The Role of Corporate Quality

Survival in today’s business environment means keeping one step ahead of the competition at all times. This is not only in areas of cost and advertising but also how your organization operates and what it looks like to the customer’s eye. Consumers today like to feel familiar with a name so that wherever they come in contact with it, they will be comfortable knowing the level of products and services they expect. This is true not only in food chains such as McDonalds, but also in large manufacturing or service corporations like Ford or the Royal Bank.

With the push towards standardization, common vision, and universality, organizations are more and more establishing corporate entities to help bring about that sameness among divisions that customers are coming to anticipate. Open the door to constant acquisition and growth, and you have more reasons for a central function that will help to guide commonality among new members.

The Old Corporate Image

Most corporations in the past were based on the autocratic structure of top down “do as I say” management, where the road to success lay in one person’s thinking, and there was usually little room for other’s innovations. As the 21st century progressed, so did the freedom of the different divisions, yet the structure of the corporate functions tried to remain the same, with the unfortunate result of more diversity rather than less. In the case of quality, many managers were expected to report both to their site leader and to the corporate quality vice president. The site leader balked at the outside influence by the corporate quality entity and encouraged the quality manager to ignore them. The quality manager would then have to play the dangerous game of open rebellion to corporate policy internally and quiet submission to corporate needs externally. The result would usually be half-hearted implementation of corporate programs and bogus quarterly progress reports showing success. The corporation-site relationship became a joke.

Guiding Rather Than Pushing

Most people don’t like to be told what to do, and if that person is a leader themselves, they definitely want to have a say in where the future of their programs are taking them and their division. It’s hard to blame them. The quality manager is hired with the responsibility of creating results; lower defects, happier customers, lower costs, better products. When they are forced to go down a road that they are not convinced of, they will fight the implementation of those programs. When their site manager says no to corporate quality, they have no choice but to follow the lead, or face possible demotion or dismissal. The “Good Corporation” will realize these obstacles within the relationship and turn around the methods they employ to realize the objectives of more effective quality initiatives and standardized programs. The corporation quality position must convince the
divisions that going together is better, and that progress can happen with their participation even in a standardized environment.

Step 1 – Organize the Corporate Level

Each group of leaders within an organization have similar needs. They may be responsible for different things at different levels, but such things as reporting structures, responsibilities, training needs, and planning are similar regardless of whether you work at the corporate or divisional level. The top corporate level usually contains a leader called the President and CEO. Reporting to them are the vice presidents or directors of the different functions such as quality, engineering, operations, human resources, sales & marketing, and so on. These functions will meet on an established basis (or if they don’t, they should) to map out strategies for the future and monitor the success of actions taken. A culture of competition between corporate departments and their powerful leaders can lead to diversity and erratic levels of success. Here the corporate quality function has an opportunity (and a responsibility) to facilitate a senior level culture of collaboration between departments through the creation of shared visioning and systems thinking rather than a silo mentality. A focus on production needs without proper support from quality can change a surge in sales to a loss of market share in the twinkling of an eye. Similarly, without proper marketing of the products and services to gain sales, attention to hiring and development of staff, and the multitude of other functions that make up a successful, thriving organization, things can quickly start sliding downhill at an accelerated rate. As individuals and groups, we are all interlinked, and only by working as a team can we hope for long term, sustainable growth.

I remember a story from many years ago, when I was still a young Quality Manager. The small stamping plant where I worked was involved in an amalgamation with a number of other complementary manufacturing sites. Because of the size of the newly formed organization, a corporate level was added with Directors positions appointed from existing staff, and all but one were powerful personalities that had worked together in the largest of the amalgamated companies, and therefore were used to the grab and bite, push and pull, dog eat dog world of competing for resources and acclaim. The Quality Director, on the other hand, was from one of the smaller factories before the amalgamation, with a more family based culture whose Managers worked as a single team under the guidance of the Plant Manager. One day, about six months after his promotion, the Quality Director failed to show up for work. Rumors soon circulated when that absence turned into a week, and then two. The Quality Managers within the different divisions were left without a guiding force and support mechanism, and lumbered along while they watched their colleagues in the other departments thrive. I happened upon that Quality Director soon after in the community, and asked him what happened. The stories he told me of the power trips and psychological bullying at the Corporate Director level made me cringe. he had left work one day in his car only to find himself in a parking lot many miles away, with no knowledge of how he had gotten there, on his knees vomiting on the hard, stark pavement. He later left on sick leave and I never heard of him again.

In his seminal book called ‘The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization’, Author Peter Senge describes a great team as “a group of people who functioned together in an extraordinary way – who trusted one another, who complemented each other’s strengths and compensated for each other’s limitations, who had common goals that were larger than individual goals, and who produced extraordinary results“. The loyal employee in the story above, who’s previous work record and experience, skills and talents, had been respected enough to offer him the position of Quality Director, experienced the opposite. It led to his devastating decline in health, and caused the quality function to exist in a state of aimlessness long after his departure. The consequences were not limited to that one function, but felt its way through the different interconnection functions as well, all the way to the customer.

The corporate quality function has several different (but similar) layers of responsibility in order to encourage success for the organization. By facilitating a culture of collaboration and shared strategic planning across departments within the corporate level, senior management can effect a common vision and message, developed as a joint effort with the divisions, who ultimately will have to carry out much of the work.

At the same time, they have to use that same model of collaboration with the quality functions at the divisional level. create overall quality objectives and targets that are in harmony with that common vision, and with the strategies of the other functions. Once approved, the corporate quality function has a responsibility to assist their counterparts in the divisions in achieving success, and should encourage a team culture among the divisional quality leaders, rather than a competitive one, so that all can succeed.

Step 2 – Create Corporate Quality Products and Services

The corporate quality function now has an idea of the direction the corporation wants to take, and therefore the requirements that they will be responsible to set into motion. Before they go to the divisions, they should decide the role that they are going to play, and the products and services that they will offer the divisions to help them meet the objectives and targets of the corporation. Some of the items may be mandatory (such as the adoption of overall policies, or certification to a particular a quality management standard within a certain time frame) and some may be voluntary (applicable training workshops such as problem solving, statistics, or internal audits). The corporate function has to distinguish between the two and know when to decree and when to offer. The collection of products and services may be very similar throughout the years and change only due to specific projects or objectives that become apparent during planning. Examples of these corporate products and services could be the facilitation of quarterly quality planning sessions with the divisional managers to establish common objectives and targets, corporate policies, bench-marking activities, future programs, establishing the methods for reporting progress to targets on the divisional and corporate levels, services that allow for communication between corporate and divisions, and between the divisions themselves, facilitation of a yearly training needs analysis or project plan creation for the divisional managers. Whatever the product or service, it must be designed to help the division meet the requirements that will make their position successful. In this way, their success becomes the corporation’s success.

Step 3 – Organize the Divisional Levels

When the President and their corporate staff (together) has decreed to the divisions the results that are expected of them, the divisions now have little choice but to meet the objective targets or the site leader may face unsatisfactory reviews. Because the division managers report to the site leader, they are under the same pressure to succeed for almost the same reasons. The door is now opened for guidance and facilitation by the corporate quality function. They enter as the provider of free services to help their divisional quality counterparts succeed in their divisional level objectives and targets by providing training, tools, direction, and coordination. The corporate entity becomes welcomed and sought after rather than despised and rejected. It is now possible to develop a corporate structure to help the divisions meet the needs of the corporation through packaged programs and their own individual planning, and for the divisions to become part of the planning structure itself. When this happens, the division level managers also become partners rather than adversaries, and divisional site leaders become the customer to the corporate and divisional quality program initiatives.

Step 4 – Market the Success of the Divisions

People like success, especially when they’re part of it. When that success is made well known to their peers, they’ll want even more of it. The corporate function should have the responsibility to market the successes of the divisional quality managers, either on an individual basis, or the teamwork that has transpired through the quarterly quality planning sessions. Awards could be established for the divisions to strive for in many areas. These awards would then be brought home by the divisional quality managers for all of their employees to share. The awards themselves could be agreed upon by the divisional quality managers during their planning sessions, and you can be quite sure that actions would take place as soon as they arrived back, to bring that award to their division. A measuring criterion would have to be established that all agreed upon, in order to make sure that the integrity of the awards were above common favoritism. When established, the corporate awards program could bring pride to the workplace and a sense of team environment to each of the divisions.

Step 5 – Survey the Corporate Customer and Plan for the Future

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone has a customer. Even Kings and Queens had to take into consideration the will and needs of the people. Those that didn’t, soon found themselves out of a job. The corporate quality customers are the divisions. The corporate position is there to make the organization (comprised of the divisions) work more efficiently. Without the support of the divisions, progress will be hampered and obstacles will appear. With support of the divisional managers, the corporate quality function will be able to realize combined successes that will make everyone’s job easier and create positive relationships that turn into further progress on their own. Therefore the last step of any progressive corporate quality program is to survey the corporate customers several times a year. This could be done as part of the corporate and divisional planning sessions, where the environment could be made to be one of open ideas and discussion, of positive collaboration, and would allow the corporate quality function to plan for the next year the revised products and services that they will offer. In this way the corporate quality function is leading by example, rather than herding by force.

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