Sorting Out Quality: Building a Plan for Quality and Establishing a Basis for Moving Forward

(Originally published in the May 1994 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal; 1994 AFSMI Professional Writers Award Winner)

By William K. Pollock


Building a plan for quality is like working with a jigsaw puzzle. First you need all the pieces; then you have to fit them all together (Figure 1). However, there are several key questions that must be addressed before embarking on a quality planning effort including:

  • What are our quality goals and objectives, and what are the time and cost parameters once we get started?
  • Where do we stand now in terms of quality systems, policies, processes and procedures?
  • What are our customers' requirements for quality, both from us, and from their other services vendors?
  • How well are we meeting our customers' present needs and requirements, and how well will we be able to meet them in the future?
  • What level of commitment will we need from top management before we can move forward with our quality initiative?

These are the questions that will need to be addressed first within your organization in order to "alert" both management and all of the potential quality implementers as to the expected magnitude of the effort that is about to be undertaken. Some elements of quality may be easy to define and articulate, while others may be more difficult to communicate. However, it will be extremely helpful to management to understand from the outset exactly where the organization stands with respect to the various tasks and activities required ahead as it begins to move toward quality system implementation.

Other key questions that will need to be answered as part of the quality process include:

  • Whose responsibility will it be to manage and supervise the overall quality effort?
  • What resources and support will be made available throughout the course of the process?
  • How will the progress of the quality effort be monitored and assessed over time?
  • How can we ensure that we are building Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) into the system?
  • When, and under what circumstances, will we need to seek outside assistance, and from whom?
This series of questions focuses more on the internal structure, capabilities and resources that will be utilized throughout the quality implementation process, and who within the organization will be in control of the process. The answers to these questions will lead to the creation of an internal quality "team" by defining key internal goals, roles, responsibilities and accountability.

However, there are still other important questions that will also need to be answered before management can be convinced that implementing a quality system will actually be worth the effort. These questions may include:

  • What benefits will we likely realize as a result of quality system implementation?
  • How actionable will the quality system be toward increasing sales, reducing costs and improving customer satisfaction?
  • How can we measure the success of our quality system once it is in place?
  • How can we promote our quality accomplishments to our customers and prospects in the services marketplace?
  • What impact will quality implementation have on our organization?
If these key questions are not adequately answered to the satisfaction of your organization's management, you may never be given the support from the top that is required for undertaking a major quality initiative.


A needs assessment is a good place to start in terms of "framing" the overall quality planning process. The needs assessment should be focused on all of your organization's customers, both internal and external. Internal customers are generally comprised of those management and staff personnel that rely on internal data, information and support to perform their jobs, ultimately leading to some form of customer/market interface. This may include both inside and outside services sales personnel, Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), field and bench technicians, accounts payable/receivable personnel and all levels of services management. In fact, the definition of the "internal customer" is sufficiently broad that, in many cases, the input of virtually all of an organization's employees are included in an internal needs assessment.

The external customer is generally easier for an organization to define, and where it normally attempts to place the great majority of its overall marketing emphasis. However, not all customers should be defined in the same way. For example, a customer that has been "on the books" for several years, but reflects an erratic pattern of services usage over that period should not be viewed in the same fashion as one that has consistently been a major user of your organization's paid services and support. However, while some customers may represent more attractive business opportunities than others, all customers have their respective needs and requirements for your organization's services, and all must be considered when building your organization's quality system.

Customer satisfaction improvement is often the driving force behind any planning or quality initiative. The most direct means for measuring satisfaction is by comparing customer ratings for your organization's performance against the corresponding ratings of importance identified through the customer/market needs assessment. Simply comparing your performance against your competitors will not provide you with any more direct insight into your own customers' needs. However, comparing your performance directly against your customers' needs and requirements will provide you with a direct, and actionable, means for measuring, assessing, evaluating and, ultimately, improving customer satisfaction levels.

Independent assessments of internal operations, processes and procedures may also lead toward a better understanding of your organization's ability to meet its customers' quality requirements. However, completing the planning puzzle is likely to involve many other areas as well, possibly including assessments of the overall service/product life cycle process, new product/service feasibility and technology, customer service and support functions and areas requiring new or remedial training for management and staff personnel.

All of these elements can be used as input into an organization's strategic marketing planning program. However, the true value of planning for quality is best measured in terms of the direct benefits that will ultimately be realized as a result of quality system implementation. In the most simplistic terms, these are generally manifested in the areas of:

  • Proactive Marketing/Competitive Advantage
  • Improved Levels of Customer Satisfaction
  • Reductions in Operating Costs
  • Increased Management Tools
  • More Efficient Operations, Processes and Procedures
While there may be additional unique benefits for individual services organizations, these five (5) areas represent the most attainable, and measurable, areas where benefits can be realized.


