Why Quality Initiatives Fail and what you need to fix it

If you read our posts regularly, you’ll realize that we’re pretty positive about how Quality can drive business performance.  There’s loads of good evidence out there that focusing on your customer through your processes and business improvement initiatives can deliver great results.

However, not everything always runs to plan; sometimes, quality initiatives fail to deliver on their initial promise.

There can be a few varied reasons as to why this happens and in today’s article we thought we’d take a detailed look at why quality initiatives fail and how, armed with this information, you can better plan your own initiatives.

Key takeaways:

  • Fundamentals of Improvement Initiatives – improvement activities are projects that target delivering continuous improvement (or business change).
  • Why do Quality Initiatives Fail? Improvement initiatives can fail for a variety of reasons. Some common issues include a lack of leadership support, a lack of resources, and a failure to have an adequate plan to address the problem you face. Issues can appear individually or in combination and may appear at the start or during your initiative.

Fundamentals of Improvement Initiatives

Let’s start by talking about what we mean by improvement initiatives.

When businesses execute their usual processes and they run as planned, they can, to a degree, predict the results they’ll get. 

Occasionally, things go wrong, errors may creep into work, machinery may become faulty, and circumstances might change, rendering processes unfit for purpose.

When faced with these challenges, the way in which companies deal with those issues can be varied.

Some may elect to place a sticking a plaster over the problem without really remedying it (they perceive themselves to be time-constrained or just can’t be bothered). Other times they may launch a formal quality initiative to deal with the root cause of the issue in an endevour to eradicate it.

Often, organizations may choose to use tools such as Six Sigma and Lean, in order to improve processes and/or enhance productivity.

These might be quick fixes (i.e., a piece of machinery needs its service intervals adjusting as it requires more routine maintenance to stop it from producing defects) through to long-term business transformation.

A key challenge is that success is not guaranteed. The reasons behind quality issues can often be multifaceted and oftenrooted in key themes such as leadership, organizational culture, and execution strategies. 

This article explores ten common reasons why quality initiatives fail, providing insights into the challenges and potential solutions.

As a companion piece, you might want to also take a look at McKinsey post and thier description of key capabilities that help to deliver effective change. While our list looks a little different, you can see that even before you embark on improvement, your business needs to be “match fit” or you could fail.

Why do Quality Initiatives Fail?

Ok, let’s get to it; let’s take a look at our 10 reasons why initiatives might fail.

1. Leadership Prioritizes Other Initiatives

One of the primary reasons quality initiatives fail is the lack of prioritization from leadership.

Businesses are not a bottomless pit of resources; there are often constraints and usually competing initiatives.

I don’t think that any business sets out to deprioritize improvement and that most (if not all) recognize its value, but a business may decide that within their business plan, improvement needs to take a step back and as a result, the initiative gets deprioritized.

Perhaps that might mean it gets canned or, more likely, that it doesn’t get all the resources that it’s asked for – it might also not feature in company communications, etc.

Unfortunately, when leaders clearly articulate that other initiatives are more important.  Improvement initiatives often include a wide variety of stakeholders, and unfortunately, it’s like sharks sensing blood in the water; when people realize it’s not the most important thing in the business, they can, unfortunately, switch off.

Clearly, this depends largely on the amount of pain that the issues is causing the business, if the issue could lead to something catastrophic then it’s unlikely that it won’t be seen as a priority.

Deprioritizing initatives can lead to a lack of engagement and motivation among employees, who may feel their efforts in quality improvement are undervalued. Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report articulated this issue wonderfully. The results are fascinating in that 65% of the organization are not engaged in what they do; if you layer on leadership not being supportive of your initiative, then you’re toast!

To address this, leaders must demonstrate a genuine commitment to change initiatives, integrating them into the organization’s strategic goals and providing the necessary resources and support.

2. Reactive Rather Than Proactive Approach

Who hasn’t seen a business experience a problem and then immediately launch a reactive counterattack in an attempt to solve the problem, Then get to the stage where they don’t fully understand the issue – place a sticking plaster over what they think caused it and then, bam! Another issue raises its head and they all shoot off in that direction.

Leadership often claims that quality initiatives are pursued only in response to negative data.  This reactive approach undermines the proactive ethos required for successful quality improvement.  Instead of waiting for problems to arise, organizations should embed a culture of continuous improvement, where quality initiatives are seen as integral to daily operations rather than a reaction to issues.

Proper change requires careful thought and implementation; it can be a real challenge not to be reactive, but doing so pays dividends.

3. Misalignment Between Process and Business Decisions

We talked earlier about some of the business capabilities that help to drive change.  Effective change is made up of a series of interrelated activities that help deliver and sustain business change.

Alas, one thing that often gets in the way is he/she who knows better or what’s often called “gut feel.”

As change professionals, we understand that “gut feel” has its limitations.  

True change requires us to capture and understand the problem, hypothesizing, running tests, evaluating proposals, at pace, to come up with the proposed course of action.

This can invariably get sunk when someone in a decision-making capacity disagrees with the approach and prescribes an alternative, sometimes borne out of knowledge, often not because “they know better.”

Quality initiatives frequently falter when process decisions are overly influenced by business leaders who lack process expertise.  This misalignment can result in decisions that are not conducive to effective process improvement.

How do you overcome this?  To start with, you recognize change as a learned capability rather than a born-with skill, and secondly, you ensure that those with process expertise have a significant voice in decision-making.  Additionally, educating business leaders on the importance and intricacies of process management can help align goals and strategies.

4. Inconsistent Methodologies

There’s no hard rule that you have to use a particular methodology to drive change, but some tools are more appropriate to certain situations than others.

