Competence and participation in successful quality management

Quality management can be either expansive or adaptive, and the two forms are equally important. Successful quality management depends on all employees being given the possibility to contribute to the development. These are two of the conclusions in a thesis recently presented at LiU.

Jason Martin, researcher in quality management. Jason Martin in his office at LiU, a few days before his disputation. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

A new perspective

In general, quality management is a well-established management concept that has been studied in depth. However, relatively little work has been done to identify the skills that are truly needed to carry out quality management successfully. The traditional idea has used a relatively static image of operations in which guidance, control and efficiency-optimisation are central. Research in the field has used this image as a starting point.

“A gradual shift has occurred in which the role of quality assurance manager has become more dynamic and complex. People who work with quality assurance today must not only deal with traditional quality issues, but also issues of HR, marketing and corporate management. Quite simply, most of the issues that can come up in a company,” says Jason Martin.

Jason Martin, researcher in quality management.On the door, a discreet message from the colleagues. 

In his doctoral thesis, Quality Management Competencies-in-use: exploring competence and practice perspectives on quality management work, he investigates what quality management work means from the perspective of the skills and abilities required to carry it out successfully. The thesis is based on interviews with people who work with quality assurance at several levels – such as quality managers and those active in operational development – mainly in four large companies and organisations.

Opposites and dependent

The thesis uses the concept of quality management to describe all work to improve quality in the operations – everything from improvements and efficiency gains to product development and innovation. Jason Martin identifies two types of work with quality management, which he calls expansive and adaptive. The former is investigative, focussed on radical change, and has an external dimension; while the latter has an internal dimension, and is more to do with efficiency, gradual improvement, and changes to existing processes.

These two forms are very different, but equally important.

“You could say that they are opposites,and at the same time mutually dependent. In the best of cases quality management follows both pathways, with seamless, flexible transitions”, says Jason Martin.

The expertise needed for quality management mainly concerns role-dependence and freedom in action. Role-dependence is the ability to take on and switch between different quality management roles, while freedom in action is the ability to choose a direction for work, depending on the task and situation. A capacity for change and learning is completely central to all quality management, and this is true for both individuals and organisations.

Not just the individuals

Jason Martin suggests that organisations sometimes view quality management as something reactive, and that it is concentrated on what an individual can or can’t do. It is the individual who must have, or obtain, the right expertise to contribute to higher quality in the operations. “But,” he points out, “the organisational and structural preconditions for employees to use their expertise in action are just as important.”

He continues: “I’m not claiming that this has been forgotten, but I can say that the analysis often tends to have a focus on the individual. But the expertise that an employee may have is not relevant if he or she does not have the opportunity to use it.”

One of the five articles that are included in the thesis investigates, for example, the importance of doctors and nurses for quality management in the healthcare system. Jason Martin found that the expectations placed on the two groups were completely different.

“The doctors were expected to contribute in some way to development in general, while the same expectations were not placed on the nurses. And this was the case even though they were often closer to the patients and could certainly have contributed at least as much as the doctors”, says Jason Martin.

He adds: “I’m convinced that all organisations must start to listen to those whose work traditionally may not have been valued very highly, but who can, despite this, contribute a great deal. Essentially, it’s much to do with mandate, legitimacy and, most importantly, trust: getting all employees involved, trusting them and listening to what they say.”

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