Note: This article appears currently in the January/February 2012 issue of European Business Review
Quality for ALL: The Power of LEO
By Subir Chowdhury
The “New” Face of Quality
At a time when we have, more than ever, an abundance of impressive management tools to help us ratchet up performance, many businesses have made only marginal gains. Companies have invested huge quantities of time, energy, and cash into implementing systems like Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Reengineering, and Total Quality Management without significantly improving the quality of their operations or getting the returns they expected. Many times the systems are just too complex for employees to adhere to on a regular basis.
Quality methodologies like Six Sigma and Lean can be highly effective but are used narrowly and by limited personnel within an organization. LEO is the encompassing strategy that can be easily embraced by everyone within an organization, resulting in measurable improvements in your operations, products, and bottom line.
Yes, we give lip service to quality. Ask any manager on any level in any company, large or small, and you will get the same response: “Quality is our core strategy.” In many organizations, they will offer more evidence of their commitment: “After all, don’t we have a Vice President of Quality? Don’t we have a Quality Department?”
But right there, in a few words, is the answer to what’s wrong. Quality should be – must be – everyone’s business if we are to realize our potential and gain back the ground we’ve lost in the quality war. We as managers must, individually, take responsibility for the quality mission and stop delegating it to some other person or department. It must rule every aspect of our operations, permanently lodged within the DNA of our corporate culture.
In The Power of LEO, I describe how continuous focus on quality improvement can revolutionize any process–from manufacturing operations to managerial decision making. The secret is to cease delegating the responsibility of quality to specific teams or departments and permanently lodge it within the core of an organization’s culture. In essence LEO makes quality the responsibility of ALL the people all the time.
In other words LEO represents a new mindset, a new path and a transformational way to think about the decisions that everyone – ALL the people – at every level of an organization make and the decisions that they take. It is a system devised to help companies and the individual people that make up those organizations, to dramatically improve their performance and to make quality a part of their corporate and personnel DNA.
“LEO is profoundly simple yet extraordinarily effective. It is based on three basic principles: Listen, Enrich, and Optimize.”
LEO is a profoundly simple, yet extraordinarily effective management system and is based on three basic principles: Listen–Seek input from all stakeholders within your organization, from suppliers to employees to customers. Enrich–Create new ideas for improvement and solutions for problems using simple techniques. Optimize–Select the best improvement idea or solution, subject it to testing in the real world, and correct all shortcomings. LEO is a powerful, new management approach that can help us realize that goal. It represents a significant departure from past practice – an overarching system that encompasses and prioritizes earlier management tools. It has been applied, in whole or in part, at dozens of organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to medical institutions like the Henry Ford Health System to small nonprofits like Leader Dogs for the Blind.
By rigorously and consistently using one or all of the LEO guidelines, companies can achieve far higher levels of performance. That’s because LEO can find answers for the questions that plague managers everywhere: Why are my sales dropping off? What can I do about my excessive scrap? How do I reduce high turnover? How can I match my competitor’s price? Why is my new product pipeline empty? How can I get to best-in-class in my industry?
For a LEO project to succeed, though, it must have the support of both the company’s leaders and managers as well as the frontline people directly involved in the effort. But something more is required if LEO is to transform the company. In order to achieve unprecedented growth and profitability, companies must be committed to creating a culture of QUALITY. LEO requires that everyone within the company, acquire a high-quality mindset.
The Four Cornerstones of Quality
For organizations that want to implement LEO, their success will be determined in large measure by the level of their commitment to four basic principles or cornerstones:
1. Quality is my Responsibility. The next time someone stands up at a meeting and talks about quality, listen carefully to the reactions. Chances are, they will be all about what other people can do to improve things. One person will want to refer the matter to the quality department. Another person will shrug, saying it’s an operational issue best left to engineering. That attitude defeats any possibility of achieving a quality transformation. The pursuit of quality is a personal responsibility, reflected in every aspect of your work. When you make a decision, do you ask yourself whether it will improve your customers’ experience with the company? Do you consider whether it will improve your employees’ motivation? Do you ponder whether it will advance the quality initiative? A LEO organization has no room for the blame game, the shunting of your responsibility for error onto others, which can poison an organization’s relationships and culture. “Attaining quality requires the dedication of the whole universe of stakeholders: every supplier and distributor as well as every manager and frontline worker.”
2. All the People, All the Time. How often have you been in a public space that sports an overflowing trash can? At the end of the day, the janitor walks in and picks up the overflow, and he does that very same thing every day until he retires. A bigger trash can would make his job easier and greatly improve the looks of the place, but it never happens. The janitor never even considers the idea, and even if he did, he’d most likely never bother to suggest it to his boss. Why? “It’s not my job,” he’d say. In a LEO deployment, it becomes his job. Attaining quality requires the dedication of the whole universe of stakeholders: every supplier and distributor as well as every manager and frontline worker. The quality mission belongs to all the people, all the time. Leaders have a special duty to constantly reinforce that message, delivering it in every meeting and encounter with their reports – and by walking the talk, demonstrating their own commitment to quality in their own work lives. For example, at your meetings, do you make sure that everyone has a chance to speak his or her mind? It’s a hallmark of the LEO approach. It very clearly says that the pursuit of quality applies to “all the people, all the time.”
