Sustainability and Quality – a Symbiosis?

What role does sustainability play in modern quality management? Our BloQ article on the quality feature sustainability has already shown that it has long been a decisive purchasing criterion for customers and that sustainable processes in product creation are playing an increasingly important role for companies. This change affects the entire organization, including quality management. Above all, however, it requires a change in perspective: today, quality is much more than a specialized task of quality management. Read why the concept of quality should be rethought in order to meet the requirements of sustainable products and processes.

The Status Quo

In order to identify what needs to change, it should first be clarified where we are at all.  The question of what connections there are between quality management and sustainability depends on the view of the observer. Indeed, one could also ask: what role does QM play in agile or creative collaboration? Even if the content of both questions appears to be completely unrelated, both answers are quickly linked to a picture of previous quality management that has grown over the years.

For some, it can be inferred that QM plays a rather subordinate role in sustainability – as it does in creative collaboration. For many in the company, quality management is a specialist discipline that is responsible for certification, but which in their perception does not exactly stand for creativity or flexibility. And from today’s perspective, there is perhaps some truth to this: classic QM complicates things, increases the administrative burden and ultimately even acts as a brake – in times when companies are facing major changes and are looking for speed. Quality management is simply not considered capable of making an innovative, forward-looking contribution to the great challenges of our time, which undoubtedly include resource-saving and environmentally friendly processes.

A New Concept of Quality

What is required is a completely different understanding of what quality management also or even especially stands for. Quality management is much more than the formal quality management practiced in many companies today. If we want to understand quality for what it really is, we had better speak of quality-oriented management. This little play on words completely changes the perspective: now it is about responsible corporate management, in which one not only wants to know and understand the interests of the customers, but also of the other interested parties (stakeholders), while also integrating them into the quality policy of the company, its processes, products, services and into the entire social activities.

Against this background, quality as a technical task of QM has always been too short-sighted. It is focused on the next audit, the next certification or avoiding incidents. Quality and its responsible persons in the company mostly play the role of a firefighter; actually, you don’t want to see him, but it is good to know that he exists for emergencies. Quality, however, is first of all one, perhaps even the task of the leadership itself. The results of quality work are the responsibility of top management. These results are produced via the lived “doing” in the company and not via a shadow system for QM.

The quality policy is therefore the responsibility of the management – it is the living management instrument. The company draws its identity from the vision, the mission, and the guiding principles in order to differentiate itself from the competition through difference and innovation for the benefit of customers and interested parties. Quality that can be felt and experienced shapes the image and thus also the future viability of companies. Quality can be measured objectively, but it can also be felt subjectively.

The Key to Sustainability

Sustainability is not a fad, it is an avalanche in slow motion. The shift to sustainability has been underway for a long time and is irreversible. According to the United Nations, about one-third of the world’s population was born after 2001. If we add Generation Y, i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000, this already makes up 64% of the world’s population, the largest demographic group. The biological clock ensures that the expectations of the Y and Z generations will change the markets and thus also the companies. The fact that we have an aging society in Europe does not change this. Those who want to play a role in the future will orient themselves to the large target markets.

Today, sustainability appears to many to be the universal key that must be possessed. But sustainability is more than just a demand. It is about a resource-conserving approach to the environment, fair partnership in cooperation – within the company, but also in the supply network – and credible, social action. Here, the parallels to quality become clear. Today, it, too, is more than a requirement to be met by the “firefighter QM”; rather, good quality products and processes are the result of cross-departmental cooperation as well as a corporate strategy geared to – quite literally – sustainable success.

Sustainability and Quality Must Be Lived

Sustainability cannot be approached in a one-dimensional way. Otherwise, as has often happened in the past, it could be placed in the company as another management system, e.g. alongside environment and occupational safety, and delegated to a responsible person. This person would then be the sustainability officer. By definition, this will not work, because sustainability is long-term and looks “outside the box”. It goes hand in hand with a change in values and affects all of a company’s actions. Sustainability is multi-layered and occurs globally. Sustainability generates its pressure or pull precisely from its complexity or its interactions.

And this is exactly where the proximity/relationship to quality lies. You cannot change quality in the long term without becoming aware of its cultural, economic and technological significance. Quality has many fields of action and serving the normative requirements is only one of them. Quality is therefore first of all a management task, because it is a task for the development of the organization. To develop an organization without the aspects of sustainability is not possible today and even less tomorrow. Therefore, quality is the “Swiss army knife” for sustainable action.

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