Note: This article was originally published in the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.
My Father spent his career in quality management, so I was raised with a deep understanding of what quality means, how you get it, how you create systems to deliver it and what to do when those systems fail. Like the humans that create them, all systems are imperfect and will fail to meet customer expectations at some point! Anytime a customer is disappointed—with a product or service—you have a quality problem.
25 years ago, I was a newly-minted sales manager for a chemical company. A customer who used our dye to manufacture industrial paper towels discovered that one of their customers was upset because something was leaching from the towels and turning water brown. They wanted to cancel all future orders because they feared some unknown, potentially hazardous chemical was threatening the health of anyone who might grab a towel.
We did two things. First, we worked with our customer to adjust the amount of dye they added to their towels. Then we called our chemical plant to get toxicity data for the dye—it was completely harmless. Those two actions allowed our customer to report that the cause of the problem was found and corrected, and to document the dye was harmless, which no other towel suppliers could do. The quality “problem” lead to both an improved production process and a competitive advantage.
On the other hand, I once consulted with the president of a jewelry manufacturing company. He loved sales, but hated manufacturing. The only time he entered the plant was when there was a problem and it was time to “kick some butt.” The moment the plant door flew open and he appeared, the manufacturing people literally ran for cover. With everyone pointing fingers to avoid being the one whose derriere was to be roasted, few problems were ever really solved, little competitive advantage was ever gained and costs remained exorbitantly high
There are two ways to deal with a system failure. You can target some individual, label them an inept, inconsiderate slob who doesn’t care about customers, and punish them. Alternatively, you can realize that problems are almost always systemic—the weakness is in the system—and beyond the control of any one individual.
If you follow the first course, you will drive fear into the organization, fail to solve the systemic problem, ensure it reoccurs and train people hide or point fingers the next time the system fails.
A more enlightened approach is to gather the troops, explain the problem, enroll everyone in finding the root cause, fix the system and celebrate success.
Most managers would be amazed how much employees want to help solve problems… and already know how. When I was that wet-behind-the-ears manager, Denis, a customer service rep, would call every so often with a customer problem and ask how to solve it. Thinking it was my job to fix the problem, I would wring my hands, talk to a few people and call Denis back with a solution. One day he called with a problem and I was stressed and frustrated. I said, “I don’t know Denis, what do you think?” He knew how to solve the problem…he always did. He was simply afraid to step on the toes of some young, unknown manager. I came to love Denis for his dedication, creativity and customer commitment.
No system is flawless…no system will ever be flawless. When systems fail, you can exclaim, “Oh God…a quality problem!” Alternatively, you can view it as a gift to help you identify and reinforce a weak link in the chain of events that produces your products and services. When seen this way, next time a customer has a complaint, you just might instead—with the use of one extra “o”—exclaim “Oh Good! A quality problem.”