Recognition of the need for quality is a critical prerequisite and may come from any number of sources within the organization including, but not limited to:

  • Senior Management
  • General Management and Staff
  • Internal Operations or Production
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Finance and Administration
  • Customer Service
  • Information Systems
  • Research and Development
  • Human Resources
  • Quality Assurance
  • Customers and Market Prospects
However, these same sources may just as easily serve as major obstacles to moving forward as each one may have its own fears, concerns or hidden agendas with respect to the quality implementation process. It is primarily for this reason that recognition from the top is generally easier to "push" down through an organization than a "grassroots" groundswell is to "push" up from the bottom. In most organizations a "top down" approach is generally more successful than a "bottom-up" approach.

The prerequisites for quality are few, but highly important. The five (5) most important prerequisites are as follows:

  1. Management Commitment
    Management commitment must come from the top down and be supported at all levels within the organization in order for the quality initiative to be fully accepted (Figure 2). It must be a "real" commitment and not just "lip service" from senior management. The organization's commitment must be fully embraced by internal decision-makers and implementers alike, and must be openly communicated throughout the organization. It must be a "two way street" and not merely an "edict" handed down by senior management.

  2. A Plan For Quality
    The plan for quality must address each quality element in terms of its specific goals and objectives. It must be dynamic and inclusive of all organizational and operational areas that would ultimately be impacted (Figure 3). It must be flexible and able to adapt to change should the situation warrant, and it must be embraced and accepted by all departments, managers and staff personnel. Most importantly, it must include a means for monitoring ongoing progress, tracking results and measuring performance over time.

  3. Direction and Focus
    The direction and focus of the quality effort must be targeted and not conducted on a "scattergun" basis. It must focus on goals that are both attainable and measurable. It must be actionable and not merely for "show". It must be constantly revisited, readjusted and refined, and it must be directly related to specific goals with specific results required.

  4. Teamwork and Structure
    All of the personnel involved in the quality effort must be organized in a manner where they can continually support one another throughout the implementation process. They must be willing and able to work together toward a common goal and have the ability to listen, to change and to move forward. All quality personnel must be both responsible and accountable and they must be in constant communications with their respective "team partners". The entire "quality team" must be empowered to move forward.

  5. Leadership and Training
    The quality initiative must be managed by individuals who can "take charge" and lead. Personnel at all levels within the organization must be properly trained in the fundamentals of quality. The designated "team leaders" must have the authority, as well as the responsibility, to "make things happen". It is important that they have the ability both to take direction, and to direct. Most importantly, they must be included in the management decision-making process in order for their leadership roles to work. The quality leadership within the organization must be strong, well trained and accountable.
An organization that meets the prerequisites for quality is one that (1) reflects full management and staff commitment throughout the organization; (2) has both an understanding of the need for quality and a plan for implementing it; (3) has direction and focus as to the goals, objectives, values and benefits of quality; (4) has both a structure and an environment that foster quality; and (5) provides the training and support that is required to empower its employees to get the job done.

Management commitment is what is required for getting started, and the plan for quality is needed for getting organized. Direction and focus assists in setting the appropriate targets, and teamwork and structure helps to provide the proper environment for quality. Finally, it is with leadership and training where the quality elements are "pulled together" so that the organization can be successfully led through the quality implementation process (Figure 4).


The quality process begins with seven (7) principal guidelines for self-assessment based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, as follows. These are essentially the basic criteria upon which an organization should model itself in order to ensure that:

  • Its quality goals and objectives are well defined,
  • Its performance can be measured over time, and
  • Its quality implementation process will be well managed.
  1. Leadership
    In order for quality to be successfully introduced and promoted throughout an organization, a sense of corporate leadership must also accompany management commitment. Senior management should be both personally and visibly involved in the quality process. Through their leadership the importance of quality, its values and its benefits, should be openly, and articulately, communicated throughout the organization. Responsibilities and accountability for quality implementation must be clearly articulated as well in order for the process to remain under control. It will be management's responsibility to ensure that all of the required quality resources are available, and that all quality managers are accountable.

  2. Information and Analysis
    The organization should also have clearly defined criteria for the ongoing measurement of quality. Systems should be in place to evaluate the scope, reliability, accuracy and accessibility of data that is required to manage business operations, and to determine the appropriate means for assessing performance. The organization should also have access to reliable competitive and benchmark data in order to have the capability of assessing its overall market position with respect to both customer needs and requirements and competitive positioning. It is critical, however, that management always has the ability to transform its collected market, competitive and customer data into actionable plans for new business development, increasing market penetration, improving customer satisfaction and, ultimately, improving its "bottom line". In order to ensure this key capability, the organization should systematically evaluate and assess its analytical capabilities and processes for measuring performance and identifying areas for improvement.

