Quality as a strategic choice: a practical example
In practice, it is not always easy to create and maintain a focus on quality. In this article, consulting firm Herrmann shares a practical example. To maintain its competitive edge, company De Zeef* has decided to distinguish itself through its quality. By taking a few simple steps, the focus on quality assurance was improved significantly. Below, you can read more about how this result was achieved.
De Zeef is a supplier of various minerals, including dolomite. Vast quantities of raw materials are brought in by ship. In various installations, these minerals are ground up, sieved and packaged if necessary. Among De Zeef’s clients are manufacturers of construction materials that operate on an international scale. The company is based in a single location and has a workforce of circa fifty people.
De Zeef has a staff of well-educated employees and various modern and well-maintained installations. The company’s quality assurance system has been in place for years. Over time, the quality manager, who spends roughly 50% of his time in the laboratory, has also been made responsible for OHS and environmental care. He has his hands full with conducting internal audits, updating the management system and keeping the certifying body satisfied. De Zeef’s clients have become increasingly demanding over the years. Their requirements for the organization itself and its products have become stricter.
For years, De Zeef hardly paid any attention to its competition. That changed around five years ago. The company gradually began losing some of its market share to several new players. These companies have considerably lower overhead costs, which allows them to offer their products at lower rates. The management team is convinced that something has to be done.
De Zeef’s directors believe that a number of strategic decisions have to be made to safeguard the company’s future. In conference with Herrmann, it decided to start by conducting an analysis of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Brief interviews were conducted with a number of key stakeholders and major clients. The goal was to identify the company’s strong and weak points, as well as its opportunities and threats. The directors: ”The results came as something of a surprise to us. We believed that the price of products would be the deciding factor for our client. Surprisingly enough, that was not actually true. The price has to be fair, of course, but reliable and constant product quality and delivery reliability are far more important factors. These aspects are crucially important to our clients; if we fail to deliver, their entire production process grinds to a halt. In these areas, there are opportunities for us to stay ahead of our competition.” Based on the results of the aforementioned SWOT analysis, various initiatives were taken to drastically increase the company’s focus on quality and delivery reliability.
Just like any other organization, De Zeef receives complaints from its clients from time to time. In practice, it is not always easy to see the positives in these complaints and learn from them. At Herrmann’s recommendation, it was decided to overhaul the company’s complaints handling procedure.
The quality manager: ”Herrmann made us realize that we can distinguish ourselves from our competitors by implementing an adequate complaints handling procedure. In a way, receiving a complaint gives you a perfect opportunity to show your organization’s true colors. We want to optimally capitalize on such opportunities. For one thing, we broadened the scope of our definition of a complaint. Instead of only taking action once things have already gotten out of hand, we now respond to critical signals. We have trained our people on how to respond to complaints. Rather than immediately becoming defensive, we listen calmly to what the client has to say and make clear agreements with them. Furthermore, we have given our people far more freedom to resolve issues on their own, together with the client. Besides being more enjoyable for our people, it significantly speeds up our complaints handling procedure. As a result of these measures, we have begun receiving more complaints. We see that as a positive, rather than a negative. Our clients take the trouble to report their issues back to us, we do something about it and everyone is satisfied at the end of the day! Our clients also appreciate the fact that we let them know how we implemented their feedback.”
Implementing improvements together with the work floor
Delivery times and delivery reliability are of crucial importance to De Zeef’s clients. Under Herrmann’s supervision, the company began implementing so-called “improvement circles.” A small group of three to four people from different fields was tasked to work on clearly defined issues.
The quality manager: ”We had no experience whatsoever with these improvement circles and were worried they would only lead to meaningless talk. That assumption was clearly wrong. By implementing brief, rigidly managed and practical sessions, we are able to make optimal use of the knowledge our people possess. In fewer than eight weeks, for example, we were able to significantly reduce the delivery times of certain products. All by bringing the planner, a member of our sales staff and a production employee together for a few brief sessions, with a little help from outside. They came up with solutions on their own. When it becomes clear that their efforts have led to some incredible results, that is very satisfying for everyone involved.”
Simple initiatives are usually enough to realize clear improvements. For example by getting everyone involved and keeping things simple, clear and – above all – fun. This guarantees quality assurance becomes meaningful and stays top of mind for all members of an organization. It can also contribute to your organization’s success – today and tomorrow.
* The names of the organizations are deliberately fictitious