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Effective quality management – a wide variety of companies would probably come up with the most diverse definitions of what that actually is. What role does quality still play today? And what role should it play? In an interview with Thomas Stöber, Vice President Management Systems at WKW, Lutz Krämer, CPO at Babtec, addresses precisely these questions and wants to find out how important well-planned and, above all, lived processes are for effective quality management.
Quality Talk between Thomas Stöber (WKW) and Lutz Krämer (Babtec)
Lutz Krämer: What is crucial for you when we talk about effective quality management?
Thomas Stöber: We have to think in processes and, above all, act in processes!
Lutz Krämer: Sounds very standard-compliant at first. What is so important about it from your point of view and where do you see the added value compared to how it is handled in many companies today?
Thomas Stöber: After years of stability, we are in the midst of rapid change and instability will continue to accompany us in the future. In view of this unstable future with ever new challenges, we will see whether we can really rely on the corporate processes described. Are they lived at all and if so, are they robust enough to withstand new conditions? For example, can new colleagues or new business partners work with them? Do new projects run as well as they should?
Lutz Krämer: So in the best case scenario, the quality work that has been done can be or become very helpful in creating and describing the process model of a company?
Thomas Stöber: In principle, yes, but two things are crucial. Firstly, it must be made clear that the quality of the process description also includes its effectiveness. On the other hand, success depends to a large extent on the understanding of the role of quality or quality management.
Lutz Krämer: What do you mean by the quality manager's understanding of his role?
Thomas Stöber: First of all, we should be aware that many quality problems do not always have anything directly to do with the quality assurance of a product. The problems often lie in upstream and downstream QA processes. This is currently made even more difficult because customer requirements are changing dynamically. Today, requirements are much broader and increasingly also refer to services, security of supply or the duty of care and aftercare. The score cards or key figure reports for supplier monitoring go far beyond product quality in QA. The overall performance of a supplier is observed. This must be understood and lived by all contacts at all levels on the supplier side. Quality can no longer be delegated to one department or to a few people. The classic understanding that quality can be delegated no longer works.
Lutz Krämer: What needs to be done to improve it?
Thomas Stöber: I would like to come back to the statement that we have to think in processes, but also act! The process owner must know his process, be able to argue and explain it to the various stakeholders and also defend it. From my experience as an auditor, I know only too well that practice is often different. Process owners like to be represented and delegate this task to quality management staff, since they are also responsible for certification. In my view, this is misunderstood assistance on the part of quality.
Lutz Krämer: What do you mean with that?
Thomas Stöber: In quality, we often speak of the role of the fireman, who faces many quality responsibilities. Perhaps an image helps here: a fireman helps in an emergency, but does not bear the responsibility for the fire. So it is a misunderstood understanding of the role if the quality manager is supposed to explain why a problem has arisen and what needs to be done. This should better be discussed by the process owners and users and explained to third parties. However, in order for it to be done as effectively as possible and for the company as a whole to benefit from it, the use of standardized quality tools is recommended in the procedure. Here quality management has a large portfolio of proven methods and tools, e.g. for cause and effect analysis. By providing effective support in the selection and use of methods and tools, the quality manager changes roles. Once this has taken place, quality becomes a helping hand from the point of view of all those involved.
Lutz Krämer: What about the standard requirements from various management systems? In some companies, quality is already the first point of contact for all management systems. What trend do you see and how does this relate to sustainability requirements, for example?
Thomas Stöber: Regulatory requirements come from outside, they address the companies as a whole and no one expects or demands an isolated management system. Especially in the field of sustainability, for example, we find that sustainability requirements are often also quality requirements and vice versa. Classic product quality such as function and design must be supplemented by requirements for CO2 footprint, durability, reuse and fair production. In this sense, sustainability is part of an extended quality promise. The same can be said about environmental protection and occupational safety.
Lutz Krämer: So, if I understand you correctly, you are convinced that sustainable action generates quality and, conversely, that quality also contributes to better sustainability?
Thomas Stöber: Absolutely!
Lutz Krämer: As you already mentioned, quality should not be "delegated away" to a few people in the company. This all the less with the understanding of the proximity of quality to sustainability and vice versa. Sustainability concerns all of us, including all employees and stakeholders of a company. Sustainability cannot be delegated away. Does this mean that isolated quality thinking as a specialized task is also a discontinued model?
Thomas Stöber: To be able to answer this question better, let's go back a step. There are regulatory requirements of various standards and other external requirements, e.g. commercial rules, legal regulations, customer-related requirements or e.g. those of society for fair cooperation. In addition, there are internal requirements, such as those of employees, investors or the processes themselves. In order for the company not to become a pawn in the game of competing interests, it is necessary to consciously position the company in dealing with external and internal expectations. It must be clarified which expectations become concrete requirements for the company and which should deliberately not be taken into account? To avoid an arbitrary mix, the positioning of the company is crucial. The responsibility here lies first and foremost with the top management. What does it stand for? Where should the company led by it be directed, how should it develop and what contribution can employees and business partners, for example, make? It quickly becomes clear that insofar as quality was seen in the past as the task of a few specialists in the company and thus delegated, this will and can no longer work, at the latest when it comes to sustainability and the great attention paid to it.
Lutz Krämer: What needs to be done? How do we get into the right action?
Thomas Stöber: The toolbox for this is well known, we are talking about the mission statement lived – or better still, exemplified by the management – corporate values, the quality and corporate policy and ultimately, quite decisively, functioning, effective processes. If this understanding is present in all those involved and in the leadership, it quickly becomes clear that the role of quality discussed earlier is far too short-sighted in the understanding of a firefighter.
Lutz Krämer: So you are appealing in particular to the top management to live up to its responsibility to place a modern understanding of quality in this sense?
Thomas Stöber: Correct, but this also requires the quality managers who demand this modern understanding of quality in the company and also help to shape it – so that quality can become a helping hand for all of us in uncertain times.
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