change management

Help My Hurting Customers or Fix Root Cause?

Can a product company run a quality transformation program one customer at a time?

This is a question I was presented with by a friend recently. Sharing some reflections…

Quality transformation programs, or for that matter, any serious transformation programs, are complex change management exercises that involve changing beliefs, behaviors, habits, tools, and almost everything else every employee does on a day to day basis in a company. The way an engineer, a lead, a project manager and even senior managers and leaders in the company experience his/her average day changes significantly by the time a quality transformation program is complete.

While the need for quality transformation may be (and quite often is) triggered by customer feedback, it is a change that has to be driven from the inside.

Most executives in the past used to equate a quality transformation program with some form of certification using industry standards like CMMI or ISO 9001, and these typically take years before reaching a completion and more so before improvements are clearly visible.

In the fast-paced business environment of today, it is rare for a company to embark on such an approach unless a certification is a pre-qualification to compete in specific market segments.

So, what is a good approach that is quick and equally important – leaves sustained changes?

There are two kinds of approaches:

One is to take a short term, band-aid approach that is basically reactive and driven by escalations and defects reported by customers. This approach, while it might look like its having a quick impact, rarely leaves the company in a better situation in the longer run. It is neither efficient nor are any of the solutions sustained in the long run. In the immediate term, it probably makes most customers also feel that their issues are being addressed but it does not take long for them to realize that its short-term fix and is not really contributing to improving products and hence will not really help them in the long run.

The second, stronger approach is to take a strategic, long term view, while still addressing specific customer issues on priority. This typically involves attack from two fronts: first being address the most hurting customer, and second: align all disparate, mostly reactive improvement actions under a ‘big arrow’ of strategic direction for the improvement expected – which is more than addressing current customer escalations. The key is to go beyond a list of fixes for each customer and go into addressing reasons that caused the issues in the first place. The causes could be structural or competency issues or process or a combination of these and other factors. This could mean a few customers’ immediate issues are not necessarily addressed with a hot fix but has higher possibility of improvements sustaining over a longer period of time.

The consistency of commitment, collaboration and communication by senior leaders and a culture for embracing real change plays a crucial role in determining which approach gets adopted within the company. If the leadership priorities themselves resemble the first chaotic box, trying to move that organization down the path to a common ‘big arrow’ would be committing career hara-kiri !!