When it comes to quality, we often – all too often – tend to think in tiny dimensions. We need to increase our awareness of the impact quality has – and then act accordingly. A massive undertaking for us all, albeit one that is worthwhile: for companies, markets, societies – in other words, for everyone.
Have you heard about the water flea’s most ingenious survival strategy? It is as efficient and effective as anything we could imagine, and in my opinion, nature has provided us with a prime example that we can transfer to many aspects of our own lives. After all, nature’s lessons teach us how to survive. Nature presents us with solutions for challenges and problems that could not be simpler nor more effective.
Our water fleas, though relatively unknown, love environments that are warm and humid. In environments like that, they multiply with practically no inhibitions – and completely asexually. Water flea babies are as alike as peas in the same, tiny pod, and are exclusively female. It’s the right context, conditions couldn’t be more favorable: water fleas flood their environment with themselves. How incredibly efficient!
This is comparable to a company that, at this precise moment, has found a market for its product that needs this product, at this precise moment and without compromise. So of course that company is going to keep on manufacturing, with a focus on “even more of this product” and “more turnover thanks to this product.” And why not? It’s self-explanatory. Things are going great!
Markets, however, change just as quickly as the water flea’s environment: Markets suddenly crash, new technologies change everything, completely new opportunities arise and leave old opportunities behind, customers turn away, competitors turn up with even better or more affordable products. And then there’s Greta Thunberg, whom everyone is talking about… The market, the environment, becomes uncomfortable, icy, competitive – suddenly, we’re down to survival. The strategic course we are on, to “carry on and make more,” leads directly to our ruin. The strange thing is, the quality itself hasn’t changed – it’s still the same, it’s still excellent. Many companies find it hard to believe that the very thing that worked just moments ago has now suddenly stopped working. The potential plan B, “this too shall pass,” is pointless and is selected more often than not, regardless.
Water fleas understand the system. They exploit the situation when it suits their needs, meaning when it’s warm and humid. But they’re prepared as well! So when the environment changes and becomes more challenging – by drying out, perhaps, in addition to turning cold – water fleas have a back-up plan. The moment survival is on the line, male water fleas suddenly emerge, and join the abundant females to ensure sexual reproduction. And sexual reproduction means: fresh DNA. They are making something new! The water flea babies no longer look alike. And this new creation has a completely new disposition: It is more diverse, more adaptable, offers different solutions and is thus more viable. In this new context, the water fleas with a more conventional disposition depart this mortal coil.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of companies can learn a lot from water fleas. The main thing is to understand the contextual connections and to be prepared for them to change. Figuratively speaking, companies are situated in instable water flea puddles. They need to adapt and adapt again, maybe even need to create something unusual. Water fleas teach us that creativity, new products and subsequent innovation secure our survival. So far, so good.
But do we want to be just like water fleas? Have we reached peak performance when we can say that we have now, finally, reached the same level as the common elongated water flea? I don’t think so. I think the least we can do is be equal to water fleas. What’s decisive is that we grow and expand our horizon beyond that level.
In the much quoted VUCA world, a world that changes everything and cannot be controlled, being prepared for everything and anything is a key challenge. But what does everything mean? Everything is the context, the connection, both inward and out. The context knows no limits. Every organization is in the thick of it, a bit like our water fleas in their puddles and no-longer-existent puddles. And water fleas are prepared for that. Business leaders need to be just as prepared: for the puddles, for the dry patches, for everything and anything between and beyond.
To do so, we need to think about where quality begins and how we can shape it as well as where it ends. In other words, everything starts where the puddle, the usual, the necessary, ends. If everything is to end well, in future organizations will be called upon to consider quality far beyond themselves and their traditional clients. In the course of which, several perspectives need to be taken into account.
Despite the corona crisis, the job market for specialists is still deserted in large parts of Germany, and many companies are finding it almost impossible to recruit new employees. In the first instance, it is easy to trace the lack in applicants back to a lack in specialists. This is a convenient mental exercise, as it provides a scapegoat: the job market. And that in turn means: Our company is not to blame. However, this ignores the fact that there are some companies currently not suffering a lack in specialists. These companies have filled all of their vacancies. They have enough applicants, and they can even select the best ones among them and turn the rest away. How can that be?