Most organizations will have a particular toolset that their employees are familiar with.  This has benefits in that teams are likely to have a level of experience and training in their toolset and are familiar with seeing it deliver.

Businesses often face two specific issues. One is choosing a method that is inappropriate and is unlikely to deliver benefits. The other is utilizing a method that may deliver, but the team is not familiar with.

Clearly, because there are a lot of toolsets out there, it might be tempting to try something new each time.  

Some organizations may hesitate to embrace certain methodologies as, on the face of it, they may appear too complex or perhaps “out of budget”; some just don’t understand them.

Many times businesses might look to take a jackhammer to a project when a spanner might do; this inconsistency can hinder the effectiveness of quality initiatives.

What’s the answer? Organizations should adopt a flexible approach, integrating various methodologies to address specific needs and challenges, thereby ensuring a more holistic improvement strategy.

5. Lack of Infrastructure for Project Support

A critical failure point in many change activities let alone quality initiatives is the absence of a robust infrastructure for selecting and supporting project work.

Without proper project management structures, initiatives can lack direction and accountability.

Many organizations might use a PMO-style approach to establish a dedicated team or office for quality improvement/change projects that are equipped with the necessary tools and authority.

While this can certainly help ensure that projects are well-supported and effectively executed, some businesses might be put off by the overhead.

Other organizations might try and narrow the gap with training in project skills or apply elements of traditional methodologies like risk management and planning, for example.  These don’t need to be complex and can be sized and shaped so they are fit for purpose.

Ultimately, initiatives won’t happen on their own and they will require some supporting processes around them in order to improve chances of success.

6. Disconnect Between Training and Application

Training without immediate application is a common pitfall.  When employees receive training without an immediate opportunity to apply new skills, knowledge retention diminishes, and the training investment yields little return.  Organizations should tie training activities directly to ongoing or upcoming initiatives, ensuring that employees can immediately use their new skills in a practical context to address the business change that is occurring.

7. Training Employees Without Engaging Them in Projects

As we all know, Quality is the responsibility of everyone and many businesses will look to engage all its employees in some level of improvement or change training.

This is excellent, and upskilling staff can pay dividends, but only if they are engaged in continuous improvement/change projects.

Sending employees to training without engaging them in improvement initiatives can lead to disengagement and a lack of practical application.

It’s like having a fantastic sports car and then leaving it in the garage.

To maximize the impact of training, organizations should ensure that every participant engages on a relevant project, allowing them to apply what they’ve learned and contribute meaningfully to the organization’s quality improvement efforts.

8. Misleading Metrics

Who doesn’t love a good chart? Metrics are the lifeblood of most businesses, and we utilize them to assess the health of our processes and business activities, providing a solid foundation of how our business is performing.

Quality initiatives can sometimes struggle with the use of metrics that do not accurately reflect the health of critical processes.

When metrics are chosen based on convenience rather than relevance, they can provide a distorted view of performance.

Organizations must carefully select and validate metrics that truly represent process health and align with strategic objectives.  This requires a deep understanding of process dynamics and a commitment to data integrity.

This often relies on teams not only understanding the process but also its context.  Businesses can fall into the trap of producing metrics for the sake of it, and they can also then take the results at face value without understanding their true meaning.

9. Lack of Authority Over Data Integrity

An associated issue is ensuring data integrity.  

Data integrity is crucial for the success of quality initiatives. Having metrics is one thing but if they are flat out wrong then that’s a real problem, pointing teams at incorrect root causes wasting time and money.

When there is no authority to enforce data integrity, the reliability of data used for decision-making becomes questionable.  Organizations should establish clear protocols and assign authority to maintain and verify data integrity, ensuring that all decisions are based on accurate and reliable information.

10. Failing to Sustain Improvement

Failing to sustain an improvement initiative is perhaps the most common reason that Quality initiatives fail.

This, perhaps, has more to do with traditional change management initiatives rather than purely improvement, but when businesses don’t sustain change there’s a high likelihood that the issues they were trying to eradicate will return.

There can be various drivers to this, some of which we’ve covered already – a primary reason is the lack of consistent leadership and commitment from top management.  All too often, leaders see the initial results and then swiftly move teams onto other issues without recognizing the need to monitor and intervene if changes made begin to slip.

Without this ongoing support and visible engagement from leaders, employees may not see the importance of maintaining new processes or practices, leading to a gradual return to old habits.

Another common factor is insufficient communication and training. If employees are not adequately informed about the benefits of the changes and how to implement them, they may struggle to adapt, causing frustration and resistance.

Continuous improvement requires a culture of ongoing learning and development, which can be undermined if training is not sustained.

Furthermore, the absence of robust monitoring and feedback mechanisms can cause improvements to stagnate.

Continuous improvement projects need regular assessment to ensure that change is producing the desired results and toidentify any areas needing adjustment.  Without this, improvements may be perceived as temporary initiatives rather than permanent enhancements.

Summary

As we’ve described above, there are various reasons why business improvement initiatives might fail.  The rationale for this is a well-trodden path, and there is much to learn and then tailor to your own change initiatives.

While we’ve itemized some of the common causes, it’s important to recognize that your initiative may be exposed to a combination of issues from leadership shortcomings, cultural misalignment, execution challenges or specific issues relating to your business sector.

Addressing these issues requires a holistic approach that mitigates these common issues through planning, change management processes, alignment of process and business decisions, comprehensive project support infrastructure, effective training programs, relevant and accurate metrics, and robust data integrity protocols.

By understanding and mitigating these common pitfalls, organizations can enhance the effectiveness of their quality initiatives, leading to sustained improvements in performance and customer satisfaction.

Have you experienced challenges in delivering improvement initiatives? What issues did you face? How did you overcome them? As ever, we’d love to hear from you.

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