3. An I-can-do-it mentality. A sales person had to meet with a customer in another state. But before the airline ticket could be bought, she had to get four levels of managers to sign off on the trip. Any management that is so insecure and untrusting about its employees is not going to receive the benefit of their best work or their fresh insights. If you treat an associate like a child, don’t expect her to behave like an independent-minded, responsibility-seeking adult. There’s a straight line between leaders’ policies and the behavior and the attitudes of their workers – and between those attitudes and the company’s quality quotient. In a LEO deployment, management needs to build up employees’ confidence in themselves and their readiness to take part in the quality transformation.
4. No One Size Fits All. It’s always tempting to look for a policy or a procedure that can be applied across the board to any and all situations. It makes life so much simpler. That unhappy scenario often plays out when a company takes on a quality program like Six Sigma, which is typically applied in a strict, no-exceptions manner. By the same token, copying a quality program that was a smash at another company rarely succeeds, and can actually lower your quality level.
A LEO deployment recognizes the absolute necessity of tailoring solutions to the specific needs of the particular company. If an organization has already been trained in Six Sigma tools, for example, the deployment would blend the appropriate Six Sigma tools into the LEO program. The no-one-size-fits-all principle is also a guide to relationships during a LEO project. Leaders on all levels need to avoid automatic, knee-jerk responses to issues arising from the quality campaign. The way you’ve always handled a situation in the past may not be appropriate in a LEO environment. Ideally, a LEO deployment will allow an organization to “perform while its transforms.”
Initiatives and reactions need to be considered solely in terms of whether they advance or hold back the thrust toward greater quality. That is the new metric.
The Quality Mindset – People Quality
In the Power of LEO, I spend a great deal of time talking about quality. Most of that talk, though, has been about quality as it applies to process – putting out corporate fires, developing ideas and solutions, and perfecting those ideas and solutions. Listen. Enrich. Optimize. However, LEO is about both process quality as well as people quality.
For a LEO project to succeed it must have the support of the company’s leaders and the managers and frontline people directly involved in the effort. But something more is required if LEO is to transform the company, allowing it to achieve unprecedented growth, profitability, and overall quality. It requires that the individual people within the company, leaders and frontline employees alike, acquire a high-quality, honest, and empathetic mindset.
The LEO system is based upon honest data. If the information gathered in the Listen phase of a LEO project is false or misleading, for example, the project will fail. Subsequently, dishonesty – any dishonesty, for that matter – drives out individual quality. For much the same reason, quality leaders understand how important honesty is to their success and to the success of their organization.
Honesty really is the best policy, for practical as well as ethical reasons. In a LEO project, the leaders have to be told the truth by the frontline; otherwise, they will make decisions that are bad for everyone, from workers to customers to the executives themselves. By the same token, the leaders have to be straight with the frontline workers if they expect honesty in return. They must also make it clear that truth tellers will not be punished since the fear of being penalized or fired is the most powerful enemy of honesty.
The forthright relationship I’ve just described is part of the basic structure of a quality organization. In LEO terms, it’s individual quality leading to process quality.
There is another value that is a key element of the high-quality mindset: empathy.
Like honesty, empathy is a core value of the quality individual. It is also an aspect of LEO because it enables everyone in a project, leaders and frontline people, to better understand how customers and other stakeholder feel, the goal of the Listen mission. Again, individual quality breeds process quality.
There is a third aspect of the quality mindset I want to mention, a sort of negative attitude that has a very positive result: resistance to compromise. In their work, and in their personal lives as well, people with a quality way of thinking tend to be dissatisfied with results that others are ready to accept. They don’t allow themselves to settle for anything less than the best. These types of people are tireless in their pursuit of ever-higher levels of quality. Some may never come close to a LEO project, but they ultimately possess the LEO mindset, always looking to Enrich their lives, their organizations, their companies and to Optimize them, to make sure they’re the best they can be in meeting their customers’ needs, wants and desires.
As I have traveled around the world in recent months, it seems so different to me. Once flourishing communities have become ghost towns. People who were once happy about their lives and optimistic about their future are now despairing and fearful of what lies ahead. The nonstop wars, the endless recession, the soaring unemployment rate, the foreclosures and bankruptcies, the unrestrained greed of so many banks and so many elected officials – those are some of the reasons why so many in this world are so discouraged.
“People with a quality mindset are tireless in their pursuit of ever-higher levels of quality and are always looking to Enrich their lives, and optimize their organizations.”
We have a choice. We can simply accept what’s happening and spend our energy groaning and criticizing, or we can, as individuals, try to make a difference.
When LEO was devised, it was intended to be of value to managers in trouble, not troubled individuals, or even troubled nations. But, as I continue to posit, the basic ideas behind LEO are simple and applicable to everyday life. They provide a template for intelligent, organized, data-based decision making in any circumstances. The pursuit of excellence and the commitment to quality will set us on a path toward a brighter future. LEO: Quality for ALL.
All copyrights of the article belongs to Subir Chowdhury. LEO is a registered trademark of Subir Chowdhury. This article is based on Subir Chowdhury’s latest book The Power of LEO: The Revolutionary Process for Achieving Extraordinary Results (McGraw-Hill 2011