Quality and efficiency


A while ago I published an article on this blog entitled “Why doesn’t the quality community get it?”. The article was subsequently re-published by the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI) on their site, to a somewhat mixed reception. In the post I suggested that the reason so many “quality professionals” struggle to obtain the elusive “top management commitment” was because they make little attempt to meet management half-way and understand basic business dynamics and realities. I suggested that many within the “quality community” could do worse than to take a look at themselves as a starting point if they wanted to change the situation.

You only have to take a look at some of the comments on the CQI site to note how quickly denial kicked in. I was running a serious risk of rubbing a few folk up the wrong way, but those of you know me well will understand that the possibility of that was never going to bother me.

Anyway, time has moved on, and today I have been involved in an on-line discussion that was originally centred on comparing ISO 9001 with TQM. The discussion somehow evolved into one about efficiency and effectiveness, and this was where I had an epiphany. During the course of the discussion two things became apparent.

1. Many practitioners considered that efficiency had little, if anything, to do with ISO 9001, and consequently was outside of the remit of the quality department

2. A lot of quality people did not even understand what the term “efficiency” actually means

To illustrate my second point I’ll use the example that one contributor stated that efficiency was about “doings things right”. Well it isn’t. That is closer to the definition of effectiveness. Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing

What is efficiency?

The term efficiency has meaning in a range of contexts, not just quality. Here are a couple of definitions from the worlds of physics, economics and lastly from quality.

Efficiency in physics

The ratio of the effective output compared to the total input within a system”

Efficiency in economics

“Situation in which it is impossible to generate a larger total from the available resources”

Efficiency in ISO 9000

“Relationship between the result achieved and the resources used”

All of these definitions say more or less the same thing, that a state of efficiency compares what you get out to what you put in. A highly efficient system, therefore, is one that produces the most conforming output items for a given input.

Efficiency is NOT about “doing it right”

When politicians claim that a public sector department is inefficient, they are not claiming that they can’t do their job. They are suggesting that the department costs more to run than it should. They are claiming that there is too much waste in the system. That if the department was more efficient, then we’d be getting a similar output, but we’d not need to spend so much to get it.

Now, there are two things that amaze me when it comes to some “quality” people;

1. Just how few appear to have grasped this fairly simple and fundamental concept

2. Many quality professionals do not see “efficiency” as part of their brief in any way

Understanding this has been my eureka, my blinding flash. Now everything is clear to me. Now I understand why many quality professionals fail to engage senior management and turn them on to quality. The fact is that if senior management were to try and run a business using the narrow view of quality adopted by many quality types, we’d be closing the doors in no time.

Businesses have to be efficient. If they are inefficient, they become uncompetitive. They may be able to produce conforming and functioning goods, but they can’t make any money in the process. Call me obtuse, but if I was a senior manager and I had a quality manager that had not grasped that basic concept, and had not looked at how his “quality strategy” could help me make a decent margin, I’d not have much time for the guy either.

When Philip Crosby suggested that quality people needed to speak the language of the boardroom in order to be effective, he wasn’t throwing in a disposable sound bite, he was succinctly making an incredibly important point. In fact if I was a CEO who had a quality manager who did not think that efficiency was part of his job, I’d be looking for a new quality manager within five minutes.

… and finally (courtesy of Michael Palin in his 1977 film Jabberwocky) a demonstration why process improvement must always be introduced under controlled conditions …


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16 Responses to Quality and efficiency

  1. Pingback: Understanding customer focus | Capable People Blog

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