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
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. A presentation at a MAQIN meeting by Lakeshore Technical College (LTC), a state community college located in Cleveland, Wisconsin, gave us a way to do it. LTC offered the Transformation of American Industry Program, and when it came to teaching SPC, this program had everything we were looking for.
SPC's training needs
Statistical process control is a problem-solving technique involving elementary statistics and charting that helps both workers and managers pinpoint a system problem, measure its cost, specify a solution, and quantify the payback. It seems complicated, so when you're planning to teach SPC to a wide range of employees with many different responsibilities, make sure you select a program that's thorough, proven, and applicable to many types of work.
We felt good about the Transformation of American Industry Program for a number of reasons.
* First, it was based on sound, proven theories--Deming's as well as those of J.M. Juran, another statistician and quality expert who applies similar theories to service industries.
* Second, LTC trainers taught SPC in 12 self-contained modules, each supported with a video presentation and workbook.
* Third, LTC offered flexible scheduling. Our people could take the course in four intensive Friday-and-Saturday seminars or in a one-day-per-week format, and we even had the option of in-house training.
* Fourth, and most important, the program had students apply SPC to solve an actual problem at work. We knew that only through hands-on application would participants really understand SPC theory and methods. And only by solving real WP&L problems would WP&L workers and managers be convinced that SPC was a viable way of doing business.
Launching the pilot groups
After we investigated LTC's program closely, we decided to test it with pilot groups from our Edgewater and Rock River generating stations. At Rock River, the plant manager presented the program to the employees, asked for volunteers, and had the volunteers select a six-person pilot group. The Edgewater plant manager himself chose six members for his station's group.
In late 1986 the two groups were trained at LTC over three months--one group in the series of four two-day seminars, the second group in one-day programs every other week. Between training sessions both groups applied their skills to the projects they had chosen at their generating stations.
When the groups presented their findings to management, we saw the program's potential impact on the company. The Rock River group, for example, outlined their solution for a simple, obvious problem: a disorganized tool crib. Throughout the years workers and managers had made efforts to organize it, clean it, make it more efficient, but to no avail. The pilot group, however, made it clear how serious the problem was. First, they conducted a survey that determined how much time was lost when workers couldn't find the right tools. Second, they translated those staff-hours into dollars. Third, they showed the potential costs of how a misplaced tool could extend a power outage.
But they didn't stop with defining the problem. They developed a list of recommendations for improving the tool crib, which included better lighting, organizational supervision, tool repair, and so on. Then they documented the costs of the improvements. And, finally, they showed how quickly the improvements would provide payback.
The managers were impressed. In front of them, hourly workers were documenting how to save the company money. Just as impressive as their charts, graphs, and tally sheets were the group's eloquence, confidence, and pride.
It was obvious that this SPC training program would pay for itself, offer financial and political rewards for the company, and provide a vehicle for all employees to contribute to keeping rates competitive. To make sure the word spread, we captured the group's presentation on camera.
From a pilot group to
Starting a company-wide quality improvement effort with pilot-group training and testing is cost efficient, politically prudent, and effective--but only if you communicate your success and vision powerfully. Once the ball is rolling, momentum will do a lot of the work for you, but to get it rolling, you have to give it a big push.
That's why we budgeted time and money for a video and a brochure that documented the history, training, and results of the pilot group's effort. We showed the video to virtually every WP&L employee, and they saw and heard
* echoes of their own skepticism about a new training program;
* the pride and enthusiasm of pilot group members;
* management's response to pilot group results;
* teams of workers and managers working together as equals to solve problems;
* key managers promising to support the program and respond to group suggestions;
* employees of differing backgrounds endorsing the value of the training program;
* union support for the program;
* a challenge from workers and managers for other employees to get involved;
* the message that the program was at WP&L to stay.
In addition we presented the video and brochure to our shareholders, business and civic groups, MAQIN, the Public Service Commission, customers, and potential recruits. It documented our commitment to the bottom line of quality: providing the customer with a better product at a lower cost.
To date, more than 16 groups have completed what we call quality-team training and have documented ways to save the company over $1 million a year. Whether demonstrating how a minor flue adjustment will cut coal costs or a new billing format will reduce customer questions, these groups make every facet of our business more productive and efficient. Hourly employees are involved. Managers are involved. And already there's a waiting list of people who want to get involved.
We've seen benefits above and beyond operating cost savings. Quality teams
* give employees more pride in their work;
* enhance overall morale;
* help break down communication barriers between labor and management;
* build a mutual respect between labor and management;
* encourage more and better communication between different departments;
* give workers the skills and format to identify problems and suggest solutions;
* provide managers with the hard data necessary to make informed decisions;
* offer savings that can be passed on to customers;
* change the attitudes of first-line managers, as well as their own.
An SPC program checklist
Here's a summary of useful advice for any company that wants to start a quality effort with pilot groups and make sure the enthusiasm spreads.
For quality-team members:
* Choose the most competent people for pilot groups.
* Keep the size of the groups small, from four to seven people.
* Try to get people with different job functions on a team.
* Remember that management and labor can work well together on a team.
* Select an easily handled project initially.
* Look at the long-term as well as the short-term benefits of a project.
* Expect frustrations and work through them.
* Don't judge project success simply on the size of documentable savings.
* Set aside a specific time when team members can meet.
* Soon after a project is finished, start a new one or check the monitoring of an old one.
* Work toward making quality-team attitudes and skills everyday parts of the job.
* Remember that the bottom-line goal of every quality-team project is to offer the customer a higher quality product at a more competitive price.
For managers working with quality teams:
* Demonstrate management support by staying apprised of team progress.
* Help quality teams choose projects that solve immediate problems.
* Ask to get copies of possible project lists.
* Respond in a timely and explicit manner to quality-team suggestions.
* Give quality-team members the time they need whenever possible, because you'll be making a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.
* Make sure quality teams know you appreciate all ideas and suggestions by recognizing their efforts.
* Encourage quality teams to initiate new projects.
* Make initial training available to anyone interested.
* Encourage further training for quality-team members interested in more sophisticated methods.
* Create a summary form for documenting projects--for example, one that lists potential savings, implementation costs, payback schedules, and so on.
* Create a corporate quality council to suggest, coordinate, monitor, and evaluate quality-team projects and allocate resources for implementing quality-team suggestions.
* Encourage quality teams in every department and at every level of the company.
* Use your quality standards when you select vendors.
* Create an annual report to senior management on the progress and success of the program, and share it with all employees.
For companies interested in implementing a program:
* Seek out potential training programs at local colleges and technical centers.
* Orient key managers to program goals, training requirements, and case histories.
* Form pilot groups to test training programs and to prove program worth to other departments and managers.
* Document the success of pilot groups with videos, brochures, newsletters, and so on.
* Once the SPC program is fully initiated, make a long-term commitment to it.
From seed to full bloom
To maintain our competitive edge in a deregulated industry, we have made the effort to improve quality, and in so doing, to improve the way the people in our company work. We were successful because we proved, step by step and to all levels of the company, that a statistical process control program can make an impression on employee pride, customer satisfaction, company productivity, and the bottom line. From small groups of employees, we created a company-wide emphasis on quality.…