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4 Ways to Embed Quality Into Your Agency's Culture

Feng Yu/

Total quality management was all the rage in the federal government in the late 1980s and early 1990s before it faded. The emphasis on quality has never really died out in private industry, however, largely because companies quantify its benefits for business.

A recent study concludes: “A company with a highly developed culture of quality spends, on average, $350 million less annually fixing mistakes than a company with a poorly developed one.” CEB, an advisory firm of more than 60 multinational companies, examined the benefits of embedding quality into an organization’s culture and identified the key attributes of an effective “culture of quality.”

The report’s authors, CEB directors Ashwin Srinivasan and Bryan Kurey, said in a recent Harvard Business Review article: “Employees who ranked their company in the top quintile in terms of quality reported addressing 46 percent fewer mistakes in their daily work than employees in bottom-quintile companies.” Based on the median head count of the companies surveyed—26,300 employees—Srinivasan and Kurey calculate that a bottom-quintile company spends nearly $774 million a year to resolve errors, which is about $350 million more than a company in the top quintile.

Four Attributes of a Quality Culture

So what drives quality in a corporate culture? Srinivasan and Kurey found that the traditional strategies to increase quality seemed to have little effect. These traditional strategies include monetary incentives, training and the sharing of best practices. Instead, they found that companies ranking in the top quintile for quality focused on the following four factors:

  1. Do leaders walk the talk? The biggest challenge for companies that aspire to embed quality into their culture is ensuring their leaders actually do what they say is important. One company surveyed had leaders define what they believed would be an ideal culture and then led them through workshops to help them identify inconsistencies between their actions and decisions and the culture that they helped define.

  1. Is the “quality” message delivered by someone seen as credible? Different groups of employees are inspired to act through different messages. The authors learned that one company had four distinct groups of employees, and some groups responded better to messages emphasizing cost savings while others were more motivated by an emphasis on customer satisfaction. Allowing front-line managers to choose the campaign that works best for their site was important.

  1. Do you encourage peer involvement? The authors say “fostering peer engagement is a delicate balance” because too much top-down involvement destroys authenticity, but not enough sends the message to employees that the initiative is lip service. One company surveyed fostered peer engagement by encouraging employees to generate quality initiatives and then display them on posters lining a busy hallway to encourage collective pride.

  1. Do you empower employees to act? “One of the defining traits of an organization with a true culture of quality is that employees are free to apply judgment to situations that fall outside the rules,” Srinivasan and Kurey said. But before workers can be empowered, they need to clearly understand how quality fits with their jobs, and they have to be willing to raise their concerns if they see rules created that detract from their ability to pursue quality.

So how does this apply to government? Leaders interested in embedding quality into their organization’s culture need to look beyond structures, systems and processes and pay attention to incentives such as inspiration (through their actions) and empowerment (making employees feel they have input and control of their work environments).

While employees may not tell you how they are feeling, the feedback provided in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey can be one way of gauging their sense of involvement in their workplace.

(Image via Feng Yu/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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