The answer is simple: because of quality. These companies have succeeded in expanding and communicating their internal quality to the outside world in an appealing and credible way. As a result, they attract people who want to contribute their skills to precisely these companies. This results in the development of a company brand, and with it, an employer brand, that both get stronger and stronger. We need to recognize and drive this type of internal quality. Simply because people guarantee the future success of a company. Not everywhere, but in large parts of the corporate landscape. At tomorrow’s companies, work has to be more than just a job. Jobs are being automated. Work within our companies needs to be creative and challenging, to provide space to try things out and must, of course, be promising. This kind of work provides something that cannot be automated: creative quality.
In the digital age, the physical world is increasingly depicted digitally, and it is becoming easier to create offers that, until recently, seemed unimaginable. This is not least due to the possibilities of individualized automation, which allows companies to fulfill a variety of customer desires precisely and perfectly. This is the best way to provide quality! And quality is still defined as the degree to which a set of inherent features meets requirements.
However, the difficulties for organizations arise just a small step beyond said perfection and precision. Automated means anyone can do it. The more things we automate, the less we can recognize and experience differences. If companies stop at precision, they become interchangeable. As soon as people stop playing a decisive role within production processes and rendered services, things start to feel the same.
And it gets really interesting the minute we start talking about the quality concept of tomorrow. Because when people go beyond the automated, differentiation is possible. And this differentiation will need to refer less to the product or core service and more to the things that surround the customer. The conventional user story takes effect. What context does the customer operate in, how is the individualized product used in this context and how can company with committed, understanding employees provide an overall experience for customers? This is what quality needs to focus on and align with in future: the overall experience beyond the actual product, beyond the core business. This is something that cannot be automated. This is differentiation. Individualized automation creates the foundation while people create the enthusiasm, the emotions, the overall experience. The company thus becomes part of the story the customer calls their life. This is the everything that surrounds the customer.
Once upon a time, we could just buy a product, and we could also just leave it at that. Nowadays, we want to know where our products come from, how they got to our stores and how they will be recycled after use. This isn’t really all that relevant for the product itself; in the overall context, however, it has become highly significant. Now, we not only have conventional customers, who are simply looking for a great product; we also have extremely interested customers. And there are a huge number of other interested parties that don’t even really care about the product as an object they can purchase, but who are interested in the framework conditions surrounding the product and the company. And the number of interested parties is increasing. The current figurehead of these interested parties is certainly Greta Thunberg. Today, quality has to capture the whole; there are no two ways about it. Interested parties and potentially interested parties are everywhere, and enough companies have become painfully aware of this exact interest. Quality, after all, is everything.
The great school of thought concerning the quality of tomorrow is one that exceeds conscious and unconscious requirements. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what needs companies can meet and for whom; the focus is now more on how we can make this world a better place and how our own company can and will contribute to that. In this context, the 17, now renowned Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as defined by the UN, are both potential and meaningful anchor points. Companies that approach these goals concretely and contribute to their realization are thinking big in terms of quality.
The 17 global SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda and comprise a large part of everything. The SDGs address governments around the world as well as civil society, the private sector and science. Because of their great, global relevance, I will provide a concise list of them here: end poverty; secure food – end hunger; health and well-being for all; education for all; gender equality; clean water and sanitation for all; sustainable and modern energy for all; sustainable economic growth and decent work for all; resilient infrastructures and sustainable industrialization; reduce inequalities; make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; sustainable consumption and production patterns; take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources; protect terrestrial ecosystems; peace, justice and strong institutions; strengthen the means of implementation and global partnerships.
None of these goals should come as a surprise. They are immediately comprehensible and easily supported. These are goals that characterize us as humans – or at least should characterize us as such. This is the quality everything revolves around; these are the current requirements for us all. Due to their economic strength, companies have a range of options to contribute to the realization of these goals, whether alone or in cooperation with others. And this is ultimately what sets us apart entirely from our water fleas in their puddle.
When it comes to quality, there’s a lot of work to be done, and it concerns all of us, at local and global levels. One leitmotif may provide the necessary guidance; it originates from the Franciscan Basina Kloos: “We won’t be able to make it without economic efficiency. We won’t be able to stand it without humanity.“