  3. Strategic Quality Planning
    As is required in any business planning effort, the organization should use a structured process to set the appropriate quality improvement goals. The goals should focus on key issues including customer requirements, process capabilities, competitive and benchmark data and supplier capabilities. The plan, once developed, should be widely communicated and periodically reviewed against actual performance. As a general rule of thumb, operational plans should focus on a 1 to 2 year timeframe, while strategic business plans should address a longer planning horizon of roughly 3 to 5 years. As part of the overall planning effort company goals, performance and projections should be continually monitored against both customer requirements and competitive performance.

  4. Human Resource Development and Management
    The quality process will not work unless it is fully supported by the organization's employees. That is why human resources development and management is so important. The organization should have formal plans in place for the hiring, staffing, selection, training and empowerment of personnel. Further, employee contributions to the quality process should be both encouraged and acted upon. New employees should receive new hire training and current employees should have a structured and ongoing education and training curriculum available to them as well. The effectiveness of quality education and training should be measured on a systematic basis, and there should be programs in place that reward employees, at all levels, for achieving quality goals and objectives.

  5. Management of Process Quality
    The most effective way to manage process quality is to look to the customers' needs and requirements. New and improved products and services should be designed based on customer needs and the overall design process should be systematically evaluated on an ongoing basis to ensure Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI). The organization should define and communicate its quality requirements to all key suppliers as well. All preventive and corrective processes should be well documented and assessments, or audits, of quality systems, processes and the products/services themselves should be conducted on a regular basis.

  6. Quality and Operational Results
    The Baldrige Award criteria suggest that a company should show both steady and measurable improvement over a three year period and that data should be available to reflect Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) in all key areas. The state of quality in all operational areas within the organization should also be measured over time, with the quality and operational results compared against other major competitors. Just as importantly, the quality of the organization's suppliers' products and services should also be evaluated on a regular basis.

  7. Customer Focus and Satisfaction
    Customer focus and satisfaction should represent the principal area of self-assessment in any planning, marketing or quality effort. Accordingly, the organization should incorporate the most important customer needs and requirements factors into its internal quality plan. To ensure that it is always kept well on target, the organization should proactively solicit customer input and feedback, and respond as required. The organization should regularly measure and evaluate customer satisfaction and build the results of its findings directly into the planning process. It should be properly organized and structured to provide the required levels of products, services and customer service to its market base. All customer contact personnel within the organization should be properly trained in customer service; not just the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs).
Each of the seven (7) quality self-assessment guidelines, as described above, are clearly defined, logical, and critical to the eventual success of any organization that wishes to implement and maintain an effective quality system. However, based on the Baldrige Award criteria, and as adopted by most of the individual state quality award programs, each guideline carries a separate "weight" in terms of its relative importance to the overall quality process (Figure 5).

For example, it is clear to see, as reflected in the point allocation utilized by the Baldrige Award, that the major emphasis in undertaking any quality effort should be placed on the customer. Of the total 1,000 points used to evaluate Baldrige Award applicants, nearly one-third (300 points, or 30%) are related to customer focus and satisfaction. The next most important criteria are quality and operational results (180 points, or 18%), human resources development and management (150 points, or 15%) and management of process quality (140 points, or 14%).


In summary, the more of the quality elements your organization already has in place, the more ready it is to move forward toward quality system implementation:

  • Leadership is critical to the empowerment that is required to "get the ball rolling"
  • Information and Analysis provides you with the tools required to measure and assess your quality effectiveness
  • The Strategic Quality Plan is the framework from which your organization will operate
  • Human Resource Development and Management assures that you have the right personnel to "get the job done"
  • Management of Process Quality assures quality in the design of all products and services as well as the processes that bring them to your customers
  • Quality and Operational Results provide you with a benchmark for evaluating your performance
  • Customer Focus and Satisfaction assures that your organization will always strive to provide its customers with the levels of products, services and support they require
In assessing your organization's overall quality effort, it is important to remember that the quality puzzle is only complete if all of the pieces are fit together in the proper placement. When any one piece of the quality puzzle is missing, the quality process is incomplete. Your organization may already have most of the puzzle pieces in place, but only through the adoption and utilization of a formal planning process will the quality puzzle ultimately be put together in an efficient and effective manner.
William K. Pollock is President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a Westtown, Pennsylvania USA-based consulting firm specializing in business planning, customer service and customer satisfaction research. He may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at

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