Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Wrap-up

It's already the last week of 2011 and it's time to review the year that was.

ASQ CEO Paul Borawski's blog mentioned some of the disappointments and successes of the year, most significantly the ending of Federal funding of the Baldridge award. As an aside, I think that that issue shows the lack of understanding of quality and performance excellence in the United States. As I've ranted before and before and before, we've lost something in the U.S., and it's more than just our edge in manufacturing. We've lost the edge in business leadership. Yes we have powerful, innovative companies in the U.S. but they are the exception rather than the rule. Even the most innovative, successful American company (arguably Apple) does their manufacturing in China and was led to such a high level of performance by the personality of one man (look at Apple before Steve Jobs returned to lead it). I'll have more to say about that in 2012....

In the beginning of 2011 I made the following commitment for the year: "For 2011 my goals for quality include learning to listen more closely to my customers, coach my team more effectively and motivate my colleagues to make improvement." I made that commitment while working for an American automotive supplier in rural Georgia. Now, I work for an American electronics company in Shanghai. Needless to say, the dramatic change in my environment (halfway through the year) had an impact on the execution of this plan. However, the overall direction was the same.

Working in Shanghai I've had the experience of listening to my customers, all of whom are either foreign companies or joint-ventures of Chinese and foreign companies. Their needs and expectations are remarkably similar to the U.S. customers with whom I worked in the first half of the year and my Japanese customers from 2007-2010. It seems that the world is becoming smaller in regards to Quality, especially in the automotive world. All of the companies are trending toward a singularity of Quality: zero defects. Companies continue to recognize that quality is more of a competitive advantage in the market, even more than price. Otherwise, how to explain the success of Apple? A company that charges more than its competitors and can still hold such a high market share. Quality is not only reflected in manufacturing (of which Apple's Asian suppliers truly excel) but, more importantly, in the innovation of the customer experience. The design of the product, how it works, how intuitive it is, is as much a reflection of quality as its durability. This is as true for the automotive industry as it is for electronics. Some companies excel in durability (e.g. Toyota) while others in performance (e.g. BMW) while others in exclusivity (e.g. Ferrari). But none excel in all three as Apple does in electronics. There is something to be learned here: quality must be more than product durability and meeting quantitative specifications, it must be about the value of the total user experience. Cost-cutting, reorganization, outsourcing, insourcing, etc. should only be pursued with that idea in mind: keep the goal of increasing the value of the total user experience. Again, Apple is probably the best example of this in the 21st century.

Coaching my team also took a twist when I changed companies, jobs and locations. In my current position I am the ultimate coach. I have no direct reports yet I am responsible for the quality of products produced in six sites in three different countries and indirectly responsible to manage close to a thousand associates through different layers of management. Having no direct authority of the processes yet being responsible for the outputs is truly a learning experience. I have to find ways to coach my site Quality Directors and their direct reports in order to steer the Asia region toward the overall company goals and toward meeting the customer's expectations. I am learning how to leverage my knowledge and experience to do just that, with the support of my colleagues in Asia and other locations. Coaching in this environment involves leadership as much as knowledge and experience. Being a leader is the first step to being a coach. You must have credibility and your subordinates must see your value before they will accept your advice. Bringing value to your subordinates and internal customers is just as important and bringing value to your external customers. If you work in quality then usually the only way that you can truly bring value to your external customers is by helping your internal customers do their jobs better.

Motivating your colleagues is closely related to coaching. Now I work with colleagues in Engineering, Purchasing, Operations and Design; most of them are Chinese. I have to bridge the cultural gap to motivate them to bring more value to the customer (thankfully they all speak English). Motivating people from a different culture is a challenging experience. The key is to find the common ground of understanding and build on that. All of my colleagues want our business to be successful and they also see my value based on my position and experience. Showing your value to your colleagues, what you bring to the table, is just as important for motivating them as it is for motivating and coaching your subordinates.

Honestly, I've met with varied success for each of my goals in 2011. I intend to keep the same goals for 2012 and continue to work on them. How did you do with your 2011 goals? What are your goals for 2012?

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