Friday, June 14, 2013

Advancing Innovation and Quality

I'm happy to let you know I've been selected as an "influential" voice - by the American Society for Quality (ASQ).  The folks at the ASQ assure me they understand that I'm focused on innovation rather than an expert on quality, and are even ok with the fact that sometimes quality and innovation don't see eye to eye.  My goal is to write occasionally about quality from an innovation point of view.

I'm responding today to the recent post by Paul Borawski, the president of the ASQ.  In his June post he asks two questions about quality.  The first is:  what's the big challenge facing quality?  The second he asks is:  what questions do we need to answer in order to advance quality in the world?

 Innovation and Quality:  frenemies

As a person who works in the innovation space, I have both great regard for quality initiatives and sometimes great fear of an overbearing focus on quality.  Creating consistent, valuable products and services that have exceptional quality is very important to consumers and drives increased profit margins, but sometimes comes at the expense of creativity, innovation, variability and risk.  Quality is an outcome and becomes a cultural phenomenon, but shouldn't become a barrier to innovation. When a heightened focus on quality creates barriers for new ways of thinking or constrains innovation


Paul asked:  what are the big challenges facing quality, and on his blog he referenced research into some of the big challenges.  As I read the research I see four major categories of challenges:
  1. Governance and Management engagement
  2. Quality Measures
  3. Company support for quality, especially competencies and training
  4. Corporate culture and resistance to new initiatives
What's interesting about these barriers to quality is that they map very well to barriers for innovation.  When we think about deploying innovation initiatives in an organization, we worry about strategic alignment and governance, how to measure and value innovation activities, how to build skills and competencies and how to overcome issues within corporate culture that may resist change or new methods and practices.  Quality programs and innovation programs face very similar challenges.

One of the factors that makes innovation and quality frenemies is what I like to call the "better things" question.  How much time, effort and resource does the management team want to devote to making things better (quality) versus making better things (innovation)?  It is often very difficult to get a clear answer to this question, and of course the answer changes depending on market conditions, competitive actions and a host of other inputs.

The big challenge, for innovation or quality, is obtaining executive awareness, commitment and engagement over a period of time to ensure quality and innovation become capabilities or competencies rather than short term fixes or projects.


Paul's second question has to do with information gaps.  What big question needs to be answered to advance quality initiatives or programs more generally? 

Again, I think innovation and quality share a common attribute here as well.  Human nature being what it is, the question that gets asked constantly is "what's in it for me"?  While that may seem a bit cynical, it doesn't have to be.  People enjoy working for companies with a purpose.  When their individual purposes align to corporate purpose, they are much more engaged and aligned.  When new initiatives or programs are introduced, one of the first things many people ask themselves is: how will this affect me?  What about it is good for me, for my job or career? What about it is good for the company?  If we can solve the "what's in it for me" question we can remove a significant number of barriers for innovation, or for quality.

I've written previously about Maslow's needs hierarchy.  For most of the developed and even a good portion of the developing world, many basic needs are met.  When the basic needs are met, a consumer moves to more psychological or aspirational needs.  A focus on quality or innovation must understand that people don't necessarily "need" an ever better or higher quality product, or a ever new or disruptive product, but they may desire them to fill needs beyond their basic sustenance needs.  Again, what's in it for me becomes important, but in this case it's the consumer asking the question.  What does innovation, or quality, offer that I can't get from the existing product?  What aspirational or psychological needs are being fulfilled since many of the basic needs are met?

A second question that we should acknowledge is:  when is there "enough" quality in a product?  When does quality (or innovation) have a diminishing marginal return?  And when that happens, where do we point the quality artillery to begin a new assault?  Innovation advocates talk about "10 types" of innovation - product, service, process, customer experience, channels, business models and so forth.  Many who focus on quality (and innovation) narrow the potential scope of the exercise to focus only on products.  The next big step in either case is broadening the definition and introducing quality and innovation programs to a wider array of outcomes.

Whether you are focused on making things better or making better things, many of the challenges are the same.  While quality and innovation can work hand in hand, and sometimes in opposition, many of the factors that block their acceptance are the same.

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.”

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:26 AM


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