Published: 24 Oct 2018

This article is the first part of a two part series where Professor Mitter Vedu, FCQI, examines the approach to sustain stakeholders’ interest in continuous improvement methodologies

Continuous improvement professionals face a variety of challenges when proposing and addressing quality initiatives. One of the biggest challenges in creating a quality-driven culture is getting buy-in from the top as well as other key stakeholders. Without that validation, reinforcement, and support, it’s difficult for quality initiatives to be taken seriously. Who are the key stakeholders? Why are key stakeholders holding out? Every now and then, these questions haunt quality improvement professionals and their team.

In general, stakeholders can be internal or external to the organisation. Internal stakeholders may be employees, managers, directors, promoter investors etc. External stakeholders may be customers, suppliers/partners, creditors, regulators, public investors and society at large. In the case of continuous improvement projects, these could be project sponsors, executive management, supervisory management, or operational level employees, depending on the scope of a particular project. ISO 9004: 2018 exemplifies stakeholders and their expectations as given in Figure 1.

Sometimes, it is convenient to classify stakeholders according to a set of criteria such as those given in Figure 2.

These categories need not be water-tight compartments; many a time they overlap or some stakeholders move from one category to another, as the project progresses. For example, Class A may include employees, managers, and executive management. Class B may include immediate vicinity in terms of environmental effects and regulators. Class C could be the top management of a multibusiness enterprise or that of a holding company and the like.

In a debottlenecking project in manufacturing, sales employees may neither have a stake nor have an impact. In an overall improvement project, involving cross-functional teams of more than one business, top management may be directly involved and have a say, besides providing necessary resources and so on.

In a given project, wherein stakeholders are identified and classified depending on the scope and boundaries of the project, communication to different stakeholders during the progress of the project becomes essential to sustain their interest and support. In such a context, the RACI (Responsibility, Accountability, Consultation, Information) matrix is helpful in determining the type of communication. It is often used in Lean Six Sigma Projects. Besides such tools, an approach diagram such as the example in Figure 3 is very useful.

Figure 3

This stakeholder buy-in emphasis diagram, for example, takes into account the context of a productivity improvement project in a single business. It maps out mainly the internal stakeholders and assesses their motivational triggers, with respect to their different stakes. The executive management is mostly interested in organisational and team outcomes (WIIFO), whereas the operational personnel is mostly interested in the outcomes for the individual (WIIFM). The communication styles need to be tailored to such requirements.

Understanding the dimensions of authority and influence wielded also plays a part in determining the approach to such communications. Typically, this authority/influence impact on communication styles is depicted in the following diagram (Figure 4) called Authority/Influence Grid.

Figure 4

The stakeholder behaviour may have to be tracked throughout the project and communications may have to be tailored to suit the spot occupied by a given stakeholder on the grid. A project sponsor will be managed closely by the team leader, even as a supplier/partner may be kept informed periodically.

Besides the psychological strategy suggested above, there may be a necessity to produce early results in any quality improvement effort, to sustain the interest and involvement of various stakeholders. The ‘low-hanging fruits’ strategy is helpful only in the very early stages of the quality journey, and the initial enthusiasm wears off as one encounters more complex projects with longer durations. Cost improvement projects usually get a thumbs-up from senior management. In-depth quality or customer loyalty improvement projects do not generate commensurate enthusiasm as they involve more data and statistics to be collected over a period of time. It appears, therefore, expedient to develop and adopt an approach for selection and execution of improvement projects, in such a way as to provide gains in not only quality, but also in productivity and cost containment simultaneously.

A combination of Constraint Management, Six Sigma, and Lean will be explored in Part 2 of this article, next month.

About the author: Professor Mitter Vedu, FCQI, has more than 50 years experience in strategic quality, in Switzerland and India. He is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt.