, quantity rather than quality seemed to become the goal of U.S. industry, and Deming took his theories to the Japanese, who made them a part of their national culture. Detroit automakers, facing the competition from Japanese car companies, were the first to rediscover Deming in the late seventies. From that point Deming and other quality prophets have spread the message across the corporate landscape: To compete in the world market, companies must produce high-quality, low-cost products--and the only way to do that effectively is to incorporate quality into every production and administrative system. That demands a new style of management in which the manager empowers workers to determine how they can do their jobs best.

It often takes a crisis for a corporation or industry to make such drastic changes. The American auto industry, for example, had to meet the challenge of strong foreign competition. While WP&L doesn't face foreign competition, we do face the challenge of deregulation. We are a cost-effective utility, offering customers top-notch services at low rates. We take advantage of every technological opportunity to improve efficiency and manage costs through budget control. To stay on top, however, we knew we had to explore a resource we hadn't fully utilized--our people.

Action speaks louder

than words

Talk to workers about improving productivity, and they're likely to hear the crack of the whip in your voice. Talk to managers about improving quality with a new training program and watch their eyes glaze over. Why? Both labor and management concentrate on the bottom line: more work, more costs.

At WP&L we looked for a way to replace words with action. The Madison Area Quality Improvement Network (MAQIN)--a group of local business and government leaders--served as a valuable resource for seeing what works and what doesn't when companies try to improve quality. Through our attendance at MAQIN meetings, we learned that we didn't want to:

* try to change the entire corporation at once;

* bring in expensive consultants;

* hire or train in-house trainers;

* wait for a three- to five-year payback.

We found that we did want to start quality improvement on a small scale with pilot groups and let the results speak for themselves. …