What Is a Manager’s Best Approach to Quality?

Focusing on process is more effective than trying to control every aspect of employee performance.

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David Kachoui ’10

In 2010, after more than 10 years as a manager in the financial services industry, I took a leap of faith and joined a small medical manufacturer. Medical manufacturing has a unique set of management challenges due to the imperative for quality control. I soon learned — with the help of some research into the work of quality control expert and former Columbia Business School professor W. Edwards Deming — that focusing on process is more effective than trying to control every aspect of employee performance. In the latter command-and-control approach, managers act as authoritative decision-makers and attempt to control employee performance by focusing on external factors like numbers and analysis. By contrast, in the management-by-process approach, respectful managers support employees by nurturing their intrinsic motivation, such as their personal success goals, improving their processes, and removing barriers to their pride in workmanship. While I witnessed this in manufacturing, the concept applies to any industry. Here are the primary tenets of supportive management:

Management by Systems — Not by Numbers

Management by numbers, objectives, or results can create a trap where managers treat their employees as though they don’t care enough, aren’t smart enough, or don’t work hard enough when they don’t meet those external goals. Yet the managers remain stuck in the same place — or worse — even after resorting to firing these workers and hiring new people.

Management by systems, on the other hand, questions the system first. W. Edwards Deming found that 94 percent of errors are caused by the system. This means that time spent “fixing” employees is wasted and even counterproductive. Improving the system helps people and machines do better jobs and improves product quality and total productivity. When a quality issue surfaced for one of my company’s key clients, our president gathered the engineering team together not to reprimand them but instead to walk them through a true root-cause analysis. Initial hasty conclusions were replaced by an understanding of deeper cultural and systematic issues. This turned into an intellectually stimulating team-building exercise and created a team of continual system improvers. 

Through the ages, management by fear has been used with varying results. That’s partly because managers using this method face the never-ending challenge of motivating their employees; fear is an emotion, and sustaining any emotion over time is an uphill struggle. Fear of a manager distracts from the deep thinking necessary for long-term problem solving and continual improvement.

Management by respect and empathy makes managers a source of support. When people have managers’ support, they can focus on foreseeing problems and building quality into their products and services. As a consumer, I can usually tell how well managers treat employees by how well the employees treat me.

Management by Intrinsic — not Extrinsic — Motivation

If a company can achieve higher levels of employee motivation than the competition, that company could enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage. However, this tends to be an elusive goal. When most managers think of motivation, they think of rewards and consequences, carrots and sticks, hugs and kicks, promotions and punishments. All of these are extrinsic motivators. A little-known truth is that extrinsic motivators do nothing to increase — and may even diminish — intrinsic motivation.

The reality is that managers, teachers, and parents cannot force intrinsic motivation to happen. But they can identify the intrinsic “pride in workmanship” — the phrase used by Deming to define quality — when it occurs, nurturing it through support and respect. Behavioral scientist Daniel Pink has done some useful research on intrinsic motivation and offers three key factors that managers can focus on to foster it: autonomy (being trusted to do what’s best), mastery (manifesting special skills in meaningful ways), and purpose (pursuit of a worthy goal).

Management by Collaboration — not Competition

Some managers support competition on their team out of a belief that it yields greater results. This is false. Treating coworkers as enemies will have a negative impact on improvement, productivity, and quality. This holds true externally as well, especially with suppliers. Employing hardball negotiation tactics with suppliers to extract the lowest prices yields lower levels of quality over the long term.

Instead, the manager’s responsibility is to break down barriers. Once people start working together as a team, they can work more effectively for the company. Developing long-term relationships across departments and with the supply base improves quality.

These “management by process” techniques require a commitment to quality and long-term thinking. Rather than controlling the people in the organization, managers must control the process. They must have an understanding of and respect for their people to truly achieve organizational quality.

David Kachoui is the director of business development for Natech Plastics in Ronkonkoma, NY. A Project Management Institute–certified project management professional, he is a member of the American Society of Quality.

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