How to 'Sell' Quality

Deborah Mackin

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his/her employer, GxP Lifeline, its editor or MasterControl, Inc.

ASQ CEO Paul Borawski asked us to comment on the question, "How do you 'sell' quality to decision makers?" While everyone theoretically believes in the importance of quality, there are times when the demands of the customer cause the focus to shift to speed and cost. Probably many quality heads of departments have been asked to compromise quality requirements at some point to get product out the door. Others find that they have to "sell" the rationale for their very existence as quality departments, with leaders eager to cut costs on staffing for quality. Why do we need so much money for labor that doesn't make product/service? Why can't we just build quality into what we do, so quality auditors are unnecessary?

"Why can't we just build quality into what we do, so quality auditors are unnecessary?"

I thought it would be enlightening to ask people who are in the quality field or function as organizational decision makers to address this question. So I queried some people in the quality field about how they either sell quality or respond to someone selling them on quality; here are some of their insightful quotes. Other remarks were pooled into overriding themes that we have identified below:

My approach to "selling quality to decision makers" is first to make sure I understand the audience. We all have our "sweet spot" of areas close to our hearts. I want to make sure I understand those areas for every single one of the people that I am trying to sell. Some people think in terms of dollars, others in defects, or customer satisfaction numbers; it all depends. My job is to understand where each one is coming from, and make sure that my "proposal" hits that key area for that person. If I can hit the "sweet spot" of every decision maker involved, it can be much smoother, easier process.

                                            - 6Sigma/Master Black Belt in Energy & Construction

My pitch or elevator speech regarding quality doesn't involve the word "quality" because most of the decision makers make financial decisions, too. And the word quality is synonymous with words like expensive, indirect, overhead, etc. So backing into making quality a lagging metric, symptom, or outcome of something else you did right (most of the time something the decision maker is interested in) usually gets heard. For example, if you are confident you're controlling the proper inputs to most any process, you can rest assured the output is predictable in what your customer wants—quality without saying it. Sounds a lot like process control huh? But that sounds expensive, indirect-ish, and overhead-ish too. But when you present it such that you want to eliminate variation so that equipment can run without operators, setup personnel, etc., decision makers tend to listen more.

                                                          - Quality Manager in Manufacturing

Influencing decision makers on quality is a very pertinent question for us. We are often asked to address why New York has the largest and most comprehensive public health laboratory in the nation outside of CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] - why can't we just operate at the level of many other states? The answer I give is that our state government should maximize the health of New York citizens by providing the highest level possible of both laboratory technological capability and emergency response capacity. The totally justifiable response from leaders in government is to say, "Show me how our citizens are better off by having a more comprehensive laboratory than other states." For them, it is a question of cost and benefit.

The problem is that, given the complexity of the factors that influence health, it is very difficult to answer their request with numbers. How do you measure quality in public health and emergency response? It could be by measuring outcomes and asking whether NY has fewer deaths from food-borne illness, faster diagnosis of genetic conditions in newborns, less transmission of HIV. But all these measures are influenced by many different factors, only one of which is the quality of the public health laboratory.

Despite the fact that we are not there yet in terms of measurement capability, I think it is the numbers and positive trends over time when quality is pursued that will ultimately convince the decision makers that an insistence on quality is the only justifiable approach. It will serve us well to incorporate measurement and data review into our list of best practices.

                                                          - Ph.D in a State Department of Health

The question is, "is there or can there be a compromise?" The answer is "no." You pay the price now to ensure quality is met or pay a higher price later when a regulatory agency cites you for non-compliance. Or someone dies because the product was not safe enough or did not meet the safety criteria.

In our world, we make these decisions on a daily basis: Is the lot ready to be released to the market? The decision is made based on several quality checks and criteria. It is a straightforward and clear decision: If the quality criteria are not met, the lot cannot be released to the market.

                                                          - Quality Manager in the Pharmaceutical Industry

The other themes we've heard focus on these additional ideas:

  1. Be a voice of quality 24/7.People look to the quality head to be the voice of quality for the organization. When we think about the quality gurus—Juran, Crosby, Deming, Fagenbaum, Ishikowa—they talked quality all the time. They each had core principles that they shared over and over. Remember Crosby's mantra—quality is free. (We're already spending money on failure costs; shift that money to prevention and appraisal). And they weren't afraid to challenge prevailing thought by asking critical, pointed questions. I remember seeing a video of Deming asking key leaders at GM about their customers. When the leaders launched into speculation, Deming asked for the data. They had none. He told them to take their opinions, put them in the garbage and go get some data.

  2. Be the sharpest knife in the drawer. The voice of quality must be the most knowledgeable expert on quality requirements, at the top of his/her game in terms of expertise. What is the FDA focused on right now? What are the regulations that will impact our ability to get product released? How are other companies handling similar issues? What would a recall/product or service failure cost us? However, it's not just the big picture requirements; the quality head also knows exactly how the product is made, where the critical errors are occurring and recurring and what historically has worked as solutions. The ability to bring critical information into the discussion at the top level makes the quality head an invaluable, go-to player.

  3. Be a player at the table.Speaking of being a player, many spoke about the importance of quality being an active support function in high-level discussions, rather than engaging only when quality is a problem. Subtly educating and communicating quality pays dividends when issues arise later. Being at the table means being accessible, familiar and engaged rather than being isolated and seen as a policing or reactive function. By cultivating a working relationship with the decision makers, the quality head is seen as a person who can be trusted to make important, wise decisions. It also is an opportunity to expose the organizational leader to the depth and breadth of understanding and competency of the quality expert.

  4. Know when to do battle and when to be flexible.Organizational leaders get frustrated with quality heads who treat everything with equal importance and become rigid and dictatorial in their approach. Today's marketplace demands leaders who have flexibility and adaptability. It's difficult for them to tolerate an "Attila the Hun" quality head who sees issues as only yea or nay. And yet, quality is expected to do battle when the stakes (risks) are high. The quality head must be able to express empathy for the demands of the leader and simultaneously articulate the risks without sounding like "Chicken Little." This balancing act is critical to the quality head's success; competencies in negotiation skills, influence and persuasion, understanding personality, and emotional intelligence are soft skill tools that pay big dividends in developing leadership buy-in.

I'm part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

Mackin, Deborah. March 20, 2012. [Blog post]. Quality Tuesday: How to "Sell" Quality. Retrieved from

Deborah Mackin is founder and Principal Performance Strategy Consultant at New Directions Consulting. Mackin has consulted, trained, and coached for over 27 years in high-stakes, cutting-edge quality organizations such as Delta Faucet, Sanofi Vaccine Division, Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, the U.S. Navy, Coca Cola and Alcoa. With her many years of experience in the quality manufacturing and production field, as well as a keen eye towards what actually works in the newly emerging, multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce, Mackin is, "acknowledged as one of the most credible voices in the online quality conversation," according to Laurel Nelson-Rowe, the Managing Director of ASQ.

Mackin is the author of three best-selling teaming books, The Team-Building Tool Kit (AMACOM 1994), Keeping the Team Going (AMACOM 1996), Teaming-Building Tool Kit, Second Edition (AMACOM 2007). Seeing a need for a consistent veteran voice in quality, teaming, leadership and organizational development, Mackin founded NDCBlogger. A free weekly online publication, NDCBlogger introduces the best theories, practices and tactics for management, leadership and organizational efficiency being used in the workplace today.