Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creating a Quality Culture

Before you can do this, you’ll have to define both quality and culture. Quality is really a slang term in that it has many different definitions in different settings.  For any given organization, quality is what the CEO says it is, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that his definition should reflect the opinions of his customers.  Of course, he also better have the board behind him on the direction he has defined for the company.  His next job is to convince his employees about his definition of quality.  We’re not talking about an intellectual discussion or mere aquiessence.  This is passion, dedication, & commitment.  The task for the CEO is to inspire a passion for his definition of quality among his employees.

Which brings us to culture.  My favorite definition of culture is “the shared beliefs of a defined group of people.”  We all belong to various groups and share different beliefs, depending on what group we’re with at the time.  Our surgery center had a picnic.  There was a young woman from our billing department who volunteered as leader of a volley ball team.  Nice person.  Good worker.  You would never suspect she would become take-no-prisoners aggressive on the volley ball court.  “I’m from California, and we take volleyball seriously out there.”  She had brought that ruthless competitive culture to our picnic.  I wanted her on my team!  

So what’s the poor CEO to do?  How does he instill this passion for quality?  First, is communication with employees, and you have to do that “every chance that you get; every way that you can.”  But that’s not enough.  You also have to demonstrate that you believe in your own definition—passionately.  Demonstrate this in little ways also, and do it every day.  That’s credibility.  After awhile, the employees will believe you, and they will share your passion, because it’s contagious but only from a credible source.

Part of our culture was for each employee to do their job better than anyone, anywhere.  The corollary was that the organization would provide them the tools and training to do so.  When a nurse identified a need for a rocking chair in the recovery room, the response was “Buy two.” 
When a nurse said, “I read an article about a better way of doing . . . .”  The response was “We’ll start tomorrow, and you’re in charge of making that happen.”

In the State Department, we are registered to ISO 9001.  It took two years to achieve registration but another 5 years to establish ISO as part of our culture.  We’re there now.  This is the way we do business.  Employees believe that it’s a good thing.  (We ask them, so I know.)  This took a lot of talking and training and visiting and celebrating success and public confirmations by the Medical Director.  Actually, we’re not there.  You’re never there.  Just like marriage, any culture requires daily tune ups and affirmations.

Paul Borawski mentioned “feelings,” and that triggered a memory of taking my Lexus in for repairs.  It was leaking a little oil, and I wanted it fixed.  The next day, I got a phone call from the service manager: “We found some other problems, and that $300 estimate I gave you is now up to $1,100,” he said.  “So, how do you feel about that?”  When your tagline is “The relentless pursuit of perfection,” you better include customer feelings in your definition of quality.  To a large extent, customers inherit the feelings of employees.  This Friday, I’m flying on Southwest Airlines, and I’m looking forward to it.  Their employees obviously enjoy their work, and I will enjoy flying with them.  Last month, I flew on United—a totally different culture, and it shows.  Feelings among employees are the result of the culture.  Customers can see through fake feelings.  How about the recorded message: “You call is important to us.”  Well, if it’s important, answer the phone.


  1. Great post on quality culture. CEO's passion and credibility are definitely helpful to instill quality culture in employees.

    What are your experiences of dealing with employees who have technical competence to do the job but have wrong attitude? How do you recruit employees with the right attitude?

    Kishore @

    1. First recruiting. My mantra has always been "Hire people with the right letters after their names, and I will make them good employees." It's a leadership issue. Same with your other question--wrong attitude. I must admit, however, that there are employees who have "chosen to do somethin else with their lives." They must be allowed to do so. Other employees will help you with this by making life uncomfortable for the employee who doesn't fit into the culture you have created.