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Improving the way we improve things

It’s the start of a new year and once again we exhort ourselves to do something – or many things – better than we did last year. Of course, this usually occurs in the context of personal New Year’s resolutions, but organisations – and teams within them – often take this opportunity to reset work practices and goals.

With this is mind, it would be great if 2017 could be the year when we resolve to improve the way we improve things, specifically by rethinking our approach to quality improvement.

Over the last few years, the term “quality” has become more and more like the term “strategic”… a buzzword that conveys great promise but delivers little of substance. Ironically, the more we brandish the term “quality”, the less quality we seem to get.

There are two major problems with our current approaches to quality, particularly in sectors that involve human service delivery.

The first is that we have made quality activities separate from the other activities we do in our day-to-day jobs. It was a great step forward when organisations started establishing Quality Units and hiring managers with specific responsibility for quality. However, this has had the unintended consequence of ensuring most staff see quality as someone else’s business, not as something that is integral to their own business. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by staff workloads that make little or no allowance for meaningful contributions to quality activities.

The second major problem is that “quality” has been reframed as a compliance issue, rather than as an opportunity for genuine improvement. Rightly or wrongly, compliance-related activities are seen as burdensome and something to either avoid completely or to get through as quickly as possible.

So here are three things we could do to put the “improvement” back into quality improvement.

Firstly, we should remind ourselves that the primary objective of quality systems is to improve and maintain the quality of the goods and services organisations produce. This is not about putting a tick in the box labelled “quality” and moving on to the next compliance issue. It is an ongoing endeavour that necessitates regular reflection on – and analysis of – business activities with a view to identifying how things can be improved. Indicators can assist with this process, usually by flagging where issues might exist. However, indicators rarely tell the whole story and may fail to detect underlying issues that can significantly impact on quality outcomes if allowed to persist.

Secondly, we have to recognise that genuine quality improvement takes time. Staff shouldn’t have to request time to reflect on their contribution to business activities, they should regularly be required to do so by their managers, who in turn should be required to do so by the senior management of the organisation. If senior management doesn’t take account of the time required to properly undertake quality assurance and quality improvement activities, or worse, sees this as a waste of time, they are all but guaranteeing their organisation will do little more than pay lip service to quality.

Finally, we should stop seeing quality activities as separate to what we really do. For an organisation to deliver quality services or products, the culture of quality must pervade every aspect of the organisation and be embraced – and owned – by every employee. Quality assurance should be integral to every role and participation in quality improvement activities should be explicitly stated in every position description. Moreover, education and training programs should include assessable topics on quality, so that graduates emerge from their courses with knowledge and skills in quality improvement alongside their other professional/vocational skills.

In recent years, the push for ever-greater productivity has produced some genuine improvements and efficiencies in the way organisations conduct their business. But it has also resulted in some misclassification of activities as being wasteful or inefficient. Not everything that takes time is a waste of time and paring back quality activities until they are all but useless for genuine quality improvement is ultimately an unsustainable approach to any organisation’s business.

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