Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Quality movement: has it lost its way?

This post is slightly different from the usual posts on UAT in that it looks at a close relation: Quality Management. This is an extract from a report on the Quality movement by A. Kumar and puts a case to re-evaluate it:

We can have perfect systems and procedures for quality, but if the employees are not willing to follow, the whole system will fail to deliver. All companies in the services sector are victims of this syndrome. When the quality movement started, some shady agencies deceived their clients by promising that a quality assurance system, a quality certification and a quality assurance manager can ensure quality of the output. A QA system is as good or bad as the quality of those who implement it, and no company with sub-standard employees can provide standard services even if there is an ISO certified QA system and an expert QA Manager in place.

The most significant development in the rush for quality has been the unprecedented growth in the number of certification agencies. From a few international players the number has grown in hundreds the world over. The initial few had a bountiful harvest when the rush started, and that provided an ugly model for numerous "operators" to try their hand at a low-investment-high-return business opportunity. The simple fact that most of the new certification agencies have their principals in Europe and it was the European Union that triggered the quality juggernaut makes the whole exercise suspect.

The biggest beneficiary of this erroneous concept of quality assurance has been a set of professionals masquerading as quality assurance managers (QAM) in ISO-certified companies. They first descend on the victims (desperate for ISO certification) in the form of experts or consultants willing to assist in getting the initial certification. It goes to their credit that they do a useful job at this stage. In most companies, there will be severe shortage of expertise to document the procedures they follow in a systematic manner. This vacuum is easily filled by the so-called ISO experts and consultants. After marathon sessions with the employees, an acceptable and auditable quality system is set up. Then these quality consultants (sometimes in the form of a full-fledged company) spend months upon months conducting mock audits, feedbacks and corrections, until finally the whole system is ready for offering to an accredited external agency for certification. It is always up to these ISO consultants to conclude their deal by "arranging" a smooth audit and certification as per ISO norms.

The dubious and redundant aspect of quality management starts from this point. In order to maintain the certification and withstand the periodic surveillance audits of the external agency, most companies are too willing to accommodate these consultants or experts in the form of a quality assurance manager. Guidelines of ISO have made it easier for these "redundant" managers to report directly to the chief executive in order to keep "quality" as a high level and independent function in the organisation. And that makes it easier for these climbers to stay on forever. Most of the time, their work is reduced to arranging "facilities" for the external auditors and "taking care" of them during the audits. That both these efforts do not necessarily contribute to the quality of the host organization is a simple fact that misses the attention of the chief executives. In fact, they are counterproductive and retrograde. In the long run almost all such companies end up uneconomical, thanks to their misplaced overemphasis on quality rather than profit. Quality is meaningful only in a profit-making company and all the efforts for it must subordinate the ultimate objective of making profit.

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